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Sherilyn Fenn has the unenviable task of playing Elizabeth Taylor in this made-for-TV biopic, made while Taylor herself was still alive (she apparently tried to stop it). It gives a somewhat rushed run-through of the actress’s life, starting with a brief opening demonstrating her mother’s determination to make Elizabeth into a movie star – Elizabeth, it should be noted, wanted to be an actress, according to this biopic at least; her mother wants her to be a movie star because they are rich.

Moving quickly through her first four marriages to Nicky Hilton (Eric Gustavson), the abusive, jealous husband; Michael Wilding (Nigel Havers), who is charming but cuckolded; Mike Todd (Ray Wise) with whom she seems to share real passion, but who tragically died in a plane crash; and most controversially Eddie Fisher (Corey Parker) was married to Elizabeth’s best friend Debbie Reynolds whom he left for Elizabeth, but he clearly has no idea how to handle her or keep her interest.

Naturally enough, large focus is then given to her relationship with Richard Burton (Angus McFadyen) although their subsequent divorce, re-marriage and second divorce are flipped through in a matter of seconds, via images of newspaper headlines.

There then follows a marriage to Senator John Warner (Charles Frank), who seems to love her at least partly because of the fame marriage to Elizabeth Taylor brings with it – she gets depressed and puts on weight. Their marriage ends and she goes to rehab where she meets her seventh and final husband (to whom she has her eighth marriage) , Larry Fortensky (Michael McGrady). They were still married when this picture was made.

This film does not cover a great deal of Elizabeth Taylor’s professional career, sticking instead with the love, marriages and scandal. There are a couple of scenes which show her work for raising awareness of AIDS, which I would have liked to have seen more of.

Fenn was actually great as Taylor, nailing the accent in particular. Most of the supporting cast did a good job, although I felt that Ray Wise put in a slightly overblown performance. McFadyen looked very much like Richard Burton – uncannily so at times – but I that he also over-acted somewhat and never really captured the character convincingly.

Occasionally the dialogue was a bit clunky, a bit daytime soap opera-ish, but despite that and despite the fact that certain events were skimmed over with only the briefest detail, I have to admit that I did enjoy this film. In the same way that I don’t buy gossip magazines but I’ll have a read of one when I’m at the hairdressers – it’s entertaining even when you know that it’s entertainment first and information second. Sometimes some of the actual vintage footage which was used jarred with the more modern footage, due to the obvious difference in quality, but that did not detract from my enjoyment.

I would recommend this biopic to fans of Elizabeth Taylor, more for curiosity’s sake than for any real factual content.

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Year of release: 1995

Director: Kevin Connor

Writers: C. David Heymann book ‘Liz: An Intimate Biography’), Burr Douglas

Main cast: Sherilyn Fenn, Angus McFadyen, William McNamara, Corey Parker, Nigel Havers, Ray Wise, Michael McGrady

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This biography of Marlon Brando is somewhat unusual in that it concentrates mainly on his professional life and personal philosophy, rather than delving into details of his personal life. After describing Brando’s childhood (with a loving but alcoholic mother, and an overly strict father), Mizruchi goes on to talk about his career in acting, and discusses many of his most famous film roles. She describes his attraction to a role, his preparation for it, and how he went on to become a character, as well as other details about the making of each film. In each case, Mizruchi draws comparisons between the character or storyline of the film and connects it back to events in Brando’s own life.

For that reason, this book is not the one to read if you are looking for Hollywood gossip or salacious details about Brando’s many relationships and often difficult personal life. Indeed, while his career is detailed in relatively chronological order, you would struggle to learn anything else about his life that is not already a matter of public record. For example, Mizruchi mentions his marriages, but does not give any details about the relationships or why they didn’t ultimately work out. However, I found that somewhat refreshing, as instead, I learned far more about Brando’s beliefs, his humanitarianism and his parts in civil rights campaigns, which he clearly felt passionately about.

Mizruchi had unprecedented access to Brando’s own personal book collection, which numbered around 4000, and which – as we are frequently reminded – he annotated heavily. She uses such annotations, as well as his varied choice of reading material to draw conclusions about the man himself. The sheer vastness and variety of the collection does support her view of him as an intelligent and curious man, who found enjoyment in learning.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this book. As mentioned before, I did not learn an awful lot about Brando’s personal life, but I certainly learned more about what was important to him, his views on acting and his determination to leave the world a better place than he found it. At times, it is a little sycophantic – there’s no doubt that Mizruchi is a devoted Brando fan – but it is a respectful, interesting and clearly very well researched biography.

I would recommend to fans of Marlon Brando, or fans of the film making process.

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Robert Vaughn has had a long and successful acting career.  As well as being The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he was also one of The Magnificent Seven, and in more recent times, was a main cast member on the BBC show Hustle.  But in addition to such achievements, he has also starred in countless other films, and appeared on stage many times.  In this book, he describes his life, from his childhood with a mother and step-father who were also actors, to his unconventional adolescence, to his ascension to genuine Hollywood star.

However, this book also covers much more ground than just his acting career.  With a keen interest in politics (he is a staunch Democrat), Vaughn also describes his friendship with Robert F. Kennedy, and his theories on the truth behind RFK’s assassination.  There are fascinating tales of being trapped in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Soviet invasion, and being placed under house arrest while filming in South America.  Amongst all of these stories are of course, anecdotes from Vaughn’s lengthy career, in which he talks about many of his friends, famous and otherwise, including Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen.

Vaughn is clearly a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, and he has written an absorbing autobiography.  I had only seen him in the aforementioned Hustle, and more recently on stage in a (breathtakingly wonderful) production of Twelve Angry Men, and was large unfamiliar with his earlier work, but the stories from that part of his career made for interesting reading.

I would certainly recommend this book to fans of Robert Vaughn, but also to anyone who enjoys reading autobiographies.

 

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Despite being acknowledged as an excellent actor both on stage and in films, Richard Burton is largely remembered for his tempestuous marriages to Elizabeth Burton, and his enormous capacity for alcohol.  Melvyn Bragg’s excellent biography delves into his life, to reveal that there was far far more to Burton – that he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, a voracious reader, that he was plagued by guilt over his children, and generous to a fault.

Burton’s notebooks (essentially a diary) which he started during his life with Elizabeth Taylor were released to Bragg by Burton’s widow Sally, and here they appear (albeit abridged) for the first time in print.  After describing Burton’s tough but loving childhood and adolescence, and marriage to first wife Sybil, Bragg wisely lets his own writing take a back seat to Burton’s words, as he reproduces large sections of the notebooks.  (It is worth noting that the notebooks have since been released in their entirety as The Richard Burton Diaries; I have a copy of this and intend to read it very soon, but Bragg’s biography is useful in that it provides context.)  I thoroughly enjoyed reading Burton’s words – he was incredibly witty (I laughed out loud on several occasions, particularly when he described social situations), certainly wry, and often melancholy.

The biography is clearly meticulously researched, and while Bragg is never sycophantic, he is always respectful of his subject.  What I did find unusual at first, was that in many ways, it was also a study of Burton the man.  Bragg would offer his own opinion as to Burton’s motivations for certain actions, and it felt as if he was trying to understand certain events in this very interesting life, rather than just relate them.  However, this did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, and actually demonstrated the author’s great interest in his subject.

The book was written with the collaboration of many of Burton’s family and friends, and refreshingly, does not just focus on the more scandalous areas of his life; it concerns itself equally with Burton’s Welsh family, his career, his life after ‘the Elizabethan period’ and of course, his premature death at a time which tragically came at a time when he seemed to have his life back on track.

It’s a thick book – 600+ pages – but so well written, and so very interesting, that I found myself reading huge chunks at a time.  Anybody interested in Richard Burton, or indeed in acting in general, should certainly read this – I strongly recommend it, and will definitely be keeping it to read again in the future.

(For more information about Richard Burton, please click here.)

 

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David Niven tells his life story (or at the least the first part of it) in this book, and he does it in wonderfully entertaining, genuinely amusing and often quite touching fashion.  From his early life with a distant stepfather, through his life in the Highland Light Infantry, before deciding to give up a military career to try his luck in Hollywood (although he returned to Britain to fight in World War II), Niven takes the reader on a journey packed with anecdotes and funny interludes.

As he explains in the introduction, he drops names all over the place, particularly while talking about his film career, but he remains respectful throughout, and his genuine affection and respect for many of his contemporaries comes through.  His stories – both of his Hollywood life, and his military career – are peppered with laugh-out-loud one-liners; several times I would burst out laughing and then insist on reading bits out to my husband.  Niven is truly a wonderful storyteller and raconteur – he is also self-effacing and honest about his own shortcomings, and modest about his talents as an actor.

Details of his film career also reveal some of Hollywood’s machinations, and by the end of the book – which was published in 1972 – it’s clear that he is unhappy about a changing film industry.

Unlike many such memoirs, Niven did not use a ghostwriter – the writing is his own – and he has a lovely turn of phrase, but is also capable of showing genuine emotion, such as when he describes the tragic death of his first wife, which had me struggling to hold back tears.

If you are at all interested in David Niven, or Hollywood in the 40s – 60s, I would definitely recommend this book.

 

 

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Rob Lowe is a name familiar to anyone who grew up in the 80s.  He became a huge star, was a member of the ‘Brat Pack’ and graced bedroom walls everywhere.  In the late 80s and 90s, his career took something of a nosedive, but since his work on The West Wing, there has been something of a resurgence.  I remember all the fan-worship of Lowe, and after seeing him speaking at the Hay Festival when this book came out, I looked forward to reading it, and getting his own perspective on his career.

It’s an entertaining story, told in an engaging and warm voice.  He describes his childhood, with a loving but turbulent homelife, and his early ambition to become an actor.  His stories about his early days in the industry were my favourite parts of the book – the account of making The Outsiders, as one of a group of soon-to-be-household-names, including Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Emilio Estevez – was particularly interesting (his descriptions of co-stars Swayze and Cruise were affectionate and very witty).

Lowe does a good job of portraying how a young and naive young man can get caught up in the Hollywood machine and lifestyle, and how inevitably, that lifestyle led to his fall from grace in spectacular fashion in 1988, with the sex-tape scandal.  He glosses over the scandal and fallout somewhat, but I can’t really blame him for that – he acknowledges it and moves on.

The book is packed with little anecdotes about some of the famous people he met (Cary Grant, Liza Minnelli amongst others, and these before he even got into acting himself), which are entertaining.

What comes through most is Lowe’s love for his wife and family, and his passion for his work.  I accept that there was a fair amount left out of the book; nonetheless, it’s an entertaining and enjoyable memoir, which I liked a lot and would recommend to fans of Lowe, or anyone with an interest in film-making.

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Paul Newman was mainly known to the world as a movie star – an icon, really – with a beautiful face, mesmerising blue eyes, and a air of rascality about him.  His long marriage to Joanne Woodward was revered in a profession where marriages often seem to break up almost as soon as the vows are read.  This book is a journey through Newman’s life, from his happy childhood as the son of the owner of a successful sporting goods business, to the start of his acting career, and of course, his Hollywood stardom.  However, just as interesting are the details of Paul’s passion for motor racing, his political activism, and his philanthropy.  The book also covers darker periods of his life, such as the tragic death of his son Scott, and a period when he and Joanne  briefly separated. 

The book was written in a respectful, but not fawning fashion, and painted a picture of a man who was sometimes uncomfortable with his stardom, who was almost obsessive about details regarding his characters and the settings of films, and whose greatest love in life was his wife.  Shawn Levy has taken a huge number of interviews that Paul Newman gave, and put them into chronological order; in this way, although Newman did not participate in any way with the writing of this book, we are still able to see his thoughts on certain times in his life, certain films that he made, etc.  The book does not portray Newman as a saint, but he is treated with the warmth and respect that such a man would deserve.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was when Newman set up the Hole In The Wall camps – places where sick children could go to simply have fun, play games, forget about their illnesses for a while.  Newman was determined that no child’s family should have to pay for their child to go to the camp, and importantly, as well as giving his money to the project, he also gave his time – he would often pop into the camps on spec, and play games or chat with the children.  I knew that Newman was a generous man, but I was surprised to learn of some of the things that he did, at no benfit to himself.

The book is very readable, and not at all dry – it’s a fascinating read from start to finish.  I actually found myself with a lump in my throat at the end, when reading about the death of this mercurial, precise, rogueish, handsome, kind, intelligent and funny man.  I would urge fans of Paul Newman to read this book.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Gregory Peck was one of the 20th century’s most loved screen idols.  Tall and handsome, he is forever linked with (and perhaps confused with) his  most famous role, that of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).  This book chronicles his life, from his early stage career, through to his largely successful life in Hollywood and his humanitarian campaigns and activities.  It also describes his private life, including his first marriage to Greta, his second marriage to Veronique, and the tragic suicide of eldest son Jonathan.

I thought this book was clearly well researched, and well written.  Lynn Haney apparently was a friend of Gregory Peck, and the warmth she feels for him comes through loud and clear.  She does however manage to remain objective, and although she clearly holds Peck in high regard, there are constant reminders throughout that he was a man, not a god, and he had flaws and idiosyncrasies which made him all too human.

It’s a shame that the book does not seem to have any first person interviews with Peck or any of his family.  There are plenty of quotes from other interviews however.  (Early on in the book, Haney mentions another biography of Peck, and notes that the author of that book never met with nor spoke to Gregory Peck at all; implying that she had spoken to him.  As they were apparently friends, this is not surprising, but it does not appear that he had any part in the writing of this book.)  Having said that though, it’s clear that Haney knows her subject well.

The book discusses most of Peck’s films – the hits and the misses – giving anecdotes from the set, and offering glimpses into the actor’s interactions and relationships with colleagues.  It does not shy away from discussing disagreements that Peck had with other actors, producers or directors, or his disappointment with the way some projects turned out.

There is a saying that you should never meet your heroes because you will always be disappointed – you could broaden this saying and add that it’s best not to know too much about your heroes in case you are disappointed.  I can’t deny that at some points while reading this biography I read things that did disappoint me somewhat.  But I also believe that no man or woman on earth is perfect (whatever perfect is), and that all we can do is the best that we can at the time.  At the end of this book, I was left with the impression that Gregory Peck had done just that…and he will always be one of my favourite actors.

This isn’t the only available biography of Gregory Peck – it might not even be the best one around, but for fans, it is definitely worth reading.

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Dustin Hoffman is excellent in this 1980s comedy. He plays Michael Dorsey, an actor who is talented, but has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. When his agent says that nobody will hire him because of his attitude, Michael disguises himself as a woman who he calls Dorothy Michaels. As Dorothy, he gets a job in a soap opera, and meets the lovely Julie. He falls for Julie – but she thinks that he is her good friend Dorothy…

The American Film Institute rated this as the second funniest comedy ever (beaten to the top spot by Some Like It Hot). I personally wouldn’t agree with that – but of course it’s all subjective – as I can think of several films which I found funnier. However, Tootsie IS a lovely film – it’s warm, amusing and sweet. And the acting is just superb. Hoffman really shows just why he is such a respected actor, switching seamlessly from Michael to Dorothy and back again.

Jessica Lange is just gorgeous as Julie (and she won an Oscar for her performance), injecting just the right amount of humour and vulnerability, and the excellent supporting cast includes Sydney Pollack, as Michael/Dorothy’s agent George – and who was also the director of Tootsie; Bill Murray as Michael’s friend Jeff – Murray improvised all of his lines; Terri Garr as Sandy, Michael’s on-off girlfriend; and Charles Durning, as Julie’s father.

Overall, it’s a lovely, ‘feel good’ film, elevated from good to great by the excellent cast. If you have never seen Tootsie, I would recommend giving it a try!

Year of release: 1982

Director: Sydney Pollack

Writers: Don McGuire, Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, Elaine May

Main cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman

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Made in 1942, this comedy is set in Warsaw, during the Polish occupation by the Nazis.  It unashamedly pokes fun both at Hitler and the Nazi regime, and also the vanity of actors.  It tells the story of a Polish acting troupe, including husband and wife couple Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, in her last film), who find themselves tangled up in a plot to stop the Nazis obtaining valuable information.  It does not sound like a recipe for a hilarious comedy…but that is what this film is.  Joseph Tura considers himself an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, and during the film he plays Hamlet (badly!)  Maria, his beautiful and feisty wife, catches the eye of Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski.  Joseph is suspicious and jealous, but they soon have greater problems to worry about…

By the time this film was released, Germany was sweeping across Europe.  Also, tragically, Carole Lombard had died in a plane crash, and possibly as a result, the film was initially seen as being in bad taste, and was not appreciated by audiences.  Over the years however, it has gained a reputation as a classic comedy, and I think the humour still stands up well for modern viewers.

The story is convoluted, but easy enough to follow.  The real joy in this film however,  is the incredibly funny script and the way that the cast (even the minor players are terrific) deliver their lines.  The dialogue fizzes along nicely and there is also plenty of visual comedy.

The tragedy and heartache caused by the occupation of Poland is duly acknowledged, and I don’t think the film was attempting to make light of the situation at all.  One scene in particular shows members of the Nazi army jumping out of a plane to their certain death, on the orders of Hitler, given by radio transmission.  The film also shows the burning buildings and the many homeless and grieving families who suffered as a result of Hitler’s regime.

The subplot is great – concerning Joseph’s vexation at his wife’s flirtation with a handsome Lieutenant; and said Lieutenant’s infatuation with the slightly Maria (flightly she may be, but she is also possessed of a great bravery).

Carole Lombard looks beautiful and so full of life and vitality throughout – which in hindsight underlines the sadness of her death at such terrible circumstances at the age of 33.  Still, this is how she should be remembered – at her very best.  It’s a shame that this film turned out to be her swan song, but what a swan song it is.  Benny is also terrific; I have never seen any of his work before, but will certainly be searching out more of it!  This is one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Comedies, and it deserves its place on that list.  Despite the sombre subject matter, this is a film well worth seeing.

Year of release: 1942

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Writers: Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch

Main cast: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman

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