Tuesday, August 29, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Triple Threats

Taylor Sheridan on the set of "Wind River." Photograph by Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Triple-Threat Taylor Sheridan; “GOT” gasps and guffaws; Elizabeth Taylor — The Greatest Star, By Far

“A PERSON adept in three different fields of activity.”  That is the dictionary definition of a “triple threat.” 

I generally think of performers, who can act, sing and dance.  But I find that the top definition, in today’s dictionaries refer to football players who can run, kick and pass.  Or basketball players who can pass, dribble and shoot, on offense. 

Perhaps the culture has shifted, or perhaps it depends on what one is interested in.

In any case, a new show biz triple-threat was born last week, with the release of “Wind River,” written and directed by sometimes actor, Taylor Sheridan. (As an actor he might be most recognized from TV’s “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”)
Taylor Sheridan and Jeff Bridges on set of “Hell or High Water.” CBS Films
Sheridan wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite films of 2015, “Sicario.” He also did the writing chores on 2016’s “Hell and High Water” which I consider a masterpiece that didn’t get its proper recognition last year — although Sheridan nabbed an Oscar nomination, as did one of its stars, Jeff Bridges.

Now we have Sheridan’s “Wind River,” which is fighting for box-office recognition at the end of a dismal summer (“expanding aggressively” as The Hollywood Reporter notes.)   I hope this bleak and brilliant thriller, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, wins its battle, because it is so worth seeing!
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in "Wind River." Photograph by Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company
This is one of those slow burn mysteries that Netflix or Amazon could stretch into a 10 episode series.  Sheridan brings it in at about an hour and 45 minutes, to complete satisfaction.  Renner, who has never been better — stoic understatement suits him beautifully — is a Wyoming tracker working for the Fish and Game Commission.  He is drawn into a murder/rape  investigation headed by Elizabeth Olsen, for the FBI. Olsen is also marvelously matter-of-fact.  Neither of them demanded — or needed — a “big” scene.   The victim is a young Native American woman, and the movie is steeped in grief and regret, past and present — an emotional desolation echoed by the brutal location, the blistering cold, which all but becomes a palpable thing. (I’m sure I only imagined seeing my breath while sitting warmly wrapped in the theater.) 
Kelsey Asbill as a Native American in "Wind River."
There is action enough for those who need that sort of thing, but the beating (beaten down) heart of the movie is its mournful humanity.  This is one of the tightest films I’ve ever seen — not a wasted line of dialogue or extraneous shot. Nor is there even one less than excellent performance.  The entire cast — many of them Native Americans — contributes to Taylor Sheridan’s  grim, finely-crafted vision. “Wind River” is brutal and beautiful and one of the most satisfying — if not entirely surprising — directorial debuts of the last decade.
Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham in "Wind River." Photograph by Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company
OKAY, “Game of Thrones” ended its short (seven episode) penultimate season with pretty much of a big bang: death of a major character, nudity and sex from two other major characters, and a dragon-turned-demon.  I don’t understand the brevity of the seasons, or why we are learning it might not be until 2019 that “GOT” gasps its last.  But, I don’t finance the thing.  Still, it’s annoying.

But more annoying is the hair of Cersei Lannister!  Chopped off after her “walk of shame” a while back, it’s had time to grow.  If not to flowing past her shoulders, certainly more than the uneven pixie cut she features now. It’s just such a bad wig.  Like something Elizabeth or Phillip would wear in “The Americans.”  Whatever happens next season — whenever that is — surely Queen Cersei can find herself a good hairdresser from somewhere in the Seven Kingdoms.  Unless she blew them all up in the Great Sept of Baelor.  That’s a possibility.  
"My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses."
ENDQUOTE:  “Perhaps, with the distance, and the storm, Mrs. Wheeler only thought she saw ...”

“It was a dead body, caused by a murderer!” ... you don’t believe me. Why don’t you believe me?!”

So goes the exchange between a skeptical British inspector (Bill Dean) and wealthy, distraught Elizabeth Taylor, in the 1973 film adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s Broadway hit “Night Watch.”  This movie, the star’s only thriller, garnered  La Liz some excellent reviews, wasn’t much of a success, and is rarely seen — although it has been beautifully transferred to video.  But, ET fans, set your DVRs for August 31st and Turner Classic Movies final showing of its annual “Summer of Stars.” Miss Taylor is the last icon of the season, and “Night Watch” caps off her day of tribute.
Is she insane?
Or something else, entirely?  
The rest of the Taylor fare is typical stuff — “National Velvet” ... “Father of the Bride” ... “Ivanhoe” ... “The Last Time I Saw Paris” ... “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (this Tennessee Williams drama contains, in my opinion, perhaps her most committed performance — filmed as it was while she grieved over the death of third hubby Mike Todd.)  

We get two glossy Taylor/Burton offerings, “The VIPs” and “The Sandpiper” both of which capitalize on the Liz ‘n Dick publicity ... “Butterfield 8” which used (much to Taylor’s displeasure) her soiled post Eddie/Debbie scandal persona ... “Raintree Country,” the first movie that first displays the loud “neurotic” Taylor (ET as a pre-Civil War Southern belle, driven mad because she thinks she’s half-black. It’s not nearly the subtle award-worthy work of “A Place in the Sun” or “Giant,” but it won her the first of five Oscar nominations.)
La Liz and Montgomery Clift in “Raintree Country."
But for fans of Taylor’s latter-day OTT emoting and elaborate wardrobes (Valentino, here) hairstyles and makeup, “Night Watch” is the jewel of this collection. 

Oh, there is one  interesting early film.  Something called “Rhapsody.”  Taylor (surprise!) plays a wealthy, aimless girl who can’t make up her mind between violinist Vittorio Gassman and pianist John Ericson. In most ways, it’s typical MGM fare — the kind of thing that more or less destroyed any real ambition Taylor had about her career. (As an independent actress, later, her goal was the most money — if the project also happened to have merit, that was nice, too.)   But in between the gorgeous Helen Rose gowns, misty glamour photography and a lot of boring classical musical interludes, ET’s character is often spiteful and a bit shrewish, indicating here and there, the bolder, more colorful performer to come. 
Taylor burns with boredom as Vittorio Gassman fiddles in "Rhapsody."   
And I do hope TCM soon runs one of the rarest and most interesting Taylor films — 1952’s “Love is Better Than Ever” directed by Stanley Donen and filmed as ET recovered from the trauma of her brief marriage to Nicky Hilton. This ironically titled movie reveals a very young, very slender Taylor, with remarkably appealing comic timing. Donen, who had yet to hit his stride with musicals, photographs her exquisitely (they had become lovers, briefly — a romance frowned upon by the studio and Elizabeth’s overbearing mother) and he certainly brought out qualities she’d never shown before, and would not again; at least not quite as subtly.
Taylor and Larry Parks in the slight but very enjoyable, "Love is Better Than Ever."  
Because Elizabeth lived long, was ill for many years and aged precipitously in her last decade, I always fear her legacy as an actress — and even more importantly, as an AIDS activist — will fade.  Not dying young and lovely, she cannot inhabit the tender safe, mythology of Marilyn, or Harlow or James Dean. 

There are no misty “what ifs” with the bold and brazen Elizabeth Taylor, who morphed from delicate princess to scarlet woman — twice over! — to an overflowing caricature of extravagance, to an unlikely heroine, making good with her preposterous fame. 

We can’t imagine what could have been, only what was — and that was the greatest star, by far.
Contact Liz here.