Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why “Diverse TV” Means Better TV. In the past year or so, the public at large has been made more aware of Hollywood’s diversity problem, if only through the latest round of Oscar nomination which contained mostly white nominees. But television, for better or worse, features more diverse casts than ever. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik and Wesley Morris discuss why diverse TV means better TV.
Wesley Morris: TV is certainly less boring at the moment, and some of that energy has to do with the sudden proliferation of shows dealing with race (it’s a thing!), and on networks as varied as ABC, FX and HBO. Two of those shows, tellingly, have “American Crime” in the title, getting at an idea that in talking about this stuff we’re also talking about an original sin specific to us. But let’s explore the upside of that news: TV has prioritized making itself look a little more like the country watching it — and for any number of reasons: money, channels unto eternity, because it’s the right thing to do. Do I want to see Kerry Washington at the movies? Who doesn’t? But all that the movies have wanted her to do is look hot. So thank you, television — and Shonda Rhimes — for putting her in the arms of a sexy white president, then pushing him away, then pulling him back in, then, well, you get it. “Scandal” walks right up to original sin and pours it a glass of carignan. But the movies haven’t, to my eye, made so-called diversity a priority. And as our pal Manohla Dargis has noted, it’s pointless for us to keep getting bent out of shape one month of the year. Even when you have a spate of movies with people of color: What are they up to? Putting aside “Jefferson in Paris,” shtupping POTUS isn’t on the list. What’s great about TV right now is that there are so many shows with so many people doing so much that it feels kind of lawless. Specifically, there are more black, Latin and Asian women doing more interesting, different things on TV than in the whole history of movies. I’d like to focus on one, because just the thought of her moves me. It’s Niecy Nash, who played Didi on the dearly departed “Getting On” (HBO). This is a great office comedy set in a geriatric ward, and it’s full of inventive acting from all kinds of people. But, as a black woman playing a nurse, Ms. Nash has a familiar part that’s typically a background role. What this show does is find ways to shred that stock stereotype. In the first episode of the third season, Didi’s making the bed of a white female patient while complaining about the racial politics of “Imitation of Life.” Of Louise Beavers, she observes, “She was the greatest colored actress of her day, and all she wants to do is be this white woman’s maid — and for no money.” I’d say that that wasn’t all Beavers wanted to do, but the sentiment resonates, anyway. And the casual way she does this all the while fanning sheets is poignantly funny. The show knows the limited historical terrain for a black actress and lays carpet atop it for Ms. Nash to walk. That feels like TV’s relationship to the movies with regard to race right now: You can do this, too. When people react to these exclusion conversations, you’d think the argument was for confiscation. This isn’t about less “white” TV, but about putting on other kinds of people than there have previously been. No one wants to take away anybody’s “The Affair” or “Bachelor in Paradise.” It’s just exciting to watch television in a time when a show will encourage Niecy Nash and Kerry Washington to look at America’s past and roll their eyes.
2. The Grace of Keanu Reeves. Two years ago, a little neo-noir thriller starring Keanu Reeves called “John Wick” was released to mostly positive reviews but also of feverish support in some circles, and though much of that had to do with the kick ass action sequences, a lot of it had to do with Reeves himself. As an actor, Reeves has taken it in the shins for supposedly being a “bad actor,” an unfair, inaccurate assessment. RogerEbert.com presents an excerpted essay from Bright Wall/Dark Room’s February issue on unloved movies by Angelina Jade Bastién about the grace of Keanu Reeves.
One critical consistency between Keanu’s virulent pans and more beloved roles (think of the tender-hearted hustler in 1991’s “My Own Private Idaho”) is the common refrain that Keanu always “just plays himself.” The harsh ring of “just” implies a lack of craft and worth as an actor. The statement also assumes we truly know the personalities of stars. We can rattle off details of Keanu’s tragedies during the 1990s (stillborn child, death of his girlfriend eighteen months later), find plenty of platitudes about his kindness, and get a narrow view of his personality through interviews. The act of thinking we know a star as high-profile as Keanu isn’t novel, especially in the age of never ending press cycles and paparazzi. What’s more fascinating, though, is what the “playing himself” criticism says about Keanu as an actor. Critics and audiences alike have a warped view of the history of acting, as if “true” cinematic acting began with the deification of Marlon Brando, followed by the 1970s glory days of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Each of these actors pronouncedly transform themselves from role to role. They take on various accents with panache, layer on idiosyncrasies, whittle their bodies down or bulk themselves up. A character is a costume to put on and never take off until the last camera rolls. It isn’t a coincidence that Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey’s recent renaissances and newfound respect both involved dramatic weight loss. Keanu is one of the few high-profile modern actors to not go for willful physical transformation or uglify himself for gravitas. If you’re not “transforming” as an actor, there is a belief that you’re doing something wrong. This line of thinking harkens back to the idea that we must suffer for our art. But Keanu is more powerful than actors who rely on physical transformation as shorthand for depth, because he taps into something much more primal and elusive: the truth. The first time we see Keanu as FBI Agent Johnny Utah in the beloved surfer-crime drama “Point Break” (1991), he sits on the hood of a car seemingly unperturbed by the rain pouring down on him. It takes a moment to recognize the shotgun that sits in his lap. His hair slick. His tight black shirt and jeans clinging to his impressive body. The camera holds close to his lips as he unfurls a piece of gum and puts it into his mouth, and then we see a sequence of him blasting through a gun course at Quantico. This introduction gives rise to the kind of action star Keanu grows into, much different than his 1980s predecessors who tended to be powered by an unerring confidence and machismo. Their emotional landscapes weren’t as developed as their biceps. The opening of “Point Break” illustrates how Keanu’s relationship with the camera informs his onscreen masculinity. He carries himself with a supple vulnerability, at times even a passivity, that seems at odds with the expectations for an action star. I’ve found myself attracted to Keanu’s presence because of the way he marries typically masculine and feminine qualities. He’s both intense and vulnerable, kind and tough, honest and mysterious. Keanu, of course, isn’t the first star to exist at the crossroads of virile and vulnerable. Actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman embody a similar alchemy that have drawn women (and men) to them. But these actors often seem to fight against the lustful gaze of the camera, while Keanu supplants himself to it. Where they seem cynical, disinterested, or too wounded as a romantic lead, Keanu is utterly open.
3. Why It’s Okay to Make Movies About White People. A lot of critiques of pop culture these days are representational critiques that ding a movie or a TV show for only featuring white characters because it presents a false idea of “normalcy” to the American public. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg examines why the response to that isn’t not to make movies about white people but to change the response to them.
Last week, as “Hail, Caesar!” — the Coen Brothers lovely, loving look at Hollywood’s post-World War II studio system — arrived in theaters, Joel and Ethan Coen found themselves facing sharp questions about diversity in their movies, and sharp judgment for their responses. “Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, ‘Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing,'” Joel Coen told my colleague Michael O’Sullivan. “The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.’ To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.” And his brother Ethan chimed in, “We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.” Those remarks and others have gotten the Coens pilloried, though they’ve made it clear in multiple interviews that they think it would be a great thing if more people got to make movies with a wider variety of perspectives informed by a greater range of life experiences. But I found the Coens’ remarks clarifying in a very different way. It’s absolutely true that Hollywood studios make large numbers of movies about white men and women and expect those characters’ experiences to stand in for audiences’ lives in a way that is rarely true when a movie has a cast that is largely or entirely composed of people of color. But if we can’t stop Hollywood from making these movies, we can talk about them in a different way. Rather than bemoaning the lack of diversity in movies set in environments that are largely white and male, or that are intended to explore the behavior of white men, it’s time to start talking about how these films reflect on white people and whiteness, and to stop treating them as a proxy for all human experience.”Hail, Caesar!” is not about Minnesotans, though at least some of the members of its large cast of characters seem likely to be Jewish. But it is definitely about white people: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer and devout-to-the-point-of-annoying-his-confessor Catholic; Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a star coddled by his studio and grudgingly tolerated by his wife through his fits of dissolution; Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star of cowboy movies who studio executives want to turn into a sophisticate; Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), an auteur who makes swish society pictures; DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther-Williams-style aquatic star whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy is making her mermaid tail tight; Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, in both cases), twin gossip columnists locked in a battle for readers; the members of the Future, a collective of Communist writers; and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a tap-dancing matinee idol who defects to the Soviet Union. The one exception is a Latina actress, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), whose name is a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and whose signature move seems to be dancing with a lot of fruit on her head. It would be a mistake to see the whiteness of “Hail, Caesar!” as a bug; it’s not just a feature, but part of the point. As Donald Bogle explores in “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood,” there was a brief window in the movie industry’s early history when black actors were able to carve out roles for themselves, but that period became an exception rather than an expanding rule. “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t explicitly a critique of Hollywood’s whiteness or the way the movie industry treated women. But it is a gentle exploration of how people working in a closed environment behave and how they relate to each other, and of what happens when someone who has lived in that closed system is exposed to new ideas that he finds invigorating.
4. How They Shot “Grease: Live.” A week and a half ago, Fox aired “Grease: Live,” a live television adaptation of the popular 1971 musical “Grease,” which garnered mostly positive reviews. But regardless of quality, the actual process of directing a live television program is extremely complex and difficult. TV writer Ken Levine interviews “Grease: Live’s” associate director Carrie Havel about the process of directing the show.
Ken Levine: Watching on the west coast, “Grease: Live” seemed pretty smooth. Any craziness behind-the-scenes?
Carrie Havel: The east coast lost sound for twenty seconds. Fortunately, I could hear the music in the control room and the actors on stage could hear the music so we just kept going. We switched to a backup for that act.
KL: I imagine there’s a backup for everything. You probably taped an entire rehearsal just in case a meteor fell on the soundstage during the broadcast.
KL: You staged this on the Warner Brothers lot. How about the outside number? Did the rain throw you?
CH: No. We prepared for the rain. We had full umbrella rehearsals. What we couldn’t prepare for was the wind. At times it was 35 mph. When the wind started slapping at the sides of the tent, they had to take the sides off. If the winds didn’t die down they were not allowing anyone to be under the tent. We were ready to go to our backup. But 20 minutes before, the winds died down and we got the go-ahead. We shot as originally planned.
KL: I’m on my fourth Xanax just listening to this. How did you have the forethought to record the control room during the broadcast?
CH: I will tape the control room video. I also teach and that is a great tool. Alex said, “Oh, you have a nice social media moment.”
5. Haunting, Powerful, Passionate: Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence.” The Library of America website has a biweekly column where leading film critics revisit memorable films based on classic literature. This week, veteran critic Carrie Rickey examines Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.”
To paraphrase film critic Richard Schickel, great novels are about the characters’ interior lives; bad film adaptations are about their interior decoration. Martin Scorsese’s version of “The Age of Innocence” is that rare literary adaptation in which interior lives and interior decoration illuminate each other. “I have always thought ‘The Age [of Innocence]’ would make a splendid film if done by someone with brains — & education!” wrote Edith Wharton to Minnie Jones, her sister-in-law, in 1926, six years after the publication of Mrs. Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Since there had been a silent-film adaptation in 1924, it is safe to assume Wharton thought it less than “splendid.” Prior to the first sound version, the author heard that someone named Katharine Hepburn — “a Hartford lady and a fine actress” — would be cast as Countess Olenska. Instead, Hepburn took the role of Jo March in “Little Women” (1933) while Irene Dunne played the Countess and John Boles her Newland Archer in the 1934 release drubbed by “The New York Times” for being “emotionally flaccid.” It played like a follow-up to Dunne and Bole’s hit “Back Street” — more Fannie Hurst than Edith Wharton. Wharton’s hope for someone with “brains — & education!” was realized when Scorsese’s adaptation arrived in 1993 to generally approving reviews — though some wags questioned what the heck the director of “Raging Bull,” so knowledgeable about boxing gloves, was doing with (or to) a novel where opera gloves feature so prominently. “A gorgeously uncharacteristic Scorsese movie,” observed Vincent Canby in “The New York Times.” “‘Raging Bull’ in a china shop,” quipped “The New Yorker’s” Anthony Lane. Scorsese’s film version is many things, none of them, happily, “emotionally flaccid.” More like palpably tumescent, and I’m referring not to the opening credits of flowers opening to reveal pistils and stamens, but to the considerable erotic heat between Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis. The plot is a romantic triangle that ultimately drives a wedge between desire and duty: On the eve of his wedding, Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) finds himself in thrall to the married Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer), who reciprocates his feelings yet persuades him to follow through with the wedding to her cousin, May Welland (Winona Ryder). In 1993, Scorsese, a son of Little Italy’s working class, noted that he and Wharton, a daughter of the nineteenth-century Knickerbocker elite, weren’t so different. After all, weren’t his first great movie, “Mean Streets,” and her last great novel, “The Age of Innocence,” both the works of tribesmen keenly observing their tribes? As it reckons the tribal price of being a social transgressor and the psychic price of not being one, “Innocence” is thematically similar to many Scorsese films. It’s no surprise that he was as drawn to Wharton as Newland was to the Countess. Let’s say that the filmmaker had more success than Newland in consummating the relationship. Scorsese has even won over certain Wharton diehards at first shocked that he cast the fair-haired Pfeiffer as the Countess, described in the novel as a dark and “tall, bony girl with conspicuous eyes” and the small, brunette Ryder as statuesque blonde May Welland.
6. The Output of RKO Studios In 1952 (Part 1). Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog always publishes great writing about film past and present, allowing writers to go in depth on films that maybe wouldn’t otherwise get attention. For their latest entry, Matthew Dessem explores the output of RKO Studios in 1952, the first part in a series.
For RKO Pictures, 1952 really began on March 23, 1951. That was the day U.S. Marshal Charles W. Ross went to the home of screenwriter Paul Jarrico to deliver a subpoena ordering him to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The most important events at RKO in 1952—a year in which the studio released films from Nicholas Ray, Josef von Sternberg, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—had nothing to do with cinema. Instead, studio chief Howard Hughes spent that year of the blacklist transforming RKO into a club to swing at Communists, before selling the entire company to capitalists so pure they crossed the line into organized crime. By year’s end, the studio had played an integral part in ceding Hollywood power to Washington, with consequences that would define the next decade in film. RKO’s films were almost an afterthought. And it all began with that knock on Jarrico’s door. Paul Jarrico’s subpoena was one of a group of eight issued by the House Committee early in March 1951, which opened Congress’s second round of hearings with Hollywood. The initial hearings in 1947 had led to contempt of Congress convictions and jail time for the Hollywood Ten, the original group of screenwriters and directors who’d refused to answer questions about their membership in the Communist Party. But although right-wing publications like Red Channels had pursued the idea that Hollywood had been infiltrated by subversive agents, Congress hadn’t re-addressed the issue. Jarrico, along with several of his compatriots, managed to initially avoid the subpoena servers; the Communist Party was testing various approaches to dealing with HUAC and disappearing was one of them. But they did find Larry Parks, an actor in Jarrico’s batch of subpoenas. On March 21, in a closed-to-the-public “executive session,” Parks gave the names of other party members. Details of the closed session were immediately leaked; when the news broke, Jarrico resurfaced and issued a public statement that left no doubt where he stood on the issue of naming names: “If I have to choose between crawling in the mud with Larry Parks or going to jail like my courageous friends of the Hollywood 10, I shall certainly choose the latter.” “Crawling in the mud” was actually Parks’s term for his own testimony, not Jarrico’s, but it wasn’t a good year for nuance. Jarrico’s stand had long-reaching consequences for his career, and for RKO, where he’d been revising a film called “The Las Vegas Story.” Howard Hughes, running the studio at the time, was a hardline anti-Communist who had no patience for Jarrico’s public scorn toward informers. The day the subpoena was delivered, he had Jarrico turned away at the studio gate without so much as a chance to clean out his office.
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