Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Fall of Atticus Finch

There are perhaps only a few more beloved literary characters than Atticus Finch, lawyer and the father of protagonist Scout Finch in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Many attorneys were inspired to pursue careers in law because of Atticus Finch. Reportedly people even named their children "Atticus" in his honour (although I don't know anyone who did). In 2010 Book Magazine named Atticus Finch the seventh best fictional character in 20th Century fiction in their list "The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900".  Immortalised in the film version by Gregory Peck, in the American Film Institute's 2003 list "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains", Atticus Finch was voted the top hero in cinema, beating out both Rick Blaine of Casablanca and Will Kane of High Noon. Very few fictional characters have ever been as admired as Atticus Finch.

Unfortunately, it seems many readers' fond memories of Atticus Finch may soon be marred forever. Before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote the novel Go Set a Watchman. It was Harper Lee's editor, impressed by the flashbacks to Jean Louise "Scout" Finch's past, who suggested that she instead write a novel set during Scout's childhood and told from Scout's point of view. Go Set a Watchman was then put aside as Harper Lee went to work on what became To Kill a Mockingbird. Eventually the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman would be rediscovered. It is set to be published this coming Tuesday, July 14 2015.

Go Set a Watchman has already seen its share of controversy. Some thought that because of her advanced age Harper Lee had been taken advantage of, and the Alabama authorities even investigated to see if she had been the victim of elder abuse. Ultimately, they concluded that she had not. That would hardly be the last controversy sparked by the publication of Go Set a Watchman, as yet another, perhaps even bigger one emerged on Friday with Michiko Kakutani's advance review of the book in The New York Times.

What Michiko Kakutani revealed in her review sent shock waves through the internet and horrified fans of To Kill a Mockingbird. Quite simply, in Go Set a Watchman Atticus Finch, the once beloved father figure and paragon of tolerance and equality, is a racist. What is more, he is not simply any racist. He is a racist who has attended a Klan meeting and supports segregation. He is a racist who says things like, "The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people" and “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” To say that fans of To Kill a Mockingbird were shocked would be an understatement. Many expressed their disappointment on Twitter and other social media sites. Some even vowed not to read Go Set a Watchman.

Admittedly the idea of Atticus Finch as a outright racist is a hard pill to swallow. While it is true that Go Set a Watchman is set in the Fifties, about twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is difficult to see how Atticus Finch could have changed so much.  It just doesn't seem possible that a man of integrity who insisted on treating all people with dignity could become an angry bigot who favours segregation and looks on African Americans as being in "...their childhood as a people." Granted To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout's point of view and she may have idealised her father as many of us do, but it seems unlikely that she would have glossed over his bigotry had he been openly racist even in the Thirties.

Of course, it must be taken into account that Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. And it must also be taken account that, like most other writers, Harper Lee most likely revised her thoughts on the various characters when she went from writing Go Set a Watchman to writing To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the characters she obviously revised was Atticus Finch, who from Go Set a Watchman appears to have originally been a racist. In To Kill a Mockingbird he became the saint-like figure with whom we are more familiar. Atticus Finch's personality isn't the only thing that changed from Go Set a Watchman. At least one event portrayed in both books did as well. Apparently the famous trial, in which Atticus defended Tom Robinson against a charge of rape, has a completely different outcome in Go Set a Watchman. It must be also be noted that Go Set a Watchman is being published as it was written. Nothing has been changed from its final draft in the Fifties. Perhaps we should not be surprised that it would differ from To Kill a Mockingbird, even when one of those differences is that Atticus Finch is a racist.

Ultimately fans of To Kill a Mockingbird might wish to view the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman as a completely different character from the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, given the trial in Go Set a Watchman had a completely different outcome, they might wish to regard Go Set a Watchman as being set in a completely different reality, a mirror universe where Atticus Finch is a racist and segregationist. One has to wonder that Atticus Finch does not look like Gregory Peck with a goatee in that mirror universe as well.....

Friday, July 10, 2015

Omar Sharif Passes On

Legendary actor Omar Sharif died today at the age 83. The cause was a heart attack.

Omar Sharif was born Michel Demitri Chalhoub on April 10 1932 in Alexandria, Egypt. His family was Lebanese in descent, his father having originated in Zahlé, Lebanon. Young Mr. Sharif attended  Victoria College in Alexandria. It was while he was in school that he developed an interest in acting. He attended Cairo University where he earned a degree in mathematics and physics. He went on to study acting at the he Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Omar Sharif made his film debut in Siraa Fil-Wadi (1954), a film produced in Egypt. In the Fifties he appeared in such films as Shaytan al-Sahra (1954), Siraa Fil-Mina (1956), La châtelaine du Liban (1956), Ard el salam (1957), Goha (1958), Sayedat el kas (1959), and Lawet el hub (1960).

Omar Sharif was already an established star in Egypt when first role in an English speaking film,  Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), made him a star in the English speaking world. Mr. Sharif received a nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role. It would only be a few years later that Mr. Sharif appeared in what may be his best known role, that of Yuri in Doctor Zhivago (1965). In the Sixties Omar Sharif also appeared in such films as The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Behold a Pale Horse (1964), El mamalik (1965), Genghis Khan (1965), La fabuleuse aventure de Marco Polo (1965), Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966), The Night of the Generals (1967), Funny Girl (1968), Mackenna's Gold (1969), and Che! (1969).

In the Seventies Omar Sharif appeared in such films as The Last Valley (1971), Le casse (1971), The Tamarind Seed (1974), Juggernaut (1974), Funny Lady (1975), Ace Up My Sleeve (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Bloodline (1979), S+H+E: Security Hazards Expert (1980), and Oh, Heavenly Dog (1980). He played Captain Nemo in the TV mini-series L'île mystérieuse (literally The Mysterious Island).

In the Eighties Mr. Sharif appeared in such films as Green Ice (1981), Ayoub (1983), Top Secret! (1984), Grand Larceny (1987), Keys to Freedom (1988), Les possédés (1988), Mountains of the Moon (1990), and The Rainbow Thief (1990). He appeared on television in the mini-series The Far Pavilions and Peter the Great.

In the Nineties Omar Sharif appeared in such films as 588 rue Paradis (1992), Beyond Justice (1992), Ça-Va? (1996), Heaven Before I Die (1997), and The 13th Warrior (1999). He appeared on television in Catherine the Great and Gulliver's Travels. In the Naughts Omar Sharif appeared in the TV series Petits mythes urbains, the mini-series The Last Templar, and the TV movie Shaka Zulu: The Citadel. He appeared in such films as The Parole Officer (2001), Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), Hidalgo (2004), One Night with the King (2006), and J'ai oublié de te dire (2009). In the Teens he appeared in the films Un château en Italie (2013) and Rock the Casbah (2013).

In addition to acting, Omar Sharif was also one of the top 50 contract bridge players in the world. He  co-wrote a syndicated newspaper column about bridge for the Chicago Tribune, and also co-wrote several books on the game.

If Omar Sharif is a legend among actors, it is not simply because he appeared in two of the biggest films of the Sixties (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago), but rather because he was incredibly talented. Indeed, there could be no two more different roles than his two most famous:  Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia and Yuri in Doctor Zhivago. Mr. Sharif's other famous roles would also be very different from those two: the German military officer Major Grau in Night of the Generals;  con artist, gambler, and Fanny Brice's husband Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl and Funny Lady;  and Che Guevara in Che!. Although best known for his work in drama, Mr. Sharif was also gifted when it came to comedy. He had a particularly funny role in the spy spoof Top Secret! in addition to appearing in Funny Girl and Funny Lady. Omar Sharif was a legend not simply because he appeared in two incredibly successful epic films of the Sixties, but because he played a wide array of roles throughout his career and did all of them well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Giveaway at the Classic Movie Hub Blog

Many of you may know that I have had a book out for some time,  Television: Rare & Well Done. You might also be familiar with the many book giveaways that the Classic Movie Hub has conducted over the past few years. Well, right now the Classic Movie Hub is giving away two copies of Television: Rare & Well Done via Twitter.  this month. You can read all about the details of the contest at the Classic Movie Hub Blog.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Godspeed Jack Carter

Comedian Jack Carter died on June 28 2015 at the age of 93. His career spanned over 75 years and included hosting his own television show and appearances in films such as The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962) and The Extraordinary Seaman (1969).

Jack Carter was born Jack Chakrin in Brooklyn, New York on June 24 1922. It was when he was in high school that he began performing. He appeared in summer stock productions and made his film debut in the short "The Devil's Daughter". That same year he appeared in the short "Straight to Heaven". He appeared on radio as a contestant on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. It was in the early Forties he took the stage name "Jack Carter" and began working as a stand-up comic in nightclubs. During World War II he served in the United States Army Air Corps.

Following the war Jack Carter made his debut on Broadway in 1947 in the musical revue Call Me Mister. That same year he appeared in the films Sepia Cinderella (1947)  and Miracle in Harlem (1948).  In 1949 Jack Carter became the first host of Cavalcade of Stars on the Dumont network, the legendary variety show that would launch the career of Jackie Gleason (another one of the show's hosts).  In 1950 he moved from Dumont to NBC, where he hosted his own show, The Jack Carter Show, under the umbrella title of Saturday Night Revue under which was also included the legendary Your Show of Shows.

In the Fifties Jack Carter took over as the host of Stage Show, which was originally hosted by  Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He also served as a guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar. He guest starred on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Kate Smith Evening Hour, Tales of Tomorrow, Texaco Star Theatre, What's My Line, The Colgate Comedy Hour, Studio One, G.E. Theatre, The Eddie Fisher Show, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams. He appeared in the film It Happened to Jane (1959). He appeared on Broadway in Top Banana and Mr. Wonderful.

In the Sixties Jack Carter appeared on television on such variety and talk shows as The Tonight Show, Password All-Stars, The Judy Garland Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Art Linkletter's House Party, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Dean Martin Show; Hollywood Palace, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He also guest starred on such shows as The Roaring 20's, Hennesy, Make Room for Daddy, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Kildare, Ensign O'Toole, Burke's Law, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Combat!, Ben Casey, Batman, The Lucy Show, I Dream of Jeannie, The Wild Wild West, Julia, The Name of the Game, and  Mannix. He appeared in the films The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962) and Viva Las Vegas (1964).

In the Seventies Mr. Carter guest starred on such shows as The David Frost Show; Medical Centre; The Hollywood Squares; O'Hara, Treasury; McCloud; The Partners; The $25,000 PyramidCade's County; McMillan & Wife; Love, American Style; Match Game; Hawaii Five-O; Emergency!; Sanford & Son; The Merv Griffin Show; The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen; Switch; The Love Boat; and Archie Bunker's Place. He appeared in the films The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971), Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), The Amazing Dobermans (1976), The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977), The Glove (1979), Alligator (1980), and The Octagon (1980).

In the Eighties Jack Carter appeared in such shows as Fantasy Island; Cover Up; Growing Pains;, Fame; Mike Hammer; Murder, She Wrote; and Tales from the Darkside. He appeared in such films as History of the World: Part I (1981), The Funny Farm (1983), Love Scenes (1984), The Trouble with Dick (1987), Death Blow: A Cry for Justice (1987), Satan's Princess (1989), Sexpot (1990), and Caged Fury (1990).

In the Nineties Jack Carter guest starred on such shows as Empty Nest, Blossom, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Cybill, Baywatch, Living Single, Caroline in the City, Coach, Diagnosis Murder, Touched by an Angel, and 3rd Rock from the Sun. He appeared in the films In the Heat of Passion (1992), The Opposite Sex and How to Live with Them (1992), Prima Donnas (1995), The Modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1998), Pastry, Pain and Politics (1998), October 22 (1998), and
Play It to the Bone (1999).

From the Naughts into the Teens Jack Carter appeared as a guest voice on King of the Hill and appeared on such TV shows as Andy Richter Controls the Universe, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, ER, Monk, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Rules of Engagement, and the American version of Shameless. He appeared in the films One Last Ride (2004), Cougar Club (2007), The Great Buck Howard (2008), Let Go (2011), and Mercy (2014).

Jack Carter was an incredibly talented man. He was a gifted mimic, capable of doing convincing imitations of celebrities from Ed Sullivan to Ray Middleton. And while much of his humour would be considered sexist today, he could be very funny. He had a wonderfully acerbic sense of humour and was a master of the put-down. Of course, he was also wonderfully self-deprecating. Jack Carter probably put down no one more than himself; he once famously said he was not a "has-been", but a "never-was". Over all Jack Carter's comedy could be described as downright impetuous at times.

Of course, he was a frequent guest star on television shows, and he displayed a good deal talent as an actor. He played everything from a wild disc jockey (Hot Rod Harry in an episode of Batman) to a television host angry over the death of his son (on Dr. Kildare) to the over-protective manager of a boxer (on Combat!). Much as Jack Carter was able to mimic nearly any celebrity, he also seemed to have a knack for being able to play any role given him. While Jack Carter joked about being a "never was", in truth he was a very talented comedian and actor who "always was".

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Julie Taymor's Across the Universe

In 1978 the musical film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired by the music of The Beatles, was released. The film received overwhelmingly negative reviews and is even counted by many as among the worst movies of all time. To make matters worse the film was not even redeemed by its soundtrack, which featured some of the worst renditions of Beatles songs ever. When news emerged  of Across the Universe, then, Beatles fans had cause to be concerned. Even the involvement of theatrical director Julie Taymor probably did little to ease many, if not most, Beatles fans' concerns for the quality of the film. Fortunately, at least for a good number of Beatles fans, it would seem their concerns were not justified.

Across the Universe was conceived by Julie Taymor, who had already directed several productions on stage (including several Shakespeare plays and the stage version of Dinsey's The Lion King), as well as the films Oedipus rex, Titus, and Frida).  She conceived a film that would examine the Sixties through the lens of The Beatles' music.  Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who had worked on such TV shows as The Likely Lads and Porridge, and had written screenplays for such films as Vice Versa and The Commitments) wrote the screenplay, which is at its heart a love story that spans the later part of the Sixties. The story actually emerged from the songs, with the filmmakers beginning with 200  Beatles songs and finally whittling it down to 33. The film's plot was then generated from those 33 songs.

Of course, Beatles songs do not come cheap. The filmmakers ultimately had to pay ATV/Sony Music and Michael Jackson (then owners of the Beatles catalogue) $10,000,000 for the songs used in the film. Strangely enough, one of the conditions for the use of the songs was that none of the posters for Across the Universe could reference The Beatles, even though from the film's trailers it was obvious that it was based on their songs.

The current owners of The Beatles' songs insistence on the band's name not being mentioned on posters was not the only hiccup Across the Universe had in making it to theatres. The film went through a protracted editing process, with Julie Taymor trimming the film following various test screenings. Unfortunately, Joe Roth, chairman of Revolution Studios (who produced the film), still  felt the movie was too long even after all the editing. He then had Across the Universe recut without consulting Julie Taymor, resulting in a version that was about a half hour shorter than her final cut. Julie Taymor was not particularly happy and even considered having her name removed from the film if it was Joe Roth's shorter version that was released. Julie Taymor stood her ground and ultimately it was her version that was released.

The amount of time it took to edit Across the Universe, as well as the feud between Julie Taymor and Joe Roth, would delay the film's release from 2006 to 2007. Ultimately it went into limited release in the United States on September 14 2007. Across the Universe received mixed reviews, with most of them being positive. In fact, it would appear on the top ten lists for the year of both Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Stephen Holden of The New York Times, among other critics. As to the remaining Beatles themselves, both Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr liked the film. Across the Universe also received nominations for various awards (everything from the St. Louis Film Critics Association Award for Most Original, Innovative or Creative Film to the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical). Unfortunately, it did not do particularly well at the box office. Across the Universe cost $45 million to make, but only made about $30 million.

While many critics and the remaining Beatles themselves liked Across the Universe and audiences in 2007 apparently avoided the film, the question for many Beatles fan may be, "What does the average Beatles fan think of the film?"  I can't speak for every single Beatles fan, but for myself I can say that I have always enjoyed Across the Universe. That having been said, it is definitely a film where spectacle is more important than story. Indeed, Across the Universe has some truly astounding visuals. Possibly the best sequence in the film is one built around "Happiness is a Warm Gun", which features Salma Hayek times five as a nurse in what can be described a surreal hybrid between Thirties musical production numbers and James Bond title sequences. Another great sequence is one using "She's So Heavy (I Want You)", which is set at an Army induction centre and features a menacing Uncle Sam poster, robotic sergeants, and an assembly-line induction process.  The most bizarre musical sequence in the film may be "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," sung by Eddie Issard, accompanied at one point by Blue Meanies from the film Yellow Submarine (or things that look like Meanies anyway)....

Of course, the appearance of what may or may not be Blue Meanies in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" points to one way Beatles fans will enjoy the film; quite simply it has literally dozens of references to The Beatles, both visual and verbal. Indeed, most of the major characters' names are derived from Beatles songs (Lucy, Jude, Max, Sadie, et. al.). Much of the fun of watching Across the Universe is then looking for the many references to The Beatles scattered throughout the movie.

Besides its rather amazing visuals, the strongest part of Across the Universe is its music. The two leads (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) both have excellent singing voices, and the movie does well by most of The Beatles songs it adapts. I particularly liked the film's versions of "Hold Tight," "Come Together (sung by the legendary Joe Cocker)," and "I Am the Walrus" sung by Bono. The only song I can say I truly didn't like in the film was its version of "Let It Be," which only amplifies the worst aspects of Phil Spector's production on the original release of the song (I much prefer the Let It Be Naked version).

While Across the Universe has some fantastic visuals and the music is quite good (I think most Beatles fans would appreciate it), it is not particularly strong with regards to its story.  Its plot is not particularly cohesive, often jumping from one scene to another and even including a scene featuring the Detroit riot of 1967 that  has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters or the plot. And while the entire cast gives good performances, the only truly well developed characters are Jude, Lucy, and Lucy's brother Max. As good as the entire cast's performances are, none of them can really overcome what little the script gave them with which to work.

Despite the deficiencies of the script (which are noticeable), in the end Across the Universe is still a very enjoyable film, particularly for Beatles fans. It is ultimately a movie where its visuals and its music matter much more than its plot, and both the visuals and the music are particularly strong.I rather suspect many people will be so overpowered by the film's visuals and songs that they will then ignore the weaknesses of the story. Quite unlike Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), Across the Universe is a worthy addition to movies inspired by the songs of The Beatles, one that I think will be enjoyed for years to come.