Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Rat Pack

Source Material:

Director: Rob Cohen

Screenplay by: Kario Salem

Year: 1998

Cast Highlights:
Ray Liotta: Frank Sinatra
Joe Mantegna: Dean Martin
Don Cheadle: Sammy Davis Jr.
Angus Macfadyen: Peter Lawford
William Petersen: John F. Kennedy
Zeljko Ivanek: Bobby Kennedy
Bobby Slayton: Joey Bishop
Megan Dodds: May Britt
Dan O'Herlihy: Joe Kennedy
Robert Miranda: Momo Giancana
Barbara Niven: Marilyn Monroe
Michelle Grace: Judy Campbell
John Diehl: Joe DiMaggio
Alan Woolf: Mickey Cohen
Phyllis Lyons: Pat Kennedy Lawford

A workmanlike biopic, The Rat Pack covers the activities of Frank Sinatra and his pals between 1958 and 1962. It ranges widely, exploring the intersection of Sinatra's life in entertainment, his relationship to the mob, and work for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. At the same time, it explores the attitudes and prejudices of its time, addressing the sexism, casual racism, alcoholism, and general irresponsibility that made Las Vegas in the early 1960's such a legendary place. Most impressively, The Rat Pack does a beautiful job of balancing these disparate elements, all while keeping the story moving at a smooth pace. Unfortunately, it sometimes lacks the grace and humor of its subject, and occasionally falls flat under the weight of its ambition.

Unfortunately, there's a hole in the center of this film. Ray Liotta neither looks, nor sounds, nor moves like Frank Sinatra. Unlike the cool, impassive, and charming Chairman of the Board, Liotta seems overenergized, twitchy, and obnoxious. Apart from this shortcoming, however, the performances are generally good, although most of the actors look nothing like their subjects. Don Cheadle more or less steals the show with his intense portrait of Sammy Davis, Jr., while Joe Mantegna seems to channel the humor and spirit (spirits?) of Dean Martin. Angus MacFadyen's Peter Lawford and Bobby Slayton's Joey Bishop are also spot-on perfect. These sterling performances, unfortunately, only highlight Ray Liotta's total failure to effectively portray Frank Sinatra. Similarly, Zeljko Ivanek's rendition of Bobby Kennedy and William Petersen's John F. Kennedy are absolutely terrible. One wonders, in fact, if either of these actors has so much as seen the men they are portraying.

Overall, this movie is a solid evocation of a time, a place, and a mood. It's worth watching, particularly for anyone who has ever wanted to know about this group and era.

Physical resemblance: 4
Historical Accuracy: 9
Acting: 7
Production Values: 8
Cinematography: 5
Directing: 8


Backstairs at the White House

Source Material: My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks and Frances Spatz Leighton

Director: Michael O'Herlihy

Teleplay by: Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov

Year: 1979

Cast Highlights:
Olivia Cole: Maggie Rogers
Leslie Uggams: Lillian Rogers Parks
Louis Gossett Jr.: Levi Mercer
Robert Hooks: John Mays
Leslie Nielsen: Ike Hoover
Cloris Leachman: Mrs. Jaffray
Hari Rhodes: Butler Coates
Paul Winfield: Emmett Rogers Sr
Bill Overton: Doorman Jackson
Victor Buono: President William Howard Taft
Julie Harris: Helen 'Nellie' Taft
Robert Vaughn: President Woodrow Wilson
Kim Hunter: Ellen Wilson
Claire Bloom: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
George Kennedy: President Warren G. Harding
Celeste Holm: Florence Harding
Ed Flanders: President Calvin Coolidge
Lee Grant: Grace Coolidge
Larry Gates: President Herbert Hoover
Jan Sterling: Lou Hoover
John Anderson: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Eileen Heckart: Eleanor Roosevelt
Harry Morgan: President Harry S. Truman
Estelle Parsons: Bess Truman
Andrew Duggan: President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Barbara Barrie: Mamie Eisenhower

I saw this miniseries when it first aired in 1979. I was seven years old, and not the best judge of artistic merit, but I remember being struck by the breadth of history that it showed and the humor in it. Years later, I decided to watch it again and found, sadly, that it didn't really hold up.

Basically, this is two movies that are very unevenly matched. On the one hand, there is the story of the Rogers family: Maggie, Lillian, and Emmett. Maggie works as a beautician and a maid, gains employment at the White House, and gradually gets drawn into the drama of working for America's first families. Her daughter, Lillian, is an energetic free spirit who also ends up working at the White House, where she and her mother often find themselves at loggerheads. Emmett is a nice guy who gets gassed in World War I and moves to Arizona.

The Rogers family story feels, at times, like a minstrel show. As Maggie, Olivia Cole is all pop-eyes and surprise, constantly amazed and irritated at the trouble that her daughter gets into. Meanwhile, Leslie Uggams plays Lillian as a sassy, yet fundamentally kind wild girl. Emmett is a decent, reliable man, as are most of the black male characters. For large portions of the film, these characters feel like a white ideal of the "Uncle Tom" stereotype: funny, sweet, and trying oh so hard to please the white folk.

The other story involves the various Presidents who occupy the White House: Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. In this respect, the film varies from brilliance to elementary school-level amateurishness, depending upon the Presidency being covered. While Robert Vaughn's Wilson is dry and wooden and George Kennedy's Harding veers into scenery chewing, Harry Morgan does a solid job as a snappy Truman and Andrew Duggan's Eisenhower is spot-on perfect. The real kudos, however, belong to John Anderson and Ed Flanders. As Calvin Coolidge, Flanders is perfect: strict, melancholy, and very funny in a dry way. On the other hand, John Anderson's FDR is hilarious, energetic, and charismatic. One sometimes hears about FDR's sexual magnetism and reputation as a playboy. Anderson makes this side come alive; his Roosevelt is an absolute delight, flirty and playful and brilliant.

Overall, the casting is one of the best parts of this film. Having grown up on 1980's television, I loved seeing so many of my favorite actors gathered here. For me, Victor Buono will always be Batman's King Tut, Harry Morgan is MASH's Colonel Potter, Leslie Nielsen is cemented as Police Squad's Frank Drevin, and Cloris Leachman is Young Frankenstein's Frau Farbissna. It was an absolute joy to see them as William Howard Taft, Harry S. Truman, Butler Hoover, and Housekeeper Jaffray, even if they often looked nothing like the characters that they were playing.

Overall, this movie is a useful history lesson and, despite its low production values and uneven acting, it is a lot of fun. The later nights are, far and away, superior to the earlier ones.

Physical resemblance: 4-10
Historical Accuracy: 6
Acting: 6
Production Values: 4
Cinematography: 3
Directing: 7
Overall: 6

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Malcolm X

Source Material: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Director: Spike Lee

Screenplay by: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee

Year: 1992

Cast Highlights:
Denzel Washington: Malcolm X
Angela Bassett: Dr. Betty Shabazz
Albert Hall: Baines
Al Freeman Jr.: Elijah Muhammad
Delroy Lindo: West Indian Archie
Spike Lee: Shorty
Theresa Randle: Laura
Kate Vernon: Sophia
Lonette McKee: Louise Little
Tommy Hollis: Earl Little

When I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was struck by the incredible progression of the author's life. From criminal to racist minister to a strong voice for interracial unity, Malcolm X managed to live a life of constant questioning, analyzing himself and his world and seeking improvement in both areas. What emerges from his book is a man who is somewhat flawed, a little narcissistic, and brilliant. Most of all, the Malcolm X of the Autobiography is dynamic.

To Spike Lee's credit, Malcolm X manages to catch all three of its subject's stages. Unlike the real Malcolm X, however, Lee's cinematic creation seems to view all stages of X's development equally. In the beginning, when Denzel Washington's Malcolm Little gets his first lye-based hair treatment, Lee portrays street life as an exciting, candy-colored delight. The zoot suits are always bright, the shoes are always shined, and the dance halls are always choreographed. It is a glittery, neon-colored world of cute, Damon Runyon gangsters, at least until Malcolm ticks off West Indian Archie and has to leave Harlem.

While Malcolm's years in prison are somewhat grim, Lee manages to imbue his tenure as a minister in the Nation of Islam with a radical, intellectual chic. Malcolm the minister is a charming, brillian vision in crisp white shirts and black and a black wool overcoat. Nary a seam out of place or a shirt rumpled, the Islamic Malcolm exudes hip, self-confident cool. The same goes for all Malcolm's surroundings: the other Black Muslems are studies in smooth dressing, the Moslem women are all beautiful and well-kept, and even the police are sharply dressed. In fact, in the ultimate scene, where Malcolm leads a cadre of Muslims to put up a show of force outside of a hospital, the police cars are freshly polished, and the buildings are clean. Wherever Lee's Malcolm X goes, he is surrounded with a pure bubble of perfection.

As Malcolm separates himself from the Nation of Islam, he gets a little beard, which demonstrates his physical separation from the austere Muslims that he used to lead, but he still maintains the slickly-tailored look that he had long displayed. Of course, Lee shows the militant Malcolm, sporting an M-1 carbine and a couple of handguns, but these only serve to demonstrate, Straw Dogs-style, that Malcolm is a man for all seasons. By the time he is shot in the Audubon ballroom (following a drawn-out, trip up Calvary final march), he has made the progression into sainthood. The cheesy "I am Malcolm X" coda that Lee tacks on to the ending transforms the film from the sublime to the ridiculous. If Lee felt obliged to tie the film together in such an embarrassingly self-indulgent way, I can't help wishing that he'd been brave enough to offer something truly revolutionary, like a white kid yelling "I am Malcolm X."

While I have a great deal of admiration for Malcolm X, and think that Denzel Washington should have gotten an Oscar for his performance, the movie is somewhat disingenuous. Lee is so desperate to imbue every frame with a slick veneer of cool that he cannot bring himself to question, much less condemn, any of his subject's incarnations. This is particularly sad, given the fact that Malcolm X himself was quick to recognize his own errors and the wrong turns that he had taken over much of his life. By refusing to acknowledge Malcolm X's mistakes, Lee dishonors the incredible personal growth of his hero.

Memorable Quotes
Malcolm X relies on many of its subject's speeches, which are quite powerful. Here are a few of the better quotes:

Malcolm: Being born here does not make you an American. You and I are not American. You're one of the millions of black people who are victims of America. You and I, we've never seen democracy. There's no democracy in the fields of Georgia. No democracy down there. We didn't see any democracy in Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago. Ain't no democracy there. We've never seen democracy; all we've seen is hypocrisy. We don't see any American dream. We've experienced only the American nightmare.

Malcolm: Because of the spiritual rebirth which l was blessed to undergo as a result of my pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, l no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race. I intend to be very careful not to sentence anyone who has not been proven guilty. I am not a racist, and I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism. In all honesty and sincerity, it can be stated that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people. My first concern is with the group to which I belong for we, more than others, are deprived of our inalienable rights. But the true practice of Islam can remove the cancer of racism from the hearts and the souls of all Americans. If I can die having brought any light having exposed any truth that will help destroy this disease, then all the credit is due to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds, and only the mistakes have been mine.

Ossie Davis (from his eulogy for Malcolm X): Malcolm had stopped being a Negro years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted—so desperately—that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too.

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times.

Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man; for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them:

Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood!

Physical resemblance: 8
Historical Accuracy: 7
Acting: 10
Production Values: 9
Cinematography: 10
Directing: 9

Overall: 9

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Missiles of October

Source Material: Thirteen Days by Robert Kennedy and assorted historical documents

Director: Anthony Page

Teleplay by: Stanley R. Greenberg

Year: 1974

Cast Highlights:
William Devane: John F. Kennedy
Martin Sheen: Robert F. Kennedy
Ralph Bellamy: Adlai Stevenson
Stewart Moss: Kenny O'Donnell
James Olson: McGeorge Bundy
Dana Elcar: Robert McNamara
Michael Lerner: Pierre Salinger
Andrew Duggan: Gen. Maxwell Taylor
Larry Gates: Dean Rusk
Clifford David: Ted Sorensen
John Dehner: Dean Acheson
Keene Curtis: John McCone
Howard DeSilva: Nikita Khruschev

Having seen numerous portrayals of the Kennedy brothers, I've discovered a major pitfall that lies in wait for any actor daring to take on these iconic figures. The Kennedy boys were famous for their coy and charming verbal pauses. If not properly played, however, the Kennedys' "errrs" and "ahhhs" come off as a sign of retardation, rather than the playful affectations that they actually were. Unfortunately, The Missiles of October sometimes falls into this trap. William Devane's portrayal of Jack Kennedy has gained legendary status over the years, but it's got some serious problems. Devane doesn't look very much like Kennedy, and his imitation of the President's voice sometimes slips into bad mimicry. On the other hand, Martin Sheen's Bobby Kennedy looks good, but his voice tends to get a little shrill and pinched.

Sadly, few of the actors in The Missiles of October resemble the people that they are portraying (although James Olson makes for an eerily accurate McGeorge Bundy). That having been said, most of them turn in credible, effective performances, and a few are truly revelatory. For example, Ralph Bellamy, so outstanding as FDR, comes off as a surprisingly canny and confident Adlai Stevenson, which undermines the standard "weak dove" portrayal. Similarly, Michael Lerner portrays Pierre Salinger with power and presence, transforming what is usually a comically ineffective character into a powerful voice. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of many of the other actors: Dana Elcar phones in a truly generic portrayal of Robert MacNamara and most of the military officers come off as flat caricatures.

On the bright side, The Missiles of October offers a perspective that is sadly lacking in other renditions of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the major characters is Nikita Khruschev, and the film does a credible job of showing both the Soviet and the American sides of the crisis. While this dissipates a lot of the dramatic tension that usually propels this story, it has the benefit of offering a more complete understanding of the story.

Ultimately, The Missiles of October is very complete in its coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but its poor pacing, low production values, and turgid performances manage to leach most of the drama out of this most dramatic historical episode. The entire film is presented as a staged performance, and it seems to have all the life and energy of an elementary-school play. All in all, if I had to choose one movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I'd skip this one and watch Thirteen Days.

Physical resemblance: 4/10
Historical Accuracy: 10/10
Acting: 7/10
Production Values: 5/10
Cinematography: 2/10
Directing: 6/10

Overall: 5/10

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Source Material:

Director: Jim Goddard

Teleplay by: Reg Gadney

Year: 1983

Cast Highlights:
Martin Sheen: John F. Kennedy
John Shea: Robert F. Kennedy
E.G. Marshall: Joseph Kennedy
Geraldine Fitzgerald: Rose Kennedy
Vincent Gardenia: J. Edgar Hoover
Blair Brown: Jacqueline Kennedy
Kevin Conroy: Ted Kennedy
Charles Brown: Martin Luther King
Nesbitt Blaisdell: Lyndon Johnson

In many ways, it's not really possible for me to be a fair judge of this miniseries. I was eleven years old when it premiered, and it formed the basis of much of my early understanding of the Kennedy family. For me, John Shea will always be the definitive Bobby Kennedy and Blair Brown was the ultimate Jackie. On my most recent viewing, I was particularly struck by Nesbitt Blaisdell's depiction of Lyndon Johnson; Blaisdell perfectly nailed LBJ's voice, accent, and mannerisms. Best of all, however, is Vincent Gardenia's J. Edgar Hoover. In Gardenia's hands, Hoover is a villain straight out of Disney. He's dark, depraved, fussy, and bitchy. While I find it hard to imagine that the real Hoover would have been able to stay in power if he acted like such an overt psychopath, Gardenia was a total joy to watch.

The movie also does a good job of covering the many tumultuous events of the Kennedy Presidency. Beginning with election night in 1960 and ending with Kennedy's assassination, it takes its time, analyzing many of the gritty details of RFK's civil rights struggles, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Martin Luther King's rise to prominence, and Hoover's dogged pursuit of the Kennedy men. Given the fact that this was a made-for-TV production, I was particularly impressed by the production quality. It doesn't feel as if the producers skimped on anything, and, while there are a couple of anachronisms, they are very minor.

That having been said, Kennedy doesn't really hold up all that well to scrutiny. While Martin Sheen is an outstanding actor and perfectly nails Kennedy's charm and charisma, he doesn't really look all that much like JFK. Similarly, while his Kennedy accent is decent, it sometimes borders on parody. E.G. Marshall's Joe Kennedy is similarly questionable. In Marshall's hands, Joe Kennedy is thoroughly defanged: he's a charming old codger, not the brutal, verbally abusive, philandering bastard that history records. Even Nesbitt's Lyndon Johnson, which so perfectly hits the mannerisms and look of the man, seems somewhat whiny and petulant, traits that were anathema to the actual LBJ.

Kennedy also tends to get a little worshipful. For example, in the scenes covering the Cuban Missile crisis, the civil rights struggles, and other key moments of the Kennedy presidency, the choreography is very stagy, and the movie occasionally dips into a mawkish nationalism that is somewhat embarrassing to watch. Worst yet, Kennedy's critics are often either ignored, overtly demonized, or soft-pedaled. By undermining the criticisms of Kennedy's policies, the filmmakers strip the human drama that underlay many of his difficult decisions.

The movie also soft-pedals many of the seedier aspects of the clan. For example, Shea displays little of the raw ruthlessness that the real RFK was known for. Worse yet, the movie categorically refuses to deal head-on with JFK's notorious philandering. While the movie makes some oblique references to JFK's sexual escapades, it does so in a "wink-wink, isn't he charming" kind of way. By refusing to condemn its subject for his lack of fidelity, the movie strips JFK of the weaknesses that made him human.

Physical resemblance: 7/10
Historical Accuracy: 7/10
Acting: 9/10
Production Values: 8/10
Cinematography: 8/10
Directing: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

Friday, March 7, 2008

Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot

Source Material: Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Director: Larry Shaw

Teleplay by: David Stevens

Year: 2001

Cast Highlights:
Jill Hennessy: Jackie Kennedy
Lauren Holly: Ethel Kennedy
Leslie Stefanson: Joan Kennedy
Daniel Hugh Kelly: John F. Kennedy
Robert Knepper: Robert F. Kennedy
Matt Letscher: Ted Kennedy
Harve Presnell: Joe Kennedy
Charmion King: Rose Kennedy
Sarah Lafleur: Marilyn Monroe
Thom Christopher: Aristotle Onassis

The Kennedy family's trials in the 1960's hardly require dramatization. From the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 to Ted Kennedy's car accident/manslaughter at Chappaquiddick in 1969, the tales of Kennedy promise have been told and retold until they've become part of the American mythological landscape. That having been said, these events have been cemented in a series of classic moments: footage of John Kennedy being serenaded by Marilyn Monroe, the image of a stunned and bloodstained Jackie standing next to Lyndon Johnson, a black and white photo of Robert Kennedy laying on the floor of a hotel kitchen, and a glimpse of Ted Kennedy in a cartoonishly outsize neck brace standing beside his silent wife.

What is lacking from this tableaux is a real understanding of the human impact of these moments. While we may wink at the sexual excesses of our 35th President, we rarely think about how hard it was for his wife to watch Marilyn Monroe's seduction of him on national television. Similarly, while America focused on Ted Kennedy's craven and self-serving actions during the Chappaquiddick scandal, we rarely consider the emotional impact that it must have had on his wife.

By narrowing its focus to the Kennedy wives, Jackie, Ethel, Joan makes the Kennedy tale seem fresh and relevant. Presented as a collection of character studies, placed against a powerful historical backdrop, the movie shows three ways that women wielded power in an era when they were supposedly powerless. The ultra-feminine Jackie, who varies her voice from breathy to firm depending on the circumstances, emerges as a proud woman who uses traditional feminine wiles to accomplish her goals. Joan, who seems like a shrinking violet against the more boistrous Kennedys, shows incredible power and determination when she isn't crushed by her lout of a husband. Finally, Ethel combines raw ambition, outspokenness, and a sense of entitlement into a package that makes her famously ruthless husband seem like a milquetoast. Utilizing more traditionally male forms of power, she pushes a reluctant Bobby to pursue his destiny.

The performances of the three principals are quite good. Jill Hennessy's Jackie is simultaneously fragile and strong, a master of feminine power. Leslie Stefanson's Joan is not quite as well formed, but Stefanson does a solid job of conveying the pain of a woman who constantly sublimates her own incredible potential in the service of a mediocre mate. Ultimately, though, Lauren Holly's Ethel steals the show. Previous films have reduced Ethel to the role of a silent garnish for the great Bobby, but Holly presents a woman who is brassy, funny, ambitious, brilliant, and powerful. Jealous of Jackie's charm and poise, Holly's Ethel compensates by (literally) beating the boys at their own game. As a rough-and-tumble tomboy, she grabs the spotlight for herself and her husband.

Overall, the physical similarities between the actors and the historical figures vary wildly. At the embarrassingly poor end of the scale, Robert Kneper's Bobby neither looks nor particularly sounds like the real thing, and Sarah LaFleur is a puffy, bloated cartoon of what Marilyn Monroe might have become had she ended up working as a lounge singer or a prostitute. Daniel Hugh Kelly does a great job. While there often seems to be little physical resemblance between the two men, from certain angles, Kelly completely channels the dead president. Regarding the three wives, Hennessy and Stefanson look very much like Jackie and Joan, while Holly doesn't really resemble Ethel.

One last note: with precious few exceptions, the men tend to blend together, while the women in the story are very distinctive. During certain scenes, particularly parties and celebrations, the men appear to be merely backdrops to the social dances of the women. This perspective, a reversal of the traditional take on the Kennedy's, is brilliantly done, and eloquently makes the point that the Kennedy women, as much as the Kennedy men, maintained the careful social balance that made "Camelot" possible.

Memorable Quotes

Jackie (to Joan): You've got to build your own life within this Kennedy world.
Joan: What about Ted?
Jackie: He's just like his brothers. No one women is ever enough for a guy in that family.
Joan: And you just live with it?
Jackie: Frankly, their behavior makes me sick. But, they do give us family, security, power, money. They put us at the center of everything.

Jackie: This one's different, Jack. This one's trouble.
JFK: She's harmless. It was just fun.
Jackie: Marilyn obviously can't control herself. Leave her alone, for God's sake. Have some pity on her [...] If thing's don't change, if you don't break off with Marilyn, I'll leave you. I'll move out of the White House with the kids and I'll file for divorce just before the '64 election. That's the deal, Jack.

Physical resemblance: 8/10
Historical Accuracy: 7/10
Acting: 9/10
Production Values: 7/10
Cinematography: 7/10
Directing: 7/10

Overall: 7/10