Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I suppose at some point I must have known more about the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker other than the broad outlines I remember: wildly popular televangelists who fell from grace in a financial scandal. Tip of the iceberg, it turns out.

The one specific I remembered was that I went cold-turkey on the blue eyeshadow. The new movie, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (trailer) is unexpectedly moving, as you realize many of the couple’s difficulties are the result of Tammy Faye’s own blind spots.

Televangelists are not top-of-mind for me, and my default opinion is that they’re all con men. Jessica Chastaine as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim do such a good job that, OK, yes, they’re making money hand-over-fist, but there seems to be some sincere belief under all the trappings and on Tammy Faye’s side, real compassion for others. You can’t say the same for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In interviews, Chastain said that in her decade of research for the film, “I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true, and I just couldn’t find it.”

From humble beginnings in Michigan and Minnesota, the Jim and Tammy Faye built an empire on Jim’s preaching and Tammy Faye’s singing that included a satellite broadcasting network, their PTL (Praise the Lord) headquarters, and a theme park in South Carolina. These expansions and the couple’s lavish lifestyle were funded by an estimated $1 million a week in contributions from viewers of the PTL club worldwide.

The movie is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Massive credit needs to go to the make-up department and the magicians who made Chastain go from slender to zaftig as the film’s time passes. While televangelism may make many viewers shake their heads in puzzlement, and, while it trods a path well-worn by other biopics, the fantastic performances of the two principals make it well worth seeing. “this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today,” says Alissa Wilkinson of Vox.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 65%; audiences 88%.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.

Hollywood at Play

Our latest movie theater experience was interrupted by a tornado warning coming in over patrons’ phones, but we sat tight and watched on. The theater hung onto its roof and electrical supply, and after the show, the real excitement began! Three recent films:

French Exit
This 2020 film is worth seeing to enjoy Michell Pfeiffer (trailer). Written by Patrick deWitt, based on his 2018 novel, the film was directed by Azazel Jacobs. It takes place mostly in Paris, which is fun too. There are humorous moments and quirky characters, but on the whole, it’s OK, not great.

Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a high-living Manhattan widow, suddenly broke. Before creditors can descend, she sells all her possessions and moves with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to Paris to live rent-free in the apartment of a long-time friend. One possession she takes with her is her black cat Frankie, who she believes is possessed by the spirit of her late, unlamented husband. When Frankie runs away, much as she loathed him, she wants him back.

While many of the characters who people Frances’s life are interesting, especially the irrepressible Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), Malcolm is totally without agency. Or any demonstrated skills or intellect to bring to their increasingly precarious and complicated lives.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 63%; audiences: 43%.

The Little Things
This California crime thriller was written and directed by John Lee Hancock (trailer). Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) was a brilliant LAPD detective who had a meltdown a couple of years back and lost his job. Now he’s an all-purpose deputy in rural Kern County. Sent to LA to retrieve a bit of evidence for a case in the rural county, he meets Jim Baxter (Remi Malek), his slick young replacement.

A woman’s body has been found, and Deacon is invited to accompany Baxter to examine the crime scene. It bears a striking resemblance to the work of a serial killer he’d been tracking before his exile. The parallels haunt him, and he cannot stop investigating the new crime, whether his help is wanted or not.

That seems far-fetched to me, but it’s the premise of the film, so you have to swallow it and go on, at which point you encounter Deacon and Baxter’s prime suspect, Albert Sparma (played masterfully by Jared Leto). You can’t fault the acting in this one. It’s the story that should be stronger.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 45%; audiences: 67%.

The Green Knight
I expected to really like this epic fantasy, based on the Arthurian legend, after the great reviews it received, plus the captivating Dev Patel starring as Sir Gawain. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer). Alas, I found it slow and kinda dull. What did I miss? If Gawain goes up against the Green Knight, he’ll pass the tests of chivalry, and prove his worthiness to be a knight, but, on the downside, he’ll be dead. No? Apparently, the ending is purposefully ambiguous, as were my feelings about the film. Scenery was great and some nice cinematic effects. I did like the Punch-and-Judys and the fox who adopted Gawain until it started to talk (not so much that it talked, but what it said).

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 49%.

Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

Page to Stage: Smart Moves and Funny Business

How many times have I rolled my eyes at our local “newspaper” for running the same story twice. Then, yesterday, I did it myself!  I posted “The Deep Dive” story several weeks ago before my brain’s post-covid shutdown. Today, here’s the new content I wanted to share.

In my Zoom class, “Inside the Rehearsal Room,” the actors– Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell—started adding movement to the script for Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which they’d been working on in previous sessions. Led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, we saw the now-familiar first scene taking shape. Would the character ideas they’d explored in their deep dive into the script actually work on stage?

Norris and Nickell are married, so their living room became the covid-bubble “set,” with sofa, coffee table, bookcase, and cameo appearances by the couple’s cat. Ground rules established where entrances and exits would be, which furniture could be sat on, what could be moved, and so on, to give the actors the greatest flexibility in engaging with what was, after all, a very simple layout. Even though they were in their own familiar living room, “The first time you’re on your feet is always nerve-wracking,” Nickell said. The actors don’t know yet where to look, or what to do with their hands, which is why, as Immerwahr said, “Actors love to touch furniture!”

In blocking scenes, he encourages actors to “avoid the magnet of the chairs” and has them delay sitting down as long as possible. Once they sit, it’s awkward to find the right moment/motivation to get up again. There can’t be just random movement, or movement for its own sake; rather, the staging should convey the emotional points. Similarly, in fiction, a character’s movements need to have motivation. Not just him lighting a cigarette or her brushing back to her hair to break up the dialog.

Too, there may be embedded stage directions in the script. An example from Red Hot is when Barney (hopeful of having a fling with Elaine) asks her if she wants a drink, and she does. That gives him an excuse to stand up. If he’s only just sat down, then pops up again, the jack-in-the-box action underscores his indecisiveness.

At this early point in play rehearsal, actors are balancing getting their lines and knowing where to stand and when to walk. Ideas have to be tested. Here’s one that worked on several levels. Elaine wanders around, checking out the apartment as they chat. She reaches the bookshelves, takes down a book, looks at it, and tosses it on the sofa. Barney—scrupulously aware of not leaving any evidence he’s been in his mother’s apartment—picks up the book, and as Elaine moves away, nervously returns it to its place on the bookshelf.

Even though the staging process takes a lot of attention and time, Immerwahr said that, in general, a rough cut of the staging can be accomplished in about two rehearsal days. There’s a physical fight between Elaine and Barney near the end of the first act, and, for something like that, they would wait for the fight director to be on hand.

In part because of the placement of the lights, the actors’ movements have to become part of their muscle memory. However spontaneous an action may appear, the staging for a multi-person scene is almost never improvised. It’s set in stone, in the stage manager’s notes.

From Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Just as authors, once they have a sense of their book—on paper, in their heads, or on innumerable post-its—have to buckle down and dig into the specifics.

Leader of my Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how the he and the actors dissect every line. As an avid listener to audiobooks, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page. They have a way of making it sounds like there’s a perfect way to read each line; this experience with actors and their director showed how not true that is!

Both Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with the course, were quite comfortable with this iterative process. Immerwahr pointed out that the scant stage directions Shakespeare provides force director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training for interpretation.

Immerwahr, Norris, and Nickell began with the set-up for our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him? Nickell’s reflection on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach those two-words. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident?

In posing such questions, Immerwahr is trying to nudge the actors in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.” In writing, we don’t have the benefit of the actor’s intonation, raised eyebrows, chair-flop. We have to clarify what we’re trying to convey as precisely as possible, especially in key scenes.

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we see he’s a clumsy liar. You can see this kind of action and phone call easily adapting to a story.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “In theater, everything’s a choice.” In novels too.

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. Check it out!

Page to Stage: The Table Read

Washington DC’s Theatre J has a new Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, led by the theater’s artistic director Adam Immerwahr (pictured). If you, like me, have wondered how a creative team goes from black type on white paper to vibrant, full-color theater—full of action, song, and emotion—in just three to four weeks, this class is a brilliant idea. Helping Immerwahr are popular husband-wife actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris.

The class began with a session on the table read, when the director and all the actors get together to go through the script—“the first time the words are shared,” as Norris described it. If you were cast in a play, at the table read you might find you know some of the actors well, and some—say, the person playing your mother, or your lover—may be complete strangers. At the table read, you also may have a chance to see mockups of the set and the costumer’s ideas, a sort of tangible creation of a new reality.

The table read also suggests how the other actors work, their process. A few may come to the table with all their lines learned, “off book,” as they say; others will still rely on the printed text. Norris said she may have ideas about how a character should present herself, but since each character should be shaped by what the other actors do, she tries “to be respectful of other people’s choices” or, as Nickell said,  “to stay as open as possible to the room.”

In this course, the play we’re walking through is Neil Simon’s 1969 comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. If you’ve seen this play (or movie), you’ll recall it involves a nebbishy middle-aged husband who decides to spice up his life with an affair. Trying out his powers of seduction with three different women (in three acts) proves disastrous in each case.

Immerwahr’s pre-rehearsal pep talk gently guided the actors toward his ultimate vision. If you remember this play, you won’t be surprised that Immerwahr admitted up front that the play has challenges. Not only is there some racist language in act two, but it’s misogynistic and might have trouble being appreciated by “Me, too” audiences.

Immerwahr’s strategy for lessening the negative stereotypes of the women characters—the sexpot, the crazy lady, the moralist—is to have one actor play all three. This not only suggests different sides of the same person, but opens the possibility there are many others. In other words, “women have many sides; we’re showing you three.” Like a sphere, a well-rounded person may have an infinite number of “sides.”

He further held open the possibility that at the end of this fictional production, in the scene with the man’s wife, she too be might played by the same actress, as if “he was looking for his wife all along.”

Finessing the racism also will be tricky, and Immerwahr advises staying in the era of the play, avoiding intonations and mannerisms of 2021. Evoking the world of fifty years ago “will be our friend.”