I am pleased to present to you the second part of the marathon conversation Mitchell and I recently had, stretched out over two phone calls, going over the List of Names I had prepared in advance. Here is Part 1, where we covered Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Cary Grant, and Don Rickles. Below, please find Part 2. Enjoy. And thank you, Mitchell.
Sheila O’Malley: One word.
Mitchell Fain: Death.
SOM: Why do you say that?
MF: I just watched that American Masters documentary about Woody Allen and the part that blew me away, that I’m still reeling from: Woody Allen was telling a story about how when he was 5 someone in his family told him that we all die, and he was so horrified by it, and then you realize that his entire body of work has been his sole reaction to the fact that we’re all gonna die. I was watching it with David, and we stopped it, and I was like, “My God, the rest of his life has been an exploration of that” and I referenced a certain scene from Annie Hall. It’s a flashback and little Alvy is at a psychologist’s with his mother and the mother is typically brilliantly Jewish with her handbag, and she says, “Alvy, tell the doctor what you told me” and Alvy says, “The universe is expanding, we’ll all explode, we’ll all be gone.” The mother yells, “WHAT IS THAT YOUR BUSINESS?”
David and I turned the documentary back on and that was the clip that they then showed to illustrate that point. And that expression “WHAT IS THAT YOUR BUSINESS?” has become David’s and my battle cry ever since, over all the things we can’t control and yet that we stress about. WHAT IS THAT YOUR BUSINESS?
One of the things Allen says in the documentary that is so funny is that you realize that this whole Life thing, which is difficult enough, ends in death, and he’s like, “No thank you, I am not signing up for that, I want no part of it, how do I opt out of that?” I think about how much of his work is about that obsession with death: Crimes and Misdemeanors where he thinks he’s gonna die and so he’s trying all these different religions to find out which one has the best package deal after you die. I mean, Love and Death. He’s obsessed with death.
I did not love To Rome With Love. He’s done several of those movies where he’s like: He has a bunch of ideas and he hasn’t produced them yet and he didn’t feel like writing something new, and he thought this was a good one … and it is a good one, and it’s better than most people’s. He’s always going to get great actors and great performances, although a lot of people are really underused in To Rome With Love. Alec Baldwin is underused, Judy Davis is underused.
But if you look at his body of work, it’s just incredible. The idea that he was a sex symbol in his own mind at a certain point. And if you love him, then there are certain things you have to deal with: like, it’s hard for him to let that go.
Now. I want to say something about the Soon-Yi thing. He never slept with his daughter. She was never his daughter. He never adopted Mia Farrow‘s kids. He never even moved into Mia Farrow’s apartment. They lived in separate apartments across the park. Now. Was he an authority figure in this girl’s life? Probably. But he was never her father, they were never related, he never lived with her, he has his own kid with Mia Farrow. Soon-Yi is Andre Previn‘s kid. He never had sex with her when she was underage. He is a monster because he had an affair with his girlfriend’s daughter. That’s enough to make him a terrible person. We don’t have to make him a pedophile pervert as well. That’s not what he is.
He might be a sociopath, sure, but not the rest. Having an affair with your girlfriend’s daughter is really painful and awkward and unpleasant. But people want to make it into him being a pedophile. He was never a pedophile. That is not the story but it gets perpetuated because it’s easier to tell. And also, let’s see, we were Woody and Mia for Halloween in ’93. That was 20 years ago, and he is still married to Soon-Yi.
So whatever, people. Yes, it was brutal and of course Mia Farrow can never forgive him. But it bothers me when people say, “I can’t watch him, he’s disgusting.” Please.
SOM: It’s kinda like WHAT IS THAT YOUR BUSINESS.
MF: Yes. What is that your business. Talk about his work.
I have something else I want to say about Woody Allen, but it is a whole other conversation and I am not sure it can be encapsulated in our process.
SOM: Go for it.
MF: There is, within Woody Allen’s work and his career, an anxiety about what has happened to American male-hood, seen through the eyes of the neurotic Jewish man, who questions his masculinity and he questions his sexuality and he worries about women. He still wants to play baseball and fuck girls, but he worries in a way that John Wayne didn’t. It’s a very Jewish-American thing and it is a huge part of the evolution of maleness in America. Think of Dustin Hoffman: The fact that he was the sexual object of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate represented a giant shift in the definition of maleness.
Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin was different than how it would have been with John Wayne or Gary Cooper. There was a questioning, a questioning of maleness, that comes with the cultural mainstreaming of the Jewish male persona. It’s part of an evolution and it really is Jewish boys, whether it’s Sydney Pollack, whether it’s Woody Allen.
They certainly have a voice and a perspective in a way that William Wyler, as much as I love him, was not doing, John Ford was not doing, John Huston was not doing. It has to do with neurotic maleness, which is really a new way to look at being a male. It was the introduction of the neurotic male as the romantic lead, and neurotic in a different way than Cary Grant was in Bringing Up Baby. It’s a very Jewish-American thing that has bled into popular culture. I mean, look at Woody Allen’s feelings about sex and worrying about small penises and mothers. The movie Where’s Poppa is one of my favorite obscure films. It’s genius.
And there’s so much paranoia about being a mama’s boy and having a tiny pee-pee and having your mother tell people about it. There’s all this weird psychosexual Jewish boy crap, which is actually part of the changing of the world in a lot of ways. Even in the 70s, Jews really weren’t thought of as true Americans in a lot of ways. It’s that thing about the ethnicity of the 70s, especially in film, changing things a bit. Let’s face it, there’s a reason why so much comedy was from these Jewish people. The brutal self-examination these men practiced. They’re the ones who were being made the most fun of. And there’s something about Woody Allen’s work that is so much about that. He is both a creep and a sexual object. He is both sexy and also completely not, and he knows it. It was the next chapter in American maleness. He personified it.
SOM: What’s your favorite Woody Allen if you had to pick?
MF: Oh God, it’s like being asked to pick my favorite John Irving book. I have to go into sections. So early Woody Allen? Love and Death. Genius. Russian Revolution, 70s psychobabble, Diane Keaton, making fun of all the Russians, their heavy literature, it’s such bullshit.
Then of course Annie Hall is a classic, although I think a case can be made for Manhattan being a better film. Then you move into Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably my favorite Woody Allen of all time. His themes: death, responsibility, is there a God, who is ultimately responsible for our behavior, but also Angelica Huston and Martin Landau and Sam Waterston and Joanna Gleason, I mean, the cast is amazing.
And then because of the Soon-Yi thing, he sort of lost favor but he was still making films. So there is this lost era: Small Time Crooks, which I thought was wonderful, and Manhattan Murder Mystery – where no one was paying attention even though they were good movies. And now he’s back. He made Match Point which I think was fabulous and Vicky Christina Barcelona, which I also think is fabulous, and dark. There are so many different periods but the answer to that question is Crimes and Misdemeanors with a strong case for Annie Hall. Crimes and Misdemeanors for me is a perfect movie, but Annie Hall changed the game. Is there a romantic movie now that doesn’t have some reference point to Annie Hall? Annie Hall will go down as his masterpiece but Crimes and Misdemeanors is my movie.
SOM: One word.
MF: I’m looking for a word that means “of an era”. I guess I’m going to say Of Her Time. She invented film acting. She was this girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and a dancer, it was the flapper era, she was a wild girl. Talk about a chameleon. Fuck Madonna.
She was the flapper girl, she was the good time girl, she was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who makes good, she was the modern businesswoman, and then she was the hardened older woman, and then she was the grotesque. Very few people have careers who last as long as hers.
It’s hard for me to talk about her because I know so much about her personal life, or what I think I know about her personal life. This was a person who loved being famous more than she loved anything else. And being famous meant she had to get good at her job so she became a fabulous film actress but it was about being famous. It was about saying “Fuck You” to the trashy weird place that she grew up in, living in the back of a laundry with her mother on a cot. But as an actress, she really did perfect a kind of film acting. First of all, the camera loved her face. Interestingly enough, she was a blue-eyed freckled girl with red hair. We’d never get that from black and white movies. Her freckles were covered. We never got the sense that she had blue eyes. Cinematographers loved her for her angles.
So she learned the art of film acting while it was being formed, and everybody has benefited from Crawford’s discoveries.
My favorite Joan Crawford performance is in The Women.
It’s a great example of her work because she’s surrounded by women who were her contemporaries. You look at Joan Crawford now and we see her movies and the acting may seem archaic in the way that people don’t understand that style anymore, which I get. But you put her around her contemporaries, like Norma Shearer, and she is so utterly real and contemporary. Crystal Allen, the woman she plays in The Women, is so going to get what she wants. And she’s so funny. The scene in the dressing room where she says to Norma Shearer, “Whenever so-and-so doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off.” She is sexual, she is a sexual threat. That role is the personification of Joan Crawford. Working girl, clawed her way to the rich side, she’s stunningly beautiful, she’ll do what she has to do to get there, she knows what she looks like and how that works, she’s brutally honest with herself. To me, it’s her perfect role, because she’s funny and she’s real and she’s stunning and she is the kind of woman that we want to judge, but that we all secretly want to be. It is the way we hope we would be, that kind of tenacity, that kind of “Fuck you, I’m getting what I want.”
SOM: You know what else I love about her is how smart she was about material for herself. The story of Crawford, on bended knee, begging Otto Preminger to put her in Daisy Kenyon. She knew: This is mine. Nobody else can do this. She courted projects, she courted directors. She was in it for the long haul from the beginning, which I love, because she was a jazz baby dancing on tables. Who knew where the movies were gonna go?
MF: There were no VCRs. They didn’t know we were going to study these films with a fine-toothed comb. There weren’t film studies classes. That’s my whole point about what they did back then. When I try to explain to people about old movies and how fabulous they were, my point is they were making these films as entertainment . The idea of the auteur, the artist/director wasn’t really in play, not at the beginning. Roger Ebert does that thing where he watches a film frame by frame with an audience. Back then, there wasn’t even the possibility for people to do that, there was no thought that that was going to happen. So the kinds of movies that were made back then have an unconscious level of artistry to them. We now can study the unconscious intentions, the unconscious moments that came from all of these very conscious decisions. For example, watching Meet Me in St. Louis.
Vincente Minnelli chose every moment specifically, maybe more so than any director who was a big director at that time. But he made so many different kinds of films that to see him as an auteur is almost difficult because he seemed to be a workman, a journeyman. However, the story that emerges from the details he chose back then then tells the story that we can look at 60 years later.
Then there’s a story that really warms my heart and that is Joan Crawford’s relationship with Billy Haines.
Billy Haines was a number one movie star in the silent era, he was openly gay, he had a partner. Louis B. Mayer said, “You have to fake a marriage like everybody else or I’m going to fire you” and Haines said, “Would you leave your wife?” And Mayer said, “Make a choice, Hollywood or your partner.” They fired him and put it out that his popularity was going down because of sound, which wasn’t true. He was a top box office person in the country for three years running, and then they kicked him out of Hollywood. He decided to become a designer, which had been his hobby. Joan was a really good friend of his. They had worked together in silent films. In fact, he named Joan, I think. Anyway, she stuck by him. She would have him decorate her house, and would have people over, and people would ask, “Who decorated your house?” He became one of the most influential interior designers in American history and it was partly because of Joan Crawford’s loyalty.
So the idea that she was a monster who used people and threw them away is not true. There were people who very loyal to Joan. And she was also a loyal friend for many many years.
Unfortunately, because of Mommie Dearest, which may or may not be apocryphal but which Christina Crawford has certainly dined out on ever since, the book and the movie has made Faye Dunaway‘s impression of Joan Crawford into Joan Crawford.
Nobody’s watching Possessed and no one’s watching The Damned Don’t Cry and no one’s watching Daisy Kenyon, which is one of my favorites. It’s such a beautifully ambiguous movie. Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, it’s so beautiful. You have no idea who to root for.
MF: Who’s the good guy here? You don’t know. It’s so brilliant. I also think that she, like Elizabeth Taylor, although Taylor was more hit or miss, Joan was best when she was pushed, when she was challenged. If she had a director like Otto Preminger, who expected her to be an actress, she pulled it out. If she had a weaker director, she was just going to play Joan Crawford. Like with Elizabeth Taylor, when she was working with Rock Hudson or James Dean or Richard Burton or Mike Nichols or Monty Clift, she gave some serious performances.
When she was working with Paul Newman, she was like, “I gotta bring my A game”. But left to her own devices, when she was the one who was calling the shots, just because she was the biggest star on the lot or the biggest personality, she phoned it in a bit. I think Joan was a little bit like that. For Elizabeth Taylor, it was like she was a little girl trying to prove something, and Joan Crawford was a poor girl trying to prove something.
But like Cary Grant, I am not sure anyone else has known how to use a camera better than Joan Crawford to tell a story. Her face and the camera working together, understanding what that meant, and how that tells a story.
There’s that scene from Sudden Fear where she’s in the closet.
SOM: The slant of light across her eyes.
MF: She knows exactly how much to do with the camera, and what it is, and what the lighting meant. That’s what I mean about film acting. They were creating film acting. In movies now it’s mostly natural lighting, and realistic acting, and we don’t have to worry about those elements so much anymore, it’s not the same artform in a lot of ways. The idea of moving the pictures forward is now all in the director’s and cinematographer’s hands, except for people like Meryl Streep who is still doing that old-school kind of acting work. But back in the day, your face WAS the architecture of the movie. Your face, your body, your shoulders. Look at how Bette Davis walked. The stars were the architecture, their shape meant something to a camera, and I think they knew it and I think they were making it up.
She’s so fabulous-looking. The image of her will always be jarring and beautiful. There are certain images of her, from the 1940s, with her hair in a snood, and the cheekbones and the lips, and the light across her face, that noir lighting that they perfected on her, that is just so iconic. And then Adrian, the designer, who created the big shoulder thing for her, which made her look like an Amazon.
SOM: She was probably very tiny.
MF: She was tiny. There’s ways that she used herself that they didn’t even know what they were doing, because there weren’t gender studies programs at the time. It’s like our review of Johnny Guitar. Nicholas Ray may have known it on some subconscious level because he was dealing with those things in his own life, but Joan Crawford didn’t know it. But even before that, there was something masculine about the way she strolled across a film. The Bride Wore Red.
Even though she’s very feminine and very beautiful in that movie, there’s something very masculine about how she goes about getting what she wants, and so the fact that her style became these huge shoulder pads, as though she had these crazy broad football player shoulders, was very deliberate and interesting, in terms of gender. And they put the shoulder pads in everything. It became ridiculous. She’d be wearing a dressing gown with shoulder pads the size of Gary Cooper. It’s also interesting that she did a lot of films with Clark Gable, successful in their time, although they weren’t as famous a duo as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But they were very successful, and there is something there in the dynamic that reminds me of what Robert Redford said about working with Barbra Streisand: She’s so masculine that you get to be your most feminine, and she’s so feminine you get to be your most masculine. Now, Clark Gable isn’t gonna say that, but that’s what happened with her and Gable.
He ended up looking pretty compared to her. He had to use feminine wiles to win her over until he became “the man”. Her persona was masculine and feminine. She is a pre-gender-studies classic gender studies subject.
SOM: That’s what we were texting about with Johnny Guitar.
MF: That whole movie is a gender studies class. All of those roles existed, the lipstick lesbian, the bottom boy who was there to please and complement the top guy. It all existed. It’s just that nobody talked about any of it until there were gender studies classes and queer filmmakers and female filmmakers.
SOM: Most of the great movie stars, especially of that era before the sexual revolution, the ones who still resonate for us today, are the ones who have that mix of feminine and masculine. Russell Crowe is best when he’s most sensitive. It’s very powerful. I think some of our female actresses don’t have that duality today. It’s more the unpleasant Katherine Heigl romantic comedy person who is obnoxious and hard through and through. Our females don’t have the softness anymore. And so the men don’t get to be soft either.
MF: But then think about Kristen Wiig‘s persona in Bridesmaids . She’s so honest. She ends up being the female Woody Allen.
SOM: That’s more interesting than the uptight bitch, or the entitled Sex and the City Carrie Bradshaw type who is not attractive.
MF: By the way, these are all Joan Crawford prototypes. I could pick a Joan Crawford movie that is the “entitled bitch”, that is the “uptight ice princess”. Crawford did them all in her career.
SOM: One word.
I’m a little obsessed with her right now. I just read that she’s playing somebody’s mother on a new show. She’s still working. I think she is always telling the truth even in her most absurd characters. There was the character she used to do who was a Midwestern housewife, and it was such a funny character but it was so truthful. Or Edith Ann. It didn’t matter how absurd they were. They were absolutely the Truth about that kind of person.
My favorite movie of all time is Nashville. She does such beautiful stunning work in that movie. There’s that scene with her watching Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy”. It’s an amazing scene where he’s singing and all the women in the room think it’s about them, but she knows that it’s about her, and she’s the only woman in the room who is right.
But she also knows that she knows that she’s right, and that there are other women who think it’s about them, but she just quietly sits there and takes it in. It is so gorgeous. Or when she leaves after they have sex and he calls another girl to try to hurt her feelings. She doesn’t even let it hurt her feelings. She knows what’s going on. She is incredible in Nashville. I just always find her truthful, even in silly movies. In 9 to 5, when she’s talking on the phone to her kids, “Listen, there’s more than one peanut butter and banana sandwich in the world …” She’s also funny as hell.
It’s interesting, too. She was one of those people as a kid I was so attracted to, not attracted to sexually, but I was drawn to her, and it’s interesting that she turned out to be a lesbian. There was something very comforting about her that I recognized when I was young.
That whole Laugh In graduating class was so interesting: Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn.
What an interesting fun group that was. But even back then, Lily stood out. There was a time when she was so hip. People say to me all the time, “When are you going to write something?” No. I’ve tried for years, I throw it away. And I have always felt that I was Lily Tomlin waiting for my Jane Wagner. Lily Tomlin creates these characters that speak the truth, and Jane Wagner’s been writing her shows for years. Her partner. Jane Wagner gives shape to the stories that Lily Tomlin wants to tell, which is fascinating, and I don’t think a lot of people know that. Lily Tomlin is creating the character and then Jane Wagner is fleshing out the structure of the story.
Lily Tomlin always tells the truth, like most comedians do. The best comedians are always telling the truth.
Two quick anecdotes that I love about Lily Tomlin.
After 9 to 5, Lily Tomlin spent years going to red carpet events wearing a Dolly Parton tour jacket. It’s so adorable to me. Like, years have passed since she was trying to sell 9 to 5, but she loved Dolly, and she felt that that would be an appropriate thing to wear to a red carpet. It wasn’t, Lily, it really wasn’t. But she did it anyway because she loved Dolly.
And when she did Big Business with Bette Midler, one of the things they talked about was how differently they worked. Bette is very off the cuff. She likes to rehearse but she likes to improvise in every take. Not necessarily the lines, but how she does them and what she’s gonna do and what her gestures are going to be. Whereas Lily Tomlin plans her shit out. Her shit is so specific. Watch her performances. Her gestures, her hand movements, they were chosen, in much the way we were just talking about in old-school movie acting. She’s very aware of her shape, her gestures, and what story they tell, and what story she is trying to tell with that shape and those gestures. Even in Nashville, the way she holds herself, the way she sits, the way she turns her neck. These are all choices. And Bette Midler was more like, “All right, let’s go for it.” I think that’s interesting: to be able to tell the truth having practiced it. The truth comes out for her after specific choices. I think there’s probably a trial and error of what works and what doesn’t, but once she’s ready to commit it to film, she has made some choices.
SOM: Speaking of Jane Wagner, there’s Moment to Moment, that horrible movie she did with John Travolta, which Wagner wrote and directed.
MF: It’s so bad. She’s had such an interesting career. She’s been under the radar. She came out as a lesbian and nobody noticed. Her career has never been based on the fact that she was a sex symbol, which is why Moment to Moment was a ridiculous attempt. Why are you trying to make Lily Tomlin into the romantic lead? And if you are, then be honest about it and put her with a girl. I mean, obviously, they never could have done that, and certainly John Travolta was not going to do it with a guy. But it is interesting seeing the two of them together. They have the same haircut in the movie. You can’t discern them. Who are these people?
That should have been either a story about an older man on the beach and then this pretty boy who shows up, or an older woman and a younger woman. If Travolta’s character had been a pretty young girl, that could have been a hell of a movie. But even in that, Lily Tomlin seems to be telling her own truth, it’s just a terrible movie.
SOM: I mean, think of Prairie Home Companion. She’s so good.
MF: I don’t know why Tomlin and Meryl Streep don’t make a movie a year together. You know how Claude Rains did a bunch of films where he was the father of a brood of young girls? Or Ma and Pa Kettle had a series of films? Why don’t Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin do a series of films where they play those sisters traveling around having adventures?
SOM: Why doesn’t the industry work like that anymore?
MF: I know, it doesn’t.
SOM: I don’t understand why the industry doesn’t recognize gold and keep trying to do it. I’m not talking about sequels and blockbusters, I’m talking about something else.
MF: They see literally gold, in box office, and that’s what they go after. They’re not looking for that intangible moment of: “What’s that magic going on between those two actors?”
SOM: Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep together, it’s impossible to separate them out, you don’t know who to look at.
MF: Let’s face it, that’s not easy to do with Meryl Streep. Lily Tomlin, who started as a sketch comedian slash actress, holding her own with Meryl Streep says a lot about who Lily Tomlin is as an actress.
SOM: One word.
In a lot of ways, Cary Grant was the greatest male movie star ever. But I think that Claude Rains was actor first, movie star second. You need it done? You get Claude Rains. He’s the pro.
There’s a scene in Mr. Skeffington where he has dinner with his daughter and it is so heartbreaking and so contemporary and so real. His performance is so full of compassion. He’s got those warm watery eyes. But then you can see him play somebody almost evil like in Notorious.
He can be funny and quirky like in Casablanca. And then somebody so good and honest like in Now, Voyager.
Or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Then he played Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, with Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, and he’s marvelous and funny and warm.
Nobody looks like Claude Rains. He was a funny-looking little man, and yet it would be very difficult to know who he really was. Cary Grant wanted us, on some level, to know who he was. He was sort of telling us what to think about him in a lot of ways, and then he used that as the jumping-off point of his acting career. But with Claude Rains, I don’t know who the hell Claude Rains is. I couldn’t even begin to tell you.
To a lot of people he’s The Invisible Man. To a lot of people he’s the guy from Casablanca. To me his ultimate performance is in Mr. Skeffington because he is so full of kindness in that movie.
On Turner Classic Movies they do these little mini bios between movies and I think Richard Chamberlain did one about Claude Rains and working with Rains towards the end of Rains’ life. Rains was older and having trouble remembering his lines. This is why I say he was a professional. He had a big speech in the movie, he kept blowing his lines, he was getting frustrated, he kept saying, “There’s too many words.” You know, blaming it on the script in some way. And before he became too much of a douchebag about it, he said in a self-deprecating way, sort of called it on himself: “Clearly I can’t remember my lines.” He was totally professional to call that out on himself, and then of course went on to give a fabulous performance.
I think Claude Rains … I don’t want to limit it to film acting, I think he’s one of the greatest actors who has ever lived. Even though he was always Claude Rains, clearly recognizable, his funny little face, his weird stance … he’s the greatest there ever was. There’s Deception with Bette Davis where he plays this evil son of a bitch music teacher and she ends up shooting him. And you totally buy him in that, and then you totally love him as the father in all those movies where he has a brood of girls.
You just believed him, no matter what he said.
SOM: He doesn’t change his appearance radically which is the trend now with actors, they feel like they’re not doing enough: “If I look like myself, I’m not acting”. Claude Rains always had his silver hair, but it’s like his soul changed. He could change his soul.
MF: I think he came from the school where I’m not sure they knew how to do it any other way. You walked out onstage and you became the character. I’m not familiar with his history. Was he a stage actor?
SOM: He had a ton of stage experience. He came from good old Show Trash. His parents were actors.
MF: See, that’s it. And isn’t that interesting, my first word was professional. The man was a pro. He also finished off with some classic films, unlike Joan Crawford. That’s a cautionary tale.
SOM: Well, he’s a male.
MF: The boys fared better. Joan and Bette … they gave Meryl Streep the gift of being able to have the long career that she has. The battles that Joan and Bette fought, all of them, Susan Hayward, Meryl Streep is the beneficiary of that.
SOM: When people dismiss Meryl Streep as “Well, she’s a leading lady, she’s a movie star, whatever”, my point always is: “Whether or not you like her acting is irrelevant. What other leading lady in her mid 60s do you know of?” This is a pioneer career. Can we give her props for that? I am so sick of ignorant commentary like that where people have no idea of the context of what is happening right before our eyes.
MF: There are two women of that age who can open movies, and it’s Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep.
SOM: Joan Crawford was not doing the parts she should have been doing when she was an old lady.
MF: Yes, she did not get the opportunity. So the fact that those ladies lasted, in spite of everything that was against them, is extraordinary. But boy, Claude Rains finished out pretty great. His two last films were Lawrence of Arabia and The Greatest Story Ever Told. That’s pretty high up there. He wasn’t doing Trog, let’s put it that way. He was a consummate pro.
SOM: One word.
Burt Reynolds had that thing that you can’t define. He was likeable. In a way, he’s sort of like the stars of today, who are learning to act on our time. They’re beautiful so they get some movie roles, and then we have to suffer through watching them learn to act if we choose to see movies that they’re in. Burt Reynolds was like that. He was so physical and so he could start in Westerns and those sorts of things, it didn’t require that much acting, but he could sit and he could study and he could watch. Burt Reynolds did one of those little TCM bios about Spencer Tracy.
Spencer Tracy was his idol, his ideal. You never caught Spencer Tracy acting. Burt Reynolds was one of those people who took his charisma and took his opportunity and then became an actor. My favorite performance of his is in Starting Over with Jill Clayburgh. I think he’s wonderful in it. It was written by James L. Brooks, and Alan Pakula directed it. My point is that Burt Reynolds took his charisma and learned how to act. He took it seriously, he wanted to be good at it, and he did it. He was good in Deliverance, he was good in Starting Over.
I know we both hate the expression “guilty pleasure” but a movie that I love that isn’t great is him and Goldie Hawn in Best Friends.
The thing I want to say about Burt Reynolds has less to do with acting and it has to do with the way that he was as a person and it has to do with the kind of men that I have in my life. You know, I love a dude. I love a guy who’s a guy and is a big goofball of a guy.
Look at David. Pat and Sam and all the guys in my life. They’re dudes. And Burt Reynolds was such a dude, and other dudes loved him, and dudes wanted to hang out with him, and yet one of his best friends for his entire life was Charles Nelson Reilly so he’s also the kind of dude that I like, who is not a homophobe, in a world where it would have been very easy for him to be one. This is part of Burt Reynolds’ personality that I have always really liked. I think that shifted as he got older.
My favorite Burt Reynolds was when he used to be on Carson. I have this whole thing about people who have the ability to be a talk show guest.
SOM: It’s like Neil Patrick Harris doing a magic trick on Jimmy Fallon.
MF: Yes. Neil Patrick Harris has it, Hugh Jackman has it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has it. They have a charisma that shines through, they have a personality. They have prepared something smart and a schtick and something that’s going to be cool to listen to, not like Robert Pattinson who is boring and feels like he has to pretend to have lucked into a movie career, which I think is bullshit. Or Kristen Stewart who has the personality of wet toilet paper, although I think she was good as Joan Jett. Talk shows now are all about selling a product and my point is that Burt Reynolds had that thing where he was so funny “on the couch”.
I want more people to be funny “on the couch” today. He had that stupid laugh, he was rakish, he used that persona, he used it in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise were his best friends? I mean, that’s fucking funny.
SOM: And he and Cary Grant were very good friends. They would go to the track, and do the guy things, but Grant also advised him on how to be a movie star, certainly.
MF: And then something happened. His personal life took over. When the tabloid era really kicked in, and he split with Loni Anderson, we ended up knowing too much about him and he seemed a little bit bitter, like time had passed him by. And then he got sick, people thought he was dying of AIDS, but it turns out he had this whole issue with his jaw and he couldn’t eat.
It’s a little bit like that Lanford Wilson play, Serenading Louie. There’s nothing worse than an aging high school jock. I think he sort of let that get the better of him. I am sure he is a very charming man but there’s a desperation there that is the flip side of charisma.
SOM: The anxiety of losing your looks.
MF: P.T. Anderson gave him that amazing gift of Boogie Nights and he was so good in that.
In Boogie Nights, Burt Reynolds is the fully realized potential of everything he had in his entire career. He’s masculine, he has a gravitas that goofy Burt Reynolds as a kid didn’t have, except for his size and his sheer athleticism, but he was also very warm, very real. He became a patriarch. And it’s a shame that there weren’t more opportunities to follow that up. It would have been interesting to have Burt Reynolds to do something like a television show. LIke Sally Field doing Brothers and Sisters. She can occasionally be in a movie and be very effective, but she’s also very effective on TV. Burt Reynolds had that sitcom, and it was all charm and charisma. It wasn’t the greatest show in the world, but he was very good.
SOM: He was the biggest male star in the world for …
MF: A big chunk of the 70s.
SOM: Did you happen to read Kim Morgan’s interview with the four stars of Deliverance? This year is the 40th anniversary of Deliverance. She had 10 minutes to interview the four guys, so it’s just a transcript of what happened. All of these guys opened up to her like crazy. And the first thing that Burt Reynolds said was:
I’d also like to mention…as Ronny has said too… that women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.
That’s a huge admission, I think.
MF: I think it is too. In some way, it says a lot about his persona, when he was younger, because he was very attractive. He was famously in the first famous cougar relationship. He dated Dinah Shore for many years. He was with Dinah Shore, who was his elder, and very beautiful and very famous and very respected and was in everybody’s living room every day. And on some level he was seen a little bit as a Boy Toy. But he was so confident in his masculinity and his sexuality, he didn’t sweat that. You never heard him apologizing for being on the arm of this older beautiful woman.
It also makes you think what a hottie she was, too. Dinah Shore and Burt Reynolds in the 70s? You go get it, girl. She was even more wholesome than Doris Day because she didn’t have the chance to play any roles, she just really was this cheery beautiful woman who aged gracefully in front of us and scored the hottest hunk in Hollywood. The original cougar was Dinah Shore. Forget it.
SOM: One of the things I love about him is I always got the sense that he loved women. Not just as sex partners, but he thought they were hilarious and adorable and fun to be around. He got to be the person he wanted to be most with women.
MF: It’s interesting, right, because the male companions we know that he hung out with were not the most masculine of fellows. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise.
SOM: A lot of young male stars, who are on that sex symbol level now, have a difficult time relating to women, at least onscreen. I think it’s partly because women don’t have the place in films that they had when Burt Reynolds was coming up. Like, he had to get it up for Jill Clayburgh, he had to get it up for Goldie Hawn. These were powerful contenders on the screen. He would have been a wonderful screwball star in the 30s. There is nothing more awesome than a gorgeous guy who doesn’t give a shit and falls on his face.
MF: That’s true of William Powell and Cary Grant and so many of them.
SOM: It’s when John Wayne gets to be befuddled with Katharine Hepburn … “this woman is TORMENTING ME” – and because it’s John Wayne – yes, there is that male privilege thing that can be annoying – but we get to relax because we get to see John Wayne crack a little bit, and that’s always good. That’s what we want to see of these really powerful male stars.
MF: Glimpses of their vulnerability. I do think Burt Reynolds is one of those people, though, who did not always make good choices. Doing Lucky Lady with Liza, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or doing At Long Last Love with Peter Bogdanovich. He often missed out. He’d be like, “That’s a good director, Liza Minnelli is Liza” and Lucky Lady did not work out, know what I mean? In between his successes, were a lot of dismal choices.
He often succeeded when he was the lead and he was a rogue. Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, The Longest Yard, Cannonball Run – as stupid as that movie is. His duet with Dolly Parton in Best Little Whorehouse. They are so adorable together, I don’t even care the movie is bad.
And in the movie she sings “I Will Always Love You” to him, which, of course, is perfect.
SOM: He’s wonderful with very feminine women.
MF: Goldie Hawn, Candice Bergen, Dolly Parton. Yes, you’re right.
SOM: He’s very good with Ladies.
MF: It’s that Robert Redford thing with his female co-stars. Reynolds isn’t standing in Dolly’s way. He’s letting Dolly be powerful, so he looks even more manly and successful.
You know who I think today has the Burt Reynolds charm is Ryan Reynolds, and it’s not just because I saw him do Celebrity Autobiography, and he read Burt Reynolds’s autobiography and he did a brilliant Burt Reynolds imitation. Ryan Reynolds read Burt, Sherri Shepherd read Loni Anderson, and Rachel Dratch read Burt Reynolds’ assistant. Ryan Reynolds did it AS Burt Reynolds. It was twofold: A, that was brilliant and his last name is Reynolds. But also, Ryan Reynolds walked into this very small space that this show takes place in. And Ryan Reynolds the movie star walks in, and he had to walk in through a very tight crowd from the back of the house because there’s no backstage. His charisma, his sexual charisma, his athleticism, his muscles, made the room blush.
You can feel the sexual charisma of Burt Reynolds. And Ryan Reynolds has that. He also has that thing where he is very masculine, but also funny and self-deprecating, and also very charming with women.
SOM: I’ve enjoyed him very much. I like him in interviews too. He’s got some miles on him. He’s been around.
MF: And he’s done a lot of work already.
This is a total tangent. One of my favorite things as a kid was a very short-lived sitcom. It starred Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. It was called The Mothers-In-Law.
It was very short-lived and my brother and I loved it so much and there’s an episode of it on right now. Eve Arden’s daughter married Kay Ballard’s son. They live next door to each other and so they are constantly trying to meddle in their kids’ lives, and getting into trouble. It’s very Lucy and Ethel. These two brilliant comediennes. I haven’t seen it 30-something years and there are four episodes on today. Eve Arden is another interesting character. She set a precedent that people are still trying to reach. There’s a high watermark in her comic delivery that has yet to be matched. It’s the lost art of delivering the one line with a withering look and a gesture and an exit. Exemplified in Mildred Pierce.
You want to study comic timing? Watch Eve Arden.
SOM: It’s deceptively simple. Otherwise more people would do it.
MF: You can’t really catch her doing it. It has to do with so many things that people take for granted now. Like, the study of voice. Back then, you didn’t even get famous unless you had a voice. She started out in radio, she studied. She worked on the freeing of her natural voice that the Brits do so brilliantly. For example, if I were to play for you tape recordings with your eyes closed, of James Mason, Vivien Leigh, Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, you could tell me who they were instantly. This isn’t true of some of our best American actors. Nobody sounded like Eve Arden. Nobody hung onto “n”s like Eve Arden. Eve Ardennnnnnn. She had her own show, a very successful radio and television show for years where she played the school teacher – Miss Brooks – and it was the misadventures of this lady who was unlucky in love but everybody loved her.
SOM: I just love these people who are in it for the long haul. That’s a casualty of being someone like Burt Reynolds. It’s not that I think he wasn’t in it for the long haul, but becoming that big a star is going to be a challenge for anyone, obviously.
MF: It’s almost easier for someone like Eve Arden to have a late-in-the-game success. Because she wasn’t so famous. One of the very few major movie stars who is continuing to do really interesting work is Catherine Deneuve because she is not denying what made her a movie star in the first place.
SOM: And that was what was interesting in how P.T. Anderson used Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, or used Tom Cruise in Magnolia. This is what the old studios used to do so brilliantly which we don’t do so much now: casting people because of what they remind us of. It’s like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. We bring to it so much emotion already and he’s messing with the persona, but also deepening it. It’s been a whole second wave of his career. And for Burt Reynolds, that didn’t happen. Of course he was a sex symbol in a way that Bill Murray wasn’t. And it’s very challenging to grow old as a sex symbol.
MF: I think he did get caught up in that. The whole idea of using people for their persona: It’s not the greatest movie although it is a very successful movie, but when Dustin Hoffman and Barbra did Meet the Fockers. I can take or leave that movie, but their scenes in the movie is why that movie worked.
And part of it is that we are bringing to it our emotions about them both. We are excited to see her, we are excited to see him. It’s Benjamin from The Graduate and it’s Tootsie and it’s Funny Girl, and it can be very very effective. The movie itself, blah blah, but that’s an example of how that can work. Figure it out, Hollywood.
SOM: It’s hard because film captures you in time. There are very few men who are as gorgeous as Burt Reynolds was during his prime. In Deliverance, the vest with the arms. When you’re captured at your prime on film like that, you have to have, I imagine, some sense of courage to get up there when you don’t look like that anymore. Because people are vicious. And I don’t know Burt Reynolds, obviously, but perhaps that is painful for him.
MF: With all of his charisma and confidence, and I don’t mean this in a stereotypical way, but I’m saying it in a stereotypical way to make a point, I think he does suffer from a woman’s vanity. He’s suffering from the same thing that has happened to the women of that era. Google pictures of him right now. He has had so much surgery. He is seemingly suffering from a level of vanity about his looks that is, for better or for worse, very feminine. He was a sex symbol. He was a transition for us as well in how we viewed men and their sexuality. Men now are so happy to be objectified. Ewan McGregor‘s like, “Look at my cock” and all of the Twilight boys are like, “I will be shirtless til the day I die”, whereas men didn’t used to do that so much in the same way back then. But Burt Reynolds was the transition. He did that whole Cosmopolitan spread where all he did was cover his dick.
There’s his hairy gorgeous body. That was a big deal. Men didn’t set themselves up in that cheesecake way. It’s a cheesecake photo as opposed to a beefcake photo. I mean, you can see his pubic hair in that Cosmo spread. Robert Mitchum was not showing his pubic hair.
SOM: And we are all the poorer for it.