Tuesday, September 13, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The Human Comedy

Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy (1943).
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Meg Ryan Travels to "Ithaca" To Make Her Directorial Debut. (And Keep an Eye on Her Star, Alex Neustaedter!)

“NOTHING GOOD ever ends. If it did there would be no people in the world, no life at all, anywhere.  And the world is full of people and full of wonderful life.”

That is from William Saroyan’s sensitive and deceptively simple coming-of-age novel “The Human Comedy.”  (This book can — should — be read at various stages of life.  As one’s own human comedy alters.)
Shortly after publication, in 1943, the book was optioned by Hollywood and made into a movie starring Mickey Rooney. It was an affecting piece of MGM Americana, much influenced by the war raging around the world. (The book itself dealt with the war, but Hollywood had become a great propaganda machine, sometimes a rather heavy handed one.)
Now, Meg Ryan has adapted and re-made “The Human Comedy” re-titled “Ithaca.” She appears in the movie, as the widowed mother of three sons, and also serves as director — her first venture behind the camera. (Tom Hanks, her “Joe Vs. The Volcano,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” co-star makes a brief cameo as her dead husband.)
Andrew Saffir’s The Cinema Society screened “Ithaca” last week in Manhattan. There’s no denying a deep sentimentality and even obviousness in the story of Homer Macauley (played by then-16-year-old Alex Neustaedter.) His job, delivering telegrams during that fraught era after America entered World War II, introduces him to all aspects of the human condition, the human comedy, while at the same time he is trying to protect his melancholy mother and guide his younger sibling.  His older brother (Jack Quaid, son of Meg and her ex, Dennis Quaid) is off fighting.

The cinematography by Andrew Dunn is splendid, the story slender — it rests in fact, almost entirely on the thin, talented shoulders of Mr. Neustaedter. 
Alex Neustaedter as Homer Macauley.
Jack Quaid as Homer's older brother.
Somehow I felt “Ithaca” shouldn’t be effective, that I shouldn’t be moved.  I knew what was coming — most everything, plot-wise, can be seen a mile away. (I think, honestly, that Saroyan’s material is better read, than translated onto the screen.  Certainly in the case of “The Human Comedy.”)

But Ryan’s delicate, pensive direction strikes a chord that just misses gushing sentimentality and is forgiving of the multiple messages within the wisp of a story — although the wordy inner monologues are still something of a trial. (Screenwriter Erik Jendresen might have worked harder re-tooling this aspect of the Saroyan book, in his adaptation.)
Meg Ryan in her directorial debut.
The audience responded warmly; and perhaps not just for the film itself, but for what it represents.  We need some sentimentality in our popular culture.  We need an escape from cynicism and discontent — the real stuff, and the really exaggerated stuff that towers over this gasp-making political season.  

If Miss Ryan, first-time director, has not covered herself in unalloyed glory, she has, with “Ithaca” shown at least considerable finesse. She certainly has the chops and expertise to go on, if she wants to take her career in a different direction.
Meg and Tom together again in "Ithaca."
Oh, a shout-out to Sam Shepard, who appears in “Ithaca” as the often-irritated and intoxicated owner of the telegraph office.  He is splendid, as always.  The John Mellencamp score — nicely approximating time, place and mood — is another distinct asset.
Sam Shepard and Alex Neustaedter in "Ithaca."
THE AFTER party happened at Harold’s Meat & Three at Arlo Hudson Square. (It’s practically at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan’s ruthlessly trendy Tribeca.) Brooks Brothers and Bird In Hand Wine sponsored, along with Cinema Society.
Meg Ryan and Alex Neustaedter at the after party at Arlo Hudson Square.
Meg Ryan's star, Alex Neustaedter, was there.  He is now 18, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and sipping soda.  He was charming and chatty.  If “Ithaca” makes any noise, Alex will be the trombone section!  (TV audiences might have spotted him in the series “Colony” and he has two more feature films upcoming — “Tribes of Palos Verdes” and “Walking Out.”)
Andrew Saffir and Samantha Barry. Dana Delany.
Others on hand included Julie Taymor ... Dana Delany ... Sean Young ... Carol Alt ... Scott Gorenstein ... James Dale ... Chase Landow ... Carol Alt and a gazillion good-looking models. (I think Andrew Saffir keeps them in freezers and only lets them out for his events.)  The weather had cooled considerably, so most of the crowd took advantage of the outside spaces, and devoured an endless supply of  tasty, exotic hors d'oeuvres. Meg Ryan skipped the party, but at the screening she was peppered with endless questions about a “real” screen reunion with Tom Hanks, and would she be directing again? 

The star’s fabled girlish charm hasn’t diminished much. She managed to say a lot and a little, about this and that, without saying yes or no. 
Sophie Sumner, Daniel Benedict, and Keytt Lundqvist.
Adam Nelson and Mashoom Tate.
Donna D'Cruz, Phillip Bloch, and Carol Alt.
Robin Skye and Lori Simmons. Indira Cesarine.
Some of the gazillion good-looking models.
WE DIDN’T want to “over-Quest” you yesterday, having used considerable space writing about Taki Theodoracopulos’ rumination on the coming nuptials of Pippa Middleton, in the new issue of Quest magazine.

So I must return to Quest today, and mention G. Bruce Boyer’s article “Original Sportswear” which chronicles the theory that “most men’s garments derived either from warfare or sport ... and eventually find their way into more ordinary daytime usage.” 

The piece focuses on how clothes originally worn for the sport of polo became essential parts of a man’s wardrobe. (Including the polo coat, shirt, sweater, belt and chukka boot.) 

What caught my attention, aside from the sartorial history, were some of the vintage photos. On page 142, we have Mrs. Harvey Firestone presenting a trophy to the Princeton polo team in 1933.  She looks like a woman from nearly 100 years ago; the handsome sportsmen appear as if they could jump into, or out of, the current GQ.
A couple of pages later, there’s Carole Lombard, in a large hat that certainly must have discouraged anybody from attempting to invade her personal space.  She is giving something shiny to the 1934 Screen Actors Guild Polo Team — Leslie Howard, Will Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown and Spencer Tracy.

It is Mr. Tracy who is the standout, with dark rumpled hair (well, he’s just off the field) young and handsome. His career was very long, and like his good friend Miss Katharine Hepburn, so much of his best work came well into his thicker, salt-and peppered maturity.  But he was a pretty hot number, in his polo playing days!

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