Scenes That I Love: James Earl Jones in Dr. Strangelove


It seems rather appropriate that, while we spend this year celebrating TSL’s 10th birthday, we’ve taken the time to recognize the birthdays of so many of our favorite directors and actors.  Earlier today, Jeff already paid tribute to Andy Kaufman and Donald Cammell.

Well, today is also James Earl Jones’s birthday and there’s no way we’re going to let that go unacknowledged.  James Earl Jones is 89 years old today and he’s still working.  Everyone, of course, knows Jones’s voice and the story of how, when he was a child, he suffered from a stutter so severe that he refused to speak.  (Jones has described the years before he entered high school as being his “mute years.”) What’s often overlooked is just how good of an actor James Earl Jones is.  Jones has played everyone from villains to mentors to heroes.  He’s appeared in every possible genre and his presence has never not been welcome.

James Earl Jones made his film debut with a small role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Jones played Lt. Luther Zogg, one of the men aboard the B-52 bombardier that eventually causes the end of the world.

Jones has often said that he didn’t really care for either the role or the film.  Lt. Zogg is a small role and it is true that, if not for the fact that he’s played by James Earl Jones, you probably wouldn’t remember much about him.  For the most part, Jones spends the majority of the movie listening as Maj. Kong (Slim Pickens) talks about following orders and doing their patriotic duty.

And yet, I think Jones is a bit too dismissive of the role.  It’s a small role but the undeniable authority of Jones’s voice provides a nice contrast to the country drawl of Maj. Kong.  Without Lt. Zogg calmly following orders, it would be too easy for the audience to dismiss Maj. Kong as an outlier as opposed to a representative of what the film viewed as being the military’s blase attitude towards the possibility of nuclear war.

Add to that, Jones’s delivery of “Hey, what about Maj. Kong?” is absolutely perfect.

So, with that in mind, here’s James Earl Jones in two scenes from Dr. Strangelove!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir by Mike Nichols)


I’ve starred in a production of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

That’s right.  I’ve played Martha, the heavy-drinking and dissatisfied wife of a burned-out English professor named George.  Yes, I’ve played the same role for which Uta Hagen won a Tony and Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar.  Among the other actresses that have played Martha on stage: Colleen Dewhurst, Meg Tilly, Diana Rigg, and Kathleen Turner.  And, of course, me.

Now, I should admit that I was only 16 when I played Martha so I was perhaps a bit too young for the role.  Fortunately, my friend Erik — who played George — was only a year and a half older so he was just as miscast as I was.  (It was, at one point, suggested that I should try to put some gray in my hair but I pointed out that, as a redhead, I would never have to worry about that.)  On Broadway and film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs for over two hours.  The production in which I starred only had a running time of 13 minutes.  Also, the version in which I starred did not feature the characters for Honey and Nick.  I mean, who needed them when you could just watch Erik and me yell at each other for ten minutes straight.

And that’s pretty much what we did.  When we told our drama teacher that we would be doing a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for our “Dramatic Duet,” I’m pretty sure that I saw her roll her eyes.  I imagine that’s because she knew that both of us had a tendency towards the dramatic and that the main we picked the play was so we could compete to see who could be the first to go hoarse from yelling.  She was right, of course.  There was no nuance to our performance, largely because neither one of us really understood what the play was about.  We just thought it was funny that some of our classmates covered their ears while we were loudly insulting and taunting each other.  (For the record, I went hoarse before Erik did and I spent the next two days receiving compliments about my new sexy voice.)

Now that I’ve grown up a little, I think I have a better understanding of what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is actually about.  At the very least, I now understand that the story is about more than just two burn-outs yelling at each other while a younger couple awkwardly watches.  I now understand that the game that George and Martha play over the course of the night is not a game of hate but instead a game of a very dysfunctional but also rather deep love.  If anything, I now have more sympathy for George and Martha and far less for the play’s judgmental younger couple, Nick and Honey.

Of course, it helps that I’ve seen the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Directed (in his directorial debut) by Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? features Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha and George Segal and Sandy Dennis and Nick and Honey.  All four of them were Oscar-nominated for their roles, making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the few films to see its entire cast nominated.  Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis both won in in their categories but it really is Richard Burton (who lost to Paul Scofield) who dominates the film.

Burton was a performer who could be shameless in his overacting.  (Just watch his performance in The Exorcist II if you need proof.)  And really, one would expect that the role of George would appeal to all of his worst instincts.  Instead, Burton gives a surprisingly subtle performance.  He growls when you expect him to yell and he delivers the majority of his lines not with fury but instead with a resigned and rather sardonic self-loathing.  He’s actually less showy than Elizabeth Taylor, who gives an overall good performance but still sometimes comes across like she’s trying too hard to convince the audience that she’s a 50 year-old drunk and not one of the world’s most glamorous film stars.  Throughout the film, Burton seems to be digging down deep and exposing his true self to the audience and, watching the action unfold, you can’t take your eyes off of him.  Everyone in the cast does a good job with their roles but Burton is the one who keeps the film moving.  Just as George is ultimately revealed to be stronger than he originally appears, Burton also reveals himself to be a far more compelling actor than you might think if you just knew him from his lesser roles (and performances).

Admittedly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not my favorite of the many films that have been nominated for best picture over the last 90 years.  Even when the characters are inhabited by skilled performers, a little bit of George and Martha goes a long way.  That said, this is a historically important film.  The film’s language may seem tame today but it was considered to be shockingly profane in 1966.  The fact that the National Legion of Decency declined to condemn the film despite the language was considered to be a major step forward in the maturation of American cinema.  In fact, it can be argued that the MPAA rating system started as a way to tell audiences that a film like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? was not morally objectionable but that it was still meant for adults.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received thirteen Academy Awards nominations.  It was nominated in every category for which it was eligible.  It won 5 awards but ultimately lost Best Picture to rather more sedate theatrical adaptation, A Man For All Seasons.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Lady for A Day (dir by Frank Capra)


The 1933 film, Lady For A Day, tells the story of Apple Annie (May Robson) and Dave the Dude (Warren William), who is perhaps the nicest gangster that you could ever hope to meet.

Of course, when I refer to Dave the Dude as being a gangster, I should make clear that he’s not the type of gangster who guns down his rivals or sells drugs in back alleys.  I mean, I guess he might do that but we certainly don’t see much of evidence of it in the film.  Instead, Dave is just a dapper gambler who travels with a bodyguard named Happy McGuire (Ned Sparks) and whose girlfriend, Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell), owns a nightclub where, since this is a pre-code film, the acts are slightly racy but not excessively salacious.  The country may be mired in a depression but Dave appears to be doing okay for himself.  Yes, Dave may be a criminal but at least he’s honest about it.

Surviving the Depression has proven to be far more difficult for Apple Annie.  She’s known as Apple Annie because she makes a meager living by selling fruit on the streets of New York City.  Dave is one of her regular customers, as he believes that her apples bring him good luck.  Annie has a daughter named Louise (Jean Parker).  Louise has never met her mother, having spent the majority of her life in a Spanish convict.  Annie regularly steals stationary from a high class hotel so that she can sends letters to Louise.  Not wanting her daughter to be ashamed of her, Annie has always presented herself as being a rich woman named Mrs. E. Worthington Manville.

However, it now appears that Annie’s charade is about to be exposed.  Louise is coming to New York with her fiance, Carlos (Barry Norton) and her prospective father-in-law, Count Romero (Walter Connolly).  Annie knows that when the Louise arrives, she’s going to discover that her mother is not wealthy and that the marriage will probably be called off.  So, led by Dave, Annie’s customers conspire to fool Louise into believing that her mother really is a member of high society.  And if that means that Dave is going to have to not only kidnap (but, let’s be clear, not harm) three nosy reporters and then make a deal with not just the mayor but also the governor to pull of the deception, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

Though it may be disguised as a sweet and rather simple comedy, Lady For A Day is actually a rather melancholy little film.  Even when Annie and her friends are pretending to be wealthy members of high society, the film is aware that their escape from reality is only temporary.  Eventually, they’ll have to return to the reality of being poor in 1930s America.  At heart, it’s a sad story but May Robson, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, and Guy Kibbee (who plays the pool hustler who is recruited to pretend to be Annie’s husband) all bring such sincerity to their roles that you can’t help but smile while watching it.  Rejected by “polite” society, Annie and her friends have formed a community of outsiders and, throughout the film, the audience is happy that, no matter what, they have each other.

Lady for a Day was the first Frank Capra film to ever be nominated for Best Picture.  Capra was also nominated, for the first time, for best director but he had the misfortune to be competing with Frank Lloyd, who directed Cavalcade.  At the awards ceremony, when host Will Rogers, announced the winner for best director, he said, “Come on up here, Frank!”  An excited Capra ran down to the podium, just to discover that Rogers had actually been talking to Frank Lloyd.  Rogers, seeing what had happened, quickly invited the other nominated director, Little Women‘s George Cukor, to come join Lloyd and Capra at the podium.  Fortunately, one year later, Capra would win the directing Oscar for It Happened One Night.

Cavalcade would go on to win Best Picture but Capra retained so much affection for Lady For A Day that it was the only one of his films that he would subsequently remake.  A Pocketful Of Miracles came out in 1961 and featured Bette Davis in the lead role.  It would be Capra’s final theatrical film.

4 Shots From 4 John Carpenter Films: Starman, Prince of Darkness, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

From the day that this site first came online, John Carpenter has been a bit of a mainstay here at the Shattered Lens.  Arleigh has written extensively about Carpenter’s films.  Every October, we seem to have, at the very least, a handful of posts that are somehow connected to the filmography of John Carpenter.  Hell, Carpenter and I were once both interviewed for the same article about the future of horror!

I guess my point is that we really love John Carpenter here at the Shattered Lens.  I’ve lost track of how many editions of 4 Shots From 4 Films we’ve devoted to Carpenter and his films.  However many there are, here’s one more.  Today is John Carpenter’s birthday and that means that it is time for….

4 Shots From 4 John Carpenter Films

Starman (1984, dir by John Carpenter)

Prince of Darkness (1987, dir by John Carpenter)

They Live (1988, dir by John Carpenter)

In The Mouth of Madness (1994, dir by John Carpenter)

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: In the Heat of the Night (dir by Norman Jewison)


The 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, tells the story of two very different men.

Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi.  In many ways, Gillespie appears to the epitome of the bigoted Southern cop.  He’s overweight.  He loses his temper easily.  He chews a lot of gum.  He knows everyone in town and automatically distrusts anyone who he hasn’t seen before, especially if that person happens to be a black man or from the north.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a black man from the north.  He’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department and he’s as cool and controlled as Gillespie is temperamental and uncouth.  Tibbs has no patience for the casual racism that is epitomized by lawmen like Chief Gillespie.  When Gillespie says that Virgil is a “fancy name” for a black and asks what people call Virgil in Philadelphia, Virgil declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!,” with an authority that leaves no doubt that he expects Gillespie to do the same.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

For once, that old joke is correct.  When a Chicago industrialist named Phillip Colbert is discover murdered in Sparta, Chief Gillespie heads up the investigation and, assuming that the murderer must be an outsider, orders Deputy Wood (Warren Oates) to check out the train station for any suspicious characters.  When Wood arrives at the station, he discovers Virgil standing on the platform.  Virgil is simply waiting for his train so that he can get back home to Philadelphia.  However, Wood promptly arrests him.  Gilespie accuses him of murdering Colbert, just to discover that Virgil’s a police detective from Philadelphia.

Though neither wants to work with the other, that’s exactly what Gillespie and Virgil are forced to do as they investigate Colbert’s murder.  Colbert was planning on building a factory in Sparta and his wife (Lee Grant) makes it clear that, if Sparta wants the factory and the money that comes with it, Virgil must be kept on the case.  Over the course of the investigation, Gillespie and Virgil come to a weary understanding as both of them are forced to confront their own preconceived notions about both the murder and life in Sparta.  In the end, if it’s impossible for them to truly become friends, they do develop a weary respect for each other.  That is perhaps the best that one could have hoped for in 1967.

I have to admit that it took me a few viewings before I really appreciated In the Heat of the Night.  Though this film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, it’s always suffered when compared to some of the films that it beat.  One can certainly see that the film was superior to Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  But was it a better film than The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde?  Did Rod Steiger really deserve to win Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty?  (Amazingly, Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

To be honest, I still feel that In The Heat of the Night was probably the 3rd best of the 5 films nominated that year, superior to the condescending Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate.  The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I thought Steiger blustered a bit too much and the film’s central mystery didn’t really hold together and, to a large extent, I still feel like that.

But, at the same time, there’s a lot to appreciate about In the Heat of the Night.  On subsequent viewings, I came to better appreciate the way that director Norman Jewison, editor Hal Ashby, and cinematographer Haskwell Wexler created and maintained an atmosphere that was so thick that you can literally feel the Mississippi humidity while watching the film.  I came to appreciate the supporting cast, especially Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Anthony James, and Larry Gates.  (Gates especially makes an impression in his one scene, playing an outwardly genteel racist who nearly cries when Tibbs reacts to his slap by slapping him back.)  I also came to appreciate the fact that, while the white cop/black cop partnership has subsequently become a bit of a cliche, it was new and even controversial concept in 1967.

And finally, I came to better appreciate Sidney Poitier’s performance as Virgil.  Poitier underplays Virgil, giving a performance of tightly controlled rage.  While Steiger yells his way through the film, Poitier emphasizes that Virgil is always thinking.  As in the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier plays a dignified character but, here, that dignity is Virgil’s way of defying the demands and expectations of men like Gillespie.  When Virgil does strike back, it’s a cathartic moment because we understand how many times he’s had to hold back.

In the Heat of the Night may not have been the best film of 1967 but it’s still one worth watching.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Crowd (dir by King Vidor)


Way back when the Academy first started to hand out awards to honor the best films of the year, they actually gave out two awards for best picture.  One of the awards was called Oustanding Production and it’s assumed by most Oscar historians that it was meant to go to the most “entertaining” film of the year.  The other award was called Best Unique and Artistic Picture and it was meant to honor the type of films that might not make a huge amount of money at the box office but which did the most to move cinema forward as an art form.

As a result, when the very first Academy Awards were awarded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16th, 1929, a popular war film named Wings was named Outstanding Production while F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was named Best Unique and Artistic Picture.  Sunrise defeated two other nominees, a documentary called Chang and King Vidor’s The Crowd.

It’s long been rumored that, when the votes were first counted, The Crowd originally won Best Unique and Artist Picture but that Louis B. Mayer insisted that the award should go to Sunrise instead.  The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer reportedly disliked The Crowd, even though it was distributed by his own studio.  Mayer felt that the film was too downbeat and he also resented that King Vidor had resisted Mayer’s demand that the film have a traditionally happy ending.  It’s also been suggested that, since the Academy was largely Mayer’s idea, he felt that, if an MGM film won the initial reward, it would lead to his enemies claiming that Mayer had too much influence over the organization.  That may or may not be true, no one can say for sure.  What we can say for sure, however, is that both The Crowd and Sunrise continue to be recognized as classics of the silent era.

The Crowd tells the story of John Sims (James Muray), who goes to New York when he’s 21, convinced that he’s destined to be someone important.  Sims gets a job at Atlas Insurance, where he’s one of many faceless office workers.  He meets and, after one date, marries Mary (Eleanor Broadman).  They live in a tiny apartment next to an elevated track.  Over the next five years, they raise a family.  They fight often.  Occasionally, they beak up but they always get back together.  Throughout it all, John struggles to prove himself as an individual, just to be continually reminded that he’s only a member of the faceless crowd.

It’s not a particularly happy film.  John starts the film as a member of the crowd and he’s still a member of the crowd when it ends.  If there is anything positive to be found in the film, it’s that John’s family loves him but, even taking that in to consideration, it’s obvious that he and Mary are going to spend their entire lives struggling and that the same fate probably awaits their children.  Knowing that the film was made on the verge of the start of the Great Depression makes John’s story all the more poignant.  If he thinks things are bad now, they’re about to get even worse.

Seen today, The Crowd is still a visually striking film.  Influenced by German expressionism (particularly the work of Sunrise‘s director, F.W. Murnau), Vidor presents New York as being a menacing and frequently surreal world of towering skyscrapers and unfriendly faces.  (Vidor even used the then-unheard of technique of using a hidden camera to capture actual documentary footage of star James Murray dealing with real New Yorkers.)  The Crowd is probably best remembered for the shot where the camera pans up the length of a skyscraper, finally entering the building and showing us the anonymous office workers within.  It’s a shot that perfectly captures the film’s theme of being lost and ignored in an impersonal world.  It’s also a shot that’s been duplicated in a countless number of films.  The Crowd may be 92 years old but its legacy lives on.

Sadly, things did not turn out well for James Murray, the former extra who Vidor cast in the lead role.  The success of The Crowd did not translate into success for Murray.  An alcoholic, Murray ended up living on Skid Row, where he once asked King Vidor for money and reacted with anger when Vidor offered him a role in a new film.  In 1936, Murray was found floating in the Hudson River.  He was 35 years old.

As for the Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Motion Picture, it was only awarded once.  Starting with the second Oscar ceremony, the Academy merged the two best film awards into one.  Interestingly, the idea of giving out two Best Picture awards was briefly revived in 2018 but the response to the idea was so negative that it was quickly abandoned.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Marriage Story (dir by Noah Baumbach)


The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today and, as happens every year, some of the nominations were met with acclaim while others left observers scratching their heads.  Right now, on twitter, there’s a fierce debate going on between those who think Joker deserved all of its nominations and those who believe that the Academy has once again deliberately snubbed women and people of color.

As for me, I’m just shaking my head at all the nominations for Marriage Story.  I get the feeling that, out of all of the recently unveiled best picture nominees, Marriage Story is the one that we will have forgotten about within the next year.  It’s an acclaimed film and I’m happy that Scarlett Johansson finally got a nominations (two nominations, as a matter of fact, as she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit) but, in the end, Marriage Story feels rather hollow.

Marriage Story is about the end of a marriage.  Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a New York-based theatrical director.  Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is his wife.  Nicole is an actress who, before she married Charlie, was best known for appearing topless in a teen comedy.  Charlie is often credited with having resurrected her career.  On the surface, they’re the perfect New York couple.  However, when we first meet them, their marriage is coming to an end.  Charlie, we learn, cheated on Nicole with a production assistant.  Nicole wants to go to Los Angeles so that she can star in a television series and have a career that’s not dependent upon her husband.  Caught in the middle of all this is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to an amicable split, one with no lawyers and no accusations.  That doesn’t last.  Nicole hires the cheerfully ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern).  Charlie, after moving out to Los Angeles, finds himself torn between hiring either the the kindly (but ineffectual) Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, in a role he was born to play) or the somewhat sinister (but definitely effective) Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, also in a role that he was born to play).  While both Charlie and Nicole try (and often) fail to maintain a civil relationship for Henry’s sake, their attorneys go to war.

There’s a lot of good things to be said about Marriage Story.  Though I think that his truly award-worthy work for 2019 was not in this film but instead in The Report, Adam Driver does a good job with role of Charlie.  Scarlett Johansson, who has so often been unfairly overlooked at awards time, again proves herself to be one of the best actresses around.  Dern, Alda, and Liotta are well-cast as three very different (but very recognizable) attorneys.  Noah Baumbach’s script has several good lines.  The scene where Nicole’s sister is awkwardly recruited to serve Charlie with the divorce papers is both funny and cringey.  The much-acclaimed scene where Charlie and Nicole go from having a polite (if awkward) conversation to yelling at each other is definitely effective even if it’s power has been diluted by it’s subsequent reinvention as a twitter meme.

That said, Marriage Story ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied.  It’s pretty much an open secret that the film is based on Noah Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and, watching the film, you can’t help but feel that you’re only getting one side of a very complex story.  My first warning sign came when Nicole left for Los Angeles and the film cut to her on the set for her new television series.  Marriage Story goes so overboard in portraying Nicole’s show as being vapid and silly that you can’t help but feel that we’re meant to look down on Nicole for abandoning Charlie’s avant-garde theater productions to star in it.  We’re meant to say, “She gave up Broadway so she could star in some second-rate Marvel show!?”  From the claim that no one took Nicole seriously until Charlie married her to it’s portrayal of her being easily manipulated by her attorney, there’s a pettiness to the film’s portrayal of Nicole.

As for Charlie, he’s presented as being flawed but, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to notice that almost all of his flaws can also serve as a humble brag.  He’s a little dorky,  He’s too intense.  He works too hard.  Sometimes, he has a hard time not being the director.  Almost all of Charlie’s flaws are the type of stuff that people mention in job interviews whenever they’re asked to name their biggest weakness.  “Well, I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes….” It’s hard not to feel that, despite a few scenes where Nicole gets to open up, the film is really only interested in Charlie’s perspective.  By the end of the film, Marriage Story reduces Nicole to merely being an obstacle standing in the way of Charlie and his son and it’s hard not to feel that both the character and the actress who plays her deserves better than that.  The film goes from being Marriage Story to simply being Charlie’s Story.

While you’re watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in Driver and Johansson’s performances.  It’s only afterwards, when you really think about it, that you come to realize that Marriage Story doesn’t really add up to much.  It’s a good acting exercise and I’m sure that it will be popular among community theater actors who have been asked to prepare a monologue for their next audition.  But the whole is ultimately far less than the sum of its parts.