Groot: “I am Groot.”
Peter Quill: “Well, that’s just as fascinating as the first 89 times you told me that. What is wrong with Giving Tree here?”
Rocket Raccoon: “Well he don’t know talkin’ good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to “I” and “am” and “Groot,” exclusively in that order.”
Peter Quill: “Well I tell you what, that’s gonna wear real thin, real fast, bud.”
[Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper squabbling amongst themselves in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)]
I have to admit to all of you that I have made some mistakes. As a matter of fact, when I first started this Blog, I said in my very first Blog Post that I would make mistakes. Well, that is only natural. I could possibly make all kinds of accuracy or grammatical errors and to which I would expect to be justifiably verbally flogged by all of you for my transgressions. Also, since I am my own proofreader the odds could definitely increase exponentially until, ultimately, I would make such a faux pas. However, that is not the type of error that I am about to admit to. You see, there is one type of mistake that I am about to admit to which is something that I, rather than you, would ever notice. Now what in the world could this possibly be you might be wondering, and what does this have to do with this month’s Blog Post? Well, let me explain! You see, it involves “assumption.” There’s a really old joke that says, “You should never ASS U ME anything, because if you do, you will ultimately…”
- Make an ASS…
- Out of U…
- And out of ME.
This month’s Post will be about mistakes that I have made for movies, directors, certain actors, etc. because I mistakenly made prior assumptions before even seeing something that I made a judgement on, or that I made a judgement about something that I saw a long time ago but when I re-saw it recently, I had to change my prior opinion. These prior mistakes I am about to apologize for. Hence, now that I have acknowledged my mea culpa, I will begin to make my amends.
My first one pertains to a movie that I saw a few times when I was young many years ago which happened to star my all-time favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart. As much as I love Bogey, I absolutely hated this particular movie and bad mouthed it so often over the years that I must have sounded like a broken record. However, as the years have gone by, it had gotten more and more acclaim every year especially for Bogart’s performance. Hence, last year I finally convinced myself to re-see it again after maybe an over 45-year absence to see what the Heck the critics and the general public were talking about, and that I may have missed previously. After viewing it, I sat there stunned! I was dead wrong! It was a great movie and it was one of Humphrey Bogart’s greatest performances. So what was the picture you ask? Why it was…
“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Bogart played Dixon Steele, a has-been, insecure, and temperamental Hollywood screenwriter prone to outbursts of rage and violence who is suspected of murder after he was last seen with the murder victim shortly before her death. He sees and later starts to date Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a struggling actress who is a new tenant in his apartment building and they ultimately fall in love. However, Steele’s constant emotional instability makes her start to question whether he is actually innocent after all, and that his volatility could threaten her own life. I think my original dislike of this film was due to my youthful ignorance of what the film actually was. It was a relationship drama and a character study with noir overtones which I never could comprehend when I was younger. Also, it was distributed by Columbia Pictures and I always had difficulty in watching their earlier films back then because, at times, they seemed cheaply made, and emotionally overwrought. My understanding and appreciation of nuance and character complexity did not develop until later in my life so this was another strike against “Place”. It took a second look after so many years to appreciate Bogart’s incredibly complex performance of someone vain, mercurial, smart, sarcastic (which Bogey could do in his sleep), bitter, abusive, scared, cruel, loving, tender, paranoid, etc. and how he could flip from one of these characteristics to another or a combination of them almost instantaneously moment to moment. Film director Nicholas Ray might have been an overrated director, but he directed this particular film very well, especially with the noir aspects, thanks to fine cinematography by future two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey. However, I felt that it was Bogart who grabbed both the movie and his character by the throat and made it his own. His performance here was watching a true master artist at work. Actress Louise Brooks (“Pandora’s Box”) who knew Bogart said that his character of Dixon Steele was most like who he really was in real life. I can honestly believe it. For “In a Lonely Place,” Bogart wasn’t just playing the character of Dixon Steele. He actually was Dixon Steele!
Another movie I dismissed without ever seeing it until a couple of years ago was Director Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). This wartime comedy’s storyline was about a meek small-town guy named Woodrow, who was discharged from the Marine Corp due to acute hay fever. Embarrassed because his deceased father was a hero in World War I and, rather than returning home, he sent letters to his mom saying he was fighting overseas while he was actually working in a San Diego shipyard. However, when he buys a bunch Marines on leave a round of drinks, one of them (William Demarest) who originally served with his father tries to help him out by having his fellow Marines go with Woodrow back to his home town and say that he served with them and that he just returned stateside with a medical discharge. From that point on the lies pile up one after the other from the whole town showing up to celebrate him as a hero to everyone even suggesting that he should run for mayor. Although this plot had a classic screwball comedy premise, I absolutely had no desire to see “Hero” at all. This was primarily due to a number of factors.
First, I had a strong dislike of Preston Sturges. Known as a comedy director, I had previously seen some of his films many years ago (“The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, etc.) and I didn’t think they were funny at all. Hence, I arbitrarily dismissed the rest of his films like “Hero”. Second, the character of Woodrow was played by actor Eddie Bracken. I always regarded Bracken as a second-rate comedy actor who played so many secondary roles in films and on TV that I never could picture him as a lead actor in anything. Third, tied into that was a supporting cast lacking star power like Ella Raines (a B-movie actress) as his girlfriend, and Demarest whose chief claim to fame was playing Uncle Charley for the future “My Three Sons” Network TV show. Lastly, if such high-powered actors like Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Veronica Lake were not funny in the previous Sturges comedies that I saw, why would I think “Hero” would be any different. Well Dear Reader, I was dead wrong! Both Bracken and Raines gave terrific performances (maybe the best of their careers). The other character actors were fine too and the pacing of the comic lines were flying so thick and fast by the actors that you could hardly catch your breath before you just started laughing again. This might have also been due to the terrific script by Sturges (which was Oscar nominated) and his direction which captured the comic timing of the actors to the dialogue perfectly. Sturges prime skill as a director was in writing great original screenplays [he won the first ever Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty (1940)]. With “Hail the Conquering Hero”, Preston Sturges directed a true comic gem!
Two more recent films I have to mention which also forced me to eat my words. The first one involved a terrible assumption that I made about a particular director. That director was Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, a great director, did a number of terrific and acclaimed movies such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Irishman” (2019), and so many others. His films, while varied, had a strong propensity for graphic violence, profanity, machoism, criminality along with religious concepts such as guilt and redemption accompanied by the judicious use of rock music. So, could I have ever in my wildest dreams thought that he was capable of doing an actual children’s film that was good for the whole family? Hell, NO! Yet, that is what he actually did when he made the film, “Hugo” (2011). Once again, I thought that you have got to be kidding me so I completely ignored it for years. You all do not have to all tell me that…I…Was…Wrong!!!
“Hugo” was based on the 2007 Brian Selznick children’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-Year-old orphan who secretly lives in the Gare Montpamasse railway station in 1931 Paris while secretly repairing train station clocks there between stealing food and hiding from the Train Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). His further adventures involve working for a shopkeeper named Georges (Ben Kingsley) after he is caught stealing, making friends with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and later, George’s wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory). As the story proceeds you find out more about Georges and Hugo’s desire to repair an automation, a mechanical man that may contain a message from Hugo’s deceased father. Scorsese decided to make this film after his young daughter gave him Selznick’s book hoping he would later turn it into a film. She also wanted him to make it as a 3-D film. He did both (clever kid), and it was the first time he ever made a 3-D film. The film received universal acclaim and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (more than any other film that year) winning 5 Oscars in all. Unfortunately, it was not a box office success and it didn’t win either Best Picture or Best Director for Scorsese (which it should have). After seeing “Hugo” I now have a cardinal rule that I always make regarding Martin Scorsese: Never, ever, think that he cannot make a great film out of anything. “Hugo” is a classic!
The second more recent film that I assumed stunk even before I ever saw it was an actual Marvel Studio picture. Now, I’ll make an honest admission here: I love Marvel Superhero movies. I have been a fan of just about all of them since the very beginning as well as being an avid Marvel comic book fan when I was a little kid (even younger than the one in “Hugo”). However, when the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) movie came out, I literally refused to see it. Why you may ask? Well, I quit reading Marvel comics as well as comics in general when I got older so I never read any of the “Guardians…” comic book series when they were first issued. Hence, I had no frame of reference. Second, the idea of a guy running around the Galaxies with the moniker of “Star-Lord” while teaming up with a bunch of aliens, one of which was a frigging talking raccoon named, “Rocket” (and does he have a brother raccoon named “Rocky” too?) seemed lame to the extreme! Tied into that one was my viewing of Marvel’s film version of “Deadpool” (2016) when it first came out. This was another Marvel comic book series that I had no knowledge of. Worse, when I saw it, despite it receiving rave reviews, I absolutely hated the movie (and I still do). Hence, did you honestly think that I wanted to repeat that experience again with “Guardians” too? Of course not! Well (Drum roll please…), I was wrong again! “Guardians” was terrific. The screenplay was hilarious with the actors mining the comic and dramatic elements perfectly by playing off of each other like a seasoned comedy act while having this swashbuckling adventure across time and space. Director James Gunn gets a special mention here too. His direction is smooth, combining both exciting action scenes and quieter dramatic moments. He also re-wrote the screenplay which gave real depth to all of the film’s characters even those in small roles while heightening the overall humor of the film. Heck, I even liked the Rocket raccoon character too (Will wonders never cease!). This was one time that I was perfectly glad to admit I was wrong.
My last two examples of my prior assumptions being thrown awry actually pertain to two actors who I have constantly lambasted over the years for being awful actors (and who I mentioned previously in some of my prior Blog Posts). However, in both actors’ cases I have to admit to being wrong if I apply another one of my “Syndromes” into the discussion. This particular syndrome is something that I call, “The Blind Squirrel Finding a Nut Syndrome”. What this means is that, like a blind squirrel finding a nut every once in a while, even these two limited talents (I’m being kind) managed to actually give a pair of decent performances in something during their long careers. I will highlight two performances for each actor as a part of penance for my sins. However, before I continue, I want to qualify what I have just said by adding that “Neither of these two actors will be Sylvester Stallone!” There are just some things that one can never do! Now, to continue, the first actor is Glenn Ford. Ford was always a one note actor who always appeared annoyed, flustered, irritable or generally uncomfortable in any type of role. His attempts at portraying characters with any depth or complexity was either wooden or unbelievable. Maybe for a sixties Network TV sitcom like “Dennis the Menace” he would have been perfect playing next door neighbor Mr. Wilson perpetually tormented by “Satan’s Spawn” Dennis! Otherwise, forget it (or so I thought!). However, years later I saw him in two things which really made me change my mind.
The first, was a modern-day Western comedy called, “The Rounders” (1965). Also starring the always great Henry Fonda, “Rounders” starred the two of them as a pair of old (and not too bright) cowboys who make a meager living breaking wild horses for their frequent employer Jim (Chill Wills) a shrewd businessman who constantly outwits them whenever he can. One of Jim’s more successful schemes was in getting Ford to accept a roan horse named “Old Fooler” in lieu of their full payment for prior work done. Sure enough it’s Ford that’s the one “fooled” when it turns out that “Fooler” has a malevolent mind of its own and throws off anyone who tries to ride him. However, instead of shipping “Fooler” off to the nearest glue factory, Ford decides to take the horse to the local rodeo and bet against the other cowboys being able to ride him and make some easy money. His plan starts to succeed but, “Old Fooler” (smarter than the two cowboys combined) has other plans. Ford is hysterical in the role. He and Fonda work effortlessly off of each other playing a pair of dim bulbs constantly getting into more trouble as they try to get out of this mess. Ford is funnier the more irritable he gets with the horse and for once, his perpetually frustrated act fits in perfectly with his character. “The Rounders” is a little film. However, the laughs along with Ford’s performance are huge!
The other role where Ford gave a fine performance was for the Network TV Western mini-series, “The Sacketts” (1979) which was based on two novels by famed Western author Louis L’Amour. Although “The Sacketts” focused on three brothers adventures heading West right after the end of the Civil War, Ford was a standout in the secondary role of Tom Sunday, an older former gunfighter who becomes a mentor to the youngest Sackett, Tyrel, while acting as a ramrod during a cattle drive. His Sunday is world-wise, educated, and desperate for a fresh start out West. Unfortunately, his dream is later dashed when, while running for election as the town sheriff in Santa Fe against Tyrel’s brother, Orrin, Sunday’s prior checkered past is revealed resulting in him losing the election. Sunday’s disgrace ultimately leads to tragedy. Ford is very moving in this role. He actually showed shades of complexity that I never saw him able to convey before. His Sunday is someone who cannot escape his past and who becomes bitter, frustrated, angry, and ultimately, vengeful. Ford conveys the pain and sadness of the man and you can only feel pity and sympathy for him rather than distain. Out of all of the bad performances that Glenn Ford gave in his career, here is one, at least, that he could be proud of.
The other bad actor that I want to highlight for two fine performances that he gave later in his career is actor, Richard (Gerbil) Gere. Gere was someone who I have truly despised from the very first time I saw him all the way back in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977). Over and over, he kept doing the same one-note pretty boy role, always posing whenever he wasn’t speaking (not that he had anything worthwhile to say when he did), always acting like some sort of supercharged sex machine that women were supposed to go gaga for whenever he graced the screen with his mere presence. Whenever he tried to actually do something different than this tired stereotype, he came across about as lifeless as a Cabbage Patch Doll (Ding-Dong, “Pretty Woman” anyone?). I once said that there were only three types of “good” Richard (Gerbil) Gere films…
- One, where he was kicked in the groin!
- Two, where he was killed in the end!
- Three, where he was both kicked in the groin, and killed in the end!
However, I was wrong, as these next two examples I can attest to. The first one was “Chicago” (2002), the black comedy crime musical which won best picture that year, and in which Gere gave a winning performance in the male lead role of sleazy, yet brilliant, criminal defense lawyer, Billy Flynn. Our Billy appears to have his work cut out for him in having to defend Roxie, a no talent wannabe who shot and killed her lover when she found out that he had no showbiz connections and all he wanted to do was sleep with her. Gere’s Billy seems to not even break a sweat as he radiates charm, charisma, and ego, mixed in with a hunger for fame and further fortune. He eyes Roxie like a hungry wolf, but the meal that Roxie can provide for him is as a meal ticket for Billy to achieve all that he wants. Gere was 53 when he did this role and his pretty boy looks were finally starting to fade so it looked like he realized that he had to do some convincing acting to pull this role off. And he actually did! Instead of trying to act like some older “Sex Machine” A-hole lech, here he just acted like a money grubbing and fame hungry A-hole! His smiling Billy may be as real as a three-dollar bill but, for once, my eyes stayed transfixed on his performance rather than on my watch which, in the past, was what I did whenever he was on the screen to see how much longer it would be before whatever he was in would, mercifully, end. His second performance of note was in the ensemble cop drama, “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2009), with Gere playing Eddie Dugan, a burned out beat cop about to retire after 22 years of unremarkable service. His Eddie is a borderline suicidal alcoholic who is so emotionally shutdown that the only person he can honestly talk to is a prostitute that he hires regularly. However, like a wounded Phoenix arising from the ashes, he finally has a chance to do something meaningful in his life before it’s done. Here, Gere is finally stripped from his early career posturing of relying on just his looks alone. His Eddie looks about as sexy as a snail and more tired than Woody Allen after doing a pull-up. He convincingly plays his age and it’s a believable physical performance. Unlike a lot of former A-hole pretty boy non-actors who became really pathetic when they got old (I’m looking at you Ryan O’Neal and Jan-Michael Vincent!) at least for “Brooklyn’s Finest” Gere actually gives a strong performance.
Well, that sums up some of the wrong-headed assumptions that I have made over the years. I’m only human just like we all are. So, I’ll try to improve in the future. However,
(Just don’t ask me to ever applaud any Sylvester Stallone movies!)