From the Archive — Rachel Getting Married

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Sometimes I simply get sad that there won’t be any more Jonathan Demme movies. This was written for my former online space.

One of things I most admire about Jonathan Demme as a director is his ability to take on seemingly any type of film and emerge with something inventive and accomplished. I’m not implying that Demme always achieves greatness; he may be to restlessly risky for that. But his films are always interesting, and, when he’s at his best, they’re intricate, deeply personal masterpieces. Rachel Getting Married is an example of Jonathan Demme at his best.

I’ve seen Demme excel with a rueful slice of life comedy, a raucous concert film, and a tense, ingenious thriller. He can make straight, smart documentaries and lithe larks with equal grace, but I’ve never seen him make anything quite like this. Rachel takes place over a weekend as a young woman, as the title implies, gets married. Rachel is not the lead character, however. That is her sister Kym, who briefly exits rehab to attend the ceremony, coming back to her family home for the first time in several months. Demme’s film depicts the pain and anger, the reopened wounds and tentative familial treaties that follow. It is heartfelt and heart-rending. Most of all, it is mercilessly honest about the ways in which the people who know each other best also know, instinctively, perhaps helplessly, the best ways to hurt one another. From the moment Kym walks back into her sister’s bedrooms, the verbal exchanges are quietly charged with years of resentment and anguished confusion. Every sentence has a steely barb attached to it, and Demme’s unblinking camera catches it all.

I’m sympathetic to those who mights suggest that Demme’s camera could have blinked a little more, not because the emotions it captures are too raw, but because it takes in so much. Scenes and sequences go on at great length, such as the rehearsal dinner in which the director is seemingly committed to capturing each and every toast delivered, including those that come after the dramatic crescendo of Kym’s problematic table-side oration. Similarly, the film gives a hearty taste of the full array of musical performances that reverberate throughout the reception. “Overlong” is the word invoked regularly in the less-enamored assessments of Demme’s film, but these stretches feel simply right to me. Demme’s immersive approach adds resonance to the sharp snap of the family fights. We don’t just feel that we know these people, but feel that we’ve almost co-existed with them in a way that is rare in film. It serves to accentuate the wrenching pain of a living room battle or a old forgotten artifact rediscovered at an especially inopportune time.

Demme gets the best out of his actors, too, and they are generally reaching levels (or taking approaches) previously unseen. It’s not startling to see an excellent Debra Winger performance, but, as I noted with Demme, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do anything quiet like this before. She plays the somewhat estranged mother of Rachel and Kym with a placid antipathy that is ferocious in its understatement. After years of commanding performances, Winger demonstrates the power in drawing in the audience by ceding the screen. While its admittedly a stretch to say so, the performance seemed like a delayed response to the grandly marauding Shirley MacLaine turn she saw first hand–and probably didn’t much like–twenty-five years ago in Terms of Endearment. This, the performance seems to say, this is how you place a fearsome, imperious matriarch.

Besides Winger, there’s marvelous work from Bill Irwin as a man whose walls against his own inner pain are frighteningly fragile, and Rosemarie DeWitt as the bride stubbornly bucking against the tumult chipping away at her day of celebration. And at the center there is Anne Hathaway as Kym, grinding bravely at character’s most unlikable traits and stripping any cliches away with the trembling humanity of her performance. Hathaway avoids actorly signals of her character’s struggles. Instead she drives deep until she emerges with something piercing in its truthfulness. It’s an accomplishment perfectly suited to the movie it resides in.

Bait Taken: The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer

There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.

It was only a week ago that I found cause to revive the “Bait Taken” feature, and now here I am, all roiled up over another Vulture list. In my meek defense, the creative team behind New York magazine’s culture blog went ahead and crafted a list that is right in my proverbial wheelhouse. And then got it only about half-right.

To put my admiration for Pfeiffer’s acting in perspective, I’ll note that my yearly habit of scrawling out my preferred acting nominees for the Academy Awards has been going on for a long, long time. And I even extended the practice backwards a little bit, at one point making my choices for every film year back to 1980. In the alternate universe where I set the Oscar nominees, Pfeiffer was the equivalent of Meryl Streep through the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. Basically I agreed with the assessment Martin Scorsese offered when he cast her in The Age of Innocence: in those days, she was flatly the best actress out there.

So when Vulture headlines a piece “The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer,” I find myself a little helpless. I need to chime in.

As a preface, I will note that I take the “Essential” in that prompt seriously. Were I to go with “Best,” I would undoubtedly end up with a slightly different list. Even so, this represents, I think, an accurate journey through Pfeiffer’s career, illustrating precisely how and why her talents were wondrous and rare.

Presented in chronological order:

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Into the Night (John Landis, 1985). John Landis’s combination of a screwball comedy and a old-time crime thriller that’s been alternately shaded in with nineteen-seventies grit and nineteen-eighties gloss is as discombobulated as that pile-up of descriptors implies. It is, however, a stellar showcase for Pfeiffer, who shows her first true flashes of star quality. In an even more impressive forecast of things to come, she also finds the glimmers of humanity in the jewel smuggler character that, on paper, is more of a narrative contrivance than a full-fledged person.

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Sweet Liberty (Alan Alda, 1986). Here’s where the complexities of Pfeiffer’s acting emerge, thanks to a part that calls attention to the fictional building blocks of that very craft. As Hollywood star Faith Healy, Pfeiffer plays both the kind-hearted fabrication Healy brings to her starring turn in a Revolutionary War drama and the harder edge of the real women underneath. It’s a neat trick that Pfeiffer plays with insight and quiet cunning.

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Married to the Mob (Jonathan Demme, 1988). The comedy is deliberately frothy, all the better to soften the abusiveness of the modern mobster culture that drives the plot. Pfeiffer charms as Angela de Marco, a woman escaping her place as an ornament in the underworld. But the performance is grounded in pathos, a longing for a better, safer place. Jonathan Demme’s natural affinity for humanist storytelling feeds into the first Pfeiffer performance that unequivocally deserves to be called great.

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The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989). And here’s the one that will forever be held up as the pinnacle, arguably no matter what else may come. This is a true star performance, from the moment she literally tumbles into the film. As singer Susie Diamond, Pfeiffer does just about everything an actor can be asked to do, nailing every last task. Frame by frame, the film offers the enviable, enlivening sight of performer in complete command.

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Frankie and Johnny (Garry Marshall, 1991). I will forever argue that this adaptation of Terrence McNally’s two-hander stage play is foolishly undervalued. It is wise and wryly funny, offering up an examination of romantic ache that is deeply, resonantly true. Pfeiffer was dismissed by many for supposedly not disappearing enough into the drabness of her character, a New York waitress gun-shy about love. That complaint entirely misses the point of the film, the story, and the acting. Pfeiffer plays Frankie’s pain, anger, and slow emergence into a feeling of possibility with grace and heart.

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Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). When the modern superhero movie was in its infancy, most performers who slipped into costume were just getting by on being big and colorful. As Selina Kyle — who becomes Catwoman — Pfeiffer indulges in some of that emotive inflation, but she girds it with a inner life coming to fruition in hyper-charged fashion. It’s delirious villainy as empowerment.

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The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993). Piercing and exquisite, Pfeiffer simultaneously works with the strongest director (Martin Scorsese) and the strongest co-star (Daniel Day-Lewis) of her career. And she prospers, pushing into areas of internalized emotion with astounding authenticity. I remain stunned that this wasn’t the performance that nabbed her an Oscar. Indeed, she wasn’t even nominated.

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Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995). The teacher drama wasn’t good upon its release and it’s aged particularly poorly, becoming the quintessential example of condescending white savior teacher taming the angry youth who roam the blackboard jungles of inner city schools. Pfeiffer, though, doesn’t give up, ably demonstrating how a strong actor can add dignity to a misguided role. More than that, this film offers one of the clearest examples of Pfeiffer’s singular talent for taking a character through a dramatic transformation yet maintaining an unmistakable thread of identity. LouAnne Johnson is very different at the end of the movie than she was at the beginning, but Pfeiffer shows how it’s fundamentally the same person throughout.

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White Oleander (Peter Kominsky, 2002). I’ve already written about her work in this film at length, so I’ll use the hyperlink to submit those older words as evidence here. I’ll only add that this increasingly looks like it will stand as one of Pfeiffer two or three best performances.

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Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007). This — along with a couple other films released the same year — represented Pfeiffer’s return to the screen after a half-decade off. She’s fun in the role of a former beauty queen turned evil stage mother, but it’s mostly essential because it offers a case study in the dwindling options available to the actress as she pushed toward her fourth decade in show business. There were indications that she tried to follow Bette Davis’s oft-quoted advice to turn to character roles early. Just as she was unfairly said to be miscast in Frankie and Johnny, the entertainment overlords seem uncertain about what to do with her now that she’s a beauty who’s, as they say, “of a certain age.” There are hopeful signs that things could yet turn around and a late-career revival remains possible. (A role in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! at least pairs her with a more complex director than she’s worked with in years.) Pfeiffer’s many exceptional performances make it clear that she deserves a better fate than Velma Van Tussle, singing about past beauty queen glories. Her talent is too formidable. Given the chance, she can bring something great to life.

The Art of the Sell: “Stop Making Sense” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Jonathan Demme said he preferred to call Stop Making Sense a performance film rather than a concert film. The reasoning behind that is clear. He captured Talking Heads live on stage in a manner markedly different from most predecessor films in the genre. The film is dynamic and enthralling, intensely focused on the swerving rhythms of a band in sync with each other and the added visual trappings they brought to their show. Demme wasn’t trying to make a memento, a mere duplication of the the experience of standing the midst of a concert crowd. He was making a proper film, with all the demands that implies.

So how is that resulting cinematic creation sold? It requires a trailer that’s just as fearlessly challenging and innovative, promising a spectacle that’s simultaneously discombobulating and thrilling. Set aside all expectations, it asserts. This is what a concert film — what a performance film, rather — can and should be.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017

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Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.

But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer.  The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.

The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.

The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.

”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”

That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.

The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.

My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.

All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.

Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”

The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.

“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.

No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.

Broomfield, Demme, Radice, Safdie and Safdie, Truffaut

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015). By the last third of the film, it seems clear that Demme’s chief motivation for taking on this project is the opportunity to apply his extensive experience directing concert films to this fictional story of a derelict mother (Meryl Streep) who fronts a bar band. He certainly demonstrates only passing interest in the tepid familial drama in the script, written by Diablo Cody with a equal freedom from her previous dialogue quirks and recognizable humanity. When Streep’s bedraggled singer returns to her former home, responding to a suicide attempt by her daughter (Mamie Gummer), every bit of the story plays phony, completely derailing Demme’s typical adeptness with finding resonant honesty. He’s more engaged when the last act. If the director is more engaged when the last act is essentially a series of cover song performances briefly interrupted by offhand resolution of earlier character disputes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film notably improves. This winds up as one of least consequential entries in Demme’s filmography.

Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2015). Based on an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also plays the lead role, this depiction of the lives of homeless drug addicts in New York City is bruising and effectively intense, at least until the some needlessly bombastic plot turns in the closing stretch. In particular, the film offers a harrowing view of the difficulty of ever breaking free from such a life, with the constant need to reinvent the means for temporary survival creating a stasis of misery. The Safdie siblings handle the material with an empathetic approach utterly free of judgement, staging individual scenes with an attentive understatement that’s ideal. At its strongest, the film is quietly devastating.

No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice, 2014). By now, Dock Ellis hurling a Major League no-hitter while high on LSD, in 1970, is such a broadly known piece of baseball lore that even those with no interest in the sport are like to know about it. While Radice’s documentary clearly trades on that notoriety, most plainly in the very title of the film, the director’s clear intent is rescuing the ballplayer’s reputation from those who give him no more consideration than a caustic chuckle. Ellis was also a skilled pitcher apart from that somewhat flukey feat, an outspoken advocate for civil rights at a fairly complicated time, and, maybe most admirably, a passionate, tireless advocate for those struggling with addiction, as he himself once did. The acid trip no-hitter wasn’t a funny story to him. It was evidence of his own struggles stamped into the record books. Radice’s documentary has powerful moments — Ellis’s emotional reaction when reading aloud a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson is the clear highlight — but it also winds up just a touch scattered in its attempts to get everything in. Still, it does its job, laying out evidence that Ellis, who died in 2008, deserves to be more than a comic footnote in sports history.

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Truffaut’s second feature as a director is less dazzling that his debut, The 400 Blows, but is still an impressive piece of the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Adapted from the novel Down There, by United States writer David Goodis, the story about a pianist who gets drawn into muddy mingling with the local criminal element plays like a detached film noir, delivered with a French shrug instead of the more familiar stateside grim fortitude. Truffaut employs some the playful technique — expertly on point and cheekily deconstructionist at the same time — that would turn his next film, Jules and Jim, into the textbook example of his country’s revolutionary approach to cinema. Here, the approach is used more sparingly, making it more jarring but also a little less satisfying. The film winds up playing like a key transitional piece rather than it’s own wholly realized work.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014). Even though director Broomfield is the most problematic part of this documentary about a Los Angeles serial killer, he deserves credit for getting at highly problematic social truths that elevate the film above its lurid, true crime story trappings. The controversial filmmaker, still probably best known for the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, is a strange presence throughout, coming across as casually predatory and strangely baffled as he walks through low income L.A. neighborhoods with his boom mic and bulky headphones. And yet Broomfield also manages to offer a sharp consideration of the dearth of attention paid to this horrid murder spree that spanned decades, by both the national media and the local authorities, convincingly chalking it up to the darker skin color of all of the mass murderer’s victims. Had it been a countless blonde, white women who were disappearing over the years, vicious witch woman Nancy Grace would have led the charge as CNN caved in to single-topic, round-the-clock coverage. Much as the film takes the time to track through the horrific details of the so-called Grim Sleeper’s crimes, the most detestable tales it tells are of the whole of society, paying no mind as a long series of women vanished without a trace.

Greatish Performances #12

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#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in the The Truth About Charlie (Jonathan Demme, 2002)
There are probably faster, more decisive ways to quash a film career than to take on a role originally played by Audrey Hepburn, but I can’t think of any. Julia Ormond was in the full flush of her Legends of the Fall Hollywood honeymoon when she agreed to take on the title role in a remake of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, a part that had originally belonged to Hepburn. Any further thought of Ormond becoming the next big thing–and that thought was certainly out there after Legends–was stamped out by the unfavorable measuring against the earlier actress. Not so much the earlier performance, since Sabrina isn’t exactly held in reverential regard, but the actress herself. Hepburn was among the most photogenic females to ever sign a big studio contract, had charm to burn onscreen and had only seen her legend grow in the years after she decided to work only occasionally, devoting most of her time to humanitarian efforts. For some, she’d forever be Holly Golightly, preserved in especially fashionable amber. Regardless, courting comparison is an action only for the foolhardy.

I’m not sure foolhardy is a description for Jonathan Demme, but obliviously fearless seems to work. At times, his entire career seems like a series of ill-advised choices, which only reflects his willingness to continually push himself further as a creator. He takes on risky topics, works in genres that are out of alignment with his humanistic streak and occasionally dives into novels that are dauntingly difficult to streamline into happy movie entertainment. He also has a habit of getting enthralled with actors who satisfy some artistic instinct without necessarily creating an easier path to financing projects. This often happens with supporting players, but occasionally someone caught his fancy who demanded a little more primary placement in a film.

It was after working with Thandie Newton on an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that Demme become convinced that the English actress was a pending star only in need of the right project to get her there. Beloved wasn’t an especially good experience for Demme, especially when the critics turned on it, so it took him a while to find the motivation for a follow-up. Finally he settled on a remake of Stanley Donen’s Charade, a caper romantic comedy from 1963 that was considered something of a soft classic, not exalted enough to be untouchable, but with enough fans craving each new showing on Turner Classic Movies to make it somewhat treacherous to take on. And then, of course, there was the presence of Hepburn, paired with the equally formidable Hollywood icon Cary Grant. Demme was convinced Newton would shine in the role, and whether or not she could be described as foolhardy, Newton trusted her director.

She was right to trust him, just as assuredly as he was spot-on correct about Newton’s charms. Newton plays Regina Lambert–eschewing the nickname Reggie that was commonly used with Hepburn’s version of the character, a moniker choice Newton’s character playfully dismisses at one point–a bored newlywed dissatisfied with her marriage. Her plans to break away from her husband are preempted when she finds he’s been murdered, and, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, she finds herself the innocent drawn into a baffling, complex scheme with several individuals of dubious motivations swirling in and out of her life, all after some mysterious money her now deceased spouse had in his possession. Among the most prominent is a man who positions himself as Regina’s protector, played by Mark Wahlberg in a performance that plainly doesn’t merit consideration for this recurring feature.

Demme’s take on the material is more fun and inventive than he’s usually given credit for, applying the playful techniques and approaches of French New Wave cinema in a nod to the plot’s Parisian setting. The best part of the film, though, is undoubtedly Newton. She plays Regina as a sharp and sensible, which only makes it more notable when she becomes exasperated with the circumstances surrounding her start spinning like a warped record. She knows how to handle herself, and has just enough skill for taking command of others, which doesn’t mean she’s fully equipped to deal with the springing mania of dueling toughs. That distinction helps to accentuate a real sense of danger, a quality largely missing from the picturesque lark of Donen’s earlier picture. What’s more, Newton virtually brims over with personality, launching a scene to life with her pointed reactions to others or even a coquettish yawn, which comes across not as a seductive invitation to join her in bed, but instead as a sense of ease with the other person, a willingness to let herself be completely open and in the moment. This latter quality, it probably goes without noting, is indeed far sexier.

There are familiar beats for Newton to play throughout the film. This is, after all, a project that faithfully follows in the storytelling treads laid down around forty years earlier, when audiences wanted satisfaction more than surprise. Even when engaged in the expected, Newton takes moments and even entire scenes in slightly unique ways, emphasizing Regina’s flaring inner strength when it seems the moment calls for fragility, or finding reservoirs of warmth when the significant mechanics of the plot are grinding at their loudest. Even still, Newton never loses sight that the film is first and foremost an entertainment, and even her most complex scenes are flavored with astonishing personal charisma. As a director, Demme’s approach to Newton has the rhythm of a dance in perfect syncopation, knowing when to press in close and when to lean back and give her room to move, twirling and beaming and feeling the pleasure of the reckless night, sprung open with possibility. He directs as if he’s hopelessly smitten with Newton. All through The Truth About Charlie, it’s terrifically easy to see why that might indeed be the case. Maybe she’s not Hepburn, but Newton shows she has a magic all her own.

    Previously…

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories

Spectrum Check

I didn’t have that many writing assignments for Spectrum Culture this week, so of course I needed to make certain my one piece was exceedingly long, maybe the longest I’ve ever written for the site. To be fair, the “Re-make/Re-model” series invites length given that at least two films need to be broken down. In writing about Jonathan Demme’s remake of a Stanley Donen classic, I also had the opportunity to reference an old Onion article for which I have a special fondness.

I also offered up a far briefer contribution to this week’s List Inconsequential list about great live albums. While I’ll occasionally note that the only live albums anyone needs to pay attention to involve the Who at Leeds, James Brown at the Apollo or Johnny Cash at the American prison of your choice, I actually selected a different release, which should come as no surprise to those who know me well.

Top 50 Films of the 80s — Number Twelve

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#12 — Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
There are few movies that bring me as much immediate and consistent joy as Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the brilliant concert film featuring Talking Heads. From the very beginning, with opening credits that ape those of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterwork Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and a concert performance that starts with a single man on stage with a guitar and a boombox, the film is a vivacious celebration of the exuberant pleasure of performance. As lead singer David Byrne begins the show with a viciously sharp take on “Psycho Killer,” he practically performs a combative dance with Demme’s camera, which, the director establishes immediately, has been given the freedom to go wherever it wants. It’s right up on the stage, staring down Byrne as he peers back, undulating his soldiers and skittering across the ground as if it’s been electrified. The show will eventually incorporate props, distinctive oversize costumes and striking visual accompaniments, but it opens with a landscape stripped bare, as if offering a preemptive counterargument to the notion that the band derives their impact through the array of theatrics at their disposal. It’s the music, not the magic.

Except, of course, the totality of the show Talking Heads delivers is purely astounding, a physical marathon combined with a deconstructionist museum piece writ large. Byrne and bandmates Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were famously fellow alumni of Rhode Island School of Design, a background that helped make certain that the covers of Talking Heads albums popped like no others. It was perhaps inevitable that some of that stylish creativity would manifest in the band’s live performances, and a major part of Demme’s insightful directing job is always finding the finest way to take it all in.

As opposed to most other concert films, especially up to that point, which exhibited a fascination with the rapturous reactions of the crowd as an apparent means to drum up enthusiasm for the performance through whooping eyewitness fan testimony, Demme stays trained on the band members as they ply their craft. The excitement of the audiences at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, where footage was shot over the course of three nights, is not just secondary, it’s incidental. Demme’s simple and ingenious commitment is to capture every ounce of the band’s energy that inspired that excitement in the first place. It’s not until the end of the film that shots of the audience (and the director himself, flailing happily as he watches the concert) are incorporated in any meaningful way. By then, it’s punctuation rather than persuasion.

Drummer Frantz, bassist Weymouth, guitarist Jerry Harrison and the other expert musicians incorporated into the show are all quietly masterful in their roles onstage, but it’s truly Byrne’s show and he is nothing short of riveting in his agitated charisma. Watching him vibrate through the various songs, sometimes jerking around as if he’s channeling them unwillingly, is exhausting and thrilling in equal measure. He seemingly approaches the task of lead singer of a rock band as a intellectual abstraction and, through the process of unpacking its possibilities, finds an uncommon sincerity to the act of standing before a microphone and belting out words in the company of a driving beat. Talking Heads were certainly the subjects of great respect and acclaim by this point, but it was before Byrne had been elevated to the position of elder statesmen for the art of rock, or, as Time magazine would term it when they put him on the cover a couple of years later, “Rock’s Renaissance Man.” Instead, there’s a sense that he’s simply a guy putting on a show in the best way he knows how. Thankfully, Demme was there to put it in a cinematic time capsule, created with the plainspoken genius that was rapidly becoming his trademark.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fifteen

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#15 — Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)
Part of the appeal of subscribing to auteur theory is the sense of extra connectedness to the directors with the strongest cinematic presence. It’s easy to feel like watching a film is akin to getting concerted insight into worldviews, spiritual philosophies and political preferences. The collected work becomes a backward version of a Rorschach test, with very specific material being transformed by the viewer into something nebulous enough to project suppositions onto. While I realize the inherent fallibility of such a view, I also can’t help but fall for it when it comes to certain directors. Jonathan Demme may stand as the prime example. While I know almost nothing about the particulars of his existence beyond the progression of his career, I connect with a inner spirit embedded in all his films that seems to me like a heartfelt expression of a benevolent, empathetic temperament. Demme’s storytelling is infused with profound empathy and a corresponding respect for the integrity of his characters. He’s not trying to keep them from harm, necessarily–certainly plenty of the folks in The Silence of the Lambs would dispute that notion–but he is obviously taking great pains to be a truthful shepherd of their tales.

Melvin and Howard isn’t the movie that led me to that conclusion, but it may be the purest expression of it. The movie wasn’t Demme’s first after graduating from the unofficial film school presided over by producer Roger Corman, but it seems like the beginning of the next phase in his career since it realistically represents his initial foray away from the pulpy wonders that Corman preferred. Based on the true life story of Melvin Dummar, the film follows the Utah man, played by Paul Le Mat, as he soldiers on through a modest life peppered with little doses of hope and far more setbacks. The trend of great possibility that always seems just beyond his fingertips reaches its tragicomic apotheosis in the form of encounter he has, or claims to have had, with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Dummar encounters a disheveled man while driving across the dessert, and agrees to drive him to Las Vegas, tenuously bonding with him during their combative ride together. Years later, Dummar mysteriously finds himself in possession of a document that appears to be a will written by Hughes, which leaves him an astounding windfall, presumably in exchange for his past act of kindness.

Working with a script from Bo Goldman, Demme burrows into the life of his protagonist, largely treating the mystery behind the will as a flavoring to the film rather than its reason for being. Just as it feels like the movie is building towards a heated courtroom battle, it sidesteps that predictable route, treating the major conflict as another frustration endured by Dummar. Demme wants to understand his characters, not just portray the notable incidents in their lives. Melvin and Howard is filled with idiosyncratic details and scene that shift and roll in the most natural fashion conceivable. Without sacrificing the demands of narrative momentum, Demme shapes scenes as if they’ve been translated from a direct cinema styled documentary.

One of the central reasons Demme is able to achieve this is the magic her can work with actors, helping them to develop absolutely astonishing performances. Mary Steenburgen won just about every award that was available at the time, including the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for playing Lynda Dummar. It’s the kind of acting that is a continual processional of surprises, Steenburgen always manages to approach moment in a manner than is simultaneously off-kilter and resounding real. Jason Robards may be even better as Hughes. He really only has one long scene, and yet he constructs a full-fledged character, as convincing and deeply considered as any number of roles meticulously honed across an entire film. Both these performances are fully in line with Demme’s apparent sensibility: intricate, thoughtful and invested with splendid reservoirs of feeling.

Further, all those marvelous attributes are on full display in Melvin and Howard. Reasonable arguments can be made that Melvin and Howard is Demme’s very best film. I might not elevate it quite that high, but it could very well be the one that represents him best. Want to define what makes Demme special as a director? Start with Melvin and Howard.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Seven

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#47 — Swimming to Cambodia (Jonathan Demme, 1987)
The very nature of Swimming to Cambodia is fantastically, deliriously uncinematic. There’s no sweep or scope to the movie, nothing particularly dynamic to train the camera on. The action gets no more robust than tugging a roll-up map open and tapping a pointer against certain countries. And yet it is riveting, engaging, even enthralling. It is a beautifully understated testament to the value of sharp, intelligent storytelling, not in the sense of building a cinematic narrative, but the far simpler task of sitting before someone and sharing ideas, theories, philosophies, reminiscences and wrapping it in a wondrous droll humor. Though he acted and wrote other kinds of works, Spalding Gray’s great contributions to the arts came through his monologues. He came out before an audience and sat at a little table, his spiral notebook before him and a glass of water near at hand, and simply talked. Of course, it wasn’t as plain as that. He performed, subtly investing the words with zest and their own shifting emotional timbre. It wasn’t quite acting–Gray was too committed to pure self-revelation to let himself disappear into a work as if it were just a role he was playing–but it was alive with personality. His monologues had a conspiratorial warmth, like he was embracing the audience with his words, draping an arm around a metaphorical shoulder and murmuring his weary insights.

Other films and video recordings of Gray’s monologues followed this one, but it’s no slight to say that the work of the filmmakers that followed all exists in the long shadow cast by Jonathan Demme. He was the perfect director to help bring Gray’s stage performance to the screen. Like Gray, Demme had a discernible sensibility that was empathetic, humanistic, preternaturally unflappable, keenly observant and quietly amused. Demme also understood the dynamics of a performance, something he’d demonstrated emphatically with the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. He doesn’t default to a point-and-shoot mode as filmmaker, but engages in incredibly thoughtful methods of shaping his film to capture and reflect the work he was documenting. He utilizes fairly basic techniques to develop some visual variety to the piece, a little extra stagecraft with the lighting and subtle editing maneuvers that are downright inspired. Most importantly, he doesn’t try to make Gray’s monologue into something it isn’t. The only time Demme breaks away from Gray at the table is to show illustrative clips from The Killing Fields, the film about the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia in which Gray appeared as an actor, an experience which constitutes a significant portion of the monologue. Demme doesn’t want to do anything to distract from Gray’s performance; that’s what he’s trying to celebrate with the film, after all.

And that performance remains splendid. The piece Gray wrote is a bright explication of the absurdity of the entertainment business and all the unpredictable ways that life punishes and rewards those who try to embrace it. Gray wryly explains how his trepidation and adventurousness coexist in his boldly uncertain movements through the world. As funny as it all is, the film has admittedly taken on a unintended somber tone, a tinge of regret, given the turns that awaited Gray in the years after this, specifically the personal and medical hardships that led to a presumed suicide in 2004. It makes the work sadder, but also more special, in a way. It’s a gift to have Gray’s voice and mind preserved in such a perfectly built film, a film that honors him in the most suitable way possible. It gives his words center stage.