Thursday, June 26, 2014

God Speed Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

What’s not to love about Eli Wallach? He could play despicable characters and still be utterly charming. And over the years his charisma grew and as an old man he was just adorable in both a sweet way and one that just lent itself to adoration. Eli Wallach is one of my favorite actors and I’m very saddened by the news of his death. However, I’m grateful he lived a long life, had a long and fruitful marriage to actress Anne Jackson and that he leaves behind a wonderful legacy of film and TV performances. God Speed Eli Wallach.

New York Times Article
New York Times Video
NPR Article and Audio

If you haven't watched Baby Doll (1956), you must and right away. Eli Wallach is conniving and incredibly sexy in his role as Silva Vacarro. The scene with Wallach and Baker on the swing will make your palms sweaty and set your heart racing. It's a powerful performance and one Wallach delivered in his very first movie role. Talent like that is rare and worthy of adoration.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

This is my first review for the 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter
by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199973842
Hardcover - 288 pages
May 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your local indie bookstore)


 “[Musicals] can be substantial... everyone’s scorn.”

Musicals. You gotta love ‘em. Or you gotta hate ‘em. When it comes to how people think about musicals, most people's feelings are on one extreme or the other. Some of us relish how musicals carry us away and entertain us with song and dance. Others scratch their heads at the notion of people randomly bursting into song. If those skeptics do watch these musicals, they tend to fast-forward through the song and dance numbers. Why do musicals illicit such strong feelings from audiences? And why does the genre have such a complicated past?

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios is a revealing look at the movie musical genre. It explores how musicals have been received by audiences and how they’ve struggled to grow and succeed as a movie genre. Richard Barrios is a leading expert on musicals and I very much enjoyed reading his previous book A Song in the Dark. Barrios is opinionated and frank in the way only someone who truly understands a particular subject can be. While A Song in the Dark was about the early history of movie musicals, Dangerous Rhythm explores the history of the genre as a whole. The musicals discussed in this book run the gamut from popular to obscure, from old to new, from live action to animation and from respectable to fluff. Revelations come left and right and the book serves as an eye-opening look at a troubled genre that has become such an integral part of film history.

The introduction alone is full of interesting and enlightening observations. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the book and I was sad when it was over and had to move on to the themed chapters. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the introduction:

“...they manage to embody American optimism, American enterprise, American taste and exuberance and vulgarity.”

“The movie musical had been an American institution... and from 1972 onward it would die many deaths.”

“The truth is that in an age of media saturation and virtual realities and immediate gratification, musicals do not always fit in well.”

“Part of the problem is that musicals are seen as a collaborative endeavor, one that does not permit an individual artist to leave a signature.”

Each chapter focuses on a different topic. These include origins, money, hits, misses, animation, personalities, choreography, songs, race, sexuality and television. The chapters have great titles, and part of the fun of starting a new chapter was figuring out what it will be about by deciphering the fun title. Sometimes it was very obvious and a few times it was trickier. Barrios reveals a lot about the movie musical genre. The inherent problems of musicals are many. There are natural constraints of the form and there are problems imposed on them by the public. Good ideas were “recycled and regurgitated” (page 20) and experimentation came mostly at the beginning. I really loved the following observation Barrios makes, which I think reveals a lot about why the genre has had such a complicated reception: “falseness and honesty: what is a musical if not a phony way to tell the truth?” And then there is this major point, which many people talk about but never gets really discussed at length: “the ... reason that many audiences and a number of filmmakers won’t go near musicals: the perception that they are based on the notion of people bursting into song.” To be truly entertained by a movie we have to watch something that is both different and familiar. It’s a tricky balance and if something seems to phony it can be off-putting to part of the audience whereas others will embrace it for what it is.

The book is well-structured with its themed chapters. However, the book can be a bit manic in the way it travels through time, going breezily back and forth between different eras. In order to exemplify his various points about the genre as a whole, Barrios juggles many different movies in his different discussions. It jumps around a lot which can be a little confusing however it gives the author the freedom to really explore the topic at hand. You have to be familiar with musicals, especially early ones, to be able to fully grasp the subject matter. I don’t think someone with very little knowledge about musicals will be able to appreciate this book.

There are footnotes throughout the chapters which serve as additional information to complement the text. They’re not necessary to read but serve more like bonus trivia. There are some photos in the book but I don’t feel like they were needed and didn’t reveal anything important on their own. But they are nice to have nonetheless.

Dangerous Rhythm is a valuable book because of its numerous enlightening observations about musicals. If you are interested in musicals or want a better understanding of film history as a whole, then this book is essential reading. And I have to say, of all of the classic film related books I've been reading in the past few years, this has one of the best cover designs. It's stunning!

Thank you to Oxford University Press and Larissa of Claire McKinney PR for sending me a copy of the book to review! Stay tuned as I’ll be posting an interview with author Richard Barrios on the blog soon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
by Sheana Ochoa
Applause Theatre and Cinema Book Publishers (an imprint of Hal Leonard)
ISBN 9781480355538
Hardcover - 354 pages
April 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (Your local Indie bookstore)

"…a vibrant woman, full of idealistic dreams and a relentless gluttony for life's offerings." - Ochoa

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa is an in-depth biography about the life and career of one of the greatest acting teachers of the 20th Century, Stella Adler. Adler was a renown actress of American theater, an actor's director, an important influence on many acting legends and even dabbled in film acting and producing.

Author Sheana Ochoa was surprised that such an influential figure in the world of theater and acting was not very well-known today. Adler's name is not as recognizable as Lee Strasberg or Constantin Stansilavski. This book seeks to change that.

The book starts with the life story of Stella's father Jacob Adler. He was a renowned Jewish actor of Yiddish and American Theater in New York City who had connections to many in the business including Alla Nazimova and Isadora Duncan. Jacob Adler's influence on his daughter was both good and bad and he became a central figure in her life even long after his death.

Life in theater is vastly different from the one of movies so it's very interesting to delve into this parallel world. Stella Adler grew up in the world of theater and it became the great passion that never dwindled. The author notes that "by age eight Stella was a seasoned professional." When she wasn't acting, she was directing and working with other actors.

"… Stella felt she did not belong in the world outside the theater. She would feel this way for most of her life." - Ochoa

Adler began teaching acting in 1934 after her trip and training with Stanislavski in Russia. Adler was involved with The Group Theater, known for it's socialist ideology and for key figures including Elia Kazan. This lead to her being put on trial by the HUAC. She was blacklisted prior to being on trial and she decided not to testify against her friends. After that she focused on teaching. The book goes into detail of acting technique and Adler's methodologies. It also explores her Jewish heritage and what it was like for her to be Jewish in WWII.

"Having transitioned from the Yiddish stage to Broadway, from Strasberg to Stanislavski, Stella displayed a forward-thinking approach toward the evolution of acting."- Ochoa

While not strictly a classic film book, fans of old Hollywood will find many familiar names including Shelley Winters, James Coburn, Franchot Tone,  Arthur Miller, Luise Rainer, Sylvia Sydney, Gregory Peck, Karl Malden, Ralph Bellamy, Marlon Brando, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, John Gieguld and more. Stella Adler had a short-lived film career which included Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). She also helped produce the films Madame Curie (1943) DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) and For Me and My Gal (1942).

Ochoa also delves into the personal life of Stella Adler and her relationships with husbands Harold Clurman and Mitchell Wilson, the loves of her life, as well as her tenuous relationship with her only child Ellen Adler. She struggled with depression and illness, including tuberculosis). Adler often struggled with money and always had a strong desire to have the appearance of glamor even when finances were tight.

"Stella knew exactly what she was doing; she understood the transformative potential of art and its capacity to edify humanity." - Ochoa

Adler's influence on the acting community was profound. To understand Stella Adler is to understand this and it is something the author does very effectively. I love this quote from Marlon Brando, one of Adler's students. And before you rush to judgement about "method acting", make sure you take note of the various explanations of how the methodologies of acting diverged greatly between Strasberg and Adler and Stanislavski.

"It is troubling to me that because she has not lent herself to vulgar exploitations, as some other well-known so-called 'methods' of acting have done, her contributions to the theatrical culture have remained largely unknown, unrecognized, and unappreciated." - Marlon Brando (foreword to Stella Adler's book)

This is the key to why Stella Adler is not as well-known today. She was never all that good at self-publicity. It was something she was turned off by but ended up being that missing ingredient that would have led to future immortality. This is a theme throughout the book and a point the author does very well to drive home.

This is the definitive biography of this complicated and talented woman. The book is seamless, natural in flow and very rich with information. Because there is so much information to absorb, I relished the short chapters (often 5-12 pages in length) as bite sized morsels that made the whole dish a lot more enjoyable. Each of these chapters starts with a great quote about Stella Adler from an important figure in the business.There are two sections of black and white photographs on glossy paper. These photos could have easily been dispersed throughout the book instead of relegated to their own sections. There is also a very lovely foreword written by one of Stella Adler's students, actor Mark Ruffalo.

I knew nothing about Stella Adler and next to nothing about theater and theater life. I'm very glad I read this book because it gave me a broader understanding of acting and actors which had previously been limited by my exclusive interest in film.

This book is pretty much flawless and I was quite captivated by it. I try to be balanced in my book reviews and point out any thing I find that didn't do the book any favors. I really couldn't find anything here to criticize. Ochoa has done a fine job with this biography! I'd be remiss if I didn't point out Ochoa's lovely writing style. It's very clear and focused and she uses some beautiful language throughout. I loved some of her metaphors, especially the one where she likens Harold Clurman sorting out his failed marriage to Adler as washing a dirty rag in clean water.

You can learn more about her book on her Stella Adler blog or about Ochoa on her website. Ochoa is also the producer of the play Harold and Stella: Love Letters. You can follow her on Twitter @SheanaOchoa.

Thank you to the publisher Hal Leonard/Applause Books for the copy I received at Book Expo America!

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