Thursday, February 2, 2017

LIZ SMITH: A lurid history

It’s still John Hurt for me. 
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Anonymous Oscar Voter Rips Nominations ... Caligula on screen, a lurid History!

“I’m TRYING to figure it out. I think it’s because it’s in L.A. and it’s all about the industry and they’re all narcissists. It got more nominations than ‘The Godfather.” How can they compare it? ... I’ll be embarrassed when it wins.”

That is an “anonymous Oscar voter” talking to Michael Musto for the Daily Beast, about “La La Land,” and a lot more!  I’d love to know who this secret voter is, because he or she voiced many of the same opinions we’ve had.  Not just about “La La” but also the great “Hell and High Water” and the fact that Annette Bening was shamefully excluded from the nominees for best actress.
Oh, and speaking of all that, along with Annette and Amy Adams, I was also hoping that Emily Blunt’s performance in “The Girl on the Train” might be recognized.
Either some people have to “do a Candice Bergen” (remove themselves from the nominating process) or the Academy must expand the acting category.  The latter is a much more likely scenario and should be instituted next year.  Let’s face it, Ms. Bergen’s action was unprecedented (that has become that most uttered word of the last 20 months — and not in a fun way!) 

It’s a competitive world and talented people like to be honored and to win shiny things.
THIS unnamed voter also told Mr. Musto that Hugh Grant should have been nominated for his performance in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Mr. Grant wears his maturity very well indeed.  I was never so impressed with him as I was in “Florence” and even more impressed by a series of charming and self deprecating interviews he gave around the time of the film’s release.

Judging by those interviews I don’t think he’s crushed by his exclusion. I hope not, anyway.  I want to see more of the all-grown-up Hugh Grant in movies.
YESTERDAY I cited the late John Hurt as my “favorite” Caligula, out of the variety of actors who have portrayed that infamous Roman emperor. We received several reactions to that. 
Some people confused Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-nominated Nero in “Quo Vadis” with Caligula.  Easy to do, as they were both mad as hatters.  (Charles Laughton also played Nero in “Sign of the Cross,” but that 1932 Cecil B. DeMille epic is remembered chiefly for the  perky, unruly breasts of Claudette Colbert, as she frolicked in her milk bath.)
There was chastisement from fans of the actor Jay Robinson, whose portrayal of Caligula in 1953’s “The Robe” and its sequel “Demetrius and the Gladiators” was a high water mark in leering, over-the-top camp.  Even Susan Hayward, no slouch in lip-curling bravura, seemed stunned in her scenes with Jay, in “Demetrius” — and she was playing Messalina, the wickedest woman in Rome.
Still others wrote in: “Wait, what about Malcolm McDowell in ‘Caligula’”?  All I can say to that one, is “kidding, right?”

The 1979 Bob Guccione movie also featured a young, luscious Helen Mirren and lucky actors such as Peter O’ Toole and John Gielgud. (Lucky because they were mercifully killed off within twenty minutes.) 
GORE Vidal was credited as writing the “Caligula” script, which if true was the easiest assignment he ever had, as there was none, certainly not in what finally emerged, which was, well, pornography.  It’s just garbage, and not because of the nudity, etc. (We’re not prudish, here.)  “Caligula” commits the ultimate outrage — boredom.

Guccione reportedly snuck in a lot of graphic scenes without the knowledge of some of his leading players.  But Mr. McDowell of “A Clockwork Orange” and “If ...” fame was on board for most of the extreme requirements. (The wedding day segment looms large, for those of you who managed who see the film and get that far. We can say no more.) 
Malcolm likely had a different view of his talents and participation in that, and many other films of questionable quality thereafter.

I’ll never forget watching him being interviewed about Madonna after the premiere of her hugely entertaining “Truth or Dare” documentary in 1990.  “Mediocrity has taken over the world” he said, “and she is the queen of mediocrity!”
Of course he was entitled to his opinion, but I was so tempted to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Uh, remember ‘Caligula’?”  Just as well I didn’t.  Malcolm probably would have responded that it was a work of art and I was an ignorant philistine.

Anyway, it’s still John Hurt for me.  I do wish PBS would re-run “I, Claudius.”  That remains one of the great mini-series ever.  And in recalling it, one cannot leave out Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and  wondrous Sian Phillips as Livia, the silky, scheming wife of Emperor Augustus.
Ms. Phillips has had a long career.  She made her American film debut in 1964’s “Becket” and impressed audiences a few years later as Ursula Mossbank in the otherwise lacking musical remake of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”  Her credits go on and on. She is never less than a fascinating presence. 
Sian Phillips and Peter O'Toole in "Goodbye Mr Chips."
Her brief performance as the Duchess of Windsor in 1987’s “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” is still vivid in my memory. (Ann-Margret and Claudette Colbert were stunning in this television film, but I think if Sian Phillips had actually shared a scene with one or both of those actresses, the TV set might have exploded!  As it was, the biting Colbert/A-M interplay was intense enough to induce seated vertigo.)

Sian Phillips is 86 and works primarily in Britain. Next year she will be seen as the star of a feature film titled “Voyageuse.”

We knew you’d want to know.
Sian with the Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
ENDQUOTE: “I work pretty hard to avoid self-help books. I’m beyond the kind of redemption offered by those books!” 

That’s author Roxane Gay, answering questions about her reading habits in the weekly “By the Book” section of the New York Times. I love this page.  It’s always interesting to find out what writers like and don’t like, their reading habits. 
Author Ayelet Waldman told the Times recently: “I crawl into bed, watch TV for an hour or two (or six, depending on what’s streaming on Netflix), and then I read till I fall asleep ... my favorite thing about being an adult is that there’s no one who calls ‘bedtime” and snaps off my bedside light. I get to read as long as I want.”

I agree with Ms. Waldman. As far as adult prerogatives go, reading as long as you want, whatever you want and wherever you want, ranks right up there with voting!
Contact Liz here.