Sunday, December 30, 2012

DELICIOUS REMEMBERS the great Charles Durning

Charles Durning, Prolific Character Actor, Dies at 89
by Robert Berkvist, New York Times

Charles Durning, who overcame poverty, battlefield trauma and nagging self-doubt to become an acclaimed character actor, whether on stage as Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or in film as the lonely widower smitten with a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie died on December 24 at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His daughter Michele Durning confirmed the death.

Charles Durning may not have been a household name, but with his pugnacious features and imposing bulk he was a familiar presence in American movies, television and theater, even if often overshadowed by the headliners.

Alongside Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s con men, Mr. Durning was a crooked cop in the 1973 movie The Sting; starring with Nick Nolte, he was a dedicated assistant football coach in North Dallas Forty (1979); in the shadow of Robert De Niro, he was a hypocritical power broker in True Confessions (1981).

If his ordinary-guy looks deprived him of leading-man roles, they did not leave him typecast. He could play gruff and combative or gentle and funny. In the comedy Tootsie (1982) he was a little of each, playing Jessica Lange’s unsuspecting father, who falls for a television actor masquerading as a woman.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Durning’s two Oscar nominations were for supporting roles, as a slippery governor in the Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and as a lustful Nazi colonel in the 1983 remake of To Be or Not To Be (1983), starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

His television credits were voluminous, from guest spots to substantial parts in TV movies and mini-series. He was a regular on “Evening Shade,” the 1990s sitcom that starred Burt Reynolds, and “First Monday,” a short-lived 2002 drama about the Supreme Court. He had recurring roles as a priest on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and as the ex-firefighter father of Denis Leary’s Tommy in the firehouse series “Rescue Me.” In all, Mr. Durning received nine Emmy Award nominations, although he never won.

His Big Daddy, the bullying, dying plantation owner in a 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” brought him a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play. Frank Rich, then the chief drama critic for The New York Times, likened the performance to “a dying volcano, in final, sputtering eruption.” “Cat” was Mr. Durning’s first Broadway hit since 1972, when he drew praise as a small-town mayor seeking re-election in “That Championship Season,” Jason Miller’s Tony-winning drama about the reunion of a high school basketball team.

He went on to appear in a pair of short-lived 1973 Broadway productions — David Rabe’s “Boom Boom Room” and Hugh Leonard’s “Au Pair Man,” in which he co-starred with Julie Harris — and, three years later, in Jules Feiffer’s comedy “Knock Knock.”

Despite his success, Mr. Durning fought a lifelong battle with himself.

“I lack confidence as an actor,” he told The Toronto Star in 1988. When asked what he thought his image was, he replied: “Image? Hell, I don’t have an image.” He later told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was “driven by fear — the fear of not being recognized by your peers.”

Charles Edward Durning was born into poverty on Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y., a Hudson River village. His father, James, an Irish immigrant, had been sickened by mustard gas and lost a leg in World War I and died when Charles was 16. Charles was the ninth of 10 children, and five of his sisters died of smallpox or scarlet fever in childhood, three of them within two weeks.

Never a good student, young Charles dropped out of school and eventually left for Pennsylvania, deciding that his mother, Louise, a laundress at the United States Military Academy at West Point, would fare better with one less mouth to feed. He worked as a farmhand and did other menial jobs before moving to Buffalo, where again he took odd jobs. One, opportunely, was as an usher in a burlesque house.

One night a frequently drunk comedian failed to show up, and Mr. Durning, who had memorized the comic’s jokes, persuaded the manager to let him go on. He “got laughs,” he later recalled, and was “hooked” on show business. He made his stage debut in Buffalo.

Then came World War II, and he enlisted in the Army. His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.

By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.

After the war, still mentally troubled, Mr. Durning “dropped into a void for almost a decade” before deciding to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he told Parade magazine in 1993. The school dismissed him within a year. “They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,” he told The Times in 1997.

He went from job to job, from doorman to dishwasher to cabdriver. He boxed professionally for a time, delivered telegrams and taught ballroom dancing, meeting his first wife, Carole, at an Arthur Murray studio. Every so often he landed a bit part in a play.

His big break came in 1962, when Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, invited him to audition. It was the start of a long association with Papp, who cast him, often as a clown, in 35 plays, many by Shakespeare.

Mr. Durning preferred the stage to movies, finding roles in “The World of Günter Grass,” Dennis J. Reardon’s “Happiness Cage” and Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” among other plays.

His work in “That Championship Season,” first produced at the Public Theater, led the film director George Roy Hill to tap Mr. Durning for the part of a corrupt police lieutenant in The Sting. Two years later he played a beleaguered police hostage negotiator squaring off against Al Pacino’s manic bank robber in Sidney Lumet’s celebrated Dog Day Afternoon.

The 1970s and ’80s were fruitful years. Mr. Durning received Emmy nominations for supporting performances in the mini-series “Captains and the Kings” (1976), the prison drama “Attica” (1980) and a CBS production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (1985), in which he played Charley, the sympathetic neighbor of Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman). He was also nominated for his starring performance as a mailman romancing a lonely widow (Maureen Stapleton) in the 1975 CBS television movie “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.”

In 1977 he played an American president held hostage by rogue military men in Robert Aldrich’s film Twilight’s Last Gleaming. His many other film roles include Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty’s colorful Dick Tracy (1990), Holly Hunter’s kindhearted father in Home for the Holidays (1995) and, in a pair of Coen brothers films, a suicidal industrialist in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and a gruff Southern governor in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) .

He tried to perform in at least one play a year. In 1996 he fought a courtroom duel with George C. Scott in the Broadway revival of “Inherit the Wind,” the drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee based on the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. Mr. Durning played the prosecutor, a character based on William Jennings Bryan, and Scott, in his last Broadway role, was the defense attorney, modeled on Clarence Darrow.

The next year Mr. Durning starred with Julie Harris in a Broadway revival of “The Gin Game,” D. L. Coburn’s Pulitzer-winning play about two nursing home residents whose game of cards becomes a clash of wills. In 2000, in a retitled revival called “Gore Vidal’s ‘The Best Man,’ ” he played an ailing former president who tries to mediate a power struggle between two candidates. In 2002 he appeared with Mr. Pacino in an Off Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” At Lincoln Center in 2005 he was the senile father of a college professor (Dianne Wiest) in Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third.”

He continued to act almost until his death. “Scavenger Killers,” a crime thriller in which he stars with Eric Roberts and Robert Loggia, is scheduled to open next year.

Mr. Durning’s first marriage, to Carole Doughty, ended in divorce; he was separated from his second wife, Mary Ann Amelio. Besides his daughter Michele, he is survived by another daughter, Jeanine Durning, and a son, Douglas, all from his first marriage.

In 2008 the Screen Actors Guild gave Mr. Durning its Life Achievement Award, as if to dispel any lingering doubts he had about being recognized by his peers. And in 2007 the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the school that he said had long ago rejected him, created a scholarship in honor of him and two other alumni, Anne Bancroft and Gena Rowlands.

Mr. Durning was also remembered for his combat service, which he avoided discussing publicly until later in life. He spoke at memorial ceremonies in Washington, and in 2008 France awarded him the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”

They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.

Mr. Durning said the memories never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else.

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he told Parade. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

LES MIZ: A delicious holiday gift from Universal Pictures

It has finally arrived. The all-star movie version of the 1980's megahit musical LES MISERABLES.

Full disclosure - I have never been a huge fan of Les Miz since its beginnings. My greatest memory of the show was meeting the late Davy (the Monkees) Jones in the audience during the perfomance that I attended. My problem with Les Miz? While I do find the score beautiful, I found the direction and the set design in the original production far too dark and dreary. And after the interminable length of the first act (two hours, if memory serves me right), the second act consisted of one endless reprise after another with just a smatterng of new tunes. (Composers, if you are going to keep an audience captive for nearly 4 hours, PLEASE, write some new songs for the second act.  And, at the very least, divide the show into three acts so that we can stretch our legs.)

Like the broadway hit EVITA, I thought the show would improve dramatically in a cinematic incarnation. This proved true with the Lloyd Webber- Rice musical when Hollywood came calling (despite Madonna) and I held similarly high hopes that a good screenwriter/director would whittle Les Miz down to its essentials and streamline it into a great peice of film.

Well, chiclets - the reviews are in - and they have been generally favorable. I shall not pass judgement until I have seen it for myself. But here's the review from the New York Times plus a link to metacritic. I shall let you read them for yourselves. Perhaps you can comment afterwards and see whether you find them fair or unfair.

The Wretched Lift Their Voices
by Manohla Dargis, New York Times

In the first long act of Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway opens her mouth, and the agony, passion and violence that have decorously idled in the background of this all-singing, all-suffering pop opera pour out. It’s a gusher! She’s playing Fantine, the factory worker turned prostitute turned martyr, and singing the showstopping “I Dreamed a Dream,” her gaunt face splotched red and brown. The artful grunge layered onto the cast can be a distraction, as you imagine assistant dirt wranglers anxiously hovering off camera. Ms. Hathaway, though, holds you rapt with raw, trembling emotion. She devours the song, the scene, the movie, and turns her astonishing, cavernous mouth into a vision of the void.

The director Tom Hooper can be a maddening busybody behind the camera, but this is one number in which he doesn’t try to upstage his performers. Maybe he was worried that Ms. Hathaway would wolf him down too. Whatever the case, he keeps it relatively simple. Moving the camera slightly with her — she lurches somewhat out of frame at one point, suggesting a violent, existential wrenching — he shoots the song in a head-and-shoulder close-up, with the background blurred. By that point, with her dignity and most of her pretty hair gone, Fantine has fallen as far as she can. She has become one of the abject castaways of the musical’s title, a wretched of the earth.

Written by Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), the musical Les Misérables is of course one really big show, perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the longest-running. Its Web site hints at its reach: Since the English-language version was first performed in London in 1985, it has been translated into 21 languages, performed in 43 countries, won almost 100 awards (Tony, Grammy) and been seen by more than 60 million people. In 1996 Hong Kong mourners sang “Do You Hear the People Sing” to memorialize Tiananmen Square. In 2009 the awkward duckling Susan Boyle became a swan and a world brand with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on the television show “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Somewhere amid the grime, power ballads and surging strings there is also Victor Hugo, whose monumental 1862 humanistic novel, Les Misérables, was, along with the musical Oliver!, Mr. Boublil’s original inspiration. Like the show, Mr. Hooper’s movie opens in 1815 and closes shortly after the quashed June Rebellion of 1832, boiling the story down to a pair of intertwined relationships.

The first pivots on the antagonism of a onetime prison guard, now inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe, strained) toward a former convict, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, earnest); the secone involves the love-at-first swooning between Cisette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary firebrand. As a child, Cosette was rescued by Valjean from her caretakers, the Thénardiers (the energetic Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who nicely stir, and stink up, the air).

Part of the tug of Les Misérables is that it recounts a familiar, reassuring story of oppression, liberation and redemption, complete with period costumes and tear-yanking songs. Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest. In the first number (“Look Down”), set against a digitally enhanced, visibly artificial port, Valjean helps haul an enormous ship into a dock. Dressed mainly in cardinal red, the prisoners pull on ropes, while singing during a lashing rain, with Javert glaring down at them. (And, yes, he will fall.)

By the time the scene ends, Valjean hasn’t just been handed his release papers after 19 years as a prisoner, he has also become a Christ figure, hoisting a preposterously large wooden pole on to his shoulder. Mr. Hooper’s maximalist approach is evident the very moment the scene begins — the camera swooping, as waves and music crash — setting an overblown tone that rarely quiets. His work in this passage, from the roller-coaster moves of the cameras to the loud incidental noise that muffles the lyrics, undermines his actors and begins to push the musical from spectacle toward bloat. Mr. Jackman suffers the most from Mr. Hooper’s approach, as when Valjean paces up and down a hallway while delivering “What Have I Done,” a to-and-fro that witlessly, needlessly, literalizes the character’s internal struggle.

Mr. Hooper’s decision to shoot the singing live, as opposed to having the singers lip-sync recorded songs, as has been customary in movie musicals since the 1930s, yields benefits. That’s especially the case with Ms. Hathaway, Mr. Redmayne and Daniel Huttlestone, a scene-stealer who plays the Thénardiers’ young son. (This isn’t the first contemporary musical to resurrect the practice of live singing, which was used for both At Long Last Love, directed by Peter Bodgandovich, and The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker.) It’s touching, watching performers like Ms. Hathaway and Mr. Redmayne giving it their all, complete with quavering chins and straining tendons. Mr. Redmayne, an appealing actor with a freckled face built for wonder, at times seems to be stretching his long body to hit his higher notes.

Mr. Redmayne’s sincerity complements Ms. Seyfried’s old-fashioned trilling and her wide-eyed appearance, even if their romance lacks spark. Then again, so does the movie. Song after song, as relationships and rebellion bloom, you wait in vain for the movie to, as well, and for the filmmaking to rise to the occasion of both its source material and its hard-working performers.

As he showed in The King's Speech and in the television series “John Adams,” Mr. Hooper can be very good with actors. But his inability to leave any lily ungilded — to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around — is bludgeoning and deadly. By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.

Les Misérables is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gun death, poverty, face boils and revolution.

Les Misérables opened on December 25, 2012 nationwide.

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer; based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schönberg; music by Mr. Schönberg; lyrics by Mr. Kretzmer; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens; production design by Eve Stewart; costumes by Paco Delgado; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes.

WITH: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier).

Monday, December 24, 2012

An unexpected development.

Dear friends, family, and Austrian nobility,

Captain Von Trapp and I are very sorry to inform you that we no longer plan to wed. We offer our deepest apologies to those of you who have already made plans to travel to Salzburg this summer.

Those of you on the Captain’s side of the guest list are probably aware of the reason for the change of plans. I’m sure by now you have received that charming “Save the date!” card in the shape of a mountain goat from the Captain and his new fiancée, Maria.

I must confess to being rather blindsided by the end of our relationship. It seems Captain Von Trapp and I misunderstood each other. I assumed he was looking for a wife of taste and sophistication, who was a dead ringer for Tippi Hedren; instead he wanted to marry a curtain-wearing religious fanatic who shouts every word she says.

But I don’t want you to be angry at him. We are all adults here. “But Baroness,” so many of my friends have said, “you must be devastated. You yourself are fabulously wealthy, so you cannot have wanted the Captain for his money—you must have truly loved him.” It’s true. But so, I am sure, does his new fiancée, his children’s nanny. Her wardrobe is made of curtains. She’s definitely not a gold digger or anything. (I’m sorry. That was crude of me.) She seems like a lovely person, and she and the children have a great deal in common. (A great, great, great deal.)

Since I will no longer be a part of their lives, I do hope you will all keep an eye on the Captain’s children. I am not terribly maternal but I was very fond of them in my own way and I must admit I am worried what will become of them now that I have gone. I had planned to send them to boarding school, since their education at the moment seems to consist mostly of marching around Salzburg singing scales. I think it would have been particularly helpful for the eldest daughter, who seems intent on losing her virginity to the mailman.

Please, friends, don’t worry about me. While I was a bit startled to be thrown aside for someone who flunked out of nun school, I assure you that I will be fine, and my main pursuits in life shall continue to be martinis, bon mots, and looking fabulous. You’ll also be glad to know I have retained custody of the Captain’s hard-drinking gay friend, Max. Anyone who gets tired of sing-a-longs should feel free to look us up.

Again, my deepest apologies for this disruption to your plans. I am currently sorting through the wedding gifts we’ve already received and I will send them back as soon as possible. The Captain would help, but he is busy learning to play a song about cuckoo clocks on his guitar.

Baroness Elsa Schraeder

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