Richard Corliss (1944 – 2015): Critic as everyman

04/25/2015

Richard Corliss, TIME mag’s longtime film critic, has passed away at age 71 from a stroke. He was easily one of the most authoritative yet least pretentious reviewers to occupy the aisle seat. Unlike pundits Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, known for their labyrinthine tangents, Corliss conversed easily with the reader as reliable friend. And thanks to TIME’s notorious space constraints, he mastered the pithy, precisely crafted three- to four-graph review that still somehow left us feeling satisfied.

I always found myself flipping through the back of TIME to get Corliss’s take on the latest by Scorsese (he loved “GoodFecorlissllas”) or Richard Linklater (ditto “Boyhood”), and he never disappointed in either erudition or analysis, cynical disdain or clever wordplays. Along with Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, he was one of the only critics to sound off against the obscenely bloated “Titanic,” writing, “Ultimately, Titanic will sail or sink not on its budget but on its merits as drama and spectacle. The regretful verdict here: Dead in the water.” (He also slammed the Coens’ brilliant “Fargo” as mean-spirited, but, hey, we all have our blind spots.)

And when something caught his eye, he sang it praises like no one else. Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” he wrote, “towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool. It dares Hollywood films to be this smart about going this far. If good directors accept Tarantino’s implicit challenge, the movie theater could again be a great place to live in.”

Corliss, writing in Film Comment, on the depressing state of his profession:

“The long view of cinema aesthetics is irrelevant to a moviegoer for whom history began with ‘Star Wars’,” he wrote. “A well-turned phrase is so much throat-clearing to a reader who wants the critic to cut to the chase: What movie is worth my two hours and six bucks this weekend? Movie criticism of the elevated sort, as practiced over the past half-century by James Agee and Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr — in the mainstream press and in magazines like ‘Film Comment’— is an endangered species. Once it flourished; soon it may perish, to be replaced by a consumer service that is no brains and all thumbs.”

You can sample many of Corliss’s reviews at RottonTomatoes.com

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015): “Sidetracked” by Spock in 23rd Century

03/01/2015

Leonard Nimoy died February 27 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a nasty residual, he said, from a lifelong nicotine habit. In memory of the actor-director-author, best known for the pointy-eared, maddeningly logical Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan in the “Star Trek” TV series and several “Star Trek” movies, here are excerpts from an interview on the set of “Star Trek IV,” shot at San Francisco Studios and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

by Glenn Lovell

Between takes on “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” Nimoy ‒ sans Vulcan ears ‒ talks about the “Star Trek” legacy, his excitement over the latest installment and the long road to acceptance as a bankable filmmaker who also occasionally dabbled in theater (“Six Rms Rv Vu,” “Vincent”) and TV commercials (Hallmark, Western Airlines).

This afternoon on a San Francisco sound stage Nimoy looks more like an Ivy League literature professor, dressed as he is in sleeveless sweater and gray slacks. He refuses to do interviews in character. “He’s very particular about spock3that,” whispers a member of the crew. “He never does interviews as Spock.”

Unlike others who have been eclipsed by their screen persona (Sean Connery’s James Bond comes to mind), Nimoy has used his popular typecasting as the inscrutable Spock to gain a foothold in other areas of the business. He agreed to “Star Trek II,” only if Paramount granted “other creative opportunities.” The Emmy-nominated role in “A Woman Called Golda” followed. So did the opportunity to direct “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”

Some have called this blackmail. Nimoy chooses to look upon it as a shrewd career move. Directing, he says, has always been his first love. Why not trade time in front of the camera for the pleasure of working behind the scenes?

“What people tend to forget is, I’ve been around a long time,” he continues. “I was working on a Hollywood soundstage in 1950. My first movies were ‘Queen for a Day’ and ‘Francis Goes to West Point.’ I even appeared in Republic’s last Saturday-matinee serial, ‘Zombies of the Stratosphere.’

“Directing for me is unfinished business. I started out wanting to direct, as far back as 1960, when I was enrolled in a director’s training program at MGM. But then we did the ‘Star Trek’ TV pilot and the series sold, and my career as a director was sidetracked by my success as an actor.”

Nimoy’s TV credits as director include episodes of “T.J. Hooker,” “The Powers of Matthew Starr” and “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery,” a show on which fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Jeannot Szwarc (“Supergirl”) also apprenticed. “But this picture is my biggest challenge. It’s the most physical ‘Star Trek’ in terms of size and scope. It’s major motion picture time, folks! But there’s almost more texture to this one, a greater range of emotion and humor . . . And we’re dealing with an important, timely issue.”

The environmental/ecology aspects of the new “Star Trek” came to Nimoy as he read a chilling study by Edward O. Wilson called “Biophilia” (Harvard University Press, 1984). It predicts that, if the current rate of pollution continues, the Earth stands to lose 10,000 species a year by 1990. Nimoy sought corroboration from scientists at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he conferred with the school’s dean of natural sciences, Frank Drake.

The research was passed on to Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett, who will share screenwriter credit with Nimoy. The completed script was hand-delivered to Roddenberry for the final OK. Roddenberry, according to Nimoy, said, “It looks so good it scares me.”

“Gene always meant for ‘Star Trek’ to be more than another science fiction series,” says Nimoy. “He meant for it to be a comment on the human condition ‒ a way of looking at the 20th Century from the perspective of the 23rd. I think the new ‘Voyage Home’ does this better than any of the others.”

Nimoy describes the first “Star Trek” movie, directed by Oscar-winning veteran Robert Wise, as “frustrating ‒ a carefully crafted piece of work that focused on everything but the characters.” The next two movies, in his estimation, “returned the family of characters . . . So we’ve continued to improve with each one.”

But even with the save-the-whales plea, “Voyage Home” is a lot lighter in tone than the others, Nimoy wants it known. “It’s a lot more of a romp, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ We zigzag a lot with this one. And Spock is on screen a helluva lot more. He’s alive, but there’s a question of his mental capacity. You’ll see Spock evolve into a three-dimensional character this time.”

Postscript: In all, Nimoy directed six theatrical features, including the hit comedy “3 Men and a Baby.”

“Steve Jobs” Comes Home

01/14/2015

by Glenn Lovell

Call it a homecoming —

Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle — known for “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — is in the Bay Area shooting that still-untitled Steve Jobs biopic scripted by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In mid-January, the company cordoned off Crist Drive in Los Altos, home to “the garage” where Apple was founded in 1976. Last week, principal photography moved to, among other spots, De Anza College’s Flint Center on Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino.

The always natty Jobs — sporting green bow tie and double-breasted blazer — unveiled the original Mac at Flint Center in 1984.

Michael Fassbender is standing in for the Apple guru, a role originally linked to Leonardo DiCaprio and (a dead ringer for Jobs) Jobs3Christian Bale. Seth Rogen costars as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the brainy Sancho Panza to Jobs’ big-picture Don Quixote

For the De Anza campus shoot, the production is looking for enthusiastic local extras, 18-40 years old, who will cheer on cue as Fassbender’s Jobs addresses an Apple convention. Must have ’80s hairstyles and clothing. Production is also looking for vintage cars, 1983 or older.

Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston and Jeff Daniels are set for juicy co-starring roles.

De Anza Film/TV students had the opportunity to serve as extras on Saturday, January 31, 2015, on the ‘Danny Boyle Project,’ ” said De Anza film prof Susan Tavernetti. “The ‘crowd scene’ shoot took place from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the Sunken Garden adjacent to Flint Center.” Though student extras weren’t paid, De Anza’s F/TV Department received a donation — “$10 a head.”

A production company synopsis provides insight into the film’s approach: “(Jobs’) passion and ingenuity have been the driving force behind the digital age. However his drive to revolutionize technology was sacrificial. Ultimately it affected his family life and possibly his health. In this revealing film we explore the trials and triumphs of a modern day genius, Steven Paul Jobs.”

Beau Bonneau Casting in San Francisco (415-346-2278) is handling paid-extra gigs.

Rod Taylor: King of B’s (as in beefcake, brawler, boozer)

01/11/2015

by Glenn Lovell

Sad to say another face from our misspent youth at the movies has passed.

taylor

Taylor in “Dark of the Sun”

Sydney’s own Rodney Sturt Taylor — who went from beefcake hero to legendary boozer to, in his later years, wonderfully crusty character actor — died at age 84 in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

You know him as the mama’s boy who sustains some nasty pecks in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and as the Victorian-era scientist with his eye on the future in George Pal’s Oscar-winning “The Time Machine.”

These titles, plus a couple of lame romantic comedies with Doris Day (they had zero chemistry), were mentioned in the obits. Mostly overlooked: Taylor’s mercenary in the brawny, Congo-set “Dark of the Sun” and his desperately overextended Aussie businessman in “The V.I.P.’s,” which co-starred Maggie Smith, a favorite among his leading ladies.

Well before he was hired by Hitchcock, John Ford (“Young Cassidy”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” which he later decided was “viciously anti-American”), and Quentin Tarantino (as a jowly Winston Churchill in “Inglourious Basterds”), Taylor had walk-ons opposite James Dean (“Giant”) and Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor (“Raintree County”).

Cast more for his physique than his acting chops — think of him as the Down Under Rock Hudson — Taylor found himself playing second fiddle to the leading man in films like “A Gathering of Eagles” (starring Hudson), “Fate Is the Hunter” (Glenn Ford), and “36 Hours” (as a German officer determined to break James Garner).

Later typed as an “active leading man” in Westerns and war pictures, Taylor said he felt like a phony. “(That) kind of embarrassed me sometimes because I really wasn’t big enough to be a really tough guy,” he recalled in a TCM interview. “I could fight in a way, I guess, (but) I really wasn’t good-looking enough to pull some of the roles that I was put into. So I was a little bit, I don’t know, insecure …”

When he did muscle his way to the front it was all too often in low-budget, testosterone-fueled imports, such as Italy’s title-tells-all “Colossus and the Amazon Queen.”

All in all, the sandy-haired calendar boy who apprenticed in radio (as Tarzan, no less) enjoyed a good-to-middling career, plowing the path for a later wave of Aussies, which would include Russell Crowe and Huge Jackman.

Ten Best (read Quirkiest) Movies of 2014

01/02/2015

by Glenn Lovell

There were more reasons not to go out to the movies than ever before. And that’s what we mostly did in 2014, stayed home ‒ by the millions ‒ choosing to concentrate on quick-turnover DVDs, PPV, streaming Netflix and other online platforms.

Which may account for why the parking lot at a nearby megaplex was eerily vacant. AMC and other chains reported a 50 percent drop in attendance over the first nine months. Especially worrying: Hollywood’s usually reliable target audience, the 12- to 27-year-old set, seemed to have lost interest. It was bound to happen, no? The iPhone/Xbox demographic has never been as nostalgic as we boomers about the “movie-going experience.”

Oh, sure, we occasionally took the bait and queued for “event” pictures, such as “Unbroken” and “Interstellar.” Almost to a one, they underwhelmed. The ragtag space opera “Guardians of the Galaxy” became the summer’s surprise draw; Disney animation and Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Spider-Man joined it on the list of Top 10 money-makers. Also performing well: the rebooted Godzilla and “Planet of the Apes” franchises. They almost made up for such crash-and-burn concoctions as “The Expendables 3” and “Dracula Untold.”

The year’s big movie story was straight out of the Dr. Strangelove-ian ’60s. North Korea threatened nuclear Armageddon in retaliation for Sony Pictures’ rude buddy comedy “The Interview.” Sony and exhibitors folded. TNightcrawler_PayoffPosterhe scatological James Franco-Seth Rogan reunion was pulled from first-run houses. No matter. The cineplex’s loss was the digital world’s gain, as the film set new records for Google Play and Xbox Live. (On New Year’s Day, Comcast VOD added the title to its menu.)

No, not what you’d call a memorable year in the dark.

Still, we were able to find a handful of titles to cheer about. Not surprisingly, they were low-budget festival favorites that favored story and character over CG effects. In no particular order, last year’s standouts were:

1. “Snowpiercer.” A mash-up of “Runaway Train” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Like the latter, this dystopian allegory imagines a futureworld in which the haves feed off the have-nots, only now the setting is a “Dune”-inspired bullet train that gives new meaning to “coach” and “first-class.” Directed by South Korea’s Joon-ho Bong.

2. “Nightcrawler.” The best Scorsese film not directed by Scorsese. Jake Gyllenhaal as you’ve never seen him before plays a freelance videographer who will go to any lengths to score the night’s top story, even if it means rearranging a crime scene. Dan Gilroy announced his arrival as a director to watch.

3. “Whiplash.” The anti-“Mr. Holland’s Opus.” An intense pocket drama about a student drummer who falls under the spell of a relentless conservatory conductor. Miles Teller plays the would-be Gene Krupa who literally bleeds for his art, and J.K. Simmons is the tyrannical teacher. Tough to watch but rewarding, especially for Simmons intimidating performance.

whiplash

Teller, Simmons in “Whiplash”

4. “Birdman.” The scandalously undervalued Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park in this hard-to-categorize dramedy about a onetime box-office champ who, drowning in self-contempt, walked away from a hit franchise, much as Keaton walked away from Batman in 1992. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu (“Amores Perros”) directed and co-wrote the year’s most exhilarating workout, which is, essentially, an ongoing backstage debate between a tormented “artist” and his commercial-hack alter-ego. Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts co-star.

5. “Flamenco Flamenco.” A new film by Spain’s Carlos Saura (“Carmen”) is always an event. One shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”) is doubly so. Saura, 83, continues his love affair with indigenous song and dance (cante, toque, baile and palmas) with this blindingly beautiful mix of performance, Goya tableaux and Brechtian stagecraft.

6. “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater redefined the family/coming-of-age drama by shooting the same cast over a 12-year stretch. Little happens ‒ except a succession of minor crises . Ellar Coltrane plays the main character, from ages six to 18; Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are superb as the loving, soon-to-be-separated parents. If ever a film could be described as a life experience, this is it.

7. “The Homesman.” Tommy Lee Jones brings home the year’s unlikeliest triumph ‒ a grim feminist Western. Jones directed and co-stars in this adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel about a tough spinster (Hilary Swank) and a boozy no-account who take three deranged women by wagon from Nebraska to St. Louis.

8. “The Skeleton Twins.” Don’t be put off by the opening scene ‒ an attempted suicide. This brother-sister reunion comedy co-starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader proved one of the year’s most rewarding entertainments. A bit like “Harold & Maude,” only more heartfelt.

9. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Deadpan fantasist Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) returns with his best looking film yet, a quirky fairy tale-political satire set in the world’s most ornate hotel between the world wars. Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolon play concierge and protégé; Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law make up part of the familiar ensemble.

10. “Life Itself.” Steve James directed this documentary about film critic Roger Ebert’s final days battling disfiguring thyroid cancer. What could have been morbid in the extreme turns out to be a fascinating, life-affirming memoir, a tribute to both Ebert the ultimate fanboy and Ebert the unlikely real-life hero.

Year’s spookiest film: Australia’s “The Babadook”

Year’s most bizarre sci-fi’er: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Year’s best vigilante/payback thrillers: “Cold in July” and “In the Blood”

Year’s best import: Sweden’s “Force Majeure”

Year’s biggest disappointments: “The Monuments Men,” “Interstellar” and “Wild”

Lovell, former movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.

Film Prof’s Advice to Witherspoon: Hit the trail

12/29/2014

by Glenn Lovell

As we stop to pay homage to the film greats we lost this year — Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among them — let’s not forget Stanford University film professor Henry Breitrose, who died in October at age 78.

breitrose

Breitrose

I interviewed Breitrose numerous times over the years and served as a judge with him at a student film festival. Among his illustrious students: Oscar winners Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and Reese Witherspoon, now in the critically acclaimed “Wild.”

An English literature major who dabbled in film studies while at Stanford, Witherspoon was torn between earning a degree and continuing to ply her craft. She already had a couple of movies and TV shows to her credit.

“I advised Reese to stop out and try an acting career on the grounds that if she didn’t, she’d never forgive herself,” he recalled via email.

Breitrose, likewise, suggested the young Payne concentrate on the more practical side of film-making. The advice, you might say, has paid dividends: After graduating from Stanford and U.C.L.A., Payne directed “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” collecting two Oscars for screenwriting along the way.

“Alexander walked into my office one day and said that he wanted to learn to make movies. I asked what kind? He said fiction film. I suggested that he take any of my courses that he deemed useful, which turned out to be film history and film theory, but that he spend the bulk of his undergrad studies learning about stories and story telling, so he majored in Spanish Lit.

“When it was time for him to graduate, I made a couple of calls to UCLA and arranged for him to do a graduate degree in directing with (Hungarian emigre) Gyula Gazdag, who is arguably the best directing teacher in the U.S. He is Gyula’s prize student.

“You’ll note that I claim no responsibility for Alex’s and Reese’s success. With these kinds of students, one just stands back and lets it happen.”

Send in the Killer Klowns

12/07/2014

by Glenn Lovell

Comics as whack-job meanies ‒ I know, I know, it sounds like an oxymoron.

robin

Williams as Sy the Photo Guy

Think back. Some of our best bad guys have been culled from the ranks of funnymen. Just off the top of my head I can think of Mickey Rooney as the frothing title character in “Baby Face Nelson,” Second City alum Alan Arkin as the killer in “Wait Until Dark,” Jerry Lewis as talk-show host Jerry (sangfroid) Langford in “King of Comedy,” and, more recently, Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in “Drive.”

Brooks may be the most terrifying of them all. The comic used his fussy, deadpan delivery to excellent effect, making his psycho gangster as deadly with a straight razor as a quip. “That’s it, it’s done. There’s no pain, it’s over,” Rose soothes after slicing open a character’s artery.

Most comics have a dark side. That’s why they become comics, to hide or suppress their neuroses, those feelings of inadequacy.

foxcatcher

Carell as John du Pont

We were reminded of this in spades when Robin Williams lost his battle with depression. The former standup comic-improv genius was adept at channeling his manic behavior, using it to get inside social misfits, even killers. Who can forget Williams as the deeply disturbed drug-store employee Sy Parrish in “One-Hour Photo.”

The latest comic to shock with an abrupt about-face is Steve Carell. In the critically acclaimed “Foxcatcher,” the good-naturedly dense “Office”/”Anchorman” star dons putty nose and nubby rabbit-like dentures to become the seriously weird John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune and an America First super-patriot straight out of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Carell is creepy-plus in the role, a textbook paranoid schizophrenic who shows very little outward emotion. Indeed, he walks as if he’s dead from the neck down. Besides a nasty love-hate thing with mommy dearest, the character, like Sy Parrish, doesn’t know how to interact with people. So he buys their acceptance.

Where did Carell find this character? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he tapped into something fundamentally “off” about himself, like stage fright or a fear of not measuring up. We all have it, but comics seem to bury ‒ and eventually mine it better than the rest of us.

Second Screen Experience: Nail in coffin for serious movie-goers?

06/29/2014

by Glenn Lovell

That death knell you hear is for weekend movie-going as we once knew it. Soon we’ll be recalling wistfully, “Remember back when? Remember when people watched reverentially as images danced magically across the screen.”

If marketing honchos have their way, the bane of every serious moviegoer’s existence, the illuminated cell phone, will be not only welcomed in theaters, it will be encouraged, a required tool for getting the most out of the big-screen experience.

And when this happens, studio execs who have been lamenting the steady decline in attendance can bid adios to what remains of their slowly disappearing audience. Here, finally, will be the excuse disenchanted film-goers needed to park permanently in front of the home-entertainment system.

Word arrived last week that the so-called “second-screen experience” is on its way.

cellphone

Future … or Pandora’s Box?

According to a piece published in the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle, National CineMedia (NCM) is“working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience both before the movie and … during the movie.”

That’s right, if this comes to pass, those annoying preshow programs ‒ Ford and Pepsi commercials, behind-the-scenes promos for cable TV series ‒ will, with the help of your Shazam app, become interactive games.

And all you’ll need to play along is your cell phone or iPad.

Yes, that very cell phone you’ve been told to mute and stow upon entering the theater.

Obviously this invitation will be manna for those who never got the message that cell phones are a bloody distraction for those of us who come to watch the movie ‒ and only the movie. These clueless clowns will be able to text away with not only impunity but the blessing of theater management.

National CineMedia, the culprit behind this, specializes in something we all hate: those FirstLook movie ads or what NCM euphemistically calls “integrated brand experiences.” NCM, licking its chops, envisions a whole new revenue delivery system. But lest we become alarmed the company assures us that it’s only condoning cell phones during the preshow portion of the program.

Yeah, sure. Pardon me if I’m a tad skeptical. NCM won’t stop with the promotional portion of the program; it’s got its eye on bigger fish and knows that cell-phone junkies are easily enticed to keep tapping away during the feature attraction. The company lets slip its true intentions when it argues that “movies, by definition, are a social experience” that can only be fully experienced with the aid of social media.

Movies are meant to be a social experience ‒ one in which a large gathering of people interact respectfully with one another and the screen. There has always been a pact between filmmaker and film-goer. Once you introduce ‒ and condone ‒ the use of mobile devices that only some in the audience approve, you break that pact and leave diehard movie-goers racing, no, screaming for the nearest exit.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

02/02/2014

Death knows no timetable. It takes actors when they’re just gaining traction and more often when they’ve long since passed from public scrutiny. Death took Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, in his prime from what is being reported as a heroin overdose. The Oscar-winner for “Capote” was branching out with each new film and, indeed, had plumbed new depths as the charismatic cult leader in “The Master.”

 I sat down with Hoffman a couple of times and was, at each meeting, impressed by how low-key and self-effacing he was. What follows is a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, before he broke out with mainstream roles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and the latest “Hunger Games.” We would talk again a year later at the Sundance Film Festival when he was promoting “Love Liza” written by his older brother. In that downbeat drama he played a guy dealing with the loss of his wife by getting high — on airplane glue and gas fumes.

by Glenn Lovell

In a span of just under three years Philip Seymour Hoffman has been an obscene phone caller (in “Hapimagespiness”), a New York drag queen (“Flawless”), a preoccupied male nurse (“Magnolia”), an obnoxious playboy (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”), an underground rock critic (“Almost Famo0us”), and, most notably, a painfully needy gofer for a San Fernando Valley porn merchant (“Boogie Nights”).

The New York-born, stage-trained actor has been so convincing in these beyond-the-fringe roles that his success has sort of backfired: Filmgoers don’t realize it’s the same Philip Seymour Hoffman in each role.

Hence, despite growing critical acclaim, Hoffman, 33, remains, to borrow the title of one of his vehicles, “almost famous.”

Pale and doughy-faced, he’s definitely not mainstream Hollywood’s idea of the classic leading man. But in David Mamet’s good-natured Hollywood-in-the-hinterlands lark “State and Main,” Hoffman is finally the “normal” guy who gets the small-town girl (Rebecca Pidgeon).

He plays Joseph Turner White, a timid but staunchly principled screenwriter who’s reluctant to participate in a Hollywood director’s cover-up, which has something to do with an amorous leading man (Alec Baldwin) and an underage local (Julia Stiles).

“That subplot probably won’t go over in some circles,” acknowledged Hoffman, nodding as he reached for his second cigarette of the interview. “But there is so much of this movie that’s so innocent ‒ like my story line.”

Which is a 180 for Hoffman, who heretofore has specialized in, well, more flamboyant personalities.

“I know, I know,” he agreed in that half-staccato, half mumble that has become his trademark. “This is your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-fumble-over-each-other, boy-and-girl-eventually-kiss type of story. It’s really so sweet, so basic.”

Was this a conscious career move, to distance himself from those more oddball characters?

“Well, no,” replied Hoffman, who will next be seen in brother Gordy Hoffman’s “Love Liza,” about a man who copes with his wife’s death by sniffing airplane glue. “I’ve always felt the less recognizable you are, the better it is. Being a celebrity can be a good thing to a certain point. But, after a while, it can backfire.

“After a certain point, you don’t want your personality to precede you.” Hoffman figures that after nine years and approximately 60 films and plays, he’s now semi-recognizable. “I get recognized a helluva lot more now. That’s definitely changed. I deal with a certain loss of anonymity in my life, but it’s not so much that I don’t still have a life.”

For Hoffman, the bottom line remains: Serve the material, not your ego. Anything else, he sniffed, is “personality acting.”

“I think people have trouble attaching me to a particular performance because I try very hard to put the character who is on the page first, and try not to be myself I the film,” he explained.

“The approach is obviously working. No one would ever confuse his tornado-tracker in “Twister” with his pompous American abroad in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” or with his portrait of “Creem” rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical “Almost Famous.”

“I really loved playing Freddie Miles in ‘Mr. Ripley,’ “ he said. “Freddie’s kind of an ass in the way he behaves, but he also is incredibly savvy and loyal to his friends. But I’ve been really lucky to play a lot of parts like that. They’re not big parts, but they’re nice parts, and there’s a lot you can do with them.”

As the upstairs drag queen in “Flawless,” Hoffman plays speech therapist to stroke victim Robert De Niro. It was a gutsy career move. Did agents and friends wave him away from the role, given the dangers of typecasting in the still relatively homophobic movie industry?

“No, I was the one waving me away from ‘Flawless,’ “ he replied. “I was cast in the part without even reading for it. Director Joel Schumacher said De Niro didn’t want to see me read, either. I was like, ‘There’s something wrong here.’ Because I wasn’t sure I could do the part. But I kept reading and re-reading the script and eventually I felt, ‘This is something I can do.’ So I went for it. I worked my buff off. It was scary.”

Most established actors would have shied away.

“Yeah, yeah ‒ I know. But being ‘typed’ wasn’t even a thought. I know who I am as a person. Who I am as Phil is extraordinarily clear to me. That all that matters ‒ my work, my art form.”

Robert Redford: Cast Away

01/24/2014

by Glenn Lovell

As usual we had a few quibbles with the Academy Award nominations, like where were “Fruitvale Station,” “Don Jon” and Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”? Our biggest gripe, however, was the exclusion of Robert Redford in the best actor category for his work in the powerful survival drama “All Is Lost.” After experiencing Redford’s career-capping tour de force as a lone sailor adrift in the Indian Ocean, I would have bet the farm (or yacht) that he had a lock on a nomination, if not the trophy itself.

Lost

Redford: Abandoned

Not only was it the best performance in Redford’s long, storied career, it provided a master’s class in lean, economical under-acting. Redford’s stolid mariner blazed like a beacon in the night beside the more conventional scenery chewing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey.

But in the end this didn’t mean diddly to Academy voters who snubbed both the film and its 77-year-old star. Why? A few possible answers:

√ What’s in a Name? Everything! There are memorable titles, like “Scream” and “Psycho” and soft, impossible to recall titles, like “You Again” and “To the Wonder.” Redford’s latest was saddled with a title so pedestrian it went in one ear and out the other, precluding word-of-mouth.

√ The Fogey Factor. Hollywood has always had a soft spot for veteran actors who hang in there and eventually sneak off with the hardware. Christopher Plummer won at age 82, Henry Fonda at 76. But the Academy’s sentimental streak goes only so far. It was easy to overlook the erstwhile golden boy because the voters had already embraced “Nebraska” costars Bruce Dern, 77 and June Squibb, 84.

√ Yesterday’s Snooze. “All Is Lost” played all the major film festivals, including Cannes in May, before receiving limited release in October. By the time “Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” arrived, “Lost” was all but forgotten. It didn’t help that the film had no advertising budget to speak of.

√ Simple Spells Simple-Minded. The barebones man-against-the-sea plot was exhilarating to some but too basic for most. Just a cursory description of the film turned off Academy members, who stuck their complimentary “for your consideration” screener at the bottom of the pile.

√ Silence Is Golden ‒ in small doses. Just two years ago Hollywood awarded Jean Dujardin the best actor statuette for his silent performance in “The Artist.” Like Redford, he had only one line of dialogue. Enough already with the pantomimed emoting, grumbled voters. Even lost in space, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gabbed away.

√ The Outsider Factor. As founder of Sundance Film Festival, which curries and honors independent cinema, Redford can be seen as the ultimate maverick. It stands to reason he has stubbed a front-office toe or two when weighing in on where the year’s hot new indies should land.


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