Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams - RIP

Robin Williams died yesterday. People die every day. Entertainers die every day. This one was different. Usually, Hollywood deaths are either drug casualties, or really old people from days gone by who are past their prime. Those are the ones you can see coming all the way down the 405. Not so Robin Williams. This one was a bolt from the blue. He wasn’t [to my knowledge] a drug casualty, and he was still in his prime. Sure, when he was younger he did more than his share of drugs. He used to party with John Belushi, and we know how that ended. And yes, he drank a lot. But many years ago he cleaned up his act. Belushi’s overdose was his “wake-up call.” But neither booze nor drugs killed Robin Williams. From what I’ve heard, depression drove Robin Williams to hang himself. I have no idea why he chose to kill himself. Famous stars aren’t supposed to kill themselves, yet this one did. I’ll let the armchair psychoanalysts figure out what drove Robin Williams to his demise. Let the endless loop of grief porn begin - I’ll just write about the work, thank you very much.

Mork & Mindy – I must confess I never watched the show. I’m probably one of the few people of my generation that didn’t care about Mork & Mindy. It never appealed to me. I still haven’t seen it to this day, and I don’t know if I ever will. I remember seeing the character Mork on an episode of Happy Days. I remember that this alien was pretty crazy, but other than that, nothing. But when I went to school in Boulder, I did find the house where he “lived.” Bon Scott liked Mork & Mindy. The final words Bon Scott uttered on record came at the end of Night Prowler, the last song on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. After the music ended, you can hear Bon say “Shazbot! Nanu Nanu!”

Stand-Up Comedy - It wasn’t until I saw one of his first HBO specials in 1982 that I came to fully appreciate his work as a stand-up comedian. It wasn’t even his HBO special – he was on with Richard Pryor. And he was better than Richard Pryor that night – that speaks volumes. Damn that man was funny! He was a lunatic escaped from an asylum, and a damn funny one. This morning I was reading about him in the New York Times. There was one thing about him the author of the piece wrote that stood out – “The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-associative absurdity.” How else can one describe his comedy? His off-the-wall, stream-of-consciousness ramblings were a thing to behold. You’d often ask yourself “where did THAT come from”? The challenge when watching him was to keep up with him – he was that quick. His only peer in that regard was Jonathan Winters. This is fitting because Robin Williams considered him as his mentor.

Movies – Robin Williams made a lot of movies. I counted almost 80 film credits to his name. Some of movies were pretty good; some were pretty forgettable. Not everything he touched turned to gold. But there is plenty of gold to be found in his body of work. My boys know him as Theodore Roosevelt from the Night at the Museum movies. They also thought Jumanji was pretty cool. Here’s where I remember him best:

The World According to Garp (1982) – This was the movie adaptation of the John Irving novel. I’ll never forget when he and his wife were looking to buy a house, when suddenly a Cessna crashed into it. He told the realtor “we’ll take it! It’s been pre-disastered. Nothing bad will ever happen to it again!” At the end he was shot by a feminist. He was on his way to the hospital at the end of the movie. I like to think he survived the shooting.

The Best of Times (1986) – Carol and I could never remember the name of this movie, so we always refer to it to this day as “The Man Who Dropped the Ball.” His character lived in Taft, California. In his high school days, he played football. He’s remembered for one thing – he dropped what could have been the winning touchdown pass against their archrivals Bakersfield. He was wide open and he dropped it. Ever since then, nobody let him forget about it. Somehow he reorganized a rematch between the two teams. The outcome was predictable – he caught the winning touchdown pass and got the monkey off his back. As predictable as the outcome was, you still wanted him to catch the pass.

Good Morning Vietnam! (1988) – After I heard of his death, I had to watch the only Robin Williams movie that’s in my collection, and this is it. He was Adrian Cronauer. His on-the-air improvisations as an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey in Vietnam was probably the closest thing you would ever get to see his stand-up comedian persona inhabit a character. As funny as this movie is, it has one poignant moment. That moment comes when he and Eddie Garlick get stopped by a convoy of troops heading to the field. He gets to meet the men he entertains daily, and is duly touched by the men he saw. So on his first day back from suspension, rather than playing the loud rock and roll that irritated his superiors, he dedicates Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World to these men. After 26 years, this one scene is still a tear-jerker.

Dead Poets Society (1989) – This is where I first heard the phrase “Carpe Diem – Seize the Day!” Where was John Keating when I needed him when I took AP English? What do I remember the most about John Keating? Besides his love for poetry and a zest for the unorthodox, he walked on desktops.

The Fisher King (1991) – The thing that initially drew me to see this movie was that it was made by Terry Gilliam. More often than not, Terry Gilliam makes very bizarre films. The plot – Jeff Bridges is a radio shock jock [Jack Lucas]. One day he rants and raves about Yuppies. One of his crazed listeners goes to a popular bar in Manhattan and kills a lot of innocent people. Three years after the fact, a despondent Jack is about to kill himself when he is suddenly attacked by two strangers who think he is a vagrant. Before the two strangers can kill Jack, he is rescued by a guy named Parry [Robin Williams]. Parry is a delusional homeless man who thinks he is on a quest to find the Holy Grail. He is obsessed with the legend of the Fisher King. He is terrified of the Red Knight, a large, fire-breathing enemy that rides a black horse that only he can see. Jack soon discovers Parry got this way because he witnessed the murder of his wife in a bar – the same incident that resulted from Jack’s rant about Yuppies. To make a long story short, both Jack and Parry get the girl, and Jack found “the Grail” for Parry.

Good Will Hunting (1997) – Despite what one thinks of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s movie, Robin Williams’ performance as Dr. Sean McGuire is great. There are two memorable bits for me – the moment when Dr. McGuire tells young Will Hunting that if he ever talked about his wife in a negative way, that he would “end” him. The second moment – his vivid description of the night he fell in love with his wife. Love at first sight – he gave up attending Game 6 of the 1975 World Series at Fenway.

He made us laugh, and he made us cry. “Genius” is an overused word in Hollywood, but that word applies to Robin Williams. He was a flawed genius, but a flawed genius is still a genius. If there is an afterlife, I hope he finds happiness that eluded him during his lifetime.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Advise & Consent - A Synopsis

The early 1960s was a good time for making political thriller films. I had already seen The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964), but until a couple of days ago I didn’t know that another such movie existed. Last week, Turner Classic Movies did a week-long salute to Walter Pidgeon. After I got home from a long TDY, I surfed through the local TV listings (as is my wont) to see if there were any interesting movies coming in the next few days. There were such films as The Unknown Man, Mrs. Miniver and How Green Was My Valley. Then I spied Advise & Consent (1962). I saw that it had not only Walter Pidgeon, but also Charles Laughton (in his last movie), Henry Fonda, and Burgess Meredith among others. Otto Preminger directed it. The subject: the President of the United States nominates a controversial figure to be his next Secretary of State, dropping the nomination on his own party without as much as a “heads up.” This sets the stage for a political knife fight. Given the participants and the subject matter, I thought “Ok, I’ll bite.”

It all started with a phone call from the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Munson [Walter Pidgeon] to the President of the United States [Franchot Tone]. Munson complained to the president about not being given any advance warning about the appointment of Robert Leffingwell [Henry Fonda] to be Secretary of State. What we see during the phone conversation was the president taking copious amounts of medications – the message: the president is dying. Munson tells the president he’ll support the president’s nomination, but also tells him there will be problems from other senators, notably from Seabright Cooley [Charles Laughton], the senior senator from South Carolina. Cooley is also from the majority party, but he dislikes Leffingwell for personal and professional reasons. The biggest reason for Cooley’s opposition – he thinks Leffingwell is a Communist. There are other players in this drama. Senator Fred Van Ackerman [Don Murray] is a young, impatient, petulant, bomb-thrower from Wyoming who passionately supports Leffingwell. Senator Brig Anderson from Utah is undecided about Leffingwell. Lafe Smith [Peter Lawford] is a senator from Rhode Island. He’s towing the party line on Leffingwell’s nomination. Harley Hudson [Lew Ayres] is the Vice President, who knows he’s the VP only because he was a compromise candidate and doubts his own ability should he become President. Hudson is often ignored by the President [they hadn’t met in the last six weeks], who wanted Leffingwell confirmed because he didn’t think Hudson has what it takes to continue his foreign policy in case he should die and Harley succeed him.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee formed a sub-committee to vet Leffingwell’s nomination. Van Ackerman pestered Munson to head the subcommittee – Munson chose Anderson. Munson sees Van Ackerman for the grandstander that he is. During the course of the subcommittee hearing, Leffingwell was asked point-blank if he was a Communist. Leffingwell denied that he was. But Seeb Cooley wasn’t convinced. Cooley has an intelligence gathering capability that would make the CIA blush. He produced a surprise witness named Herbert Gelman [Burgess Meredith], who accused Leffingwell of being part of a Communist cell with two others at the University of Chicago, including a man using the false name of James Morton. He also found out about James Morton, who was really Hardiman Fletcher, a Treasury official who is an old acquaintance of Leffingwell from Chicago. Leffingwell easily discredited Gelman, but later told the President that he committed perjury before the committee. He said dallied with Communism in Chicago, but realized it wasn’t his thing and ended his relationship with Communists. He also told the President he was withdrawing his nomination, but the President refused.

The focus of the movie shifted to Brig Anderson. Cooley forced Fletcher to confess his involvement with Leffingwell to Anderson, who in turn tells Munson. The President finds out and lobbies Anderson hard for confirmation. Anderson finds himself with a moral dilemma – support the President even though he knows Leffingwell committed perjury, or summon Fletcher before the committee, an action that would kill Leffingwell’s nomination. To add to Anderson’s woes, he and his wife are receiving blackmail threats from an anonymous source. The threat – make sure Leffingwell’s nomination gets a positive recommendation, or lurid details about Anderson’s past will be made public. The blackmailers allude to a “Ray” in Hawaii. To add to even more to Anderson’s torment, the President sent Fletcher out of the country so he would be unavailable for testimony. All during this time, Van Ackerman made an ass of himself in his outspoken support for Leffingwell.

Anderson then made a quick flight to New York to see a friend from his Army days – Ray. He showed up at Ray’s last known address, the current occupant of which directed him to a nightclub. Anderson went to the nightclub and discovered it was a gay bar. After Anderson and Ray talked, Ray told him that he sold information about a homosexual affair that occurred while both were in the Army in Hawaii [and before Anderson was married]. Since Anderson had the information he was looking for, he flew back to Washington. On the flight he saw Vice President Hudson, who knew that Anderson had a problem but didn’t know its nature. Despite Hudson’s efforts to counsel Anderson, Anderson couldn’t reconcile his duty and his past. Anderson went to his office and slit his own throat.

Since information about Fletcher didn’t come to light while Anderson was alive, the subcommittee and the full Foreign Relations Committee reported a favorable recommendation for Leffingwell. Munson had a private meeting with Cooley. Munson was pissed because Cooley knew about Fletcher, but forced Anderson to bear the knowledge about him alone. Cooley offered to not ask other senators to join in his opposition to Leffingwell if Munson permitted a conscience vote on the nomination. During the course of debate in the full Senate, Cooley [having taken Munson’s word about leaving Anderson to twist slowly in the wind] apologized for his vindictiveness. He said he would still oppose Leffingwell, but would not encourage others to follow his lead. Munson reciprocated this by allowing senators to vote their conscience, meaning there would be no retribution if senators didn’t follow the “party line.” Van Ackerman was furious about this and wanted to filibuster the nomination. But the Vice President, as the presiding officer, asked for a quorum call. Munson refused to yield the floor for debate and then called for a roll call vote, which ended all debate. Van Ackerman became more livid with this tactic, but Munson quietly told him that were it not for concern for the privacy of Brig Anderson’s family, he would be censured and expelled from the Senate. Why? He was the one who was blackmailing Anderson. Upon hearing this news, Van Ackerman stomped out of the Senate without voting.

The vote was close. Munson alerted the Vice President that he’ll be needed to break what Munson thinks will be a tie vote. The President watched television coverage of the vote from the Oval Office. But during the vote, he dropped dead of a heart attack. As the voting continued, Secret Service agents entered the Senate chamber. The Senate Chaplain handed the Vice president a note about the President’s passing. The vote ended in a tie. The Vice President read aloud the results of the vote, announced the President died during the voting, and then announced he would not cast the tie-breaking vote. Since the vote to confirm Leffingwell ended in a tie, the Senate did not confirm him. While leaving the Senate chamber, the new President told Munson that he didn’t vote because he wanted to choose his own Secretary of State. As the longest serving member of the majority, Seeb Cooley was the President Pro Tempore. Once the President left the Senate chamber, Cooley took over as the presiding officer. Munson then asked for an adjournment to honor the now late President. And the movie ends…

This was a pretty good movie. It’s not as thrilling as The Manchurian Candidate, but it’s a keeper. It’s in the same league as Seven Days in May, which happens to be one of my favorites. I was surprised to see a movie from 1962 that highlighted a gay bar. Such things weren’t referred to in movies at that time. But Otto Preminger liked to push boundaries, and somehow he got this one past the censors. Gene Tierney was in this movie, her first in many years because she had battled bipolar disorder during the 50s. It was a shame that she didn’t have a bigger part than a Washington socialite. This would be Charles Laughton’s last movie. He died of cancer shortly after the film’s release. I highly recommend it!