For Cicely Tyson (1924 – 2021) occasional stardom . . . on her own terms


If for a moment you were lucky enough to fall within her orbit, you never forgot meeting Cicely Tyson. Nearing the end of her six-decade career the actress-activist still radiated fierce pride in an admittedly curtailed career. I met Tyson twice. First, when as a novice reviewer for a Hollywood trade paper I raved about “Sounder” — without mentioning screenwriter Lonnie Elder III, the only African-American behind the camera. A rookie mistake for which I was deservedly told off in a flood of angry phone calls. Tyson called to both thank me for my kind words about her amazing, Oscar-worthy performance — and to signal an end to the orchestrated phone campaign. I made amends by interviewing Elder over lunch the next day.

I met Tyson again in 2005, when she and good friend Louise Fletcher came to San Jose for a buddy comedy.

by Glenn Lovell

Call it another sign of our troubling times —

Nowadays, even an Oscar and three Emmys don’t guarantee access to Hollywood’s inner circle, especially if you’ve committed the unpardonable sin of continuing your craft past 70.

These American treasures, both 71, took bottom dollar for a Northern California labor of love about growing old with dignity. It’s a high-def video adaptation of the play “Fat Rose and Squeaky,” named for the Fletcher character’s imaginary friends. And at $500,000, the budget didn’t allow for trailer dressing rooms, luxury suites or other star amenities.

Ask Cicely Tyson and Louise Fletcher. The star of “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and a third for “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

I sat down with the actresses during a break in their (unpaid) rehearsal.

“Why did I want to do this?” began Fletcher, best known for her Nurse Ratched in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” “Because it’s a very good script and a very good role. My character, Bonnie, is 83 years old. She’s pretty broken down and on the edge of not making it … a great deal of the screenplay takes place inside her head. But mostly, it’s a story about friendship.”

For Tyson, it was the opportunity to work with Fletcher and do something meaningful. She also liked the fact that her character, a French émigré and former ballet dancer, wasn’t written with race in mind.

The size of the production? Never a factor.

“I would have done ‘Jane Pittman’ if it had been done in the basement of a church,” said Tyson, last seen in “Because of Winn-Dixie,” with a laugh. “For me, it’s always the character, and the part she plays in the scheme of things.”

And it’s just great to be working, period. In Hollywood, actresses past 40 are all but obsolete. Look what happened to Barbara Hershey and Meg Ryan, points out Fletcher. Both went the collagen route in sad attempts to improve their box-office standings.

“You know Hollywood; it’s not a very realistic place,” Fletcher said. “I notice grandmothers are about 45 now … we live in a youth-worshipping culture. When people get over a certain age they become invisible to most people.”

Added Tyson, who received an Oscar nomination for her sharecropper wife in “Sounder”: “I’ve been known as the actress who works every couple of years. When a few years go by and I don’t get a call, it’s not unusual for me.”

Is it getting better or worse?

“Better for men but not for women,” replied Tyson. “You know as a man ages, he becomes a lot more attractive to Hollywood. As a woman ages, she becomes a lot more unattractive … because youth is the absolute scale on which everything is weighed.”

“Fat Rose and Squeaky” will wrap production in mid-November. It will then be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival.

“Keep your fingers crossed that we’re as lucky with this as we were with ‘Sounder,’” said Tyson.

Jackboot diplomacy: name that protest




This morning’s pop civics quiz: match the picture with its source.

1. “Battleship Potemkin” (Eisenstein, 1925)

2. “The Battle of Algiers” (Pontecorvo, 1966)

3. “Medium Cool” (Wexler, 1969)

4. “Z” (Costa-Gavras, 1969)

5. “Zabriskie Point” (Antonioni, 1970)

6. “Brazil” (Gilliam, 1985)

7. “St John’s Photo-Op” (Trump, 2020)




“Contagion” Goes Viral, Again


Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman as the Indy Jones of infectious disease busters, and Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” with Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, have become pandemic must-streams on Netflix and Cinemax, respectively. “Outbreak” (1995) exploits an Ebola-like scourge to mine formulaic “Oh, gross!” shocks while “Contagion” takes a more clinically mater-of-fact approach and is, consequently, a lot more sobering and alarming. Here’s our opening weekend assessment of the 2011 Soderbergh release.

Cover Your Mouth, Please!

by Glenn Lovell

After fidgeting through Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” you’ll want to make a beeline for the nearest restroom to wash your hands. Thoroughly.

As you file toward the exit, you’ll avoid touching railings, doors … the person in front of you.

“Contagion”  is hardly what you’d call a feel-good communal experience.

This is one of those films that you can admire without particularly enjoying. At times it plays like a feature-length public service announcement, a duck-and-cover-your-mouth drill, with the culprit now being a mutant superbug rather than radiation.

Bug-resistant Damon

In shock appeal, it’s closer to the BBC’s once-banned docudrama “The War Game” or the more recent “The Road” than to, say, “Outbreak” or “28 Days Later.” After being infected, Soderbergh’s victims convulse and froth at the mouth. Forget the deathbed speeches. No time.

Employing the interconnectivity conceit that served him so well in “Traffic,” Soderbergh, working from an original screenplay by Scott Burns, traces the deadly disease from a Hong Kong casino to London to San Francisco and heartland America. The Typhoid Mary or possible Patient Zero is a fatally outgoing American businesswoman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Peltrow). On her way back to husband Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth stops off in Chicago for a little R&R with a “former” lover. By the time she’s back in Minneapolis, she’s displaying worrying symptoms: a hacking cough, high temperature, excruciating headache.

Rushed to the hospital, she’s dead within hours ‒ and, as the scope of the epidemic becomes clear, investigations are launched by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, the latter led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who places Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) in the field to isolate the sick and set up quarantine centers. Other plots radiate out like the threads of a spider’s web. One involves a private lab researcher in San Francisco (Elliott Gould), another a resourceful but ultimately self-serving blogger (Jude Law, doing his best Fleet Street impression), a third an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) dispatched to Hong Kong to retrace Patient Zero’s steps.

A global pandemic, the mystery virus has soon claimed 26 million lives, 2.5 million in the U.S. A news alert reports that the president has “gone underground” and Congress is conducting business online. Fearing an infected person could act as the perfect suicide bomber, the suits in Homeland Security curtail civil liberties.

The race is on to ID the virus, replicate its growth pattern, and manufacture a vaccine

As he has before, director-cinematographer Soderbergh takes us from the personal ‒ an immune father (Damon) does whatever’s necessary to keep his daughter safe, a scientist (Jennifer Ehle) plays Madame Currie and tests a potential vaccine on herself ‒ to the widespread ramifications: looting, riots, pharmaceutical companies jockeying for the “miracle cure.”

“Contagion” is nothing if not an ambitious and timely undertaking, enlivened by a handful of truly jarring moments, including a rather graphic brain dissection. “Should I take a sample?” asks a doctor. “I want you to move away from the table,” replies his boss, obviously confronting something not in medical texts.

As an urgent warning, the film works. But as compelling drama, something you want to recommend to your friends, it leaves much to be desired. The Damon and Fishburne subplots, in particular, struck me as predictable and melodramatic; the scenes with Cotillard felt like they were plucked from a more mainstream thriller. The kicker, where we flash back from Day 135 to Day 1, is, however, worth the blend of shock and suds. In a variation on the Butterfly Effect, it reminds us that when a banana tree falls in Asia, the deathly thud can be heard halfway around the world.

Contagion ✮✮✮ With Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Elliott Gould. Directed by Steven Soderbergh; scripted by Scott Z. Burns. 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense scenes, fairly graphic autopsy)

Journal of the Hunker-Down Year


Day 7 — Thurs., March 19

Check this out — it could be the face of future movie-going


universalDay 6 — Wednesday, March 18.

Or is it Day 2? We’ve been sheltering since last Friday, but officially this is the second day of self-isolation. Whatever … Overcast, then drizzly outside. Our street is eerily deserted, save for the occasional UPS truck delivering ‘the essentials,’ like Kona coffee … I dropped by to see how the industry’s trusted trade paper was handling the pandemic and found  — the H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D sign replaced by S-H-U-T-D-O-W-N. Cute. … Steven Soderbergh‘s scary, nightly news immediate “Contagion” (2011) may be getting all the exposure, so to speak, but let’s not forget Wolfgang Petersen‘s earlier “Outbreak” (1995), starring Dustin Hoffman as a frenetic Army medico hot on the trail of an Ebola-like plague. As film critic for the SJ Merc I filed a snarky Pg. 1 on the film’s sketchy credibility. Indeed, the deadly African virus enters the Bay Area via “the Port of San Jose” …

Day 5 — Tuesday, March 17

Good morning. It’s somehow reassuring on this first full day of shelter-in-place to turn on the radio (sturdy Sony Cassette-corder from OSH) and hear “Is your testosterone level low …. ?” The I-280 and 101 may be eerily deserted, like the freeways in “Target Earth,” a cheesy 1950’s sci-fi’er with Richard Denning) but it’s busichronness as usual in most quarters. Marco, our lion-size tabby, is suffering hunger pangs, the Keurig is belching steam … and the newspaper is at the end of our driveway (almost on the neighbors’ lawn). And what’s on everybody’s mind? Tom Brady, after 20 years, has made it official: he’s leaving the Patriots and angling for a new contract. Talk about bad timing? There’s something more urgent than football out there at the moment, Tom, something called a pandemic —

Day 4 — Monday, March 16

Desperate, Universal announces it will make three of its first-run titles — “The Hunt,” “The Invisible Man,” and “Emma” — available for streaming Friday for a limited 48-hour window. Each will cost $20 to rent. I’m down. Want to encourage the practice, especially at a time when getting out can be problematic. No word yet on whether Warner Bros., Paramount and Disney will follow suit and let their decades-old commitment to first-run houses slide.

This morning’s suggested “hunkering” is now codified. Santa Clara County, our home, and most of the Bay Area ordered, starting at midnight, to “self-isolate” and “shelter in place” for at least three weeks. This hasn’t stopped or slowed the scammers. Received fourth robocall of the day. Scary. After the planet is rendered a pulsing, irradiated green orb, phones promising free time-shares and romantic Caribbean getaways will continue to ring … and ring … and ring.

I woke early, around 4:30. Heavy rain. We need it. Fired up the Kindle. Toggled between Robert Ardry’s “The Territorial Imperative” and “Men Against the Sea,” the second volume in the Bounty trilogy. Both, given the current situation, seem somehow worthwhile. Maybe our unprecedented dilemma is Earth’s way of healing itself. Skies above northern Italy are said to be clearing of exhaust, other noxious fumes …

Day 3 — Sunday, March 15.

Shit not only hits the fan, it melts the thing. Restaurants, bars, movie megaplexes are ordered to shutter in the Bay Area. The New York Times reports “Ticket Sales Dive at Box Office … Lowest Turnout in 20 Years.” No surprise there: Hollywood was in trouble long before the pandemic. Coronavirus took care of a job started by Netflix, Amazon Prime and its own reluctance to acknowledge the obvious — people aren’t going to the movies like they once did. Weekend ticket sales dropped to 2000 level.

Day 2 — Saturday, March 14.

Day 1 — Friday, March 13. Coincidence or empathetic programming? Just as the government calls for us to “think about huwinternkering down,” as in stay put, wouldn’t you know it, TCM dusts off George Stevens‘ adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), about two Jewish families in-hiding from the Nazis. Set almost entirely in the secret annex behind the bookcase, this musty perennial redefines stage-locked, claustrophobic. Worse, we’re shut in with doe-eyed Millie Perkins‘ as the more cloying than charming Anne and Shelley Winters as the mettlesome Mrs. Van Daan? You’d have to search long and hard for a more annoying performance by Winters, who, beginning with her “A Place in the Sun” party-pooper, specialized in whiney millstones. See Winters as Humbert’s gauche landlady, Charlotte Haze, in “Lolita,” as the former Olympian masquerading as stereotypical yenta in “The Poseidon Adventure” … or, as the rock-star president’s strung-out mater in “Wild in the Streets.”



Epic “1917” — in class by itself


by Glenn Lovell

We screened British director Sam Mendes’ “1917” in my Intro to Cinematic Arts class last week. The World War 1 epic, recorded in what seems one continuous shot for that full-on immersive experience, had the intended effect — it left some students slack-jawed in amazement, some fighting tears because the story of survival in No Man’s Land struck too close to home. Others were exhilarated by its mix of surreal dreamscapes (the bombed-out French village), grim set design (a mask-like face peering from the wall of a crater, frozen mid-scream), and ever-intensifying obstacles in what is essentially a salute to such elemental foot races as “The Naked Prey” and “Run of the Arrow,” directed by, respectively, Cornell Wilde and Sam Fuller.

Here  are handout notes prepared for the screening. Strong Spoiler Alert: this analysis, in ID’ing protagonist, timely themes, act breaks — assumes the reader has seen the film.


“1917” Study Guide

Directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall”); original screenplay by Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns; cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”), composer Thomas Newman (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”)

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Cwar2pl Blake), George MacKay (Lance Cpl Schofield), Colin Firth (Gen. Erinmore), Benedict Cumberbatch (Col. MacKenzie)

Setting: Northern France, Hindenburg Line; network of British and German trenches and cratered, barbed-wire-entangled battlefields (No Man’s Land) that separates the two.

Time span: little more than a day, Friday into Saturday, April 6-7, 1917. (Note: U.S. entered war in April, 1917.)war3

Plot, based in part on stories told to Mendes by his World War 1 veteran grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes: Blake and Schofield, two British corporals, must cross a ravaged, otherworldly landscape to warn gung-ho colonel that his regiment is about to charge a heavily fortified German position. At risk: 1,600 men, including Blake’s older lieutenant brother.

Note: Blake and Schofield form a study in contrast — Blake’s impulsive, garrulous, funny, brave but uncertain how he’ll acquit himself in battle; Schofield’s deliberate, analytical, more of a loner, cynical about why they’re fighting.

Genre: War saga; race-against-clock adventure; rite of passage (into manhood); suicide mission into enemy territory a la “Saving Private Ryan”; spiritual odyssey

Narrative Voice: Omniscient

Protagonist: Cpl Schofield

Antagonist: German military; time (the loudly ticking clock); Schofield himself (who’s initially reluctant to join mission, risk his life)

Main thewar4me: Bravery isn’t about sworn duty or shiny medals (what Schofield dismisses as “just a bit of bloody tin — it doesn’t make you special”) but risking all because it’s the right thing to do.

Secondary themes: Insanity of war a la Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”; survival, rebirth, brotherhood

Act Breaks

I/II Schofield assures mortally wounded Blake that he “knows the way”; Blake dies

II/III Schofield escapes German soldiers by leaping into river, battling rapids, symbolic vortex (see Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”)

Climax: Schofield’s final sprint across battlefield

Movies that influenced Mendes and cinematographer Deakins: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket” (see stark, surreal ruins at end), King Vidor’s silent “The Big Parade,” Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Robert Enrico’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Others?

For tricky, continuous shot technique: Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” the director’s own “Jarhead” and “Spectre” (see Day of Dead opening). Others?

Symbolic rebirths: Schofield, buried alive in German dugout/tunnel, pulled from rocks by Blake; Schofield survives Styx-like river, rapids, roiling vortex, rotting corpses. Other examples?

World War 1 terms: No Man’s Land; trench warfare, “war of attrition”; Schofield’s bartered medal comes from Battle of the Somme (November, 1916; 1 million men killed or wounded); boshe or Huns (offensive terms for Germans)

Lovell teaches film esthetics classes at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA




Peter Fonda (1940-2019): Born into Hollywood royalty, actor preferred bad-boy rebels


Peter Fonda, best known for the iconic anti-establishment hit “Easy Rider” and, more recently, the quietly reflective “Ulee’s Gold, died Thursday from lung cancer. He was 79. We talked numerous times, including when he was guest of honor at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival.

by Glenn Lovell

Peter Fonda remembered his first screen kiss. He didn’t know it at the time, but the liplock would presage much to come in a career noted for its quirky rebelliouFonda2sness.

“I was in ‘Tammy and the Doctor’ (1963) with Sandra Dee,” recalled the star of “Easy Rider” and “The Limey,” who received Cinequest’s Maverick Spirit Award in 2000. “I think it was Sandy’s first on-screen kiss, too, and she was plenty nervous.’”

The lanky Fonda and the chirpy Dee embraced for their close-up.

And the director yelled, ”Cut!”

‘”The director walked up to me and said, ‘Peter, please close your mouth when you kiss Sandy.’”

They kissed again, and again the director shouted, “Cut!”

“It was auto-reflex — the way most people kiss,” said Fonda, who at the time was enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity thanks to back-to-back Golden Globes for “Ulee’s Gold” and ‘”The Passion of Ayn Rand.”

“But, remember, this was the time when you had two actors in bed, one had to have a foot on the floor. And there was absolutely no open-mouthed kissing. It fell under this weird, abstract studio morality.”

Fonda told this story to illustrate Hollywood’s basic hypocrisy. Something of a movie brat, born into Hollywood royalty (as son of Henry, brother to Jane), Peter was always stirring things up. It came naturally.

“It’s just me,” he said. “I will battle these things no matter how tough it gets. That’s how I became part of the 1970s counterculture and made the first biker pictures. I just enjoy rolling the dice.’”

Faced with the choice of a Universal contract and steady work as a light romantic lead (“the next Deaeasy rider postern Jones”) or a hand-to-mouth existence on the fringe, Fonda chose the latter.

“I love the idea that I’m getting Cinequest’s Maverick Award,” he said.

Fonda did “The Wild Angels” for Roger Corman. This anarchic motorcycle flick kick-started a whole new genre: the motorcycle Western. Then came “The Trip,” wherein Fonda drops acid and wigs out. Jack Nicholson wrote the script.

“The audience for these films sensed I was an angry young man. And once they found out I also did illegal things, they accepted me as a voice of the counterculture.”

In 1968, Fonda teamed with Dennis Hopper on “Easy Rider.” The cross-country biker odyssey, produced for $600,000 and set to the period’s blaring rock anthems, changed the way Hollywood did business. Fonda, who played the laid-back Captain America opposite Hopper’s Billy, shared in an Oscar nomination for co-writing the script. He would go on to direct a counterculture western (”The Hired Hand”), a post-holocaust allegory (“Idaho Transfer'”), and a good-natured modern-day Western (“Wanda Nevada”) with father Henry as an old prospector.

Now that sister Jane appears to be calling it quits with husband Ted Turner, did he think she would return to movies?

”I would love to see it,” he replied. ”When Jane told me she was quitting acting, the look on her face was one of total calm. That came from knowing the farcical race to stay younger and younger was over.

”My daughter (actress Bridget Fonda) and I want her to come back. I want to direct all three of us. I don’t think it would take more than half an hour to find a project.” (Jane Fonda (Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie”) returned to the screen five years later in “Monster-in-Law.”)

Peter Fonda’s 1997 comeback vehicle, ”Ulee’s Gold,” found him playing a Florida beekeeper who’s good at work but lousy at relationships. Fonda based his characterization on his father, who had trouble relating to Peter and Jane.

”I had to catch my breath when I got that script,” he recalls. ”I was emotionally blown away.”

Though Fonda enjoys playing the maverick, he wouldn’t say no to more mainstream gigs.

”I am a maverick, but that isn’t to say if a studio sends me a script, I’m going to turn it down. I know how to write, direct, edit. With all these awards I’m getting, I’m happy to be brought back into the fold.”

And all those Captain Geritol and Easy Chair Rider jokes?

”Remember that naked geezer on the motorcycle in ‘Waking Ned Devine’? I thought, ‘This is so cool. I can still work and still be in a biker film.’ I called Jack (Nicholson) and said, ‘We can still do that ‘Easy Rider’ sequel in our 60s — as an old-timers biker film.’ ”


Blowing Smoke: Netflix promises to douse smoking lamp


by Glenn Lovell

Today’s non-story concerns some do-gooder consumer group and our very own Netflix, based in Los Gatos.

Seems the streaming behemoth has too many movies and series featuring chain smokers and/or vapers. And this according to the DC-based Truth Initiative is bad for impressionable teens who binge on “Stranger Things,” “Orange Is the New Black” and other home entertainment cash cows.

Without contesting the yawn-inducing findings, a contrite Netflix promises to do better in the future and start monitoring material rated TV-14 or PG-13. Unless ofsmoking course we’re talking about shows like “Stranger Things” and Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” that take place in some bygone era and depend on cigs for period authenticity.

C’mon, guys, the argument seems to go. Would anybody buy “Mad Men” or Tarantino’s upcoming “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” without that tell-tale blue haze.

With that barn-size caveat, which falls under directorial discretion, the streaming service, in essence, promises to comply. “We … recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people,” the company hedged in a statement to Variety.

Before we rush to congratulate Netflix for its benevolence, its fair’s fair civic-mindedness, remember this: the old school studios and networks have been regularly promising to clean up their butt-festooned back lots for years. It makes good copy. And better publicity.

Stanley Donen (1924 – 2019): Dancer, director proved a nimble pragmatist


by Glenn Lovell

“I can’t change the world,” said a typically stoic Stanley Donen, recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1995.Donen

Movie buffs begged to disagree. As proof they pointed to the director- choreographer’s “On the Town,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain” (co-directed with Gene Kelly), and reminded Donen his name had been affixed to some of the most stylish and scintillating entertainment of all time.

It was this body of work, which ranged from trend-bucking musicals to sparkling comedy capers, that brought Donen to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The then-71-year-old film maker received SFIFF’s coveted Akira Kurosawa Award. A Q&A followed a screening of his never-more-entrancing “Funny Face” (1957), a May-December romance with Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best love songs.

Donen, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, died last Thursday in Manhattan. He was 94.

Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Charade” (1963) and “Bedazzled” (1968) were slated for later in the festival. “Singin’ in the Rain,” a musical-comedy about Hollywood’s reluctant transition to “talkies,” has long topped fan-mag polls. Its only competition: “Casablanca.”

“Who knew it was going to be revered all these years later?” Donen shrugged. “When it opened, it was just another movie. The reviews referred to it as ‘this very nice MGM musical.’ Bosley Crowther of the New York Times half dismissed it. He thought it was fair.”

To what, then, did the dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-director attribute its growing appeal?

”It’s full of energy — everybody was young and lively and at the peak of their powers,” replied Donen, who when the cameras started rolling was a 27-year-old veteran with 10 years’ experience and 50 movie-musical sequences behind him. “Also, it’s unusually earthy for a musical. . . . It tells it like it is, or was, with a funny attitude.”

The donen2sequence everyone recalls has Kelly splashing happily through the rain to the title tune. Donen recalled the number with a shrug and a smile.

”We always knew what we had to do. We said, ‘Gene’s going to dance in the rain, and the place for him to do that is when he’s happiest, when he’s in love.’ No great inspiration. It took 2 1/2 days to shoot.”

While awaiting his next movie — which turned out to be A.R. Gurney’s two-character “Love Letters,” released in 1999 — Donen spent a lot of time in the dark, watching movies. He saw Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” four times and continued to search retrospectives for the names Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa and Orson Welles. He loved Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”: “It’s fresh, inventive . . . constantly surprising.”

Donen stayed in the game by “constantly reinventing myself.” He made his Broadway directorial debut in late ’93, with the calamitous “The Red Shoes.” (It closed in three days.) When we talked he was considering other stage projects.

”But between talking about it and getting it on is a large hiccup,” he allowed. “We need to get the score, the cast, the money. Doing a movie or a show is like moving a snowball up a mountain.”

Ironically, the man who refused to bow to protestations of “… but it’s never been done!— remember the Jerry Mouse – Gene Kelley routine in “Anchors Aweigh” and Astaire as human fly in the “Royal Wedding”? — was, at heart, a bottom-line pragmatist. It didn’t bother him that movies cost more (as much as $175 million, if the rumors surrounding Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” were to be believed). “Show business is two words — partly show, partly business. If they (the producers) think they can satisfy the business side, God speed. I hope every movie is a hit. The more hits, the better for everybody.”

Donen’s last crowd-pleaser was 1963’s “Charade,” a sleek, Paris-set murder mystery with an unforgettable Henry Mancini score. He still winces when critics refer to it as “an homage to Hitchcock.”

”He isn’t the sole owner of the mystery-romance genre any more than I’m the sole owner of the musical film,” Donen said.

Donen considered “Two for the Road,” with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, his last great picture. The critics agree, pointing to its Antonioni- like time shifts and brittle dissection of what at first looks like a fairy-tale romance. ”Many people have said, ‘I got married or I got divorced after seeing that movie.’ But I don’t believe it.”

Though it now has a cult following, “Two for the Road” also flopped.

”We’d all like our movies to gross $325 million, like ‘Forrest Gump,’ ” Donen acknowledged. “It’s like Samuel Goldwyn said, ‘If people don’t want to go to your movie, nothing can stop them.’ “

This article was originally published in April, 1995.

Contact Glenn Lovell at

Short-form Fright by Two Masters


by Glenn Lovell

CinemaDope is rewatching two horror anthologies this afternoon — Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” and the Franco-Italian homage to Poe, “Spirits of the Dead” — well, the Fellini-directed episode of the latter “Toby Dammit.” My kind of ghostly anthologies. Smart, scary, wickedly sardonic. Eat your hearts out Miike & Tim Burton!

The only thing that comes close is Fellini’s “Toby Dammit,” kicker to “Spirits of the Dead,” a 1968 Poe-inspired trilogy. Terence Stamp plays a happily out-of-it star who agrees to appear at a debauched awards show (think Oscars hosted by Caligula) for the ultimate swag, a gold Ferrari sports car. Maybe the most audacious of the maestro’s life-as-cavalcade satires, this one comes with blackbird nuns, Sgt Peppers era Beatles, sycophantic studio types, and a coquettish Death in party smock. Here’s a taste of Ennio Morricone’s puckish piano score.

Hard to believe “Kwaidan’s” distributor, concerned about the 2 hr-plus running length, lopped off the haunting “Woman of the Snow” segment for the US premiere. Shot entirely on two studio soundstages, thereby ensuring total stylization, this tale of a young woodcutter who enters into a pact with a snow witch has always been my favorite exercise in the supernatural —

Scott ‘Hershel’ Wilson (1942-2018): Anonymous character actor stayed course & found second-time-around cult status


By nature soft-spoken and introverted, some called him temperamental, Scott Wilson had, ironically, one of Hollywood’s splashier sendoffs. He made his big screen debut as the Mississippi drifter falsely accused of murder in 1967’s powerful “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Wilson’s character is introduced running across a long bridge. Director Norman Jewison wanted to try something new. He filmed bridge and fugitive in extreme long shot, as Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) in squad car methodically closes in on the panicked suspect. The scene is imaginatively backed by Quincy Jones’ scat music, which slows to raspy crawl as Wilson’s fugitive tires and surrenders.

Wilson didn’t know it at the time but that extreme long shot would become a metaphor of sorts for a career that began in closeup — with a decade of leads in such cult favorites as “In Cold Blood,” “The Grissom Gang” and, opposite Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman, “The Gypsy Moths” — but was for the most part taken for granted, viewed from the wrong end of a telescope by producers and casting agents.

I met Wilson, who died last week at age 76, when I was on sabbatical at USC and freelancing for the LA Times. I had just seen Tim Robbins’ powerful anti-capital punishment docudrama “Dead Man Walking” with Sean Penn as a killer on death row, Susan Sarandon as activist Sister Helen Prejean … and, in a role so brief if you blinked you missed it, a rheumy Scott Wilson as the cynical prison chaplain. I remember thinking, ‘I know that guy — he’s good, he’s always been good. Why isn’t he getting better roles.’ I decided to find out why.

After the story (below) ran, Wilson called to say thanks. “It got me an agent,” he said, appreciatively. We stayed in touch by phone. I used him as a grounded Hollywood source on more than one occasion. He often talked about his work as a SAG activist. He read for but lost the beekeeper lead to Peter Fonda in Victor Nunez’s “Ulee’s Gold.” That one hurt; Fonda’s Oscar nomination should have been his. And he continued to operate just under the radar, picking up the occasional studio gig but mostly roles in small independent releases like “Monster” and “Junebug.” He played the apoplectic father in a remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,” a window-dressing general in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” and, of course, the bearded Hershel, Rick & Co’s patriarch-conscience, in three seasons of “The Walking Dead.”

By Glenn Lovell

Special to The Times

Scott Wilson made the cover of Life Magazine in 1967. To prove it, as much to himself as visitors, he has a framed copy of the May 12 issue hanging in his study. It depicts Wilson, then 24, Robert Blake and Truman Capote–stars and author of “In Cold Blood”–posing on a lonely stretch of Kansas highway.

UnWilsonCoverder the words “Nightmare Revisited” is a caption that would portend much to come in Wilson’s 30 frustrating years as one of Hollywood’s most respected but least utilized character actors: “Truman Capote stands between actors playing killers in movie of his book.”

Who are these anonymous actors? You have to look inside. No cover ID. Director-screenwriter Richard Brooks wanted it that way. He wanted to further his film’s documentary-like realism by making the public think Wilson and Blake were Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the young drifters executed in 1965 for murdering a Kansas farm family.

He succeeded only too well in Wilson’s case.

“Every actor in the English-speaking world wanted those two roles, including Newman and McQueen,” recalls Wilson, who plays the prison chaplain in the current “Dead Man Walking,” another Oscar-nominated film about capital punishment. “Brooks hired two ‘unknowns’ and he wanted to keep it that way. We were treated like two killers he had somehow run across.”

Verisimilitude was pushed to absurd lengths in promoting the crime thriller. It wasn’t enough to have the young stars’ eyes glowering down from a Sunset Boulevard billboard: “Brooks had the poster with our eyes taken down and replaced with one of the real killers’ eyes.

Wilson, cautiously mounting a comeback at 53, says he never saw himself as “star material.” He was always introverted, temperamental, distrustful of authority.

“It was the late ’60s,” he explains, drawing on a cigarette. “I was anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam.”

Never trust anyone over 30, right?

“Yeah, I took the sound bite and went with it.”

Wilson applied his generation’s motto to the Hollywood bureaucracy, which insisted upon typecasting him as Dick Hickock’s evil twin.

“I didn’t handle things well,” he acknowledges during an interview at the West Hollwood apartment he shares with his artist wife, Heavenly. “There were some dark holes in my–I don’t know if you want to call it ‘a career’–in my time out here.”

After “In Cold Blood” and two offbeat but unsuccessful follow-ups (Sydney Pollack’s “Castle Keep,” John Frankenheimer’s “The Gypsy Moths”), Wilson couldn’t find work–at least not on his terms. It was a calamitous turn of events for someone now recalled by a director friend as “the Sean Penn of his day.” Penn and co-star Susan Sarandon are nominated for Oscars for “Dead Man Walking”; he plays a silver-tongued death-row inmate, a role that might have been modeled on Wilson’s Hickock.

Wilson is flattered and made uneasy by the comparison. “I do see some of myself in Sean. He doesn’t play the game,” observes the Georgia-born actor, who will next be seen in “The Grass Harp” (another Capote adaptation) and “Shiloh” (from the award-winning children’s book).

When the conversation turns to his best qualities, Wilson looks away, kneads the back of his neck.

“I think you always get a credibility out of me,” he finally offers. “I think you always get a believability out of me.”

Wilson’s directors–including Walter Hill, Steve Kloves and Richard Fleischer (who cast Wilson as the disillusioned rookie in 1972’s “The New Centurions”)–agree with this self-assessment. They also think Wilson is scandalously under-employed.

Says Kloves, who used Wilson as a penny-ante thief in “Flesh and Bone”: “Scott is one of those guys who’s powerful, perversely, because he doesn’t call attention to himself. . . . I’d love to find something just for him, to write a movie where he’s the guy.”

Action director Hill relied on Wilson for key moments in “Johnny Handsome” and “Geronimo.” “Scott brings a quality of both anxiety and pain to his parts,” Hill observes. “I don’t know where he gets it from, but there’s a kind of melancholy he brings to things.”

In the upcoming “Shiloh,” directed by Dale Rosenbloom and featuring Michael Moriarty and Rod Steiger, Wilson handles villain chores. He plays Judd, the West Virginia hunter who mistreats the hound dog of the title.

Rosenbloom didn’t want a stereotypical bad guy. Wilson delivered a villain with a past. “It’s the eyes,” he says. “There are stories in those eyes.”

Charlie Matthau cast Wilson as a grieving father in “The Grass Harp.” “You instantly see the grief in Scott’s face,” he says. “He conveyed everything in a look.”

The “look” to which many allude could come from years of rejection and disappointment. Or it may just be, as Robert Blake would have it, “your basic dark side, man.”

This article first appeared in the LA Times on March 17, 1996.