Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Way, Way Back

Written at the time of the film's release....

The Summer of Our Discontent
or
"Little Mr. Sunshine"

The summer "coming of age" movie is such a staple that it might be worthy of its own genre label, rather than merely being relegated to a sub-category. It's a natural, really. The timing seems right and appropriate for the subject of change. Summer always seems to be a time of transitions: from one school year to the next; from bring a graduate to a freshman, walking out of one door and into (and hopefully through) another one. And while the rest of the year is taken up by schooling, the ample three months of idle time gives one plenty of opportunity for other extracurricular learning—life-lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Take Duncan (Liam James), for instance (please, someone has to...) in the new film by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (they won an Oscar for their superb script for The Descendants).  Fourteen, a 'tweener, his parents are divorced and Mom (Toni Collette) has taken up with another man. Trent (Steve Carrell), who has a daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). It is clear as this pint-sized Brady Bunch goes to an ocean beach house that it is not going to be anything resembling a beach-home. Duncan doesn't want to be there; he'd rather be with his Dad this Summer. Whether that preference has driven a previous wedge between Trent and Duncan is not know. What is known is that Trent is something of a jerk to Duncan. "One a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?" he asks Duncan sequestered to the back of the station wagon on the ride to. "Six," says Duncan, noncommittally.

Duncan (Liam James) has a "thousand mile stare"
"I think you're a 3," says Trent imperiously.  "I just don't see you putting yourself out there..."

If Trent wanted to see Duncan put out, that remark was a good start.
Duncan settles into the teen routine of being a hot-house plant in a dark room, grunting monosyllabically at anyone over 30.  He can't relate to Trent's friends and neighbors, like the barely-together Betty (Allison Janney)—she has two kids, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Peter (River Alexander) and Kip (Rob Cordrry) and Joan (Amanda Peet).  And Mom, trying to heal after a divorce, is there for Trent. Duncan tries to be invisible and stay out of the way, and is emotionally unavailable.
It isn't until he finds Steph's abandoned pink bike (with tassles on the handlebars) that things begin to pick up speed and he feels like less of a trapped and pacing animal.  The bike gives him some mobility, some freedom, and it only has one seat, which is fine by him.  He starts to explore the beach-town and runs into Owen (Sam Rockwell at his loose best) who runs the local water-slide park, Water Wizz. Duncan gravitates there and that's when his Summer starts to get fun.  Owen takes him under his crooked wing, adding Duncan as park-help, and introducing him to what will be his new family, including Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), the responsible to Owen's irresponsible, and concessioners Roddy (Faxon) and Lewis (Rash). Pretty soon he's in a routine, interacting with sort-of adults and fitting in.
But, it causes conflicts within families; his long hours at the park causes concerns at home and puts him in further conflict with Trent, who has his own disappearing act issues.
It is no great shakes as a film, but it is a good movie, a movie you might enjoy. It is merely competent, well-written, extraordinarily cast and acted (the standouts being Rockwell and Steve Carell who works against type and proves himself capable of playing a deliberate jerk, instead of just a clueless one. And Rash and Faxon prove themselves as adept at directing as they are at screenwriting. In a disappointing Summer, this counts for a lot. And like Duncan's situation at Water Wizz, this little wayward breath of fresh air from the usual carnage perpetrated on screens is a welcome relief
The only explosion in The Way, Way Back


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: All About Eve

The Story: As a director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a hell of a writer. That's not entirely fair—I'm saying that as a filmer of his own work, his shot composition wasn't always exciting.

But he could certainly stage things brilliantly, as this scene from All About Eve shows.

Call it "The Beehive Scene," because that's what theater diva Margo Channing sloshingly calls the group huddled on the stairs in conversation during Bill Simpson's* welcome home party—the mingling, the positioning and politics among the theater-people has long since ended, and its that twilight time of a party where folks are sticking it out for the conversation and hanging on with the established partiers until its time to grab the coats; the process has already begun. So folks are hanging out in chatty clumps, sloppy enough to talk philosophically and pontificate a bit. It is the time of a get-together when the most important things are often said and never remembered. Brilliance in passing...and possibly passing out.  Here, the "hold-outs" have gathered on the stairs in roughly hierarchical levels. Hopeful actresses on the bottom step, directors and critics in the middle. Karen assumes Margo's spot as the Queen Bee, although smilingly, above the fray, and Max, the producer, standing apart, not an artist but a money-man.

The positioning subliminally tells you everything about the scene without anyone saying a word.

Then, Margo flies in, as charming as a battle-axe, miffed, muscateled and magnificently "mauldin and full of self-pity" (of course, a critic would like it—anything dramatic, even if its melodramatic!) and the hierarchy is disrupted, so that she may ascend. So much vying for attention. So little audience.

Marilyn Monroe is in this scene, one could say playing a veiled version of herself at this point—young ingenue, exploited, learning the ropes of the business before they bind her, but with an underlying smartness that she doesn't let too many people see. She's practiced, with that put-upon breathy voice and the practiced diction mouth, but there's a natural comic timing that would sustain her throughout her career. It's one of her earliest roles and she's doing arched Mankiewicz dialogue against Davis, Holm, Baxter, and Sanders and holding her own. Not exactly "a candle in the wind."

And Anne Baxter walks a tight-rope here. Never one of my favorite actresses (she belonged in DeMille movies: "Oh, Moses, Moses.."), with good directors she could be poignant without puffery, theatrical without bellowing to the back-row.  In this scene, the veil of civility lifts a bit...the curtain rises so you can see what's going on back-stage for just a fleeting moment of reality. It looks charming to the audience and they titter and smile at the naivete, but it's a mistake in Eve's production—for a moment her motive is revealed (she already has a victim marked, now all she needs is a murder weapon!)—and she momentarily panics until she sees that it "plays." Baxter does it so well, that both her audiences—the ones on the stairs, and the wall-flowers in the theaters—do not see the naked ambition behind the words, the greed, the need, the lust.

The Set-Up:  A party at Margo Channing's (Bette Davis) for her returning beau director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). A frustrating evening, it's been arranged by Margo to cement her relationship to him, but her assistant, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is the one who looks like a hero for actually doing all the work.  For the star, it is tough to be anything less than center-stage, so fasten those safety belts.

Action!


Script deletions are in red.

INT. SECOND FLOOR LANDING AND STAIRS - NIGHT

Karen and Birdie come down the stairs to Bill, Max, Addison, a blonde young lady named MISS CASWELL (Addison's protegee-of-the-moment) - and, at the feet of Bill and Addison... Eve. They are all seated on the steps.

Birdie goes through and down the stairs to the first floor.
Karen remains with the others.

Addison is holding forth:


ADDISON: Every now and then, some elder statesman of the Theater or cinema assures the public that actors and actresses are just plain folk. Ignoring the fact that their greatest attraction to the public is their complete lack of resemblance to normal human beings.
MISS CASWELL: (as Birdie and the sables pass) Now there's something a girl could make sacrifices for.
BILL'S VOICE: And probably has.
MISS CASWELL: Sable.
MAX (to Miss Caswell): Did you say sable - or Gable?
MISS CASWELL: Either one.
ADDISON It is senseless to insist that theatrical folk in New York, Hollywood and London are no different from the good people of Des Moines, Chillicothe and Liverpool. By and large, we are concentrated gatherings of neurotics, egomaniacs, emotional misfits, and precocious children- MAX (to Bill) Gable. Why a feller like that don't come East to do a play...
BILL (nods) He must be miserable, the life he lives out there-
ADDISON These so-called abnormalities - they're our stock in trade, they make us actors, writers, directors, et cetera in the first place-
MAX: Answer me this. What makes a man become a producer?
ADDISON: What makes a man walk into a lion cage with nothing but a chair?
MAX: This answer satisfies me a hundred percent.

ADDISON: We all have abnormality in common. We are a breed apart from the rest of the humanity, we Theater folk. We are the original displaced personalities...
BILL (laughs; to Eve): You don't have to read his column tomorrow -
Bill: ...you just heard it.
BILL: I don't agree, Addison...
ADDISON: That happens to be your particular abnormality.
BILL: Oh, I admit there's a screwball element in the Theater. It sticks out, it's got spotlights on it and a brass band. But it isn't basic, it isn't standard - if it were, the Theater couldn't survive...
MISS CASWELL (to a passing butler): Oh, waiter...

The butler goes right by.
ADDISON: That isn't a waiter, my dear. That's a butler.
MISS CASWELL: Well, I can't yell "Oh, butler," can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler...
ADDISON: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.
MISS CASWELL: I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.
MAX (getting up): Leave it to me to get you one...
MISS CASWELL (pitching): Oh, thank you, Mr. Fabian.

Max leaves with her empty glass.
ADDISON: Well done. I see your career rising in the East like the sun...
ADDISON (to Bill): ... you were saying?
BILL: I was saying that the Theater is nine-tenths hard work.
BILL: Work done the hard way - by sweat, application and craftsmanship.
BILL: I'll agree to this - that to be a good actor, actress, or anything else in the Theater, means wanting to be that more than anything else in the world...
EVE (abruptly): Yes. Yes, it does.
BILL (goes on): It means concentration of ambition, desire, and sacrifice such as no other profession demands... And I'll agree that the man or woman who accepts those terms can't be ordinary, can't be - just someone. To give so much for almost always
so little...

Eve speaks almost unaware of what she says. She looks at no one in particular, just off...
EVE: So little. So little, did you say? Why, if there's nothing else - there's applause.
EVE: It's like - like waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up. Imagine... To know, every night, that different hundreds of people love you... they smile, their eyes shine - you've pleased them, they want you, you belong. Just that alone is worth anything...
She becomes aware of Addison's strange smile, of Bill's looks of warm interest. She's embarrassed, she turns away - then scrambles to her feet as Margo approaches with Lloyd from the direction of the pantry.
Margo's had too much to drink. Her fake smile fades as Eve
gets up. She's unpleasant and depressed.

MARGO: Don't get up. And please stop acting as if I were the queen mother.
EVE (hurt): I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-
BILL (sharply): Outside of a beehive, Margo, your behavior would hardly be considered either queenly or motherly!
MARGO: You're in a beehive, pal, didn't you know?
MARGO: We're all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night-
(to Eve)
- aren't we, honey?
KAREN: Margo, really...
MARGO: Please don't play governess, Karen...
MARGO: I haven't your unyielding good taste, I wish I'd gone to Radcliffe too...
MARGO: ...but father wouldn't hear of it...
MARGO: - he needed help at the notions counter...
MARGO (to Addison): I'm being rude now, aren't I?
MARGO: OR should I say "ain't I"?
ADDISON: You're maudlin and full of self pity. You're magnificent.

Max has come up with Miss Caswell's drink.
LLOYD: How about calling it a night?
MARGO: And you pose as a playwright. A situation pregnant with possibilities - and all you can think of is everybody to go to sleep...
BILL: It's a good thought.
MARGO: It won't play.
KAREN: As a nonprofessional, I think it's an excellent idea. Undramatic, but practical...

As she speaks, she makes her way to Lloyd's side.
MARGO: Happy little housewife...
BILL: Cut it out.
MARGO: This is my house, not a theater! In my house you're a guest, not a director-!
KAREN: Then stop being a star - start treating your guests as your supporting cast!
ADDISON: Hear, hear...
LLOYD: Now let's not get into a big hassle-
KAREN: It's about time we did! It's about time Margo realized that what's attractive on stage need not necessarily be attractive off.
MARGO: (suddenly) All right! I'm going to bed.
MARGO: (to Bill)
You be the host. It's your party. Happy Birthday, welcome home, and we-who-are-about-to-die-salute-you.

She starts upstairs.
BILL: Need any help?
MARGO: (pauses, smiles) To put me to bed? Take my clothes off, hold my head, tuck me in, turn off the lights, tiptoe out...?
MARGO: Eve would. Wouldn't you, Eve?
EVE: If you'd like.
MARGO: I wouldn't like.
She goes up, exits out of sight. A pause. Miss Caswell reaches up to take the drink out of Max's hand.
MAX: I forgot I had it.
MISS CASWELL: I didn't.
Bill gets up and goes after Margo...
ADDISON: Too bad! We'll miss the third act. They're going to play it off stage.


All About Eve

Words by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Pictures by Milton R. Krasner and Joseph L. Mankiewicz

All About Eve is available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.







* I don't get many comments (I do this for myself, so I don't care). But, one comment pointed out that the character's name played by Gary Merrill in All About Eve is "Bill Sampson." "How can we take you seriously when you make mistakes like this?"  My reply was that I'm amazed that people READ this, much less take me seriously. And it's weird, because I remember his name as being Bill Sampson (because Wikipedia tells me so), but IMDB says "Bill Simpson" so I went with that, because, well, Wikipedia... On top of that, if you stay long enough, the cast list says it's "Bill Simpson." I'll go with what the movie says.