A Royal Wedding Connection in Nothing Sacred

Last night I found myself at my old stomping ground – the public library.  Back in the day, I introduced films at the library’s weekly classic film night. (I still do it sometimes but that’s a different story.) When I saw that Nothing Sacred, a 1937 screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard was the classic film night’s selection, I had to check it out. I had never seen this movie before and curiosity got the best of me. Nothing Sacred is not only the first screwball comedy filmed in color, but also Lombard’s only Technicolor film.

Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a woman who is misdiagnosed with radium poisoning and has never left her small hometown. Fredric March is Wally Cook, a New York City journalist for the Morning Star. When his credibility is jeopardized (you should always “fact check that shit” people), Wally is demoted to the obituary editor. Wally comes across a story about Hazel’s illness and convinces her to come spend her last weeks in New York on the newspaper’s dime. Little does he know that Hazel doesn’t have radium poisoning at all and she fakes her illness for the free trip to NYC. Hazel quickly becomes the subject of endless media coverage. Hilarity and romance ensues. (Hey, it’s a 30s screwball comedy after all!)

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A Black Swan of a Controversy

Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan has come under fire recently. How much of the complicated dance sequences did she really perform herself? How much was performed by a dancing double? Sarah Lane, the double, came forward and said that Portman only performed about five person of the dance numbers. Fox Searchlight, director Darren Arnofsky, and Mila Kunis have all defended Portman’s performance.

Lane has written a compelling post about the rigorous demands of ballet and what a film like Black Swan means for the ballet world in the Wall Street Journal. She writes: “My only wish is that Natalie, Darren and certain others who worked closely on the movie, could have grasped the beauty and the heart of true ballet. If they had, they would have advocated for this art more and given the real dancers the credit that they deserve.”

Is Lane justified to bring her concerns to the media?  To an extent, yes. She obviously feels as though she has been cast aside by the film’s producers in favor of Portman, the star who went on to win the industry’s biggest award. Lane feels that the media is the only place she can turn to justify her concerns and gain any sort credit.

But there is an oversight in Lane’s commentary. She seems to have seen a different version of Black Swan than I did. Yes, Black Swan is about the beauty and heart of true ballet; there is no doubt that the film captures and respects this notion.  But it is also a highly nuanced and intricate film about, for instance, the decaying female body, mental instability, sexual repression, and personal desire. Ballet serves, in many ways, a metaphor for all of this. On top of all this, Black Swan is a feast of special effects and visual creativity.

Natalie Portman’s performance is about more than whether or not she  dances en pointe. Her strongest scenes are not these dance sequence that become inundated by these special effects, including the use a double. It is in the scene early on in the film when Nina seeks out Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy to convince him that she deserves the part of the Swan Queen. Until this moment, Nina had been a mostly silent character, shown to be meticulously dedicated to her craft and overwhelmingly quiet. It is Portman’s first scene with extended dialogue. During it you see how Nina, the character, attempts to morph into something she wants to be for the part she desire most. She wears her hair down, she wears bright red lipstick, and she attempts to really use her voice. Scenes like this are the reason why Portman won an Oscar for acting.

This is why when Lane came forward with her grievances, I thought “So?”. Lane has unintentionally exposed her naiveté about how movies are made. Yes, movies are an art form, but they are also apart of an industry. Lane, unfortunately, just became a sort of pawn in that industry. Lane has a right to express her opinion on the matter. But there is a considerable difference between what Natalie Portman did in Black Swan and what Lane did.

What are your thoughts on this controversy? Does it affect your perception of Black Swan? And, perhaps the more pressing question, how long did you wait before purchasing your copy of Black Swan?

The Dilemma’s Dilemma

Today is National Coming Out Day.

For that reason, it is appropriate to discuss a controversy that has rocked Hollywood, but not nearly hard enough as I believe it should have.

In a teaser trailer for Ron Howard’s 2011 comedy, The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, a scene was included of Vaughn’s character insulting an electric car by calling it “gay”. The trailer offended Anderson Cooper. It offended Ellen Degeneres. It offended me.

When I first saw the trailer, I was immediately turned off from seeing The Dilemma. Just like when someone uses the word “gay” as a derogatory statement in real life and I then consider them to be immature and tactless people.

In response to these growing claims of insensitivity on the part of the studio, especially at a time when the issue of LGBT teen suicides has (finally) become major news, Universal has pulled the trailer and replaced it with this one:

In a statement Universal said: “The teaser trailer for The Dilemma was not intended to cause anyone discomfort. In light of growing claims that the introduction to the trailer is insensitive, it is being replaced.”

So the trailer has been reedited (although the scene is still in the movie) and the controversy has been put aside. But not because of the claims of insensitivity. Universal recognized the liability of promoting a Ron Howard movie during Oscar season. No doubt The Dilemma will be pushed in some way as an award-worthy film.

The studio might have acted in one way but it is not the most appropriate way. Universal made no move to address why using the word “gay” as a derogatory term is not acceptable by any means. Instead of promoting an open dialogue about this issue, Universal left it at, “We’re sorry. We fixed it. (Temporarily.) But you should still see this movie.” While this does make sense from a marketing perspective, what is comes down to is this issue should not be passed over and just edited away so a movie can be successful.

I realize that it is not the studio’s job to do anything beyond release new marketing materials and protect their financial investment. They are, after all, a corporation with a certain agenda. For this reason, either the filmmakers or the actors should address why the sequence is inappropriate and not just let it wither away. By making the use of the word “gay” a non-issue, it remains a non-issue. Homophobia is not held to the same standards as other forms of bigotry in the United States. The discussion needs to start now and whenever possible, even if it is just a movie trailer, before it becomes too late.

What do you think? Did the studio do the right thing by reediting the trailer and leaving it at that? Or is this just a non-issue that has been blown up for no reason at all?

Is Skins the Movie Ready to go?

The movie version of Skins initially made me skeptical. How could this possibly live up to the exceptional series? After all, we have all seen what happened to the Sex and the City franchise. And would the actors, especially Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel who have achieved a huge degree of stardom since their Skins days, willingly reprise their roles?

The answer to that question is yes, according to this report. Hoult and Patel are reportedly ready to revisit their roles as Tony and Anwar respectively. There is no word if the other cast members are on board yet.

With Hoult and Patel on board, and if the writing is up to season 1 and 2 quality, and if the story is as mischievous as ever…

This is a lot of ifs. I’ll just have to wait and see what unfolds.

Is a Newsweek boycott in Order?

In an April 26 web exclusive, entitled “Straight Jacket”, for Newsweek, Ramin Setoodeh writes about openly gay actors playing straight characters on television and in movies. Here is an excerpt:

The reviews for the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises were negative enough, even though most of the critics ignored the real problem—the big pink elephant in the room. The leading man of this musical-romantic comedy is supposed to be a single advertising peon named Chuck who is madly in love with a co-worker (Kristin Chenoweth). When the play opened on Broadway in 1968, Jerry Orbach, an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law and Order, was the star. The revival hands the lead over to Sean Hayes, best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace. Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he only came out of the closet just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin-duh moments.) But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play’s most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the ’60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?

It is worth noting that Hayes has been nominated for a Tony Award for his role in Promises, Promises.

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Damn you, Slumdog Millionaire

Here is yet another reason for me to despise Slumdog Millionaire. NY Times columnist David Carr has handed over his Carpetbagger column to culture reporter Melena Ryzik. Why?

Carr told Variety that: “Last year was a really hard year. Slumdog went out front and stayed there, and I had four months to swan about nothing.” He added: “I love my fake friends. Penelope Cruz air-kissing you, even when she’s not exactly sure who you are, has to have an effect on you.”

I’m going to miss David Carr! The Carpetbagger, which returns Dec. 1, just won’t be the same. But I look forward to reading it just the same. (And, if you have haven’t read Carr’s memoir The Night of the Gun, I highly recommend it.) (And no, I don’t actually hate Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not that soulless.)

Celebrity, Law and Sensationalism: The Arrest of Roman Polanski

Few directors are more fascinating than Roman Polanski. His life and films have an inexplicable relationship between life and death that is wonderfully complex yet absolutely horrifying. This filmmaker, who teeters on the edge of genius and disturbing, has been one of the most polarizing figures of the last decades because of the horrific nature of his personal life and decisions. This fact has become glaringly apparent following Polanski’s Sept. 26 arrest in Switzerland. Yet what makes Polanski’s case intriguing is not whether or not he is guilty for having sex with a minor—that is a proven and accepted fact. It is how, since 1977, this case has blurred the lines between celebrity status, media sensationalism and just legal action.

Polanski was born in 1933 to Polish immigrants in Paris; his family returned to Krakow in 1936 and were forced into the Krakow ghetto in 1939. While Polanski escaped the ghetto in 1943 at the age of 10, his mother was killed in Auschwitz. Beginning in the 1960s, Polanski established himself as a great filmaker in Poland and France with such films as Knife in the Water (1962). His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby It was the year after his initial Hollywood success when Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered when she was 8 1/2 months pregant by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Before Tate’s murderers were discovered, the media—at its unbiased best—accused Polanski for the murder, thus establishing Polanski’s tense relationship with the media.

Of course no other incident has affected Polanski’s life and career than his 1977 arrest and guilty plea for unlawful sex with an underage minor. Judge Laurence Rittenband resided over the case and the trial quickly became more about the media frenzy than actual justice. In the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Rittenband is described as a conflicted and sometimes corrupt judge obsessed with maintaining a certain media image. Rittenband would often hold press conferance in his chambers to discuss the trials proceedings and kept a scrapbook of his previous celebrity trials. This action only increased the media hype surrounding the Polanski trial, which because of the directors heritage also attracted attention in France and Poland. Soon the trial was not only affecting Polanski’s life but the victims, Samantha Geimer as well. Her name was leaked to the press and her family was scrutinized by the media. Geimer has since said: “The judge was enjoying the publicity. He didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about Polanski. He was orchestrating some little show that I didn’t want to be in.” When it was ­decided that Polanski would serve prison time in 1978—in spite of the family’s plea that he not be imprisioned and court documents proving that Polanski was not a threat to society—the director left the country and has never returned. Both Roger Gumson, the prosecuting attorney, and Doug Dalton, the defense attorney, admitted that Polanski was treated unfairly by the court and are not surprised he left the country.

Polanski and Geimer settled a civil suit in 1997 and she publically forgave him. That same year, an attempt to settle the case failed, reportedly because the court requested to televise the precedings; Polanski refused to participate although the charges would have been dropped. Since then Geimer has stated that Polanski has suffered enough and appealed to have the charges against him dropped. At the time of his arrest, Polanski had also appealed the case on the grounds of misconduct the prosecution.
Here lies the problem: Polanski evaded capture by US authorities for 31 years while maintaining a practically infalible image in Europe and in Hollywood. Rather than be made an example of, as Judge Rittenband often declared he wanted to do, Polanski has had continued success. The standing ovation Polanski received when he won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Director verifies that this is not a man who is loathed for his transgressions but is respected by his peers. This is further realized by the fact that more than 200 film industry professionals including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, have signed their names to a petition demanding Polanski’s release.

The Polanski case began before the current time of media oversaturaton, before 24 hour news stations, before the OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trials and before celebrities were endlessly exploited by the tabloids. This case has become apart of that craze in the worst possible way. It is not that US authorities are wrong to arrest Polanski; what is wrong is how the media continues to feed off a 30 year old story that none of the affected parties wish to be reminded of.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 8, 2009

Reprinted with permission