Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Hope and glory

I really do have other ideas for these commentaries besides continually paying tribute to recently deceased major film figures. Let’s see if I get to use one of them next week.

Far from the midnight cowboy (1926-2003)

When you have followed a filmmaker’s work for many years and seen a good few of his movies, you get to where you feel as though you know him. And when you have had the opportunity to see him and hear him speak on a few occasions, in a setting where he is clearly comfortable and candid, well, you almost feel like a friend. And when such a filmmaker passes away, you almost feel that you have a lost a friend. That is how I feel about John Schlesinger.

He was at the Seattle International Film Festival a few times to present new films, as well as to be the subject of a festival tribute in 1993. When he spoke to the audience, it was nearly in a conspiratorial way, as he vented about his frustrations with Hollywood. When he presented one of his last films, Cold Comfort Farm at the closing night of the 1995 film festival, he said he had gone back to Britain to make the film as a kind of therapy after a Hollywood project had fallen through. Cold Comfort Farm was a delightful romp and showed Schlesinger’s lack of pretentiousness, as he acknowledged that among the many targets of this satire was his own 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

There seemed to be at least three John Schlesingers. There was the award-winning British New Wave director of such 1960s films as A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling. There was the Hollywood director, who made such varied and conventional films as Marathon Man, Yanks, Honky Tonk Freeway, The Falcon and the Snowman, The Believers, Madame Sousatzka and Pacific Heights. Then there was the John Schlesinger who pushed the envelope, dealing with sexual themes that were ahead of their time for many movie audiences. The oeuvre of this director includes his breakthrough Hollywood debut, Midnight Cowboy, in which a young Jon Voight heads for New York City with plans to sell his admittedly nice body, only to find that there is a bigger market among men than women. It also includes Sunday Bloody Sunday, in which Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson compete for the affections Murray Head, who is having affairs with both of them. (That film, incidentally, gave us our first look at an adolescent actor named Daniel Day-Lewis.) His last film, The Next Best Thing, paired Madonna and Rupert Everett as friends who attempt to form an unconventional family.

The actor Julie Christie, who worked with Schlesinger on Billy Liar and Darling, wrote a wonderful tribute to the director the other day in the British paper The Guardian. She celebrated his irreverence and how he “delighted in taking the piss out of everything and anyone.” She tells a particularly funny story about how he surprised her in Far from the Madding Crowd when filming the intense scene where she opens the coffin of her husband’s mistress. After much actorly preparation for the scene, Christie was shocked when she opened the coffin to find “a small, smirking props man holding a huge dildo.”

Schlesinger got his chance to get back at Hollywood when he made the 1975 movie, The Day of the Locust, based on the novel by Nathaniel West. It was probably preordained that a satire on the excesses of the American movie industry would wind up a critical and commercial failure. When I saw it upon its release, I thought it was terrible. Now I would like to watch it again and see how it looks now. The thing about Schlesinger is that he was often ahead of his time and his audiences.

Ol’ ski-nose (1903-2003)

It probably says something about me that I first became aware of Bob Hope as a comic book character. I don’t know how many people actually remember this, but there was a time when Hope and fellow actor/comedian Jerry Lewis had their own titles published by DC Comics. I don’t think there was any medium that Hope didn’t have a hand in.

As a movie actor, he made scores of a movies and, contrary to popular belief, not all of them had titles beginning with Road to… His big breakthrough on the big screen, of course, was The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which he sang that famous song that we heard again so much in the days after Hope’s death. Undeservedly less well remembered is his title turn in 1951’s The Lemon Drop Kid, which introduced the seasonal standard Silver Bells. Hope’s acting was pretty much like everything else he did (singing, dancing, telling jokes, hosting awards programs, etc.). It wasn’t that he was particularly good at it. It was just the force of his personality that made him entertaining, no matter what he was doing. Decades ago, people began saying that Bob Hope hadn’t said anything funny in (fill in the blank) years. But it didn’t matter. We laughed in spite of ourselves, no matter how corny his material.

His most frequent screen persona will survive him since many other actors have adopted it. He was usually the fast-talking, false-bravado-wearing chancer, who masked his cowardice with a quip. In many ways, he was the Chevy Chase of his time. He is most often thought of in his pairings with Bing Crosby, but I think I preferred the movies he made with Lucille Ball. The redhead had more of an edge to her on the big screen than in her TV sitcoms and she was a better foil than the easygoing, jive-talking Crosby. They were paired four times, in Sorrowful Jones (a remake of Little Miss Marker), Fancy Pants (a remake of Ruggles of Red Gap), The Facts of Life and Critic’s Choice.

The influence of the Road movies can be seen in lots of subsequent film comedies. They are the only movies of their vintage where I see actors readily acknowledging that they are in a movie. Nowadays, it happens all too often.

Hope’s later movies have not aged as well as his earlier ones. There is something tawdry about the films that came after 1962, the year of the last Road movie, Road to Hong Kong. A Global Affair, I’ll Take Sweden, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell, How to Commit Marriage. The very titles seem like things you would find in the nickel bin of the used book shop. Just as well that Hope is mainly being remembered as the patriotic guy who entertained the troops every Christmas for a hundred years.

There is one more reason for film buffs to remember Hope. For quite a few years he was the host of the Academy Awards broadcast. In that way, he was the Steve Martin or Billy Crystal of his time. His quips were welcome and kept things moving along during the ceremony. Finally, one year when Hollywood was having particularly difficult financial times, his jokes fell flat. The next year he was gone and, I think, Johnny Carson had replaced him.

One of his best quips was that Oscar night in his house was known as “passover.” While that was true in terms of awards voted by his peers, Hope did receive four honorary Oscars (in 1940, 1944, 1952 and 1965) as well as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1959.

-S.L., 31 July 2003


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