Wednesday, September 15, 2021

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

She Damned Near Ran the Studio
The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

by Jacqueline R. Braitman
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496806192
352 pages
October 2020

"Koverman was a magnetic, centrifugal force; a powerful dark energy that charged the MGM star machine."

Ida Koverman was MGM executive Louis B. Mayer's right-hand woman during the studio's heyday. Serving as his executive assistant and trusted adviser, the movie mogul came to lean on Koverman for her political connections, her ability to keep secrets, her eye for new talent and her business savvy that kept MGM running like a well-oiled machine.

Koverman was no stranger to scandal having endured one of her own. An active member of the New York City social scene, she was thrust further into the public eye with her involvement in an embezzlement scandal pertaining to one of the big railroad companies of the early 1900s. Koverman married for convenience to Oscar Koverman, taking on his surname and essentially giving herself a new identity. Once her transformation was complete, she started a new life in California. She was deeply ensconced in that state's Republican party and became an ally to many conservative bigwigs. Koverman was a force to be reckoned with and helped Herbert Hoover with his two presidential campaigns. It's during this time that she met Mayer. She was the middle man between MGM and the Republican party, something Mayer valued greatly.

When she was eventually hired as Mayer's executive assistant she went right to work helping her new boss with some fairly delicate matters including promoting new stars, minimizing scandals, dealing with the aftermath of celebrity deaths and keeping MGM the prestige studio it was known to be. She became a friend and confidante for some of the biggest stars including Esther Williams, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, George Murphy, Irene Dunne, and Jeannette MacDonald. She also discovered future stars like Jean Parker, Robert Taylor, Judy Garland, Janis Page, Hedda Hopper, etc. Koverman threw parties, groomed talent for stardom, lobbied for legislation that suited the studio's best interest, assuaged male egos, planted media stories, championed musicals, facilitated connections, and much more.

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman is a bit of a misleading title. We only get to Koverman's career at MGM about 120 pages in. Prior to that the book focuses primarily on her scandal and her political career. The subtitle is a bit more spot on since Koverman did indeed have several stages in her career and would transform herself with each. 

If you find Louis B. Mayer to be an unlikable character from Hollywood history, you may have the same feelings for Ida Koverman. She did some despicable things that left a bad taste in my mouth. While I recognize that some of her actions were not uncommon for the time that doesn't make them any less awful. 

Koverman's life story as an independent and career minded woman in a conservative space is quite interesting. She was dedicated to her work and was truly unflappable. She wielded a lot of power which the author effectively demonstrates throughout the book. But in the end, Koverman was an enabler of studio system toxicity.

As a biography, this book was thoroughly researched, relatively chronological with thematic chapters and very thorough. The writing is engaging but is inevitably weighed down by its subject matter. The second half of the book I found to be much more interested than the first half. The author offers lots of great observations about the studio system and Mayer and Koverman's functions within it.

This is my fourth review for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me a copy for review.

Monday, September 13, 2021

TIFF: Bergman Island (2021)


Filmmaking couple Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) head to Fårö Island, Sweden to take up residency while Chris works on her latest screenplay. Fårö (i.e. Bergman Island) is where Swedish director Ingmar Bergman lived and worked. The house the couple are staying at was used in the making of Scenes from a Marriage (1973). They talk to locals about Bergman, watch Cries and Whispers (1972) on 35 mm and explore the island to find different spots important to Bergman and his work. The hope is that being in this space will inspire Chris to write her screenplay. The movie shifts then to a movie within a movie where Chris is dictating her script to Tony. In that story, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and her former lover Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) reunite on Fårö Island to attend a mutual friends wedding where they rekindle their secret affair.

Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island is steeped in appreciation for Ingmar Bergman. It is also a tad pretentious. While the film-within-a-film format works quite well, the stories get muddled. There is also a plot point in the screenplay that is never revealed leaving the audience hanging. And it's unclear what truly motivates these characters. Chris and Tony are both supposed to be Bergman fans but don't really demonstrate much knowledge about the filmmaker. However, that actually works in their favor because their curiosity helps deliver a lot of information to the viewer about Fårö and Bergman. Krieps and Roth are terrific in the story and the film boasts plenty of shots of Fårö Island including a peek inside Bergman's home, shots of various filming locations and a visit to Bergman's grave. The quiet, bucolic nature of Fårö really comes through.

A must for Ingmar Bergman fans or anyone who enjoys stories about the creative process. If you don't fit into either category, you may want to skip this one.

Bergman Island is part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Gala Presentation slate. It also screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It's distributed by IFC Films.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

TIFF: Last Night in Soho (2021)

Eloise, or Ellie, (Thomasin McKenzie) is obsessed with the 1960s. Growing up with her granny (Rita Tushingham) meant she was exposed to the era in all sorts of ways, particularly music and fashion. Ellie is particularly good at the latter, crafting all sorts of vintage style pieces. When she gets accepted to a fashion program in London, she's thrilled. Heading off to London, the home of the swinging '60s, is the dream. But there is something unusual about Ellie. She sees ghosts. Particularly her deceased mother who appears in mirrors when something good is about to happen to Ellie. 

Ellie's transition to life as a fashion student is brutal. She encounters sexual harassment and peer bullying. She eventually moves out of the dorm and rents a room in an old London flat run by one Miss Collins (Diana Rigg). And when she sleeps at night in her new space she sees visions of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a gorgeous blonde entertainer trying to make it in the London nightclub scene. Sandy meets with Jack (Matt Smith) who promises her a career but ends up being her pimp instead. By night, Ellie is transported back to the 1960s and into Sandy's tumultuous life. By day she's struggling to make it as a student in an expensive city. Ellie becomes more invested in Sandy and even changes her own hairstyle and adopts Sandy's fashions to embody her even more. Her makeover catches the eye of the mysterious regular (Terence Stamp) at the pub Ellie works at. Could he be Jack? What ensues is a living nightmare journey for Ellie and Sandy's trauma envelops her into a world where the visions bleed into her reality.

Okay there's much more to that story but if I were to tell you I'd be giving up some delicious spoilers and I don't want to do that to you. Let's just say real life 1960s icons, Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg, have some of the most important roles in the film.

Directed by Edgar Wright, Last Night in Soho is a complex psychological horror film that tries to do a bit too much and often at the expense of its characters. I was particularly horrified by the depiction of John (Michael Ajao), the sole black character and Ellie's love interest. His sole purpose is to assist Ellie and it's a shame because they put him in pretty terrifying circumstances and do not give his character any nuance or agency. (Read Robert Daniels review of the film to find out why this character is problematic.) And overall, the second half is a big mess with Ellie just running around London in a panic.

With that said, I think there is a lot of appeal here for classic movie fans, particularly ones who also enjoy horror and zombie movies. There isn't a lot of gore but there are some spooks. The swinging '60s London scenes are fantastic. It really transports you to another time. And for anyone who loves vintage fashion, especially of this era, you'll love to see what Sandy is wearing, Ellie's shopping trip to a vintage store and Ellie's makeover and fashion show. The film also pays tribute to the music of the 1960s. Taylor-Joy performs "Downtown", Ellie is constantly listening to '60s music and Cilla Black is a character in the story.

In one of the early scenes, Ellie/Sandy walk by a marquis promoting Thunderball (1965). 1960s actresses Margaret Nolan and Rita Tushingham appear in the film. However the biggest throwbacks to that era, besides the setting and the fashion, are two of the film's most important characters played by Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg. Production took place in 2019 and Diana Rigg passed away in 2020. In fact the movie premiered at TIFF on the one year anniversary of Rigg's passing on September 10th, 2021. And what a role for Rigg. It's one of the best swan songs I've ever had the privilege of watching. These kinds of roles are just not available to older actors, with a few exceptions. And while Rigg had been working into her later years but this role just really stands out to me. I found myself tearing up because what a fantastic role for this icon! That's not to diminish Terence Stamp who does a fantastic job as the mysterious pub regular who knows a bit too much about what happened to Sandy. He's terrifying and menacing. I know this movie is really an opportunity for McKenzie and Taylor-Joy to shine, but for me Stamp and Rigg steal the show.

I encourage you to check out the trailer and let me know what you think! As a classic movie fan, would you watch this one?

Last Night in Soho premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It hits theaters October 29th.

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