Monday, December 19, 2016

Dolce Vita Confidential by Shawn Levy

Dolce Vita Confidential
Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome by Shawn Levy
W.W. Norton & Company
9780393247589 - 480 pages
September 2016

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"Rome had always had a way of making even the most egregious aspects of its past look romantic and alluring." - Shawn Levy

1950s Rome was the epicenter of culture: fashion, film, luxury cars, Vespas, race car driving, celebrity and paparazzi. How did a city in ruins after the destruction of WWII transform itself into the epitome of glamour and fame? The answer to this is found in Shawn Levy's book Dolce Vita Confidential. In the book Levy paints the picture of postwar Italy and how luck, good timing and lots of talent transformed how the world saw Italy and how Italy saw itself.

“Italian taste – and, as well, a taste for Italy and things Italian – was spreading rapidly in the biggest market in the world [the USA].” – Shawn Levy

The focus of this book is not solely on films but there is much for the film buff to savor here. The film industry influenced many of the other aspects of the culture. For example, there was a huge increase in sales of Vespas after the release of Roman Holiday (1953). Burgeoning Italian dressmakers and designers like the Fontana Sisters, Pucci and Valentino made everything from wedding dresses, sportswear, and costumes for American film stars. The world of scandal, notoriety and gossip always intersected with the world of film.

Rome's film industry was put on pause during the war. Cinecitta, a local movie studio made 279 films before it was shut down by WWII and after the war it struggled to get back into the business. American filmmakers were coming in droves to Italy to capture the essence of what made the city such a hub of lifestyle, culture, fashion and history. But most of these were parachute projects where they filmed on location in Rome, used their own crews instead of local ones and opted out of utilizing Cinecitta as a home base for shooting interiors. They often flew back home to Hollywood to film the rest. It wasn't until American filmmakers saw the benefits, and tax breaks, of filming solely in Italy that Rome became "Hollywood on the Tiber", a term invented by TIME magazine.

Levy touches upon many of the American films shot on Hollywood on the Tiber including Prince of Foxes (1949), Quo Vadis (1951) The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Ben-Hur (1959) and brief mentions of some '60s films including Come September (1961), Rome Adventure (1962) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). And then there were the many Scandaloni films: “low-budget, Italian-made, sword-and-sandal movies, bowdlerized rehashings of tales from Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian history and mythology.”

Then there were the Italian filmmakers of the 1950s. According to Levy, hese directors and producers "created brave new works that explored the human struggles of the moment.” These include Robert Rossellini, Dino De Laurentiis, Frederico Fellini, Carlo Ponti and more. Films discussed include The Bicycle Thief (1948), La Strada (1954) and many more. Levy lingers on the career of Fellini most of all especially his two epic works La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8-1/2 (1963).

To understand La Dolce Vita one must understand the celebrity culture of Rome. It starts with Via Veneto, a street in Rome that became the mecca for the Hollywood elite. It boasted an American embassy, American style restaurants, luxury hotels, shops and boutiques and pretty much everything an American movie star visiting the city would want to have nearby. Via Veneto also became a haunt for photojournalists who worked for the increasingly popular gossip rags and wanted to photograph the Hollywood icons at play. It was the birthplace of the celebrity and paparazzi culture complete with harassment, scandal, grit and glamour. Without Via Veneto there would be no TMZ. Fellini's La Dolce Vita captured this new culture on screen and it's most iconic scene, Anita Ekberg wading through the waters of the Trevi fountain, was based on a real incident with Ekberg who was herself a major celebrity in Rome. La Dolce Vita's effect on Rome was immediate. Via Veneto was no longer a safe place for Hollywood elite and soon became where wanna-be celebrities came seeking any morsels of fame their outrageous antics might garner them. La Dolce Vita as a catchphrase came to represent what moviegoers around the world, especially in the United States, thought life was like in Rome. And while the word paparazzi is never used in the film it was created during the making of and has stuck ever since.

Swedish actress Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960)

“The idea for the film is inseparable from the idea of Anita Ekberg.” – Frederico Fellini on La Dolce Vita

Foreign celebrities like Ekberg, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Linda Christian and Audrey Hepburn infiltrated Rome but a new class of Italian film stars were elbowing their way in for a chance at the spotlight. I was particularly fascinated by competition between two maggioratas ("curvy girls") Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. I'm team Lollo all the way but can appreciate what both brought to the table. Levy says "Gina had become famous and her natural beauty, her rags-to-riches story, and her aura of sexuality paired with moral decency all combined to make her an ideal of young Italian girls who all wanted to follow in her footsteps.” Sophia Loren was her polar opposite. Scandal arose from her complicated relationship to the already married Carlo Ponti and it didn't help that Loren was born out of wedlock. Both scenarios were not looked upon well by a strict Catholic culture. Loren even had to leave Italy for several years when her marriage to Ponti was not recognized by the Italian government. Lollobrigida had her own struggles; she couldn't make films with American producers due to a strange contract the ever controlling Howard Hughes made her sign. (Beat the Devil was a convenient workaround. Although it's an American film it was financed in Europe). Both became giant movie stars but in the end Lollo's heart wasn't in acting and other creative pursuits called her name. Loren went on to have a fantastic career throughout the '60s and '70s where as Lollo gave up acting in movies in the 1970s.

Sophia Loren, Yvonne De Carlo and Gina Lollobrigida. Lollo refused to be in a picture only with Loren but agreed when De Carlo stepped in to make it a trio.

I particularly enjoyed this observation Levy shares about actor Rossano Brazzi that applies to many Italian film stars of the time: “the figure held an attraction/repulsion for American audiences who were fascinated by what they saw as Continental charm and sexual libertinism but preferred to think of it, apparently, at a remove of a few thousand miles rather than on the streets they walked.” Even reluctant sex symbols like Marcello Mastroianni held the thrall of Americans at a safe distance.

Dolce Vita Confidential paints the picture of 1950s Rome in all it's glory and scandal. It's a fun and entertaining read with much information to take in. The book is very readable but it will take you a while to get through it as it's packed with much detail.

Notes: My husband is a big fan of Shawn Levy's Rat Pack Confidential and comes highly recommended by him. If you have a subscription to FilmStruck many of the Italian films mentioned in the book are available on that service.

Thank you to W.W. Norton and Company for sending me this book for review!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Gold Star (2016)

Gold Star (2016) film poster

A daughter. Her dad. The 65 years separating them. 

When the age divide between father, mother and child is significant it creates a unique family dynamic. It’s one that few will understand unless they’ve lived in it or have seen it first hand. I grew up in such a family. My father was 58 years old when I was born and my mother was 29. Having a much older father presented many issues that another family might not have to deal with. It would mean our time with my father would be limited and we’d soon shift from mother and daughter roles to caretakers.

We were also not his only family. That's not unusual in situations such as these. I have two half-sisters, both older than my mother and resentful of the love and attention I got from our father that was denied them when he left that family many years ago. The multiple family dynamic makes for complications when the time comes to make plans and divvy up the estate. If you don’t know what this family dynamic is like it’s hard to imagine the complexities. For someone like me it’s difficult to explain our family situation to others.

Victoria Negri in Gold Star (2016)
Victoria Negri in Gold Star (2016)

That’s why I’m very grateful for Gold Star (2016), a new film written, directed, produced and starring Victoria Negri. The story is based on her real life relationship with her much older father and what happens after he suffered a stroke. While Negri's story is deeply rooted in truth, and even filmed on location where real events happened, this is not a documentary. Victoria’s character Vicki is different from herself and according to a recent interview with the filmmaker reacts differently to her father’s situation than in real life. Playing Vicki’s father Carmine is classic Hollywood actor Robert Vaughn in his final on screen role. He passed away last month. Actress Catherine Curtin plays Deanne, Carmine’s wife and Vicki’s mother, and this triumvirate is fascinating to watch on screen.

Here is the official synopsis of the film from the website and the teaser trailer:

After dropping out of Juilliard, Vicki drifts aimlessly between her family’s house in Connecticut and an itinerant existence in New York. When her father suffers a debilitating stroke, she has to become his primary caretaker. Vicki resists connecting with him, and making peace with herself, but finds a way forward thanks to a new friend and a life-changing event.

If you think a film about a mother and daughter caring for an elderly father sounds like an emotional drain, fear not. Negri adeptly adds other story elements to create a thoughtful and well-rounded film. The focus is on her and what’s going on in her world and not strictly on her ailing father. There are moments of levity and romance in addition to the drama of the situation.

Robert Vaughn and Victoria Negri in Gold Star (2016)

My mother and I watched Gold Star together. We were both amazing how much the film mirrored our own story. My father’s illness and eventual death played out much differently than in the film but we found a lot of common ground in the essentials of the story. The age differences were almost the same (Vicki and her father are 65 years apart in age) and our struggles paralleled theirs. There was even a subplot involving the protagonist's half-sister which I couldn't help but relate to. We watched Gold Star a few days after Robert Vaughn had passed away. I always joked that Vaughn was my other father because of my mom’s lifelong crush on him. She’s been ready to propose marriage to Vaughn ever since she first caught glimpse of him during The Man from U.N.C.L.E days. I knew if she ever met him in person he’d be in danger of a few smooches or at least an attempt at them. Just prior to watching Gold Star, my mom and I watched a few episodes of El Agente de C.I.P.O.L, as the show was called in the Spanish-speaking world. Watching Vaughn at the tail ends of his career one can’t help but marvel at the passage of time and his evolution as an actor. He has a non-speaking role in Gold Star because his character’s stroke renders him speechless. Vaughn’s performance is nuanced and simply stunning. He’s left us all with one final role that is worthy of his enduring legend.

Robert Vaughn in Gold Star (2016)
Robert Vaughn in Gold Star (2016)

Many will come to see Gold Star specifically for Vaughn but I hope they enjoy Negri’s story too. It’s an important one to tell: the significance of family and the pain that comes at the end of life. This film is not driven by plot but rather by raw emotion and the awkward, sad, happy and confused moments all combine to create an experience for the viewer.

Gold Star (2016) is a profoundly moving film with an important story to tell. It is currently on the film festival circuit. You can visit the official site for details on future screenings and sign up for their newsletter. I’m looking forward to seeing this film get a wider release.

Thank you to Victoria Negri and Gold Star LLC for the opportunity to review this film!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Warner Archive - Author Mark Beauregard on Moby-Dick (1930)

I present to you a very special edition of Warner Archive Wednesday. Today we have a special guest author Mark Beauregard who is a brilliant writer and also a good friend. Earlier this year Viking Books published his novel The Whale: A Love Story which explores the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne when Melville was writing Moby-Dick. It's a fascinating novel and I encourage you all to pick it up. Mark has studied Moby-Dick and Melville for 6 years and I couldn't think of anyone better to discuss the 1930 film adaptation of this mega-classic.

As a special bonus I'm hosting a giveaway of an autographed copy of Mark Beauregard's book. Details are at the bottom!

Single White Whale Seeks Adventure: How John Barrymore Turned Moby-Dick into a Love Triangle 
by Mark Beauregard 

We’re so used to Moby-Dick in our culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t know the story of the White Whale. Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s book, you know the basic plot: boy meets whale, whale bites off boy’s leg, boy swears vengeance, whale kills everyone. The symbolic White Whale—that impossible desire that a person will sacrifice everything to attain—has become such a ubiquitous motif in America that literally not a day goes by without a mention in some newspaper article of a politician’s, athlete’s, or chef’s White Whale, and White Whale plush toys, beers, and salad tongs abound. We even have more than a dozen filmed adaptations, ranging from the perplexing (a broody, out-of-place William Hurt as Ahab in the BBC’s 2011 version) to the tediously reverent (John Huston’s 1956 version with Gregory Peck), but all of the adaptations and plays and operas and spoofs have one basic thing in common: they more or less follow the plot of the novel. Not so, John Barrymore’s curious 1930 version, which uses the novel to launch a melodramatic love triangle.

This first-ever talkie Moby-Dick was a remake of Barrymore’s own 1926 silent version, a wildly popular film called The Sea Beast, and neither movie cared a fig for the actual plot of Melville’s book, because by 1930, almost no one had read it. Melville’s great American novel was a commercial and critical flop when it appeared in 1851, and it disappeared from the public imagination for more than seventy years, until it was revived with a new edition in 1924. When The Sea Beast appeared, Melville’s book had only just been rediscovered and hadn’t yet entered the American popular imagination, so Barrymore and his crew used the epic quest of the mad Captain Ahab merely as a point of departure for a star-powered romance—a tangled triangle of love involving Barrymore’s drunk, fun-loving, swashbuckling Ahab; Ahab’s plotting brother (played by a dashing Lloyd Hughes); and the woman both men are in love with, a preacher’s daughter played by Joan Bennett in the winsome, early phase of her long and storied career. In fact, Bennett plays Faith Mapple, Father Mapple’s daughter—if you’ve read the book, this little tidbit tells you all you need to know about how fast and loose the filmmakers play with every element in Melville’s weighty book.

Joan Bennett, Lloyd Hughes and John Barrymore - Moby-Dick (1930)

In the 1920s, as ever, Hollywood was hungry for stories, and it didn’t really matter what happened as long as everything came out all right in the end. Never mind the tragic demise of Ahab and most of his ship’s crew in Melville’s book, and never mind that Moby-Dick swims inscrutably away: Warner Bros. knew what side their popcorn was buttered on, so they made a few changes to the plot (spoiler alert) to allow Ahab to kill the whale and get the girl! We can only imagine Melville’s apoplexy if he had lived to see this adaptation, and that’s part of the fun for us as modern viewers.

Barrymore’s Moby-Dick was directed by Lloyd Bacon—also the director of the song-and-dance fantasia 42nd Street—and it clips right along, alternating between comic scenes of Ahab’s drunken exploits ashore, not-altogether-wholesome love scenes between Ahab and Faith, and rousing action scenes of chest-thumping men on the open seas harpooning sperm whales. The special-effect sea beasts, while more Land Shark than Industrial Light and Magic, still lean toward the realistic, and the action sequences of Ahab’s men battling and spearing leviathans of the deep come off well: they’re splashy, exciting, and infused with a sense of genuine danger. But this is a movie whose pleasures add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Taken separately, the love triangle is corny, the animosity between Ahab and his brother is a bit Snidely Whiplash, and Ahab’s encounter with Moby-Dick is head-scratching in its utter disregard for the grandeur of Melville’s original. But taken as a whole, the movie becomes something sweeter and more memorable than it has any right to be: we feel Ahab’s genuine torment over his love for Faith; Faith’s anguished devotion to Ahab is ultimately endearing; and the way Ahab and his brother settle their feud (a plot point I won’t spoil!) seems both shocking and just.

Reviewing it in 1930 for The New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall applauded the movie’s action scenes and admired its romantic heart (“The scenes in New Bedford and the romance of Ahab and Faith are capitally pictured and flawlessly acted”), but for us modern viewers the fun in this Warner Archive release is how it transports us back to a time when America’s cultural touchstones were different. No one had read Moby-Dick, no puckish marijuana grower had named a potent strain of weed after Ahab’s leviathan, and no journalist would even think of writing about a politician’s White Whale—no one would know what it meant!

Yes, in 1930, there were still beasts in the sea, but in the stories we told they were mainly obstacles in the way of a sailor’s return home (incidentally, Ron Howard uses this same romantic framing device for his 2015 whaling yarn In the Heart of the Sea, so maybe Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much). In this Warner Archive Moby-Dick, the romance is all the better because the gorgeous Joan Bennett is waiting home for Ahab, and the equally gorgeous John Barrymore distracts us from the story we know from Melville and lets us cheer when Moby-Dick goes down.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending us this title for review!

Mark Beauregard signing your copy of The Whale: A Love Story


In the comments below tell me about your favorite classic novel turned classic film. 
You'll be entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. 
Contest ends midnight Saturday December 10th and is open internationally. I'll announce the winner in the comments section below and e-mail the recipient. Good luck!

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