Thursday, December 8, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Ambitiously plotted

La Lollo at her peak in “Solomon and Sheba."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"Westworld" Ends, Confusingly ... "The Affair" Continues, Depressingly ... Good Manners Are Not Dead, and  Gina Lollobrigida as The Queen of Sheba.

“IN fact, anytime the show was in the actual Westworld park, I shrugged my shoulders. ‘More Maeve, please,’ was generally my reaction to any episode of the show.

“To that regard, even with a robot uprising on the horizon it was Maeve who stole this episode.”

That’s Daily Beast writer Kevin Fallon reviewing the season finale of HBO’s “Westworld.”
Thandie Newton as Maeve in "Westworld."
I COULDN’T have said it any better myself.

In fact, this column was on board with the incredible Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve — a robot with a will of her own now — weeks ago.  I wondered if Newton could singlehandedly “save” the unnecessarily (to me!) confusing series, based on Michael Crichton's famous 1973 movie.
HBO has sunk a fortune into the show. It is beautifully filmed and ambitiously plotted.

Aside from Ms. Newton, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, and Ed Harris are on hand, and they are marvelous.  The series has been renewed for a second season, although they say it won’t air until spring of 2018. (Which has led TV conspiracy theorists to conclude it really won’t come back.) 
I realize people have busy lives and sometimes don’t get around to their DVR backlog, so I won’t spoil the finale.  For that, go to Mr. Fallon’s Daily Beast piece, which attempts, brilliantly, to encapsulate what is right and what is so wrong (so far) about “Westworld.” 

All I’ll say is keep Thandie Newton front and center, give the talented James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood more to do than suffer nobly, and get the hell out of Westworld itself —at least the “Old West” part of Westworld. 
No matter how many people were shot up and abused, I found every park scene a trial to get through. (There’s a Medieval section that looks much more intriguing.) 

Here’s to 2018 and more straightforward, less “what the hell?” scripts and concepts for “Westworld.”
SPEAKING OF series — three episodes into the third season of Showtime’s “The Affair” and a tuna has hopped. (The shark hasn’t jumped quite yet.)

It is several years after the initial ramifications of “the affair.” The main male  character, (Dominic West), is just out of  a three-year prison sentence for something he didn’t do (protecting either his first or second wife — Maura Tierney, Ruth Wilson, respectively — or just nailing himself to the cross out of guilt.)  It’s become soapy and murky, way off course.
A very good actress, Irene Jacob, has been introduced playing a giggle-inducing caricature of the “worldly wise French woman” — a college professor. She invites her annoying, shallow students over to her house. They discuss, absurdly, all manner of issues involving sexual oppression, rape, consent, etc. There’s quite a bit of kink in this French twist. (She is interested in Dominic West’s character because of his prison sentence, and the inherent violence toward women indicated in his novel — the one he wrote before going to jail. Yeah, it’s all very feels-like-a-shower-after-it’s-over time.)
Brendan Fraser lurks around as a prison guard who abused West during his incarceration.

Naturally things might pick up. But I say it again: what a good move — if lamentable to fans — it was to end “Penny Dreadful” after its third excellent season. 
Patrick Seguin.
IN LAST Sunday’s Wall Street Journal magazine, its Soapbox page, titled “The Columnists” asked six “luminaries” to express themselves on the subject of manners.  I know four of these well-known, well-bred people rather well.

I do mean, Lynn Wyatt, Fran Lebowitz, Laura Dern, Charles Masson. I’ll add, Patrick Seguin, just because his last name is that of one of my favorite towns in Texas.

Lynn Wyatt.
Patrick is an art and furniture dealer and gallery owner. He comments in the WSJ that his gallery and restaurants in the south of France taught him politeness, sophistication, and rules (such as, not conducting yourself in a loud manner on your cell phone in public.)

Then there is the delightful, delicious Ms. Wyatt; the chief reason for Houston’s social existence. Lynn has never made an enemy in this world that I know of. She is a loyal, beautiful and a perpetual “up” in life.  Several of her musts include NOT calling anyone after 10:00 p.m. unless it is an emergency, “To have good manners means simply to be considerate of others — it’s what allows us all to get along.”

Fran Lebowitz.
Let’s hear it also for our acerbic friend, writer Fran Lebowitz. Fran doesn’t own a single modern gadget. She is  an uncompromising wit, who says “manners” are what parents are meant to impart to the younger generation. She says: “When you speak to people of my generation, you’ll find that our parents didn’t talk to us about things; they just told us what to do, from morning to night you were issued instructions.”

Laura Dern.
Laura Dern, that truly fine actress, is a student of old-fashioned manners. She says, “The presidential election has been a true education… the most offensive quality ... is that of a bully…my grandmother taught me that even when you are angry, you must treat others with respect.  You must learn to rise above.”

Charles Masson.
Then there is my hero, Charles Masson, who recently departed his post at La Grenouille. He values being taught good behavior as a child. He learned how to act in restaurants.

Chris Blackwell.
Soon, Charles will be opening a new restaurant in Manhattan’s East Side, Majorelle, with Christian Delouvrier. They open this month in the Lowell Hotel on 63rd St. I can hardly wait, because now I live in this neighborhood and I try to behave myself.

The person I didn’t know among this group is Chris Blackwell, who is founder of Island Records.  But I liked this from him: “A letter used to contain some flourishing element at the end, but now it’s just a name.  It’s the matter of the speed with which people live their lives today.”

It was interesting and more than a little comforting to read something about good manners these days. Next, I’d like to see six Millennials talking about good manners — if we could pry them from their iPhones!
IT WAS all very Biblical the other night on Turner Classic Movies.  The network ran, back-to-back, 1951’s “David and Bathsheba” (Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward) and then 1959’s “Solomon and Sheba” (Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida.)
The Peck/Hayward film is serious business and both the leads go about their adultery and punishment looking quite distressed, if very attractive. (Miss Hayward, with her surly beauty and never-quite-hidden Brooklyn roots,  is always better cast as a woman fully embracing her harsher side.)
Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck in 1951’s “David and Bathsheba."
The movie’s standout performance is Jayne Meadows as King David’s vengeful wife, Michal. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Meadows. MGM had wasted her years before, and this film was pretty much the end of her film career — she would gain enormous popularity as a TV actress and personality. But she coulda been a contenda!  (I hear that this Technicolor movie will get Blu Ray treatment next year, which is good news because the existing prints are quite murky.)
Jayne Meadows as King David’s vengeful wife, Michal.
As for “Solomon and Sheba” this howler exists only to gape at La Lollo at her peak.  (Yul Brynner replaced Tyrone Power as Solomon, after Power suffered a fatal heart attack during filming.) Yul is awful, but Gina, as The Queen of Sheba, goes much further.  She’s sublimely ridiculous, not one word is convincing.  It’s terrific. Her costumes, made out of tissue paper, are glued to her, and when she dances to her pagan god, showing as much skin as 1959 allowed, her hypnotic hips cause an onscreen earthquake. (No doubt in real life, there was some quivering at the drive-ins.) 
La Lollo as Sheba.
You can watch this one with the sound off.  It’s a visual valentine to Gina, who was without a doubt one of the most beautiful women in the world, at that time.
Contact Liz here.