a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘Comedy’

Great American Playwright Neil Simon Passes at 91


Neil Simon Theater 2
Neil Simon, long considered America’s most successful and certainly most prolific playwright dies at 91. It’s fitting that the Neil Simon Theater still exists on Broadway.at 250 West 52nd Street.  I hope it always stays “The Neil Simon Theater.”

I did not know Neil Simon personally. But growing up in the theater in the decades where he dominated the Great White Way, his work was overwhelming to a young playwright, me. At one time, he seemed to have every play on Broadway.

The Christmas after my mother died, I was feeling particularly bereft and found myself observing a great Broadway tradition.I went to Chicago. By train. To see the out-of-town try-outs for a musical version, of a movie  he wrote “The Goodbye Girl.” Seeing that only half-successful work in the middle of the cold Chicago winter made me realize that yes, all your idols have feet of clay. IOW, everyone makes mistakes. The Goodbye Girl was a musical with a book by Neil Simon, lyrics by David Zippel, and music by Marvin Hamlisch, based on Simon’s original screenplay for the 1977 film of the same name.

I was also at a rehearsal of “The Goodbye Girl” when it limped to New York, and in the rehearsal room were the star Bernadette Peters and yes, Neil Simon himself.

He seemed so un-prepossessing in person. He was wearing a robin’s egg blue sweater and  kibitzed around with the various actors….But it was his eyes that got me. The intensity of his stare. Nothing was being missed. He saw it warts and all and I’m sure was thinking “How can I fix this? How can I help?” He reminded me of a very warm and friendly rabbi. His vast knowledge of the theater seemed to match those of a rabbinical scholar. He seemed immediately nice. But also intimidating. I mean, he was NEIL SIMON! But he didn’t carry himself like a star as Ms. Peters certainly did.

I guess I was so intimidated by him, I didn’t even have the chutzpah to talk to him. But what could I have said?  “I saw your play in Chicago and really liked it.” God! I hope didn’t say THAT! Which would have been a complete lie.  I don’t think I did.

I never saw him again. And, the show flopped. I thought nothing he wrote could ever flop, but some did.

He strangely isn’t revived much of late, but the Neil Simon Theater is still there. A permanent and fitting monument to a man that made Broadway history over and over again. He will be missed by all in the theater community. It was his great love.

Neil Simon R.I.P.

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“Twelfth Night” in the Park, Cast of Thousands an Amiable Mess


Productions of Shakespeare’s perennial gem of a comedy “Twelfth Night Or What You Will” boasts a cast of literally hundreds, who seem like thousands. Is it too much of a muchness? Almost. 

Directors Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah have taken what is the Shakespeare-in-the-Park’s most enduring positive, the audience, and put all and sundry onstage in the guises of many, many community groups from the Tri-State. It’s overwhelming and it almost overwhelms the play, but not quite. It’s Shakespeare’s best, just about, and seems to weather every storm that is tossed its way. In this case, crowds upon crowds of extras, some of them toddlers, some of them house-wives, all dee-lighted to be onstage at the Delacorte instead of just watching, lining up for hours for tickets and clapping madly.Who can resist a cast that also resolutely SIGNS the play, too? The most beautiful, transcendant moment for me was when an unnamed young, bearded, blonde man, got up and singly signed one of Shakespeare’s more poignant song poems. I wish he was given credit for that in the program. 

Also, because it was virtually the only quiet, thoughtful moment in this amiable, crazy-house of a mess.

There was no intermission. It was only 90 mins. and Shaina Taub’s average music did not send me. It made me long for the first time I saw “Twelfth Night” which was in an historic, traditional production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1969, when I was in college in the Cotswolds, and young Judi Dench played Viola.

“How will this fadge?” I remember her saying til this day, enunciating Viola’s gender confusion. She’s disguised-as-a-boy Cesario, who everyone is falling in love with. Sir Donald Sindon was the wronged Malvolio, and his performance is awfully close to the present Park’s Malvolio, Andrew Kober, who is the only one of the vast ensemble to capture Shakespeare’s tone of comic absurdity just right.

I also enjoyed Nanya-Akuki Goodrich as an amply-figured Olivia, who is so distraught over her beloved brother’s recent death, she is followed around by a New Orleans jazz band, playing a funeral march every time she enters, black handkerchief in hand, copiously weeping. The tiny little high-heeled shoes that costume designer Andrea Hood has provided her with, ankle straps and all, make her teeter-totter between hilarity, despair, love and high fashion.

And Nikki M. James, a past Tony winner for “Book of Mormon” is quite fine as the business-suited Viola/Cesario. She’s not Judi Dench, but she’s owns the character in her own charming, petite way.Twelfth Night Park 5

 

Cher Saves “Mamma Mia 2,” but It’s Hard to Resist


When Cher, yes, CHER, enters in the Final Act of “Mamma Mia 2,” she saves the film, and yes, kicks it upstairs into Gay Heaven, or at any rate, Camp Heaven with a good, swift  stilletto-heeled sureness, only a stage and screen legend like Cher could provide. Pow! All the dullness and wishy-washiness of her young co-stars vanished, and NOW we were in the midst of a glorious fun-filled summer musical romp. She was so good, I immediately re-wrote my mind’s middling review and began raving like a teenaged fan-girl. Which let’s face it, is a cheery place to be in these troubled times. I guess I ended up loving it, and wanting to see it again. No, really.
In spite of all good sense, I found myself totally abandoning myself to its epic silliness. And why not? I always loved ABBA as a guilty pleasure. Those original, now classic, tunes got me through some very dark times when I was a house-cleaner in London in the ’80s. I was trying to get my plays done and become a right, proper British actor in the grand tradition. And it was tough. But ABBA was so uplifting, it made me forget all the charring.

I was a “Super Trooper”, and now Cher is a Super Trooper, too. In fact, she climaxes this barely organized mish-mash with that song, as well as her much heralded “Fernando” duet. As she and Andy Garcia(yes, ANDY GARCIA!) tango and sing their hearts out, both Senior Citizens now, as fire-works explode behind them, like it was 1968. Or ’86. Or one of those years, or decades that Cher’s career spans and she’s still singing! She’s a goddess for the ages. And FINALLY makes up for Meryl Streep not being in this movie except as a ghost.

You see, “Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again” does not really have a center to it, until Cher appears at the end like the Deus Ex Machina that she is. “Here We Go Again” flips back and forth in time between two stories, both starring lovely young blondes, Amanda Seyfried and Downtown Abbey’s Lily James. They both have to carry half the film each.

It seems Meryl’s character has died a year before “Mamma Mia 2” starts and her cinematic daughter Sophie (Seyfried) has to carry on without her, trying to re-build her mother’s dream of a turning their Greek island into a perfect Aegean guest house. Meanwhile, the film flashes back in time to the ’70s, when Donna (Lily James) was a wild young thing cavorting all over the continent, shagging everybody in sight.

Thus explaining (or trying to) how three different men could have potentially been the father of the single Mom Meryl’s child. As played by a trio of young hunks, notably “War Horse”s Jeremy Irvine (who grows up to be Pierce Brosnan). They make the case quite clearly how and why the young Donna/Meryl couldn’t keep her hands off all of them, one after the other, in rapid succession.

I would say Josh Dylan, who is making his big screen debut here as the young yachtsman that one day would become Stellan Skarsgard, has the best chiseled bod. British actor Hugh Skinner, who plays the young Colin Firth, doesn’t really get enough foreshadowing that his character is in later life going to be gay. An interesting opportunity missed.

Though Firth does camp up a storm in his own reserved way as his grown up self, and Christine Baranski (and Julie Waters) are back supplying even more camp (as if this film needed it).Which goes to prove something I’ve always felt. There can never be too much of a muchness. Or too much camp. Camp makes you happy. And so will “Mamma Mia 2.”

And last but not least, the young British hunk of hunks Dominic Cooper is back again as Sky, Sophie (Seyfried)’s hotter than hot love interest, and absentee husband. Dominic was one of the many stars of my year’s Best Film of that year “My Week with Marilyn” playing Milton Green, Marilyn Monroe’s ex-lover and now exasperated agent. He was also one of the original “History Boys” on Broadway and in film, and has been on “The Stephen Holt Show” more times than just about any one else (in this movie).And he used to date Cher! He just told Stephen Colbert. So it must be true!

ACE Eddie Inches Allison Janney forward towards Oscar

How important is Film Editing? Well, over the years I’ve come to recognize that Film Editors are among the most important and hardest working artists/technicians in our business. I don’t know what we’d do without them. I really can’t praise their industry and expertise and devotion to their work highly enough. People in the business know how incredibly vital their are. And after helming my own TV show “The Stephen Holt Show” for over 30 years, I do, too. God bless the film editors, and so when they chime in, in the name of their united Guild, the A.C.E. Eddie Awards, attention by AMPAS voters is paid. Seriously.

So when they gave their big award this week to the Best Edited Dramatic Film, in this case “I, Tonya,” it gave that raunchy tabloid of a film that much more of a serious contender boost. And in this case the largest recipient of the Film Editors collective good will and approval would by extention go to Allison Janney, who plays the wild-cat mother of alley-cat Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.” This is “I, Tonya” biggest Awards bid, Best Supporting Actress. Which is turning into a mud-wrestling final between Janney and Laurie Metcalf, formerly of “Roseanne,” and this season as the Good Mom in “Lady Bird.”

“I, Tonya” was an Indie that opened late in the awards season without much fanfare, whose importance has grown by the day, as more and more people see it. So much so that Allisson Janney’s Mom From Hell is inching ever forward in her death-match struggle against Laurie Metcalf’s much more likeable Mom in “Lady Bird.” And the Ace Eddie Award just continues to add to Janney & Tonya’s steaming forward.

You see, Best Supporting Actress has become basically a two woman race between Janney and Metcalf in the Battle of the Moms. And until the Golden Globe Awards two weeks ago, Metcalf’s gold was considered in the Oscar tank.

Then a strange thing began to happen. That race just turned around and Metcalf’s main Mom competitor Allison Janney started winning every single major award going forward, the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice Award and finally the SAG Award(pictured above ^). The A.C.E. just adds to “I, Tonya’s prestige and by extension, Allison Janney’s.

Tonya Harding was not considered a prestige player in real life. So it’s ironic in the extreme that the film about her “I, Tonya” is now considered a prestige, must-see-it Oscar film contender more and more by the day.Janney is majorly known for the nearly-decade run in “The West Wing,” amassing many Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series Emmys along the way.Allison Janney 3
An excellent actress no matter what the role, her gargoyle, LaVona Harding is just another example that she can play just about ANY type of role and make audiences like it and remember it and award it.

The race between her and Metcalf is razor thin, so we must take careful note of it, this Oscar season. Even if Metcalf just ended up on the cover of EW with “Lady Bird”s star, Saoirse Ronan and creator Greta Gerwig.Sometimes Entertainment Weekly just jumps the shark and lays out their mag and covers, goes to print too early. I think this is the case here. This is a VERY volatile Oscar race this year and if they’d waited a minute or not, and saw that their supposed front-runner “Lady Bird” had not one ONE AWARD AT THE SAGS, they never would’ve run this cover. It’s premature inauguration. A few more hours and it may have been Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell on the cover. Or Sally Hawkins and her magical Fish.

But you see just how close this supporting actress race and every category, as a matter of fact, this year is. And Brit Great Lesley Manville, an O.B. E. has been added to the mix, both here in the America Oscar Nominations and abroad at the BAFTAS in London. So do stay tuned for more mud-wrestling.

My Year’s Ten Best 2017!

1. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME ~ One of the Best Films Ever Made. Period. The Gay Movie, we, as gays, have been waiting for all our lives. Timothee Chalamet has won BOTH the New York Film Critics and the L.A. Film Critics Best Actor awards. Armie Hammer is his magnificent love interest and co-star.

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2. WONDER WHEEL ~ Woody Allen’s latest and Kate Winslet’s tear-stained performance is one of her best.

3. THE SHAPE OF WATER ~ Guillermo Del Toro’s Best Film. Sally Hawkins is flat-out amazing as a Spanish Deaf Mute Janitress, who falls in love with something akin to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But it isn’t ridiculous. It’s beautiful, and moving beyond words. She won Best Actress from the L.A. Film Critics. This film will make you cry.

4. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI– Irish Playwright Martin McDonagh’s magnificent morphing into a great American crime filmmaker. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell burn up the screen, literally. This film will make you angry. For all the right reasons.

5.  THE FLORIDA PROJECT ~Unbelievably, an epic film set in the make-shift budget motels across the street from  DisneyWorld, which was first called “The Florida Project,” as it was being built. Willem Dafoe is the sympathetic, sad-sack motel manager and six-year-old mischief maker Brooklynn Prince rock each other’s, and our world. Public access legend Sandy Kane makes a cameo appearance. She told me, “If you blink, you’ll miss me. It’s Tats over tits.”

6.ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD ~ Director Ridley Scott is back Big Time, as he directs Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer in a tense, spine-tingling thriller about the ’70s kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, who, yes, gets his ear cut off and sent to his mother (Williams.) But you can’t turn away.

7.LADY BIRD ~ Genius Greta Gerwig channels her boring, restless teenage years in  middle-class Sacramento into a box office bonanza that Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe as her befuddled, well-meaning mother from Hell, make herstory and could all win Oscars. Best Film of the Year from the New York Film Critics. Will it win the Oscar, too, for Best Picture? It might.

9. DUNKIRK ~ Christopher Nolan’s truly epic epic that makes all WWII war movies look like tiddly winks and utitlizes Oscar Winners  Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and a cast of 100os to re-vitalize history in a seat-of-your-pants thriller diller. And rock star Harry Styles is in it, too. And he’s good!

10.  FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON ~ Marion Cotillard’s mesmeric performance once again lights up the skies in this unusual French love story.

“Three Billboards…” Superlative, explosive, knockout, lots of Nominations, but Sam Rockwell may be its only winner.



“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” is one of the best films of this rich year. For once, the awards hype is justified. It’s a thrill ride through the unimaginable violence that plagues the small town of Ebbing, Missouri after a young girl is raped, as she is murdered, then set on fire. “Three Billboards…” is going to set the Awards season on fire, too. It will get many,many nominations.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are giving the performances of their careers, but I feel it’s Rockwell who’s going to carry home the gold. He’s been put in the category of Best Supporting Actor, though he’s arguably the co-lead. And he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG award. As has Frances, as has McDonagh.

I’ve been following Sam’s career since he was an Off Broadway actor, and he’s certainly a veteran now and has a role that is thrilling in its range and demands. As a small town cop, he has to be funny. He has to be a bit of a stooge and a stumblebum. And when the film turns dark, he has to go there, too,Oscar Winner Frances McDormand ( For “Fargo”) deserves the accolades that have been accruing to her powerful Mildred Hayes, the mother of the murdered girl. In a totally vanity-free performance, she dominates the screen so powerfully that you’ll never forget that clenched teeth, firmly set jaw, that uncompromised stare as she tries to find out who killed her teenaged daughter.

She astonishes in this film as a woman who can’t smile. She puts up these three billboards in a part of town where her daughter was killed accusing the police of doing nothing to find her the killer. And grief is making her look like a death’s head herself.Everyone in this town seems cut from the cloth of the Confederacy to put it mildly. And any of them could have done it. Especially a member of the Police Force.

Woody Harrelson is once again on hand to provide a firm grounding in ominous white cracker-dom at the outset. His battle with terminal cancer forms the second plot line that I won’t spoil here. But he’s great, too. Both he and his co-hort Rockwell, are both headed to the Oscars, and so is McDormand.But I wonder if the totally de-glammed McDormand is going to be any match for the younger and more comely superstars like Soirse Ronan. Sally Jenkins of “The Shape of Water” is more sympathetic and she’s mute. So Frances has some fierce competition in that category. She’s uncompromising. She’s great. But she has an Oscar already and Saoirse and Sally and even Michelle Williams or Annette Bening are all Oscar free…so far…Three Bill Boards 10

But ah! There is that Oscar golden moment for Frances when she encounters a free-ranging doe when she is tending a flowerbox she has placed near her dead daughter’s billboards. The look they share, eye to eye, female to female animal, is one of the few moments we see Mildred smile in this corrosive movie, you will NOT be able to stop thinking about.

Also the thrilling depths and layers that McDonagh has given Rockwell to play. He starts out as a crispy-crème, donut-chomping bigot. But he CHANGES. I can’t say how, but in the creation of Dixon, a co-lead to McDormand’s angry Mildred, he matches her beat for beat in VERY unexpected and powerful ways. He lives at home with his mother, who is always drunk. The Dear Readers of this blog can infer more…But what a complicated, stupendous role he’s written for Rockwell, who has never had a part this good since he debuted to much acclaim in “Box of Moonlight” in 1996. Unbelievably this prince of American actors has never even been nominated for an Oscar. Yet.

Even writer-director Martin McDonagh has an Oscar for a short he did. He’s certainly going to get a double nomination for both directing and original screenplay, and he’s going to up against Girl-Of-the-Hour Greta Gerwig in both categories for “Lady Bird.”

It’s going to be a very suspenseful Oscar night indeed. But I feel “Three Billboards” is such an IMPORTANT film, that they are going to give it Something Big, and that Something may very well be Sam Rockwell. as the irascible, temperamental, complicated drunk of a cop. That’s just him in the FIRST half of “Three Billboards…” The twists are UNBELIEVABLE, and it’s Sam’s character who gets to play all that juicy jazz as the plot and his character’s place in it unravel. He’s all but unbeatable. What a range McDonagh has allowed him to show!

The ubiquitous and wonderful Lucas Hedges, Oscar nominee of “Manchester by the Sea” is here, too, as McDormand’s bewildered, but compassionate son. In a moment of peak at the breakfast table, she lobs Fruit Loops at him.

He’s in “Lady Bird,” too as Saoirse Ronan’s high school boyfriend. And Peter Dinklage perks up the last third of the film as the town’s only human, a small person who is not small inside,   a midget, who befriends and helps McDormand in her fight against the lacksadaisical,  if  not downright indifferent, police “force.”

 

Their dinner date is a superb piece of comic timing. Yes,”Three Billboards” is darkly funny, too. This tragic tale of loss and corruption has an excellent sense of humor, too. In fact, it made me feel like I was watching a new Coen Brothers movie. The resemblance to their black humor and influence is definitely wonderfully there.

Irish playwright par excellence McDonagh, has fully made the unbelievable transition to American crime filmmaker. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” thrilled me to my core with its wit, drama and intense originality.

Luminous, Lucent, Transcendant Kate Winslet Could Win Her 2nd Oscar for “Wonder Wheel”

Wonder Wheel 3

Lustrous, luminous, transcendent Kate Winslet is the wonder of Woody Allen’s new “Wonder Wheel.”
Is there any American filmmaker alive today who writes  such great roles for women? No. There simply isn’t. And as photographed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Kate Winslet seems to be a cinematic miracle of color and light, majesty and emotion,

You simply can’t take your eyes off her. Storaro and Allen have combined to give her a cinematic beauty that makes you gasp, in a multi-faceted role that makes you applaud. She is playing Ginny, a Brooklyn waitress, who works in a Coney Island Clam House. I have known SOOOO many Ginnys in my lifetime, and British though she is, Winslet absolutely nails her Ginny to the Coney Island boardwalk. And it’s  stirring performance in the grand tradition. She’s every woman. And every woman I’ve known, from Brooklyn, trying to make a better life for herself and her family. And trying to find love at the same time, having given up her dreams of being an actress earlier in her life.

Winslet’s Ginny seems the simplest of creatures.. But Allen’s writing and her bravura performance proves that every woman is as complex as a whirlwind. Or a rollercoaster. Or a Wonder Wheel at  Coney Island, to use this film’s great metaphor. Winslet has never seemed so bedeviled and so bewitching at the same time. She’s a housewife in waitress’ outfit that she wears like a queen, as she goes about her frantic daily work of cooking and cleaning for the whole of Brooklyn it seems.

Allen and Storaro capture the ordinary woman’s extraordinariness. She is married to a lout (James Belushi) and having a torrid affair with Justin Timberlake, the local lifeguard. Timberlake’s string-bean-ness seems out of place as a life guard, but he, too, has movie star charisma in buckets instead of muscles, that make all the women in the film falling for him make sense.Justin Timberlake Wonder Wheel He and Belushi have both never been better.Kate Winslet 1

She is playing Ginny, a common-as-they-come Brooklyn waitress, who is as uncommon, as she is earth-bound. Winslet’s a fiery red-head this time. And in Storaro’s use of orange and amber light, she seems so on fire, she is burning up the screen. It is no surprise then that her red-headed son is an arsonist, setting  a fire every time he’s left alone. The fires remind him of his mother.

And Juno Temple is Belushi’s neglected daughter, who turns up as a “Marked” woman, being chased by the mob, because she married a gansta, and became a “canary” who sang on her husband, making her a woman on the run for her life. She hides  out in Winslet’s and Belushi’s  humble household underneath the ever-present Wonder Wheel. Young, blonde Temple has the role of her career here, too, and is doomed from the first seconds we see her taking her first tentative steps under the Wonder Wheel.

In a simple car ride in a romantic rain storm with Timberlake, she becomes, as he says “as beautiful as the rain light.”Storaro has lit her in golds and blues to emphasize her beauty as well as her melancholy. She, too, is magnificent in this film.

Storaro  and set designer Santo Loquasto make more magic by making Coney Island in the ’50s look like the Riviera.

Winslet’s performance is so heart-breaking and towering it immediately recalls the great screen performances of screen queens past. Joan Crawford in particular. The shop girl who was not a shop girl.  The waitress who was not a waitress. And reminds you that not since the ’40s have actresses consistently seen parts like this. Winslet’s Ginny is the  working class version of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine in Allen’s recent Oscar winner “Blue Jasmine.” “Wonder Wheel” is his best film since “Midnight in Paris” and is now one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. It’s right up there with the best. It reminds me why I love Brooklyn. And New York City.

“Wonder Wheel” is a movie movie about romance and melodrama and great actresses playing great roles. And it ends this year’s superlative NYFF with a BANG!

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