Wednesday, December 31, 2014

ANNIE 2014

Given that my accepted mindset on the topic of most contemporary films (remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, in particular) is a resounding, “Bah, humbug!” I have to say, after seeing the new version of Annie starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx, I feel a little like Albert Finney in the last reel of Scrooge (1970).

Certainly, what with all those negative reviews, poor boxoffice, and my own casual antipathy toward the source material itself  ‒ I love the musical score, but my very W.C. Fields-like aversion to hordes of singing children has always prevented Annie from being a huge favorite ‒ expectations couldn't have been lower. I would have been happy had this, the third screen incarnation of the 1977 Broadway musical, been made into a splashy, tolerably bad movie musical on par with Hairspray (2007) or Nine (2009); and if I’m really being honest with myself, I think I might have even secretly hoped for a so-bad-it’s-good hoot-fest, à la Lost Horizon (1973) or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). But as it turns out, Annie: 2014 caught me completely off guard. It seems the one thing I wasn’t expecting was an utterly delightful, thoroughly enchanting musical whose thoughtful and canny updating reclaims the heart of a musical long lost to shrill children’s recitals and hollow theatrical revivals.
I’m light-years away from being the film’s preferred demographic, but as a dancer and longtime fan of movie musicals, I was wholly captivated by Annie’s old-fashioned charm and sentimentality. A sentimentality that touchingly reaffirms the musical’s simple message that everybody needs to feel loved, and family isn't only something you’re born into.
Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie Bennett
Jamie Foxx as William Stacks
Rose Byrne as Grace Farrell
Cameron Diaz as Colleen Hannigan
Bobby Cannavale as Guy
David Zayas as Lou
With two flawed Annie adaptations already committed to celluloid (the overstuffed 1982 film you can read about HERE, and the wan but more faithful-to-the-stage 1999 TV-movie), I was less than thrilled when, back in 2011, actor Will Smith announced plans to produce an Annie remake starring his daughter, Willow. Of course, now, three years later, we can all give thanks for the role growth spurts and sluggish pre-production played in averting that particular disaster, but still, who needed yet another screen incarnation of that irrepressible orphan unless in a significantly reinterpreted form?

Happily, Annie 2014 proves to be just that: a surprisingly funny, disarmingly sweet update of the Broadway musical which, through the clever repurposing of songs, characters, and situations draws amusingly apt parallels between contemporary times and the hard knock life of 1933. 

Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie has the spirit, spunk, and boundless optimism of her comic strip namesake (not to mention the same headful of curly locks), and plot-wise, the film cleaves more to the 1982 John Huston film than the original Broadway production written by Thomas Meehan (with music composed by Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin). But in spite of the many changes, it’s still the story of a hopeful waif searching for her real parents, and how she comes to warm the capitalist heart of a lonely billionaire through pluck and a cheery outlook. Annie is no longer an orphan, but (more reasonably) a foster child in the resentful care of the embittered, frequently besotted Miss Hannigan (Diaz), a failed dance-pop singer who was unceremoniously dumped from the C + C Music Factory back in the 90s (“I was too good!”) and now has to live off the subsidy income of playing foster mom to five annoying “little girls.”
Daddy Warbucks is now William Stacks (Foxx), a New York mayoral candidate whose standoffish public image is in dire need of the kind of PR rebranding and instant photo-op warmth temporarily taking in a foster kid can provide. Stacks is looked after by Grace Farrell (Byrne), the super-efficient VP of his mobile phone empire, and Guy (Cannavale), his pitbull of a political adviser. Beyond the narrative tweaks necessary to usher what is essentially a 90-year-old character into the 21st Century, Annie follows along the same fairy-tale path as its Broadway-inspired predecessors, retaining just enough of the familiar to evoke nostalgia, yet delivering plenty of (welcome) surprises to make the entire enterprise feel like something entirely fresh and new.

Granted, Annie is not a perfect film and not without its problems. Cameron Diaz’s over-caffeinated approach to the character of Miss Hannigan takes some getting used to (maybe small children will find her funny), events occasionally feel rushed (I know I'm alone in this, but I could have stood a longer running time), and like many musicals that strive to be “of the moment” (Xanadu, anyone?), Annie is in grave danger of looking dated by the time I post this. But in all, I found Annie to be a an fun, enjoyably tuneful re-imagining of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie (“Foster kid...” as the certain-her-parents-are-still-alive Annie has to keep reminding everyone) which, thanks in large part to the engaging performance of its adorable 10-year-old star, had me feeling (to quote Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol"...as merry as a schoolboy."


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In this day of Disney animation and Muppets, live-action movie musicals are hard to come by. Rarer still is the screen adaptation of a beloved Broadway musical that avoids succumbing to the curse of having too keen a sense of its own legacy. Camelot, My Fair Lady, and Hello, Dolly!, and Mame were all perfectly fun, lighthearted Broadway shows which arrived on the big screen ponderously weighed-down by big-for-big-sake elephantitis and an overdetermined sense of  their own “greatness.”
As a fan of cinematic bloat, I adore Annie’s visual sweep and glossy sumptuousness (it’s like a shiny, jewel-box vision of New York), and I like a large-scale musical number as much as the next guy (OK, probably more). But if I had to choose between the two, I much prefer an adaptation that pokes fun of itself with wry, self-aware humor, and which doesn't allow its heart to be smothered by all the production razzle-dazzle.
It's to the latter point where I think Annie succeeds most admirably. This is the first Annie I've ever seen scaled down to a size appropriate to the perspective of its heroine. And whether motivated by budgetary constraints or the dancing limitations of its cast, Annie sidesteps big production numbers at every turn (“It’s a Hard Knock Life” is almost modest) and in doing so, proves that less is consistently more. 
With intimacy intensified by the New York locations, the actors all doing their own singing, and the “dancing” consisting more of spontaneous movement inspired by the nature of the characters themselves; this Annie is the first one that I ever found to be really funny, and definitely the only Annie that has ever moved me to waterworks.
I thought by now I'd had my fill of the song, Tomorrow, until I heard Quvenzhane Wallis sing it. The staging of the number is very moving and her performance is outstanding. What a sweet voice she has!

PERFORMANCES
Impressive adaptation choices aside (I love the comically self-referential opening sequence that cleverly addresses the remake elephant in the room), Annie’s major asset is Academy Award-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (and Golden Globe nominee for this) who is fast proving herself a child actress force to be reckoned with. There’s nothing comic book about the astonishing level of nuance she’s able to bring to a character usually summed up with a few glib adjectives built around the word, "spunky."
As realized by Wallis, Annie's belief that her parents will one day return for her is as movingly and realistically conveyed as her self-protective resilience is poignant. to bring this to a musical in which she also shines in the most engaging fashion in the comedy and musical sequences is something of a marvel. Having never Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film that made her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history (she was nine), I can only say that I was fairly blown away by her display of talent here. Easily the best performance in the film, she’s an Annie for the ages.
Wallis' performance of the original song, "Opportunity" was a real goosebump moment for me. Wonderful to hear a child sing in a voice that actually sounds like that of a child, not a pint-sized Ethel Merman 
Cognizant perhaps of the indomitable juggernaut posed by the pairing of an absurdly charismatic child and a dog, Jamie Foxx wisely underplays as Stacks and comes off the all better for it (although one wonders what he thought when, rather prophetically, his big solo, "Something Was Missing" did just that in the release print). Rose Byrne is a standout and singularly appealing as Grace, the lonely-little-girl-as-grown-up spin given her character making for a nice subtextural trifecta (with Hannigan) about women/girls accepting themselves as individuals worthy of love by first learning to love themselves. Bobby Cannavale, so wonderful in last years's Blue Jasmine adds considerable comic verve to his role, David Zayas is solid as a local bodega owner harboring a love-has-20/20-eyesight crush on Hannigan, and Stephanie Kurtzuba as a wealth-struck social services worker is a scene-stealing highlight.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Oz, Pompeii) as Nash, Stacks' driver/bodyguard

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I don't consider myself a big admirer of most of today's music (I think Miss Hannigan and I share similar musical tastes) but I was immediately taken with like the ingenious way the songs from Annie were reworked. I even like the new stuff (save for Moonquake Lake, which is a tad trying). I've read critics calling out the film for its Autotune sweetening of the vocals (a staple of every Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus song I've ever heard, and evident in 2010s Burlesque with little comment), but I'd rather have the "assisted" vocals of the real actors than the kind of rampant dubbing that occurred throughout the 60s.
And what is a musical without a favorite number? Annie has several standouts for me but my fave rave and the one number I can watch again and again is "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here." 
Grace & Annie make like Mick Jagger and David Bowie in the infectiously upbeat, 
"I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I absolutely fell in love with this film (flaws, bad reviews, and all) and think Annie batted it out of the ballpark in a way I never would have anticipated given my general distaste for remakes; I've become an even bigger fan of the film after the daughters of a friend of mine told me what it felt like to see a little girl who looked like them starring in her own bigscreen musical adventure.
Hearing how excited they were about Quvenzhané Wallis’ singing and dancing, how much they liked her hair, her mode of dress, and how it made them cry at the end....
It just got me to thinking about what a difference a film like this would have made to my sisters when we were growing up. I have four sisters and we went to the movies nearly every weekend when we were kids, yet in all the dozens of movies we saw, they never got the chance to see themselves represented onscreen. Certainly not front and center.
In researching this post, I came across a press junket video interview for Annie in which actor Bobby Cannavale had this to say on the topic: “It’s for a new generation of kids who wouldn't necessarily see themselves in those old productions, be it the movies or the play. I recently saw the play and I still didn't see anybody of color up there. So I think it’s an important thing for kids to be able to go to the movies and see themselves.”

I've always felt that dreams are what movies are for. And as Xanadu proved in my life, a movie doesn't have to be a critic's darling to inspire a person and speak to their spirit. So my hat is off to Annie for giving a lot of kids who aren't always afforded the chance, an opportunity to dream.
Black pearl, precious little girl
Let me put you up where you belong.
Black pearl, pretty little girl
You’ve been in the background much too long.

Black Pearl-1969 (Spector, Wine, Levine)

BONUS MATERIAL
As in the 1982 film (not the show), Annie is taken to the movies. In this instance, an intentionally silly-looking Twilight parody titled MoonQuake Lake, whose fake trailer can be seen (complete with surprise cameos) HERE. Sadly, as with all good parodies, it actually looks very much like a film that would be greenlit by Hollywood today.

Clip of the "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" number on YouTube.

I read that Annie director, Will Gluck, placed 30 tributes to past versions of Annie in this film. I haven't found a site which lists them all, but here's a start:
1. The spunky, red-haired "Annie A." who opens the film giving a class report on Herbert Hoover (the Depression era President who's the topic of a sarcastic song in the Broadway show). 2. "Annie B." follows with a oral report on FDR and his New Deal (President referenced in song in the Broadway show). 3. A mayoral candidate is given the name Harold Gray, the creator of Little Orphan Annie comic strip. 4. Will Stacks is bald. 5. A band called "The Leaping Lizards" plays in a nightclub (it's the famous catchphrase of the comic strip Annie). 6. Annie rescues Sandy from a  bunch of bullies. 7. The song "N.Y.C" from the Broadway show, is played in the background of a scene. 8. The names of the actors in the fake film, MoonQuake Lake (Andrea Alvin & Simon Goodspeed) reference Annie history (original Annie, Andrea McArdle, The Alvin Theater, now the Neil Simon Theater, and The Goodspeed Theater in Connecticut where Annie premiered in 1976). 8. The red jacket, white leggings, and Mary Jane-style shoes Annie wears in the finale is a contemporary update of the classic Little Orphan Annie outfit.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

WOMEN IN LOVE 1969

As a hormonal pre-teen whose nether regions went all atingle at the sight of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes waking up in Shani Wallis' bed in the 1968 kiddie musical Oliver!; no one wanted to see Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love more than I. More to the point: no 7th grader with a wholesale unfamiliarity with either D. H. Lawrence or Ken Russell wanted to see Oliver Reed appearing full-frontal naked in a movie more than I.
But it was not to be.
For although my track record for persuading my mom to grant me permission to see age-inappropriate films on the basis of their “seriousness of content” was one both impressive and fruitful in one so young (my being both a shy and humorless 12-year-old got me into Bonnie & Clyde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?); little did I know that my hopes for pulling the same stunt with Women in Love would be dashed thanks to my parents having seen the controversial film adaptation of Lawrence’s lesbian-themed novella The Fox (1967) a couple of years before. I was undone by the fact that the advertising campaigns for both The Fox and Women in Love downplayed these film's highbrow literary origins in favor of stressing the inherently sensationalist virtues contained in their then taboo-shattering display of nudity and sexual frankness.
Alan Bates as Rupert Birkin
Glenda Jackson as Gudrun Brangwen
Oliver Reed as Gerald Crich
Jennie Linden as Ursula Brangwen
Eleanor Bron as Hermione Roddice
That I had been able to wheedle my way into the “Recommended for Mature Audiences” films listed above is largely attributable to the fact that they all pitched themselves as important, self-serious motion pictures commenting on contemporary issues. On the other hand, Women in Love, betraying a perhaps well-founded lack of faith in America’s interest in or familiarity with D.H. Lawrence, and hoping the lure of eroticism might offset the stuffy reputation of British imports, chose to go the exploitation route. Like The Fox before it, which used lesbianism as its prime publicity hook, Women in Love moved its homoerotic nude wrestling scene front and center as the defining image and focus of its entire marketing campaign.
And while I’m certain all of this paid off handsomely at the boxoffice, closer to home (seeing as it only solidified my mother’s perception of D.H. Lawrence as a high-flown pornographer, and strengthened her resolve to keep me far away from any film bearing his name) that particular marketing strategy ultimately proved disastrous to my private campaign to get a look at Oliver's reed. Roughly nine years passed before Women in Love's rounds at the revival theaters and my suitable chronological age coincided.
The stylish (if not eccentric) mode of dress of the Brangwen sisters not only establishes them as modern, independent-thinking women at odds with their  dreary, working-class surroundings, but assert Women in Love's subthemes of internal (emotion and instinct), external (nature and environment), and man-made (industry and art) conflict.

Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen are two emotionally restless sisters whose naturally colorful natures chafe at the drab-grey existence proffered by their working-class status as schoolteachers in the coal-mining town of Beldover in postwar England, 1921. Both women are dreamy loners unable/unwilling to fit in with their surroundings. Both are also, if not exactly looking for love, reluctant to duplicate the domestic desperation of their mother, and therefore curious and receptive to exploring the experience.

Gudrun (Jackson), the youngest, is a self-styled artist and free-spirit sensually attracted to power and passion. (And, it would seem, brutality. In one scene she is shown becoming excited by the sight of Gerald mistreating a horse. In another, stimulated by a story an artist [Loerke] relates about having to beat one of his female models in order for her to sit still for a painting.)
"I would give everything...everything, all you love...for a little companionship and intelligence."
Vladek Sheybal  as Herr Loerke, a homosexual artist (Richard Heffer as his lover) presents Gudrun with a possibly of platonic love
Ursula (Linden), more of a realist and more sensitive than her sister, nevertheless envisions fulfillment as something achievable only through the surrendering of oneself to an idealized vision of one-on-one domesticated bliss. Into these sisters' lives, as though summoned by mutual longing, arrive Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich; best friends of dissimilar emotional temperament who contribute to forming, in their coupling with the sisters, two contrasting yet complimentary halves of a cyclical treatise on the conundrum that is passionate love vs. romantic love. The perpetual struggle between the sexes.
Woman in Love #1- Rupert & Ursula's loving relationship is often photographed in nature
Ursula finds romantic kinshipif little in the way of stabilitywith Rupert (Bates), a school inspector possessed of extravagantly quixotic theories about nature, life and love, all seeming to channel from a nascent awareness of his bisexuality. Meanwhile, Gudrun, perhaps out of want of stimulation or, as Rupert surmises, a lust for passion and greed for self-importance in love, is drawn to Gerald (Reed), the brutish, aristocratic son of the town’s coal industrialist. A shared quest for power, corrosively mixed with a need for both intimacy and independence, makes theirs a passionate, albeit combative, relationship more or less doomed from the start.
Woman in Love #2 - Gudrun & Gerald's doomed relationship is often photographed in dark surroundings
Intruding upon Ursula and Rupert’s self-perpetuating emotionalism and Gudrun and Gerald’s incessant power plays, are: Hermione (Bron), Rupert’s one-time love and the walking embodiment of orchestrated eroticism with none of the heat; and Rupert himself, whose unrequited love for the mulishly impassive Gerald encumbers his relationship with Ursula.
Men in Love - Rupert advances the possibility of an implicit, perfect love shared between two men

Many films have used the entwined relationships of two couples to explore the inconsistent, conflicting complexities of spiritual and physical love (my favorites being Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge and Closer), but Ken Russell’s Women in Love gets to the heart of the matter (so to speak) in a way that is as visually poetic as it is emotionally painful. It's one of the most intelligent and genuinely provocative films about love I've ever seen.

I was in my early 20s the first time I saw Women in Love, and had you asked me, I genuinely would have told you I'd understood it then. But it seems with each passing year, the film reveals itself to be about so much more than I'd initially thought, I'm certain what I'd gleaned from the film at such a young age was but the mere tip of the emotional iceberg Russell presents us with.
Women in Love is one of those rare films that seems to grow smarter in direct proportion to the amount of life experience one chalks up. So it would seem, although you couldn't have convinced me of it at the time, my mom was right in thinking I was too young for this. Not that I wouldn't have loved to have seen Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in the buff, but Women in Love is far too mature in its themes for any of this to have made a whit of sense to me as an adolescent.
Sumptuously filmed, magnificently costumed (by Shirley Russell), and so exceptionally well-acted you can watch it again and again without ever unearthing all the delightful nuances in the actors’ performances, Women in Love is a thoughtful, surprisingly restrained film, and a pleasant departure from the operatic bombast of Russell’s later works.
Gudrun's desire for power and its liberating effects is poetically dramatized in a sequence in which her lyrical dancing tames and eventually overcomes a threatening-looking herd of highland cattle. (Amusingly, a herd which, when photographed from the front, share Gudrun's coloring and haircut.) 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My favorite thing about Women in Love is how artfully it tackles the unwieldy topic of love. Especially the pain and emotional upheaval born of that overused word never seeming to mean the exact same thing to any two people at any one time. 
Obscured by illusion, distorted by need, thwarted by cowardice; the impulse to love may be innate and instinctual, but it’s also intensely confounding. Ken Russell contrasts images of nature with images of the encroaching industrialism of postwar England to dramatize the natural urges of the characters as being in conflict with their repressed, intellectual notions about love. Ursula, Gudrun, Rupert, and Gerald all do a great deal of thinking and talking about love, but none betray a  trace of genuinely having any idea of what love really is or what they want. 
As suggested by Women in Love's repeated use of the popular song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," the characters all harbor romantic illusions about love: its potential for fulfillment, its ability to heal wounds, the emotional void it can fill. Conflict arises out of whether or not the grasping need of desire is capable of giving way to the vulnerability and freedom love requires.
Love & Death:  In a pairing shot that many critics of the day thought too heavy-handed (which, of course, meant I absolutely loved it), the drowning death of the film's only romantically idyllic couple (Sharon Gurney & Christopher Gable) is contrasted with Ursula & Rupert's unsatisfying first tryst. A premonition of blighted love, a graphic representation of romantic ideologies at cross purposes; the women's poses can be interpreted as lovingly embracing or greedily clinging to the men, the men, unequivocally adopting gestures of disentanglement.


PERFORMANCES
While Ken Russell's operatic zest and Larry Kramer's graceful screenplay mercifully spare Women in Love from the kind of over-reverential airlessness common in most film adaptations of classic novels, I attribute the lion's share of the credit for the film's vibrancy to the talents of the amazing cast. 
In an era that required so may actresses to play the compliant love interest to counterculture antiheroes, Women in Love was a refreshing change of pace in presenting two women who have a say in what they want from life and love. Personal fave Glenda Jackson (looking quite smart in her blunt, Vidal Sassoon bob) emerged in this film as something of the "New Woman" of '70s cinema.
Blessed with a mellifluous voice and an articulate beauty that radiates strength, intellect, and fleshy sensuality, Jackson is Old Hollywood star quality without the lacquered veneer. Much in the same way I attribute Woody Allen with unearthing Diane Keaton, Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson are a pair forever locked together in my mind. Her performance as Gudrun Brangwen, certainly one of the more complex, emotionally paradoxical characters in literature, is almost wily. Throughout the film she wears the look of a woman in possession of a secret she dares you to find out. The quintessential Ken Russell heroine, Jackson won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, and deservedly rose to stardom on the strength of this film. 
A real scene-stealer whose presence is very much missed when her character is required to recede into the background early on, is the ever-versatile Eleanor Bron as the pretentious Hermione: a potentially ridiculous individual made real and sympathetic by Bron's prodigious talent. Only after I'd read the book did I really come to appreciate the spot-on perfection of Bron's performance.

Women in Love as a costume film/period piece, tightrope walks a space between stagy theatricality and naturalism that few but Russellwith his talent for finding natural locations that look like stage sets for an operacould pull off. Alan Bates fits the film's romantic setting perfectly (because I find him to be so swoon-inducingly beautiful, I can’t honestly say I've ever been able to really evaluate his performance with much objectivity), and Jennie Linden is effective in the somewhat thankless role of Ursula.
Reed and Jackson bring such smoldering dynamic intensity to their roles that their scenes together always feel slightly dangerous. I can't think of a single other actress who could appear opposite Reed in a scene and leave you concerned for his safety. I think Reed's Gerald Crich is his finest screen performance. Employing his trademark whispers to great effect, he somehow manages to be brutish, refined, and heartbreakingly vulnerable all at the same time.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Given your average ratio of anticipation to disappointment, it came as no small surprise to discover, after having waited so many years, Women in Love’s fabled nude wrestling scene more than lived up to its reputation. Satisfied with merely being sensually enraptured by the sight of two obscenely sexy actors wrestling in the altogether; I wasn't at all prepared for what a dramatically powerful and daring scene it is. Daring not in its exposure of flesh, but in its exploration of a subtextural, taboo attribute of a great many onscreen male relationships (and, I daresay, many real-life relationships as well).
I'm not sure who said it, but someone once made the keen observation that homophobia in men is not really rooted in a general distaste for male-on-male sexual contact, but rather in the fear of "What if I like it?"
Heterosexual men have established a social order in which they have left themselves few avenues allowing for the expression of male affection. In lieu of this they have contrived a network of female-excluding, male-bonding rituals so convoluted and complex (sports culture, strip clubs, ass slapping, "bros before hoes" guy codes, homophobic locker room humor, bromance comedies, misogyny masked as promiscuity [the Romeo syndrome], etc.) you sometimes wish they'd just have sex with each other and get it over with. One can't help but feel that the world would be a less aggressive, insecure place if they did.
In Women in Love, Rupert and Gerald's friendship is really the most intimate, passionate, and loving relationship in the film, but Rupert uses words and lofty theories to mask his inability to fully confront his own sexual confusion, while Gerald is too emotionally remote to allow himself to address the issue at all. On the heels of the death of Gerald's sister and following Rupert's less-than-fulfilling consummation of his affair with Ursula, the two friends find themselves at a loss for how to "appropriately" comfort one another. So, as is the wont of repressed heterosexual males the world over, Rupert and Gerald resort to displays of physical aggression as a heterosexual means of expressing homosexual intimacy.
As the friendly combat gives way to a physical exhaustion matching their physical closeness, it's clear to Rupert that Gerald feels "something" akin to his own feelings. But before that ultimate intimacy can be broached, Gerald, in an act of willful misunderstanding, finds it necessary to break off what has been established between them before things have a chance of preceding any further. (Wrestling by firelight, the very natural state of their nudity is made vulgar and shameful by the intrusion of the modern electric light he abruptly switches on.)

As a fan of '70s movies, what makes this sequence particularly compelling for me is how it symbolically evokes the unaddressed subtext in all those post-feminism, male-centric buddy pictures of the decade. Films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance KidMidnight Cowboy, and Easy Riderfilms in which women are shunted off to the sidelinesare all essentially male romances. In each film, women are present, even loved, but there's no getting past the fact that the deepest, most profoundly spiritual love occurs between the male characters. Women in Love's wrestling scene dramatizes the struggle men face when affection for another man is felt, and (at least in this instance), the societal and morality-imposed roles of "friend" are found to be inadequate.
It's an outstandingly courageous sequence whose confrontational frankness wrests Women in Love out of the past and centers it far and above what most mainstream filmmakers are willing to do even today. Who knew? A sequence I only expected to be a feast for the eyes proved to be food for thought as well.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Women in Love was promoted with the tagline“The relationship between four sensual people is limited: They must find a new way.” And while this might sound more like the tagline for 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, it does at least touch upon the theme of the inadequacy of classically “romantic” notions of love in a modern world, and the need for a kind of sexual evolution.
The Proper Way to Eat a Fig
Almost as scandalous as Women in Love's nudity was the inclusion of a scene (not in the book) where Rupert compares a fig to female genitalia. The words are taken from D.H. Lawrence's 1923 erotic poem, Figs, which can be read in its entirety, HERE

None of the characters in Women in Love are able to fully align what they presuppose about love (nor what is true to their natures) with their present realities. In an earlier post about Mike Nichols’ Closer, I wrote:
“The four protagonists fumble about blindly seeking love without knowing how to return it, demanding love without earning it, and giving love without committing to it.”

The same can be said for the characters in Women in Love. And although more than 70 years separate the creation of the two works (Patrick Marber's play, Closer, was written in 1997, D.H. Lawrence's novel was published in 1920) it intrigues me that after so many years and so much human progress, the basic cosmic riddle that is love remains essentially and eternally unchanged.
Undomesticated
Rupert - "But I wanted a man friend eternal...as you are eternal."
Ursula - "You can't have it because it's impossible."
Rupert - "I don't believe that."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

ANNIE 1982

After seeing so many billboards, bus shelters, and mega-posters around town heralding the forthcoming release of the latest (2014) screen incarnation of Annie – that pint-sized, ginger juggernaut of Broadway 1977 (and for those keeping score, this marks adaptation # 3)I figure I’d better get around to covering John Huston’s 1982 mega-budget, mega-hyped, mega-merchandised movie version before public reaction to the remake (pro or con) influence my memories.
Motivated as they are (more often than not) by income rather than ideas, remakes are an irksome Hollywood inevitability I'm prone to dismiss on principle alone. The remaking of iconic films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Brian De Palma’s Carrie is an obvious fool’s errand; the inevitably substandard results forgotten before they even get a DVD release. But I can't say I feel the same about remaking flawed films. In fact, affording as it does a genuine creative opportunity for a filmmaker to "get it right" the second time around, it's the only kind of remake that does make sense to me.
The 1982 movie version of Annie took a while to grow on people. Regarded as a beloved classic by many today, Annie on its release was greeted with a mixed critical reception (nominated for 5 Razzie awards, winning one for Aileen Quinn as Worst Supporting Actress); was trashed in the press by the show's lyricist, Martin Charnin ("Terrible, terrible, it distorted everything."); and though it emerged one of the top ten moneymakers of the year, its steep budget ($40 to $50 million), hefty marketing campaign ($10 million) and the record $9.5 million spent on acquiring the rights, meant it wouldn't come anywhere near breaking even or showing a profit for many years.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call Annie a classic, neither would I label it the out and out flop its detractors make it out to be. Sure, at times the script is uneven to the point of feeling erratic (Hannigan's 11th hour character redemption will give you whiplash), but I still find its changes to be a marked improvement over the theatrical production. And, thanks to its bouncy score, boundlessif unharnessedenergy, and capable, hardworking cast; Annie manages to be entertaining in spite of never really gelling into the kind of touchstone movie musical event its Broadway success (and producer Ray Stark's investment) augured.
Aileen Quinn as Annie
Albert Finney as Oliver Warbucks
Carol Burnett as Miss Agatha Hannigan
Ann Reinking as Grace Farrell
As every living human must by now know, Annie is the significantly retooled movie version of the Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon based on Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip. Set in the Depression-era New York of 1933, Annie is the story of a spunky, unflaggingly optimistic little orphan who, while dreaming of finding her parents, manages to rescue and adopt a bullied, stray mutt; win the heart of a billionaire industrialist; play cupid for his devoted secretary; thwart a bilko scheme cooked up by the villainous orphanage matron, Miss Hannigan and her partners in crime, Rooster and Lily; and by fade-out, appears poised, with the help of FDR, to take on the Great Depression itself.
Bernadette Peters as Lily St. Regis, Tim Curry as Rooster Hannigan
The estrogen answer to 1962s Oliver (what DID little girls do in dance recitals before this show?) Annie is notablebefore “Tomorrow” took on a life of its own as one of the most overexposed (and in turn, annoying) songs ever writtenfor representing something of a '70s pop cultural turning point. In a social climate reeling from inflation, the oil crisis, post-Watergate disillusionment, Vietnam fallout, and the hedonism-as-religion retreat into sex & drugs which typified the disco era (it opened mere months before the release of the bleak Looking for Mr. Goodbar): Annie was among the first non-ironic, unapologetically hopeful entertainments to emerge from a decade noted for its cynical self-criticism. Annie’s assertively retro “corny is cool” aesthetic rode a nostalgia zeitgeist that embraced the intentional camp of TVs Wonder Woman, Star Wars' updating of the 1930s movie serial, and fueled the comic book-mania behind 1978s Superman and Robert Altman’s musicalized take on Popeye (1980).

While Annie’s overwhelming success guaranteed it a movie sale (then the highest price ever paid for a theatrical property), media over-saturation in the intervening years made it a prime target for parody. When producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl) made known his plans to mount a big screen version, industry naysayers wondered how 1982 audiences would respond to what many saw as the show's machine-driven sentimentality. Questions arose as to the issue of overexposure (Annie was still running on Broadway, and would until 1983) and wondering if the public was up to weathering yet another shrill rendition of “Tomorrow” sung by a red-tressed, brass-lunged moppet.
Instead of turning Annie's most well-known song into a potentially wince-inducing showstopper, director John Huston (or Ray Stark, depending on the source) wisely gets the song out of the way by having Quinn sing a traditional version over the opening credits. Later she performs a subdued, a cappella rendition when she meets FDR. As Eleanor & Franklin join in (Lois De Banzie& Edward Herrmann), Warbucks' comic, schmaltz-resistant reluctance works to effectively diffuse similar audience reaction.

As a West Coaster with access to only those Broadway shows successful enough to have touring companies, I’m one of those guys who’d rather have a poor movie adaptation of a Broadway musical than none at all (see: A Little Night Music); so I was on board for a movie version of Annie from the get-go. But what really made it a must-see film for me was the unusually high caliber of talent Stark engaged both in front of and behind the camera.

What he assembled was a dream cast for Annie; actors who not only visually fit their roles to a T, but bravely bucked then-current Hollywood musical tradition by actually being able to sing and dance. Albert Finney, while acquitting himself very nicely in the 1970 musical, Scrooge, would be the first to admit he’s neither a singer or dancer, but Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, Geoffrey Holder (Punjab), and Roger Minami (the Asp) all had their start in musical theater.
By 1982, Andrea McArdle, Broadway’s original Annie, was roughly the right age to play Lily St. Regis, so a massive, year-long, publicity-baiting global search was launched to find the perfect little orphan. Cute 9-year-old Aileen Quinn beat out 9,000 crestfallen (if not scarred for life) Annie applicants, winning the title role in what was then the most expensive musical ever made. 
She & Sandy Make a Pair, They Never Seem to Have a Care. Cute Little She...it's Little Orphan Annie
Aileen Quinn was paid the exact same salary as Bingo (one of three dogs portraying Sandy) 

Now, this is where things started getting weird. Broadway veteran Joe Layton (Thoroughly Modern Millie) was on hand to create the musical numbers (which makes sense), but the choreographic chores for this 1930s period musicalan innocent, if not naive, family entertainment swarming with childrenfell to Arlene Phillips (which makes no sense at all). Certainly not if you're even remotely familiar with Phillips' hypersexual choreography for the Eurosleaze dance troupe Hot Gossip, or if you've ever seen her patented brand of disco/aerobic writhing in the films The Fan and Can’t Stop the Music. I'm personally a huge fan of Phillips' work, but even I had to scratch my head on this one. However, nothing raised eyebrows higher than the news that Annie, now known as Ray Stark’s baby (“This is the film I want on my tombstone”), was to be directed by Oscar-winner John Huston: a Hollywood veteran of forty years, making his first musical at age 75.
If "Easy Street" falls short of what one would expect for a rollicking number featuring the likes of Bernadette Peters (who looks absolutely gorgeous), Carol Burnett, and Tim Curry--and it does--it's because it was shot two months after the film was completed (and by the looks of it, in a hurry) when it was decided to scrap the full-scale, already in-the-can version which is rumored to resemble the "Consider Yourself" number from Oliver.

Theories abounded as to the soundness of such a decision (Mike Nichols, Herb Ross, and Grease's Randal Kleiser had all been attached to the project at various times), but insiders likened Stark's handing over a lavish musical to a veteran director best known for gritty dramas (Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Misfits) to a similar situation back in 1960 when uber-serious director Robert Wise (I Want to Live!, The Haunting) surprised everyone by directing two major blockbusters on his very first stabs at the musical genre: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

Radio personality Bert Healy (Hollywood Squares host, Peter Marshall) is joined by the lovely Boylen Sisters in a rendition of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile"

After months of the kind of strenuous prerelease hype that turns critics against a film before it even opens, Annie premiered here in Los Angeles at Mann’s Chinese Theater in May of 1982. I was in line opening night (fewer kids at evening shows), having by now fairly whipped myself into a veritable frenzy of enthusiastic anticipation. With that cast, director, choreographer, and score, I was certain Annie was going to be every bit “The Movie of Tomorrow” its ads promised.
A photo I took of the Burbank lot which Warner Bros. and Columbia Studios shared since the mid-'70s.  Behind this wall stood Annie's $1 million New York outdoor street set 

Maybe…
I love that I get excited by movies (seriously, I gave myself a nosebleed at the SF premiere of Thank God It’s Friday), but I had double reason to be worked up over Annie. First, as one of the biggest movie musicals to be released since my Xanadu epiphany (read here), Annie represented the first musical I’d be seeing since taking up dance as a profession. Second, I knew a couple of the dancers in the film who were hired for reshoots of the Radio City Musical Hall sequence and the since-jettisoned, grand-scale “Easy Street” number; and both assured me that Annie was going to be a bigger hit than Grease
Annie's Orphan Pals
Captured in one of the rare moments one of them isn't staring directly into the lens
or glancing distractedly at something off camera 

Primed for Annie to be more of an event than a movie (it was one of the first films to charge a then-record $6 admission price), my first viewing was so ruled by my desire (need?) to like it, I can't attest to really having seen the actual film at all. As I recall, my first look at Annie was an exhausting evening of willful self-deception and near-constant internal cheerleading. I laughed too loud and hard at bits of business that barely warranted a grin, and I gasped in delight at predictable plot developments which must have seemed ancient back in the day of Baby Peggy. My only reactions that weren't artificial and inappropriately oversize were for the showy musical numbers which were indeed, pretty spiffy. Still, I’d literally worked up a sweat trying to stave off disappointment...all in an effort to convince myself that I was having a good time.
And the weird thing is, I really did have a good time. I just didn't have a great time, which is what I expected of a $40 million film that took two years to make. Which leads me to ponder the double-edge sword of hype. When it comes to movie marketing, there’s sell and there’s oversell: the former being when you give the public information, the latter is when you give them ammunition.
Seeing Annie a second time convinced me that the film's problem wasn't that it failed to live up to expectations; it's that it failed to live up to its own potential. 
Make a Wish
A victim of its own success, Annie was torn between the simple charm of its storyline
and the Hollywood dictate that it be a larger-than-life musical extravaganza

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
As I’m fond of saying, a movie doesn't have to be perfect in order for it to be either enjoyable or someone's all-time favorite. Annie's a glowing example of this principle in that it's a movie I never recommend to people, yet one I revisit often when I need my occasional overproduced movie musical fix. Straight dramas and comedies require cohesion in order to work. Not so with musicals. Musicals (happily) are by-design, broken into singing and non-singing interludes which, if need be, can be appreciated table d'hôte or à la carte. Annie is arguably at its best when experienced as separate scenes and isolated dance numbers. This way, the effectiveness of certain scenes (such as when the confounded Warbucks watches Grace put Annie tenderly to bed) aren't handicapped by clumsy adjoining sequences; and the musical numbers that click ("We Got Annie") get to stand alone and apart from those that fizzle ("Easy Street," to my shock and amazement).
I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here
When Annie gets something right, it does so spectacularly. Annie's first look at the Warbucks household ("Is this a train station? Are we going on a train?") is one of my favorite sequences. The member of the staff upon whose shoulder Annie is riding is dancer Don Correia (ex Mr. Sandy Duncan) one of several A Chorus Line alumni in the dance chorus

PERFORMANCES
One of the more fascinating things about those old Our Gang comedies of the 30s is how natural all those kids were. No matter how often they were called upon to mimic grown-up behavior, the charm was in their essential, unaffected childishness shining through.
In Annie, the little girls cast as orphans are all experienced troupers culled from Annie productions all over the world, and it shows. While the film is desperately in need of an Annie with the kind of screen magnetism of a young Patty Duke, Hayley Mills, or Jodie Fostersomething to set her apart from the other orphans and justify an audience's concern for her welfareAileen Quinn is a perfectly swell Annie (to use the vernacular). While not over-blessed with talent, she has an earnest, winning quality, a pleasant voice, and best of all for an old grouch like me, fails to grate on my nerves.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the orphans who are literally children working like Trojans to act like children…and they don’t succeed! Annie was my first exposure to this kind of Disney Channel, plastic child-actor aesthetic that seems to have become the norm these days: old-before-their-years showbiz kids who can only impersonate (badly) the behavior of real children.
"You step on my cues Molly, and you'll find your close-ups on the cutting-room floor."
Had Quinn been a star, no one would fault her had she pulled a Helen Lawson
in regard to her scene-stealingly cute co-star, Toni Ann Gisondi.

I’ve no real quarrel with the performances of Annie’s grown-up cast. Finney is amusingly broad and cartoonish as Warbucks, Reinking is at her most eloquent when she lets her lithe body do the acting, and, the always-fabulous Carol Burnett is left to do all the comedy heavy-lifting as the perpetually pickled Miss a role she’s ideally suited for. Perhaps too much so. Burnett is a lot of over-the-top fun and never less than fascinating and spot-on. But watching her I can’t help thinking, as I often do watching Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, she could do this kind of role in her sleep.
Carol Burnett made her Broadway musical debut in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Annie marks her very first movie musical appearance

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Annie’s musical numbers always put a smile on my face. Sometimes because they’re so good, sometimes because the lip-syncing is so poor or the execution is so unpolished, I have a hard time believing they made it into the completed film. Six songs from the Broadway show failed to make it into the film and I honestly can’t say I miss them. And of the four songs written expressly for the film, the only two I could have done without are “Dumb Dog/Sandy” (in which the lyricist commits the Sondheim-wouldn't-do-this crime of putting the word "residing" into the mouth of a little girl we'd previously heard say "piana" for piano); and the entire Rockettes section of “Let’s Go to the Movies.” 
We Got Annie
In one of my favorite numbers, Roger Minami, Ann Reinking, and the late great Geoffrey Holder
dance together all-too briefly, but its pure magic. 
"I guess I'll never know the feeling of running fingers through your hair..."
Burnett's delivery of this witty lyric from the duet, "Sign" got one of the film's biggest, most spontaneous laughs 
It's The Hard Knock Life
Can we please pause a second and appreciate Annie's amazing horizontal split jump?
I Don't Need Anything But You
Annie gets it right in the charming finale, which gives Quinn the closest thing to a Shirley Temple moment 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Mimicking the fate of many beloved children's movies which were not exactly hits when first released (The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Willy Wonka being the most famous examples), Annie may have had to take her lumps back in 1982, but, true to her optimistic credo, she's weathered a great many more "Tomorrows" than her more critically-revered peers.
Meanwhile, my own feelings about Annie have remained roughly the same, with time adding (in equal measure) a degree of nostalgia and cheesy camp to my revisits to it, making for a win-win situation whatever mood I'm in. So, whether it's to laugh at the baffling amateurism of some scenes (what must the outtakes of the orphan's rendition of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" look like if this one, with its poor lip-synching and self-conscious "fun" was chosen?); ponder the possibility that perhaps all those up-the skirt-shots and peeks at women's underwear are part of a visual motif; or merely marvel at how impossibly young everybody looks... Annie may no longer be the movie of Tomorrow, but it offers a pretty pleasant look at yesterday.
I wish the 2014 remake of Annie all the best. We have yet to have our quintessential big screen Annie.


BONUS MATERIAL
Want to watch a grown woman (Arlene Phillip) yelling at a bunch of overworked kids? Want to catch a glimpse of the deleted "Easy Street" number? Check out Lights! Camera! Annie! a 1982 PBS "making of" documentary on YouTube.

Tony Award-winner Andrea Martin portrays a grown-up Annie in this classic SCTV parody.

Life After Tomorrow, a fascinating 2006 documentary about the lives of former Annie orphans is available for viewing on Hulu.

IMDB notes in its Trivia section that the sound effects man during the Iodent radio broadcast is actor Ray Bolger in an unbilled cameo. As you can see from the photo above, the actor in question does indeed bear a resemblance to the Wizard of Oz star, but is NOT Ray Bolger. A call out to film buffs to identify this character actor.

Disco touched everything in the late '70s, and sunshiny anthems by mop-topped orphans were no exception. In 1977 disco diva Grace Jones performed what can best be described as a confrontational version of "Tomorrow" HERE.

Speaking of disco, did you know Aileen Quinn released a solo album? Me neither. Her album, Bobby's Girl, was released in 1982 to take full advantage of the Annie media blitz. Although disco was fairly dead by this time, that didn't stop Quinn from driving at least one child-sized nail into its coffin by performing an ill-advised cover of Leo Sayers' 1976 boogie anthem, "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing."   "Arf!" goes Sandy.

"I love you, Daddy Warbucks"
Copyright © Ken Anderson