Sunday, September 22, 2013

About “The Wizard of Oz”


I’d seen the 1939 classic movie “The Wizard Of Oz” many times, but in a sense I’d never really before seen it. I hadn’t seen it before on an actual movie screen. I especially had never seen it in Imax 3-D, which makes the film more amazing.

The added trick or dimension to the movie enhances its magic; its dream qualities. A gimmick, sure, but in this instance a gimmick which supplements the nature of the film, which is not fantasy so much as pure dream.

The 3-D is most impressive when the swept-away house lands—right before the switch from sepia-toned Kansas to Technicolor and Oz. This is the culmination of a very intense sequence filled with a tornado, tumult and noise. Then suddenly, all is silence. Quite a pause before Dorothy opens the door onto a new world. Seeing this scene on a large Imax screen emphasizes its effectiveness. Needless to say, the movie is masterfully made.

I noted the 3-D again most during the scenes with the Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton’s terrific performance and green make-up become more striking, as the witch seems to stand apart from the rest of the scenery—if not jump out at us. Her over-the-top performance enhances the 3-D technical wizardry.

It’s a children’s movie, without question, but with impact on the rest of us, because most of us have watched it as children. I was struck throughout by how excellent the production is, everything about it—then wondered if my opinion was because of the cultural resonance the movie holds. Much of the movie, if not all of it, is part of the language of common culture—ruby slippers, yellow brick road, Kansas quips, the man behind the curtain, and not least the steadfast dog Toto, the most famous movie dog of them all.  Watching the film again for me was an emotional experience.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a simple film. The greatest art is often the most simple. Basic, primal, striking chords not of the intellect, but something deeper within us. “Wizard of Oz” does this as well as any movie ever. It’s a dream, and as a dream plunges deep into the subconscious, so that we ask ourselves afterward what’s really going on.


“The Wizard of Oz is a movie about fears and anxieties. They’re the anxieties of childhood, but remain with us on some level for all of our lives. The anxiety of losing a loved one—or even a dog. The fear of abandonment and death. The perception of impersonal forces outside our control, such as “the law” or the power of wealth, as hinted at near the beginning when Miss Gulch tries to take Toto away. (“Run, Toto. Run!”) The anxieties are stepped up in the Oz sequences.

There’s the anxiety of change. The notion of leaving the farm for the big city—metaphor for the excitement and fear of adulthood, of going out into the world to encounter new friends and adventures. There’s evident also, as part of this, American fears. Of being corrupted, becoming no longer so simple. Oz could be a metaphor for New York City but maybe also for Europe—seat at the time the movie was made of sophistication, civilization, and culture. The Munchkins are dressed like good European burghers. The Oz residents sound European. The movie mocks the pretensions of civilization, from decrees and death certificates (“most sincerely dead”) to war medals and university diplomas. That near the end the Wizard says “E Pluribus Unum” twice within a short time span shows his world—he’s a thoroughly and uniquely American character—stumbling toward an identity apart from yet part of the larger, more sophisticated world. In that sense, “Kansas” really means “America.” Oz is something foreign; more powerful but also more fearsome and corrupt.


There are other, deeper fears happening in the film, through the character of Dorothy, who we strongly identify with, in part because of the portrayal of Dorothy by Judy Garland, whose performance isn’t just terrific, it’s definitive. In the movie, unlike the book, Dorothy is clearly an adolescent, leaving childhood behind her. Anxieties about the changes taking place within her permeate the Oz dream sequence. The symbolism of the ruby slippers then becomes palpable. No doubt the producers, when making the slippers red instead of silver, did this because red would look better in Technicolor. Yet much of the film seems to be crafted from their subconscious—from everyone’s subconscious—as if something deep within them, within all of us, was the true creator of the artwork.

Red stands for puberty and sexuality. It’s what Dorothy and the witch fight over. The tension between Dorothy and the witch/Miss Gulch is sexual. Miss Gulch’s hostility toward Dorothy is animated by sexual jealousy. Dorothy is becoming an attractive, healthy young woman—bursting with health, goodness, and energy; the qualities Miss Gulch, without knowing why, detests. This is pseudo-psychology, I know, but it’s also obvious. Amazingly enough, the witch, in her green make-up, has an evil, gothic appeal—picked up  by the creator and fans of the book/musical “Wicked,” for instance. Margaret Hamilton must have found the costume liberating. What makes the character impressive and scary is that the pretences of civilization—which a Miss Gulch must adhere to—are gone. We see full-bore the inner person, which an adolescent dream would bring out.

The characters of the three friends take on larger meaning from this viewpoint. I was struck, while watching them, that the movie gives us how women view men. As bumbling, incomplete, but ultimately necessary (especially in the battle with her primal rival!) and liable, with some prodding, to perform great heroics, as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion demonstrate in their rescue of Dorothy.

In her dream Dorothy is assessing the available possible suitors—alas, confined to the three farmhands! Her dream sees each one as flawed and incomplete—as the three low-rent farm hands, poor straggling victims of the depression, indubitably are. Yet she also sees their strengths, and at least in her dream, seems to make a tentative choice between them.

The final credits give the Kansas names of the performers, stressing that Kansas is the real world. The rest, the glorious Technicolor paradise/nightmare, was dream only. Ray Bolger, for example, is listed as Hunk, and not the Scarecrow. There’s one exception to this in the cast list. Can you recall who that is? It’s key to unlocking the rest of the mystery of the film story.

All the other major characters in the Oz story have analogs back in Kansas. The Wizard is Professor Marvel. The two witches: Miss Gulch. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are the farm hands. Toto is Toto. But what about Glinda the Good Witch? That mysterious force which Dorothy mentions IN THE DREAM as watching over her? What’s her analog?

Glinda could only be Dorothy Gale’s mother—the memory of her mother, all-good and benevolently beautiful, as Dorothy is becoming beautiful, like her. That the absent mother is present throughout the dream story is what gives the movie, for all of us, the strongest resonance. We know this, subconsciously. We’ve always known who Glinda is in the film (the books are something other), which is the real reason why people love the movie so much.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Order and Chaos


Anatomy of a Murder

The other night I watched for the second time the superb 1959 Otto Preminger film, Anatomy of a Murder. I saw more in it than caught my eye the first go-round.

For one, I was struck by the way the attorney characters, and the society they represent, attempt to impose a semblance of order upon chaotic events and people.

At the beginning of the movie, the life of lead character James Stewart, a former district attorney in Michigan;s Upper Peninsula, is one of listless chaos. Fishing and drinking. This is manifested by a refrigerator overflowing with freshly caught fish. Stewart is becoming like his alcoholic friend Arthur O’Connell. That Stewart is given the opportunity to represent the defendant in a murder trial becomes a way for him to impose order upon his life.

We soon see that the defendant and his wife, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick respectively, are embodiments of chaos. Neither properly fits the narrative which Stewart will need to create in the courtroom in order to win the trial.

This is as realistic a movie about the justice system as has ever been made. Shadings and uncertainties are everyplace. The verdict is acceptable because the formalities have been maintained. Stewart himself only appears to be an island of integrity—he uses his homespun facade to get what he wants. The integrity in the process comes from the process itself; giving justice its proper tribute in the form of an imperfect trial. Trials are often imperfect. Their deeper purpose isn’t to achieve justice so much as maintain order. This, at least, is the message of the film.

This is an ensemble movie, depending on the effectiveness of its array of characters to be effective. The acting is perfection itself—keeping us unable to pull away from what at its core is a simple story. Once the players take the stage we’re absorbed in them. The simple framework of the trial creates countless complexities. Black-and-white photography adds to the movie’s documentary feel.

The back-and-forth trial fireworks between James Stewart and prosecutor George C. Scott dominate the surface proceedings. Both men are terrific. Both do more with their roles than is written. Yet the greater acting honors go to the many-layered couple, Gazzara and Remick, and their love-hate relationship.

Lee Remick portrays white-trash sexuality with naked reality. Gazzara nails his character’s surliness, shrewdness, anger, and rough integrity. They’re not likeable but they’re recognizable and understandable, pushing the envelope of their relationship in the same way Stewart pushes the acceptable bounds on lawyer machinations in order to achieve his end. His lawyer performs for the jury, as James Stewart performs for we the movie audience.

Stewart and O’Connell, with help from sarcastic secretary Eve Arden triumph not because they’ve won the trial—a questionable verdict—but because they’ve restored meaning and purpose to themselves. For them, nothing else matters.

Setting, atmosphere, performance, seriousness, theme—all as believable as if the events happened today.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cate Blanchett and the Business of Great Acting

(See my Blue Jasmine review here:

How do we define great film acting?

There are three kinds of film acting.


Think Richard Burton in any film role. Theatrical, using the tools of performance: eyes; hands; voice. The ability to suddenly amplify the voice for dramatic effect. Cate Blanchett does this in Blue Jasmine.

In movies like The Ten Commandments and The King and I, Yul Brynner performs for us, striding and pronouncing. Meryl Streep in her every role performs for us. With Streep, playing a variety of roles, one is always aware she’s acting. A Willie Mays losing his cap and doing somersaults catching a baseball, as opposed to Joe DiMaggio gliding to the ball, making every catch look natural.


This applies to actors who present the same persona over and over. They merely add touches to the eternal character. Archibald Leach spent a lifetime creating the character “Cary Grant.”

Western movie stars like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood fit this category. They’re effective not for their acting, but for who they are. In his mature years John Wayne could simply stand and emit a few lines in his trademark drawl and dominate everything around him, from big-name co-stars to the vast Western landscape itself. The effectiveness of the playing isn’t overt. It’s subliminal. We react on an instinctive level. Cinema is a unique art, because of the closeness of the camera, in allowing this.

See the 1954 Western Vera Cruz, in which A and B styles of acting co-exist. Burt Lancaster grins, laughs, leaps, twirling his revolver at every opportunity, the former circus performer unleashed on a movie screen. As his partner-in-larceny, Gary Cooper underplays. He stands still and carefully, oh so slowly moves a hand to caress a rifle, before firing it. Let the viewer judge which actor is most effective.

In Blue Jasmine, Alec Baldwin has attained the level of Be-ing. He’s playing: Alec Baldwin! A familiar role, onscreen and off, that he does very well.

The difference between Alec Baldwin and John Wayne is that Baldwin, while he’s become familiar, isn’t larger than life. Not a great, all-encompassing persona, yet one fit enough for supporting roles.

Or could it be that Cate Blanchett’s performance is so daunting that everyone around her shrinks in comparison?


This is when a movie actor presents something deeper. When the performing allows us a look into the character’s soul, in so doing projecting emotion out of the screen into our own souls—striking resonant chords within us.

In my new ebook, About Western Movies, I write about the 1961 movie One-Eyed Jacks, in which both Karl Malden and Pina Pellicer achieve this. The director and star of the movie is Marlon Brando.

Brabndo performs, showing us several faces of his character, in the way Cate Blanchett does in Blue Jasmine. Brando pulls something greater out of his co-stars.

Pina Pellicer as his love interest is the human animal stripped naked. Embarrassment; shame; hurt; pain—everything is laid out for us. This is neither persona nor performance. She uses her eyes not to act, but as openings into herself. We jump into them.

Karl Malden as Brando’s rival does virtually the same thing. He amplifies his voice and uses his eyes, as Blanchett does, but the eyes don’t move. They become fixed, so that we the moviegoers have no choice but to see into them, to see into the character’s contradictions and conflicts.

Few film performers ever attain this level. Brando in On the Waterfront. Marilyn Monroe and James Dean perhaps in a couple of their movie roles. It happens when the actor blends performance with persona in such a way as to become larger than the film.


Pina II

(Pina Pellicer.)

One-Eyed Jacks was made in 1961. Curiously, that was a special year for film acting—even when one excludes the two award-winning flicks of the year, West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremburg. ESPECIALLY if one excludes them.

As I’ve mentioned, One-Eyed Jacks includes terrific ensemble acting. So does the 1961 adventure classic, Guns of Navarone, in which stars Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven give us a blend of persona and performance.

Then there’s The Hustler, starring Paul Newman in his best ever role as pool shark Eddie Felsen. Like a Cate Blanchett now, Newman’s at his best. He gives a top-notch dramatic performance full of gestures and rage, working the eyes, voice, and body to fullest extent.

Piper Laurie and George C. Scott emote mightily to keep up with him. The overall effect is dazzling.

As memorable as any of them is Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. He becomes the character. Or makes the character him. Defines him. Makes Fats one of the most distinctive characters in the history of film. More than any of them, he’s a joy to watch. We can’t wait until he’s back on screen. His sadness at Eddie’s departure—his melancholy farewell—reflects the audience’s sadness that the game and the movie are over.

A similar acting battle takes place in The Misfits. Clark Gable is the tragic, Jasmine-like character at the center of the movie; growling, smirking, staggering, collapsing as a role, an actor, a persona in front of us. The part is fascinating because Gable is destroying his career-long creation, “Clark Gable.” By movie’s end, in his desperate, futile, mad fight with the mustang stallion, we’re at the stripped-down man. Fitting that this was Gable’s final role—that he died upon the completion of the movie.

As poignant, in a good-bad way, as Gable’s fight to establish himself as an actor is to us, he’s nearly overshadowed by two of the most resonant actors ever, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, here doing quite a bit of resonating. Going places few if any actors have ever gone.

As I said, curious that a single year, 1961, would give us perhaps the greatest ensemble movies ever.

(With that, the best film of that year, IMO, is El Cid—which when viewed on a large movie screen is every bit as emotional and powerful as these others. In fact, more so.)

That Blue Jasmine isn’t quite up to the level of the very best ensemble films isn’t due to Cate Blanchett. Her performance is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s fully a performance, one that stays with you—which means that, acting tricks and all, maybe it does resonate to us, just a tad, after all.