A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Winner For Labor Day: On The Waterfront (dir by Elia Kazan)


On-the-Waterfront

I like On The Waterfront.

Nowadays, that can be a dangerous thing to admit.  On The Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954 and Marlon Brando’s lead performance as boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy is still regularly cited as one of the best of all time.  The scene where he tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that he “could have been a contender” is so iconic that other films still continue to either parody or pay homage to it.  On The Waterfront is one of those films that regularly shows up on TCM and on lists of the greatest films ever made.

And yet, despite all that, it’s become fashionable to criticize On The Waterfront or to cite it as an unworthy Oscar winner.  Certain film bloggers wear their disdain for On The Waterfront like a badge of honor.  Ask them and they’ll spend hours telling you exactly why they dislike On The Waterfront and, not surprisingly, it all gets tedious pretty quickly.

Like all tedious things, the answer ultimately comes down to politics.  In the early 50s, as the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee conducted its search for communists in Hollywood, hundreds of actors, writers, and directors were called before the committee.  They were asked if they were currently or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.  It was demanded that they name names.  Refusing to take part was career suicide and yet, many witnesses did just that.  They refused to testify, apologize, or name names.

And then there was the case of Elia Kazan.  When he was called in front of HUAC, he not only testified about his communist past but he named names as well.  Many of his past associates felt that Kazan had betrayed them in order to protect his own career.  On The Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to his critics.

In On The Waterfront, Terry Malloy’s dilemma is whether or not to voluntarily testify before a commission that is investigating union corruption on the waterfront.  Encouraging him to testify is the crusading priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the saintly girl who Terry loves.  Discouraging Terry from testifying is literally every one else on the waterfront, including Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger).  Charlie is the right-hand man of gangster Johnny Friendly (a crudely intimidating Lee J. Cobb), who is the same man who earlier ordered Terry to throw a big fight.

At first, Terry is content to follow the waterfront of code of playing “D and D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to union corruption.  However, when Johnny uses Terry to lure Edie’s brother into an ambush, Terry is forced to reconsider his previous apathy.  As Terry gets closer and closer to deciding to testify, Johnny order Charlie to kill his brother…

The issue that many contemporary critics have with On The Waterfront is that they view it as being essentially a “pro-snitch” film.  It’s easy to see that Elia Kazan viewed himself as being the damaged but noble Terry Malloy while Johnny Friendly was meant to be a stand-in for Hollywood communism.  They see the film as being both anti-union and Kazan’s attempt to defend naming names.

And maybe they’re right.

But, ultimately, that doesn’t make the film any less effective.  Judging On The Waterfront solely by its backstory ignores just how well-made, well-acted, well-photographed, well-directed, and well-written this film truly is.  Elia Kazan may (or may not) have been a lousy human being but, watching this film, you can’t deny his skill as a director.  There’s a thrilling grittiness to the film’s style that allows it to feel authentic even when it’s being totally heavy-handed.

And the performances hold up amazingly well.  Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy gets so much attention that it’s easy to forget that the entire cast is just as great.  Rod Steiger makes Charlie’s regret and guilt poignantly real.  Karl Malden, who gets stuck with the film’s more pedantic dialogue, is the perfect crusader.  Eva Marie Saint is beautiful and saintly.  And then you’ve got Lee J. Cobb, playing one of the great screen villains.

The motives behind On The Waterfront may not be the best.  But, occasionally, a great film does emerge from less than pure motives.  (Just as often, truly good intentions lead to truly bad cinema.)  Regardless of what one thinks of Elia Kazan, On The Waterfront is a great work of cinema and it’s on that basis that it should be judged.

On_the_Waterfront_poster

Embracing the Melodrama #36: Fatal Attraction (dir by Adrian Lyne)


fatal-attraction

(This review has spoilers because I felt like it and I’ll do whatever the Hell I want.)

Today, we continue embracing the melodrama by taking a look at the 1987 best picture nominee, Fatal Attraction.

Fatal Attraction opens on a scene of domestic bliss, with lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and his wife Beth (Anne Archer) in their luxurious Manhattan apartment, getting ready to go out for the night and waiting for the babysitter to arrive.  Dan would appear to have it all: a successful career, a fat best friend, and a beautiful wife.  However, when Beth and their daughter go out of town for the weekend, Dan ends up having an affair with Alex (Glenn Close).  Dan assumes that it was just a weekend thing but Alex is soon stalking Dan.  Trying to escape her, Dan moves his family out to the suburbs but Alex follows them.  Soon, pet rabbits are being killed, Alex is breaking into the house with a knife, and it’s up to Beth to step up and reclaim her man.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Fatal Attraction.  On the one hand, it’s an undeniably well-made film.  It’s well-acted and director Adrian Lyne pushes all of the right emotional buttons and keeps the action moving quickly.  That the film is predictable doesn’t make it any the less effective.  As a lover of horror movies, I appreciated the skill with which Lyne crafted the film’s scare scenes.  Watching the movie, it was easy to see why Fatal Attraction was a huge box office success and why it continues to influence our culture to this very day.

fa05

And yet, at the same time, Fatal Attraction really annoys me.

The film is so well-made and so manipulative that it’s easy to miss the fact that Dan Gallagher is not only never punished for betraying his wife but he’s actually not held responsible for his actions in any way.  Instead, the only person who is truly punished for their transgression is Alex.  The film, after all, makes clear that Alex is the one pursuing Dan.  In fact, it could be argued that when it comes to Dan and Alex, the traditional gender roles have been reversed.  Alex (who, as opposed to the idealized Beth, has a name that is both masculine and feminine) is the aggressive one while Dan is the passive one who gives into temptation and, afterwards, feels guilty.  After admitting his transgression, Dan is allowed to reclaim his manhood and continue on with his perfect life.  However, Alex has no place in conventional society and therefore, she must be destroyed.

And so much the better if she’s destroyed by Beth, a woman who has no problem with accepting a traditionally domestic role.

Far too often, in the past, I know that my girl friends and I always assumed that men were simply incapable of resisting temptation.  Therefore, if your boyfriend cheated on you, it really was not his fault.  He was just being a guy.  Instead, it was the other woman’s fault because she was the one who tempted him.  (And, though we acknowledged this a lot less, it was also his girlfriend’s fault for allowing him to get into a position where he could be tempted in the first place.)  But it was never truly guy’s fault and, as long as you made him suffer for a bit, it was always expected that you would forgive him and take him back.

ff562f_50a74289f9f696cf59a7125eec69b111

That’s the same mentality that runs through Fatal Attraction (not to mention countless daytime talk shows where girlfriends and wives always beat up mistresses while their boyfriend or husband stands over to the side and watches, untouched).  Yes, Dan did cheat on his perfect wife and yes, he feels terrible about it.  But the real threat comes from the woman who pursued him despite knowing that he was married and then, afterwards, had the nerve to demand not to be ignored.  (If anything, the film seems to be suggesting that everything would have been okay if Dan had just fucked someone who works in his office, as opposed to someone who he can’t control through money or the threat of societal shaming.)  When, at the end of the film, Beth shoots Alex, it’s a crowd-pleasing moment but it’s also Beth’s way of reclaiming her man.  Since Dan — being male — can’t be expected to exercise any sort of self-control, it’s the responsibility of Beth to step up and destroy the temptation.

For not respecting the vows of marriage, Alex is a monster who must be destroyed.  Dan, on the other hand, is merely inconvenienced and ultimately, he ends up with a far stronger marriage as a result of having strayed.

In Fatal Attraction, the only thing more dangerous than sex with Alex is examining subtext.

Fatal Attraction-22