Winter Project: More Steve McQueen

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The annual winter project is underway. I’ve assigned to myself, actor Steve McQueen, because I knew little about him or his filmography. Catch the first post HERE. Biographer, Marshall Terrill, who wrote Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon provided the interesting backstories to the actor combined with the psychological explanations of what made this complex man tick.

Nothing came easily to Steve McQueen as a child. Both parents abandoned him. Adults administered physical and verbal abuse frequently in the fog of alcoholism. He had learning disabilities that kept him targeted and punished at school. Jostled from one faithless home after another, these circumstances created one tough juvenile delinquent, a rebel without a cause with deep trust issues. Two factors kept him on the fringe of acceptability. Uncle Claude’s farm where Steve learned how to ride horses and complete the exhausting chores of maintaining a farm, and the Boys Republic, a boarding school where he learned to lead with ethical consequences in a penitentiary type setting. Steve McQueen characters were on the backs of horses, busting out of prison, and seemingly detached but intense leaders; he was always a step away from the ensemble cast, and that was how he cultivated his screen power. 

1956 photo by Roy Schatt
1956 photo by Roy Schatt

Steve McQueen’s fearless, inquisitive nature made him a jack-of-all-trades. He ran away and joined the circus. He enlisted in the Marines at seventeen. He hitch-hiked to Greenwich Village in the early fifties, staying for a time with his mother’s friend who worked in the world of the theater. Acting offered exposure to beautiful women, and Steve McQueen exercised his insatiable sexual appetite. After acting lessons, a play, and the help of his accomplished first wife Neile Adams, he got his break as the star of a hit television Western series called Wanted Dead or Alive. Director John Sturges should take credit for advocating McQueen in essential roles that transitioned him from television and secured his superstar status (The Magnificent Seven & The Great Escape). 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

An American Western directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, and Elie Wallach. The film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai. They are seven gunfighters hired to protect a small village in Mexico from a group of bandits and their leader (Wallach). Elmer Bernstein composed the famous score.

Most lovers of Westerns know the story about McQueen and Brynner jostling for screen time. Although McQueen had only seven dialogue exchanges in the film, his presence was felt throughout. Sturges granted McQueen generous close-ups and downstage placement. Steve did his best to make you watch his character, Vin. He flipped up his bandanna like an erection when señoritas sat near. Contemplating their next move, McQueen twirls his hat or sits higher on his horse to grab attention away from stoic Yul Brynner, the star of the picture. Steve’s physical prowess with a gun and a horse stole the limelight from the others. Having said that, it was Charles Bronson’s role as a tender father-figure to the children of the village and James Coburn’s silent knife-throwing cowboy who stayed in my mind long after the film was over. 5/5

The Great Escape (1963)

Following up on the success of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges brings back Elmer Bernstein for another iconic score and Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Add James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance to form an exciting male ensemble. Based on the true story of a Nazi POW camp built for uncooperative Allied soldiers, the tunnel escape and the relationships between the key characters make the film engaging 54 years later. Charles Bronson gave his character claustrophobia, James Garner and Donald Pleasance stole a plane to fly away, and Richard Attenborough’s RAF “Big X” masterminded the escape. Steve Mcqueen’s natural ability with the motorcycle and that classic jump over the barbed fence — it was fourteen feet high, and while McQueen loved racing cars and motorcycles and generally performed his own stunts, this jump was done by his loyal stunt double, Bud Ekins. Everyone has a buddy in the film, but McQueen stands aside. He enters the prison last, he is locked up with his baseball in solitary confinement, and he escapes alone.  4.5/5

Accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he infused his personality into his acting style, that is, saying little but commanding a central presence. Which stars today emulate that kind of Steve McQueen cool? Daniel Craig? Ryan Gosling?

Bullitt (1968) 

This highly popular Steve McQueen film featured all the components that made Steve the “King of Cool” in the 1960s: the sexy car (green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT), the sexy girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and the great chase scene shot in San Francisco. Why is it great? The camera is put in the car and the audience becomes a passenger. Bouncing up and down the streets of San Francisco, the Ford Mustang vs. the Dodge Charger eventually hit the highway and race at speeds over 100 mph. Nine minutes of film time is a thrilling ride. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the plot is interesting. As an emotionally detached police detective, Steve McQueen plays the lone hero effortlessly. With him again is co-star and friend, Robert Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven as the suspicious official. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a solid blind spot choice for anyone. 4/5.

IMO: Film Scores

When I select “film scores” on Pandora, I try to guess the film and the composer while I write, grade papers, or blog. Do you play that game? John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith utilized full, melodramatic orchestras with a signature sound that echoed in your head long after the film was over. Just playing the main song links the film to history. High-handed manipulation? You bet.  How many mediocre story lines are elevated because the musical score became a character itself, going along with the ride, telling you how to feel at every turn, alerting you to upcoming doom? Star Wars IV is a prime example.

Before those two heavy-weights, excluding musicals, classic films such as Gone with the Wind (Max Steineror The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) had their signature sound but there was enough intermittent silence to allow the actors to speak. The score was saved for the opening, transitions, and the end. This was expected and pleasing.

In my opinion, there has been a shift away from full orchestral compositions in the last, say, 20 years. Now more than ever contemporary songs fill in as background music to the events. Second, dramatic films are increasingly not using much music at all. The effect is a stark and unsettling as the silence fills the space. Third, instead of full orchestras, now we hear more lighter chamber music such as string quartets, duets or singular instruments. Fourth, urban-mechanical grindings and hammering simulate apocalyptic or the robotic presence. All of these changes have intruded the orchestra.

To claim one style is superior than the other is subjective. I can tell you my favorite all-around composer who did all styles was James Horner. However, my favorite scores of all time do not belong to Horner, they belong to Leonard Bernstein, Alexandre Desplat, Philip Glass, and Rachel Portman. 

I miss the full orchestrations and the effort to sweep me off my feet. I enjoy it when the music and I attend the story. I also think it’s best to stick to one style instead of including part orchestration, part contemporary song tunes. My least favorite style is when there’s very little music at all.

Who’s your favorite composer? Your favorite score? Here’s mine by Rachel Portman. It’s breathtaking.

Robert Mitchum

 

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Alone in NYC, Jerry doesn’t know what he wants.

Robert Wise directed the adapted William Gibson Broadway play, Two for the Seesaw in 1962. The romantic drama featured a powerful pair, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum. After West Side Story’s success in 1959, Wise collaborated again with André Previn and provided a memorable score. Ted D. McCord’s cinematography (The Sound of Music 1965) with Wise’s leadership as director is reason enough to watch the film. From the wide-angle NYC location shots to mid-range street angles to the split screen emulating two sides of the seesaw, it is a solidly crafted film.

Perhaps they seesaw too much, but the love story is authentic and portrays the painful situation one experiences if one has been in love enough times–being the ghost in the room. That is, you are madly in love but the other person cannot love you because they are hung up on the predecessor. Gittel Mosca, played by MacLaine, is looking for a man to commit. She is smart in understanding Jerry Ryan’s loneliness and his insecurities. Played by Mitchum, Jerry wants individuality. It’s a double-edged sword living the career handed to you on a silver platter by Daddy. Jerry doesn’t want his life orchestrated by his rich wife from Nebraska, but he’s scared he will fail if he seeks out his accreditation as an attorney with his own wits. He has filed for divorce but cannot cut ties.  When it comes to love, it’s hard to shelve over ten years of marriage and pretend it didn’t affect you.

He is smart intellectually while Gittel is smart intuitively. Back and forth they go, giving and withdrawing, hoping and receding. Gittel chooses self-respect and autonomy–a lesson any gal should learn regardless the decade. With stellar acting, direction, and an intelligent script, it holds up today as it did in the 60s. 4/5

I assign myself an actor to explore over the winter break. Robert Mitchum is the man this year. Nothing I’ve seen him in has disappointed me. What a voice! I confess I’ve seen only a handful, so I need your help exploring his filmography. Other than the usual like The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, and The Big Sleep, I’m curious which film you think I should investigate.  Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison? Out of the Past?  What’s your favorite Robert Mitchum film? 

Lucky 13 Film Club: The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress as Eleanor of Aquitaine. James Goldman won an Oscar for adapting his own play. John Barry‘s score won for Best Score. It’s 1182 and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is the scene-chewing roaring lion passionately defending his kingdom while three sons vie for the crown and a sour wife is his greatest adversary.  Ultimately, it’s a love story between a husband and wife whose bitter disappointments in each other flail out to those around them. Their manipulations tarnish the relationships between their three sons. Betrayal is the prominent theme. My heart goes out to son number one, Richard, played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins and Alais, the pretty pawn by Jane Merrow.  

As a conversation starter, I focused on the CINEMATOGRAPHY by Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Great Gatsby, Never Say Never Again). It helps when you film at the gorgeous locale of Wales and England. The sweeping battle scene on the beach was impressive with black horses and sardonic son number 2 (John Castle) looking on.  Even in winter with barren trees and frosty glens and a cold castle, the wide angles were beautiful. However, I think his use of close-ups provide a balanced contrast and interesting angles. For example, I liked Eleanor at her dressing table having a monologue in a mirror. The turn of a skeleton key in the dungeon door. The shocked face of Richard behind the curtain as he learns his lover has betrayed him. The face of King Henry on his knees out on the ramparts and the camera pulls away from his face as he looks up to the stars. Did you like the cinematography? How about that pulling back technique Slocombe employs?  Did you find it distracting? 

Please welcome KATE LOVETON who has a great blog and where she shows off her creative writing talents. This was her idea to form a film club where we could discuss with one another a topic and a film. Kate focused on the DIALOGUE, a huge part of the success of the film:

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What a pleasure it was to watch this intelligent film once again. There is so much to like about “The Lion in Winter,” and many aspects worthy of discussion:  staging, costuming, the score.  Best of all is the excellent acting and crisp, often biting dialogue.  It is by turns witty, wise, searing and venomous.
Henry II and Eleanor, once lovers, are now old-age combatants; rather than swords, their weapon of choice is the tongue – and each employs it well. When asked by his mistress how his wife is, Henry (who has kept Eleanor locked away in a nunnery for ten years) responds corrosively, “Decaying, I hope.”
Ah, but Eleanor gives as good as she gets.  She tells Henry’s mistress, “Henry’s bed is his province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done.”  Ouch!
Confronted with the treachery and sodomy of her offspring, Eleanor, a master of understatement, dryly remarks, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
I think my favorite line was uttered by Henry after he’d locked his conniving sons up in the wine cellar. (Henry apparently has a talent for locking up family members). His mistress asks where Henry’s sons are. “The royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he replies.
If Henry and Eleanor are masters of waspish dialogue, their sons are masters of deception and murderous intent toward one another. When one of her sons pulls a knife on the other, the would-be victim whines that his brother was carrying a knife. The wearied Eleanor remarks, “Of course he has knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”
Just so… and now it is 2015, and we are still barbarians.
Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole employ just the right shadings of tone to convey sarcasm, anguish, fear… and the underpinnings of sexuality. Hepburn’s Eleanor is a dangerous woman… and yet beneath the vinegar and venom, one gets the impression that she still burns for Henry. Her lust no longer physical, it plays itself out in verbal jousting.  Her love is a deadly thing. Hepburn makes us pity and admire her indomitable Eleanor, even when we most dislike her.
And Henry? O’Toole does a masterful job. It was a revelation to me to see O’Toole as the expansive, bellowing, manipulative Henry. He chewed up the scenery… yet he never made Henry a clown. When Henry realizes just how estranged his boys are from him, he stumbles away and cries out, “I’ve lost my boys.” In that moment, my heart went out to him.  He never really had them to begin with.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the dialogue and cinematography?

Rachel Portman and The Duchess (2008)

Her film scores are feminine and fanciful, haunting and magical. Fifty-five year old English composer, Rachel Portman, was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1997 for Emma. Her personal stamp as composer is behind an eclectic mix of films and television which illustrates her wide range ability to adapt to differing directors. Known for her strings and wind instruments, several of her scores evoke longing and represent a female protagonist. Her long career is impressive. She epitomizes the importance how a score can elevate the audience’s appreciation of the film. Her scores coat your sensibilities with a creamy, nostalgic emotional residue, and it is easy to forgive whatever shortcomings the film contained because the score echoes in your head long after the credits are gone. These are few of my favorites:

The violin solo grabs my heart and won’t let go.

The flute gives the score its fairy tale flavor. Is Vianne (Juliette Binoche) a good witch or a bad witch?

Whimsical, full-bodied orchestra lifts and floats your emotions like a bird drifting on a breeze. 

The romanticized view of golf as an analogy of life (better than boxing!) and Jack Lemmon? I’m hooked. Director Robert Redford capitalizes on the beauty of nature, and this film is no exception. Despite the stereotype of the “Magical Negro”, it’s a charming tale. The score ties in the mysticism and the nostalgic 30s jazzy-feel of the time. 

This is one of Johnny Depp’s best performances; as Buster Keaton, he was brilliant. The piccolo solo in the score pays homage to the silent era and compliments this 1993 dark comedy. 

If you missed this 2009 HBO biopic/drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, you can catch it for free on YouTube. About the reclusive, quirky relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is a sad story that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have penned. Listen how the oboe and piano melody accentuates the theme of lost dreams from a bygone era of wealth and prestige.  A must see! 

Here’s a BAFTA composers interview where you can learn more about Rachel Portman:  

The Duchess 

I learned a lot about the The Duchess of Devonshire from the blog of Rachel Knowles found HERE. Or, I recommend reading Amanda Foreman’s account of Georgiana Cavendish in Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire.

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Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806)  was an English aristocrat who married at the age of 17 to the Duke of Devonshire. She possessed a charming, passionate personality; her complicated marriage and the role of women during the Enlightenment period is the focus of the biopic directed by Saul Dibb and stars Keira Knightley who represents “G” over a span of ten years.

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With lavish costumes, balls, bedrooms, and the salons of the British nobility, all the drama of a soap opera plays out of this royal family. The Duchess showcases a superb acting performance by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke who exudes power and tyrannical rule, but manages to convey a sensitive, human side that only Fiennes could deliver. Georgiana’s affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, (Dominic Cooper), her complicated friendship with her husband’s mistress, Bess Foster, (Hayley Atwell), and the quest to bear a son for the Duke are the primary points of the plot, while the theme of liberty and the limited rights of women are conveyed throughout. Some critics thought the pacing slow, but I did not. I enjoyed the score, the production design, and the multi-faceted personality of Georgiana expressed through Keira Knightley’s acting.

Georgiana Cavendish Devonshire was a progressive feminist, a politician of the Whig party, and a devoted mother as well as a vain, self-absorbed party-girl and gambler. Colorful and charismatic, the film is worth watching to absorb a sense of the dynamic personality of the Duchess of Devonshire.  7/10.

Are you a fan or foe of the film?

What are your favorite Rachel Portman scores? 

Philip Glass and The Hours (2002)

He’s prolific and complicated, an influential American composer, a genius whose distinctive style of creating melodic patterns of diatonic harmonies transfers from the operatic to symphonic, from concertos to film scores. Critics over the decades have disliked his repetitive sequences of notes or his assaulting experimentation. He cares not, for his art is an expression that cannot be harnessed or altered to suit the fancies of others. Here is an informative article about Glass by Tom Service from The Guardian, “A Music Guide to Philip Glass” . 

Personally, I like his piano etudes, his Violin Concerto no. 1, his String Quartet no. 3 “Mishima” and most of all, his film scores. Another interesting way of exploring Philip Glass is by watching the 2007 documentary by Scott Hicks, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer winner is an excellent book, but this is a rare instance where the film version is equal, if not surpasses, the reading experience. This is due to the acting, the editing, and the score. The film blends the lives of three women separated by time but united with problems of depression, alienation, suffocation, and the hardest part of life–getting through the hours when each one feels like a drop of water on the forehead. With a superb cast and subtle, sensitive performances by everyone:  Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Dillane, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, and Miranda Richardson, the score functions as a sad waltz corresponding to the plight of three women who seek freedom from their pain. Suicide is a major theme. Death a constant companion. While these are heavy topics, the script adapted by David Hare, connects the three women in a single day, echoing insights given in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. One way this is accomplished is through the editing. Each woman performs the same daily task. The lost look in the morning, the reflection at the mirror as if to say, “Must we be together, again?” Or, the arrangement of flowers throughout the home does not comfort or bring cheer.

Nicole Kidman never looked or acted better in this Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf. Julianne Moore played the 50s suburbanite wife who can’t bake a cake and whose needy son somehow senses her life is a fraud. Meryl Streep’s Clarissa needs to take care of her dying friend to feel alive while the dying friend experiences the mother he never had. The warped co-dependent relationship is executed with Ed Harris with painful results. This is a beautiful, symmetrical, and satisfying film.

Other Philip Glass scores I love:

The Truman Show (1998)

Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) “Potala”

Notes on a Scandal (2006) 

The Illusionist (2006)

The Fog of War 

What about you? What are your favorite Philip Glass contributions? 

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