Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Thousand Clowns (dir by Fred Coe)


thousand_clowns

The 1965 film A Thousand Clowns is one of the most annoying films to ever be nominated for best picture.

I know what you’re thinking.

Really, Lisa — even more annoying than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?

Well, no.  No movie is as annoying as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  In fact, even if it didn’t particularly work for me, I can kind of understand why A Thousand Clowns was apparently a box office success in 1965.  To be honest, part of my annoyance with the film comes from the fact that not only can I understand why other people would love it but I probably would have loved it if I had been alive to see it when it was first released.  A Thousand Clowns isn’t an awful film but to say that it has not aged well is a bit of an understatement.

It tells the story of Murray Burns (Jason Robards).  Murray lives in a cluttered New York apartment with his 12 year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon).  Seven years ago, Nick’s mother abandoned him with Murray.  Murray views Nick as being his own son.  Nick worships his Uncle Murray.  Murray randomly sings Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.  Nick picks up on the habit and is soon wandering around and humming Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.  By the end of A Thousand Clowns you will be so freaking sick of hearing that song.  (Fortunately, Murray never sings Send In The Clowns.  The film dodged a bullet on that one.)

Murray’s a nonconformist, the type who starts his day by standing outside and mocking everyone who is getting ready to go to work.  Murray used to have a job.  He was a TV writer.  He wrote jokes for a detestable entertainer known as Chuckles The Chipmunk (played by noted Broadway director Gene Saks).  Five months ago, Murray quit his job.  He’s now unemployed and proud of it.  He swears that he will never again sacrifice his freedom for a paycheck.  He raises Nick to take the same attitude towards life.

Two social workers, Albert (Williams Daniels) and Sandra (Barbara Harris), show up at Murray’s apartment.  They say that unless Murray gets a job and proves that he’s a good guardian, Nick will be taken away from him.  Murray explains that he’s a nonconformist and that he’s raising Nick to reject anything conventional.  Albert is offended.  Sandra is charmed.  Soon, Sandra and Murray are going for bike rides through New York City.  Murray sings Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby some more…

And it all sounds good but the film just didn’t work for me.  First off, I’ve actually experienced what it’s like to grow up with a frequently unemployed father and, sorry, it’s not all studio apartments and cheerful trips to Central Park.  Secondly, A Thousand Clown‘s message of carpe diem might have seemed groundbreaking in 1965 but today, it just seems like a cliché.  I mean, everyone claims to be a nonconformist today.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to feel that it doesn’t really play fair.  It’s easy for the film to always portray Murray as being enlightened when the only people who ever disagree with him are humorless strawmen.  Albert is a self-righteous prig while Chuckles The Chipmunk is a heavy-handed caricature, the type of TV star who could only be created by a writer who is resentful that more people are watching TV than reading his latest masterpiece.  Martin Balsam appears as Murray’s brother, Arnold, and gets a chance to defend his decision to lead a normal, conventional life.  When it comes to the brothers, the film obviously want us to side with Murray but instead, you feel more sympathy for Arnold, largely because Martin Balsam was such an authoritative actor that your natural tendency is to assume that he must know what he’s talking about.  It’s interesting to note that it was Balsam, as the voice of mainstream conformity, that won the film’s only Oscar.

Jason Robards was not even nominated, though his performance is often better than the material.  He and Barbara Harris have a sweet chemistry, even though Harris is stuck playing a rather demeaning role.  (When we first meet Sandra, she is dating Albert and assuming that he’s correct about anything.  Then she falls for Murray and assumes that he is the one who is correct about everything.  What the film never bothers to really explore is what Sandra herself thinks about anything.)  But then you’ve got Barry Gordon, who, in the role of Nick, comes across as being a bratty know-it-all weirdo.  Nick is so obnoxious that it undercuts the movie’s claim that Murray deserves to be his guardian.

Also not nominated, despite the film winning a best picture nomination, was the director, Fred Coe.  (Nominated in his place were William Wyler for The Collector and Hiroshi Teshigahara for The Woman In The Dunes.)   His omission is less surprising than that of Jason Robards.  If you didn’t know that A Thousand Clowns was based on a stage play, you’d guess it after watching the first ten minutes of the film.  Despite a few shots of Murray and Sandra in New York City, A Thousand Clowns never breaks free of its stage origins.  Taking place on largely one set, it feels rather confining for a film meant to celebrate nonconformity.

As I said, I didn’t care much for A Thousand Clowns but I can understand why it was probably a hit with 1965 audiences.  Murray’s a transitional figure, standing between the Beats and the Hippies.  With America’s confidence shaken by the Kennedy assassination and growing social unrest, I’m sure a lot of people wanted to drop out of society just like Murray.  To be honest, a lot of people feel like that right now.  I just hope that, if you do decide to follow Murray’s example, you’ll sing something less annoying than Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.

A Thousand Clowns was nominated for best picture but it lost to a film that Murray probably would have hated, The Sound of Music.

Shattered Politics #44: The Seduction of Joe Tynan (dir by Jerry Schatzberg)


The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

You know how sometimes you see a film and you can just tell that it was probably a big deal when it was first released but now, in the present day, it’s just not that interesting?  That’s the way that I felt when I saw 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan on Netflix.  This is one of those film’s that you just know was probably praised for being adult and mature when it was first released but seen today, it’s just kinda bleh.

Joe Tynan (Alan Alda) is a Democratic senator from New York, a committed liberal who is also an ambitious pragmatist.  As quickly becomes apparent, Joe is happiest when he’s at work.  He struggles to talk to his rebellious teenage daughter (Blanche Baker).  While he may love his wife (Barbara Harris), she’s also one of the few people in his life who isn’t always telling him how great he is and, to an extent, she resents having to live in his shadow.  At times, it seems like the only thing holding Joe’s family together is the possibility that Joe could soon be nominated for the presidency.

When a Southern judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, Joe is asked by his mentor, Sen. Birney (a great Melvyn Douglas), to not oppose the nomination.  While Joe originally agrees to keep quiet, he soon changes his mind when he’s approached by lobbyists who make it clear that, if he goes back on his word to Birney, they’ll be willing to support Joe for President.

Leaving behind his family, Joe heads down south where he meets a researcher named Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep).  With Karen’s help, Joe discovers that the judge actually is a racist.  He also discovers that, politically, he has a lot more in common with Karen than he does with his own wife and soon, they’re having an affair.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan is an odd film.  As written, Tynan is a decent but flawed man.  He may do the right thing but he does so largely because of his own ambition.  That’s not a problem, of course.  If anything, that would seem to be the making of a great political film.  Some of the greatest film characters of all time have been morally ambiguous.  But then, Alan Alda (who also wrote the script) gives a performance that would seem to indicate that he was scared of being disliked by the audience.  Alda is believable when he’s being a self-righteous crusader but, whenever he has to play up the pragmatic and ruthless side of Joe Tynan, he almost seems to have zoned out.  It’s interesting to compare Alda’s lukewarm performance here with the far more nuanced performance that he would give, as a less idealistic Senator, decades later in The Aviator.  As far as the film’s senators are concerned, Melvyn Douglas and Rip Torn (playing a libertine colleague) are far more believable than Alda.

The film’s best performance is delivered by Meryl Streep.  That might not sound shocking but actually, Streep’s performance here is surprising because it’s far more natural and less mannered than some of her more acclaimed performances.  Believe it or not, you actually forget that you’re watching Meryl Streep.

Ultimately, you have to respect the fact that the film attempted to tell an adult and mature story about politics but that doesn’t make The Seduction of Joe Tynan any less forgettable.

Shattered Politics #38: Nashville (dir by Robert Altman)


Nashville-Cover

“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”

— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)

The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film.  It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee.  Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin.  The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America.  Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be.  (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.)  It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.

Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others.  For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain.  His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager.  Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos.  Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.

Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking.  Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self.  In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin).  They have two deaf children.  Linnea has learned sign language.  Delbert has not.  Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat.  Only one of them actually will.

And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield).  Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean.  A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean.  A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.

Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music.  However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.

Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom.  Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines).  Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well.  When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.

Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).

Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing.  Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.

And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly.  Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star.  The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars.  (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities.  He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.)  There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.

And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC.  (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.)  How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole.  If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film.  If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.

There is one more very important character in Nashville.  He’s the character who literally holds the film together.  He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films.  That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens.  Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes.  Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally.  That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.

Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film.  Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences.  You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.

As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.  It’s the perfect companion for a great film.