“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, and the effects of one’s relationship w/ their parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?

"Body Heat" (1981) starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Mickey Rourke, & Ted Danson

Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir (and first film- wow!) is inspired by classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Kathleen Turner (in her debut role at age 28- wow!) played a woman so alluring/confident that we can believe her lover could be convinced to do anything for her. Kasdan wanted a woman editor, Carol Littleton, to have a female perspective on the erotic scenes; she would go on to work on 9 films w/ him. Unlike many of the films of the ’80s, Body Heat has a balanced take on revealing skin. I saw this film maybe three times; on this most recent viewing, I noticed how well the editing turned out!

Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers and friends, but rarely as protagonists. Turner’s entrance in “Body Heat” announces that she is the film’s center of power.

One of the brilliant touches of Kasdan’s screenplay is the way he makes Ned Racine think he is the initiator of Matty Walker’s plans.

-Roger Ebert

It is a very hot/humid night in a small town in South Florida. A small-time lawyer, Ned Racine (Hurt- then only 30 y.o.), is strolling on a pier where a band is playing. We can see straight down the center aisle to the bandstand. Suddenly, a woman in white stands up, turns around and walks directly toward him- Matty Walker (Turner). She is slim, tall, w/ hair down to her shoulders. The white dress w/ long sleeves she wears might remind some viewers of how of the actresses in ’50s films (such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, or Lana Turner) dressed.

The characters here are constantly hot and sweaty. The film was shot in freezing cold temperatures. The actors sucked ice cubes before speaking to eliminate foggy breath and had water sprayed on their skin and shirts to simulate body sweat. Christopher Reeve was offered the lead, but turned it down by saying: “I didn’t think I would be convincing as a seedy lawyer.” Kim Zimmer (who plays Mary Ann) had originally been offered the role of Matty, but the producers of The Doctors (a soap opera) wouldn’t give her time off to shoot the film. This movie- slated to be shot in the NYC/New Jersey area- was moved to Florida because of a Teamsters strike.

[1] …I felt the music really pushed the movie over the top. The hauntingly melancholic string work serves not only as ambiance, but also acts as narrative. The sweet yet cautionary score mirrors the plot theme of ‘moth to the flame’- obvious danger yet unavoidably seductive beauty. 

[2] William Hurt is very assured in one of his early roles as an incompetent small time lawyer who’s also an inveterate womaniser. He’s driven by lust and greed and his gullibility makes him easy fodder for the manipulative Matty.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

The film opens with an inn burning (w/ shades of yellow, orange, and red) in the distance; Ned leans against a window and lazily comments to his hookup: “Somebody’s torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients.” There is use of the color red, incl. on the pier (when a snow-cone stains Matty’s blouse, in the lighting of the Pinehaven bar, and the infamous scene where Matty brings Ned home to listen to her (creepy IMO) wind chimes. She is wearing a white blouse and a bright red skirt (“revealing that though she acts cool, she is red-hot below the waist,” as Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards discussed on their podcast- Out of the Past).

Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that. -Ned advises Matty (when she mentions re: local men hitting on her) / This is a blouse and skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about. -Matty retorts quickly / You shouldn’t wear that body. -Ned comments

The above dialogue is inspired by noir of the past, but it works in this ’80s movie (as Ebert noted). If you take away the smoking (or fiddling w/ cigarettes) and a few lines related to the role of women, this film has aged pretty well. Matty even gives Ned a fedora- a direct homage to classic Hollywood. Kasdan surrounds the lead characters w/ good supporting roles; he creates world of police stations, diners, law offices and restaurants. An adorable/young Mickey Rourke, playing an arsonist/former client of Ned’s, steals the show in his scenes. Matty’s husband (Richard Crenna), who she calls “small, mean, and weak,” is nothing of the sort; he obviously knows how to make money and is no pushover. Ted Danson (wearing thick glasses) is an A.D.A. and Ned’s friend, who eventually suspects him of murder, as does their police detective friend. The dancing Danson does was choreographed based on the dance moves of Fred Astaire. The following year, Danson got the lead role on the iconic sitcom- Cheers.

Hurt does a fine job in this anti-hero role; he is a sleazy guy (hooking up w/ various women w/o any emotion, having an arrogant/superior attitude, and taking on shady clients). However, he is far from a one-note villain; he is troubled by his conscience. The film delved into content that would’ve been censored earlier, incl. the explicit love scenes and also the femme fatale getting away w/ her crimes in the end. Ned goes to jail, b/c he never was as smart as Matty; she was always a few steps ahead. Pay attention to the scene in Ned’s office when he and Matty resolve to kill her husband. They speak softly (and calmly) re: murder.

That man is gonna die for no reason but . . . we want him to. -Ned flatly tells Matty

What do you think of their relationship? In the last act, Matty says: “Ned, whatever you think- I really do love you.” Does she? Does he love her? Matty got what she always wanted- “to be rich and live in an exotic place.” The ending, showing her relaxing w/ a drink on a sunny beach under blue skies, is ambiguous. She reacts to an (offscreen) man, but sounds indifferent to him. What is she thinking about under those sunglasses? Matty is a mystery at the end!

In 2003, director Mahesh Bhatt made a Bollywood reimaging- Jism (“body”)- starring two former models-turned-actors (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu). Kabir Lal (Abraham) is a young, alcoholic lawyer who sees an attractive woman hanging out on a beach (Pondicherry) and is intrigued by her. He sees her again in a local restaurant (where she is wearing a backless black dress) and offers to buy her a drink. This is Sonia (Basu) and she’s married to an older/wealthy man (Gulshan Grover) who neglects her. The lead actors looked self-conscious together, though they were (at that time) a real-life couple. I recall thinking that Abraham had a few good scenes w/ the character actors who played his friends (Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey). Siddharth (Pathak- an experienced indie/theater actor) plays a policeman who goes from from wanting to beat the hell out of Kabir to wanting to protect him. Unlike in Body Heat, Kabir gets very emotional (and shows it); there is not much nuanced about his character. Basu (as expected) is tan, toned, and wears an excess of eyeliner; she was put in vampy roles in Bollywood in her time. Women w/ darker skintones are (often) put in negative roles in this genre; it’s a well-known/troubling fact. Though the production design (as well as many scenes) are a direct copy of Body Heat, the ending is very different!

"Spartacus" (1960) starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, & Tony Curtis

There is so much cool BTS info (trivia) re: this film! Kirk Douglas (who died at age 103 this month) wanted to play the title hero in Ben-Hur (1959), but director William Wyler wanted Charlton Heston in the role. Douglas was offered the antagonist role of Messala, which was eventually given to Stephen Boyd; he did’t want to play second banana. Later, Douglas admitted that he made Spartacus as to show Wyler and his company that he could make a Roman epic also: “That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the ‘I’ll show them’ sort of thing.”

In order to get the large number of big stars in supporting roles, actor/co-producer Douglas showed each a different script (written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) in which their character was emphasized. Stanley Kubrick (known for his perfectionism, vision, and difficult personality) was brought in as director after Douglas (a real-life tough guy) had a falling out w/ the original director, Anthony Mann. According to actor Sir Peter Ustinov, the salt mines sequence was the only footage shot by Mann. In his autobiography, Douglas wrote that he replaced Mann b/c he felt he was “too docile,” esp. for the powerful actors dominating the cast. “He seemed scared of the scope of the picture.”

Kubrick (then only 31 y.o.) felt the script was full of moralizing; he wanted more focus on the Romans. He also complained to Trumbo and that the character Spartacus had no faults nor quirks, so was interchangeable w/ any other gladiator. Kubrick thought the “I am Spartacus” scene was “a stupid idea”(and said so in front of cast/crew)! Douglas promptly chewed Kubrick out. The disagreements between Kubrick and Douglas got so bad that the men reportedly went into therapy together.

Kubrick was a professional photographer who had shot some of his previous movies by himself. He did the majority of the cinematography work on Spartacus. When you see the way that Kubrick shot the battle sequences, you’ll be impressed! All the battle scenes were filmed near Madrid w/ 8,000 trained troops from the Spanish army (serving as Roman infantry). Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. He later cut all but one of the gory battle scenes (b/c of negative reactions at previews).

A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself. -Batiatus explains while examining the slaves in the salt mines

Kubrick spent $40,000 on the 10+ acre gladiator camp set. On the side of the set that bordered the freeway, a 125-foot asbestos curtain was erected in order to film the burning of the camp, which was organized w/ collaboration from the LAPD and Fire Department. 5,000 uniforms and seven tons of armor were borrowed from Italian museums, and every one of Hollywood’s 187 stuntmen was trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death. Modern sources note that this production used 10,500 people- wow! Richard Farnsworth (who moved into acting after 30+ yrs as a stuntman) and five other stuntmen worked for the entire filming; they doubled as salt mine slaves, gladiators, and generals in the slave army.

Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you. -Draba tells Spartacus when he first arrives at the gladiator school run by Batiatus

This movie parallels ’50s American history, particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, where witnesses were ordered to “name names” of supposed Communist sympathizers. This closely resembles the climactic (“I am Spartacus”) scene; Howard Fast was jailed for his refusal to testify and wrote the novel (Spartacus) while in prison. This film also has something to say re: race/segregation/civil rights, as I noticed on this viewing. The best fighter owned by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov)- Draba (Woody Strode, who is black)- sacrifices himself by choosing to attack Crassus (Laurence Olivier), rather than kill Spartacus. Not only is Draba the tallest and most handsome warrior, he projects a lot of dignity in his few scenes. There is no differentiation between the slaves of different races who train w/in the gladiator school and- later- serve in the army of Spartacus.

Who wants to fight? An animal can learn to fight. But to say beautiful things, and to make people believe them… -Spartacus tells Varinia (after listening to a story told by Antoninus)

Ingrid Bergman was one of several actresses who rejected the role of Varinia. Sabine Bethmann was then cast, but when Kubrick arrived, he fired her and offered the part to Jean Simmons. In the 1988 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Douglas explained to host Terry Gross that he was reluctant (at first) to have Simmons (who is English) portray Spartacus’ love interest. He had cast the English actors as aristocratic Romans, b/c he felt they “had a more elegant pattern of speech.” He explained: “All the slaves, like myself, were Americans… it’s just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern.” During the long shoot, Curtis allegedly asked Simmons, “Who do I have to f*ck to get off this film?” Simmons may have shouted back, “When you find out, let me know.”

I thought Simmons and Douglas had strong chemistry, so you can believe them as a couple. As w/ great actors of any time/place, the acting comes from the eyes; you don’t need dialogue to express yourself. As slaves who fall in love, Varinia and Sparticus don’t have the luxury of speech or much time alone. Others in the household notice that they care for each other, so try to put a stop to it. When they are suddenly reunited, they laugh (w/ a lot of joy) and embrace as free individuals. Of course, their relationship made me think of how life might’ve been like in the time of slavery in US.

My taste includes both snails and oysters. -Crassus tells Antoninus

Sir Laurence Olivier gave Tony Curtis tips on acting to improve his performance; Curtis gave Olivier tips on bodybuilding to improve his physique. The original version included a scene where Crassus attempts to seduce his body slave, the young Sicilian- Antoninus (Curtis). The Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency both objected to the “oysters or snails” scene seen in the 1991 restoration. Since the soundtrack had been lost, the dialogue had to be dubbed. Curtis was able to redo his lines, but Olivier had died. Dame Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, remembered that Sir Anthony Hopkins could do a dead-on impression of her husband. Hopkins agreed to voice Olivier’s lines in that scene (and it’s seamless); he is thanked in the credits for the restored version.

You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin? – Gracchus comments to Batiatus

I liked seeing the evil side of Olivier; Crassus was very convincing as a powerful/tough/smart villain w/ a hint of insecurity. You buy him as a senator and as a soldier, unlike his wimpy brother-in-law Glabrus (John Dall). He is best-known as the villain in Hitchcock’s Rope; here Dall portrays an inept leader of the Roman forces. A lot of the light/humorous moments were given to Batiatus (Ustinov), the wimpy slave peddler who is a follower of the powerful senator, Gracchus (Charles Laughton). When Crassus and his family come for a visit, Batiatus rushes to cover up the bust of Gracchus. As w/ Olivier, Laughton gives gravitas to his character, but also humor. When Batiatus comments on the many beautiful women in Gracchus’ household, the older man laughs and comments: “Since when are women a vice?” Gracchus is considered eccentric (for that time/society), b/c he is a lifelong bachelor; he explains that away by saying he “holds the institution of marriage in too high a regard.” I almost forgot that the (also very handsome) John Gavin portrays Julius Caesar; he doesn’t get as much of a role as Curtis. Both Gavin and Curtis have shirtless scenes- why not!? Gavin co-starred in Hitchcock’s Psycho (also released in 1960).

"Taal" (1999) starring Akshaye Khanna, Anil Kapoor, & Aishwarya Rai

This Bollywood film (which Roger Ebert mentioned) is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll. Manav (Akshaye Khanna), the son of an uber-wealthy family (raised overseas) falls in love w/ Mansi (Aishwarya Rai), the beautiful/shy daughter of a talented rural musician/teacher. He nervously follows her and her girl cousins around and snaps pictures (don’t do this, kids). Mansi’s father warmly welcomes Manav’s father, brothers, and business associates to his house. Though reluctant at first, Mansi decides to give Manav a chance to get to know her. Their first date (or meeting, as Bollywood often uses) is a sunrise yoga lesson high up in the hills.

Their relationship is mocked by Manav’s extended family; when they go to the city, Mansi and her father are humiliated (having to wait outside for hours, then insulted verbally). Mansi has a strong relationship w/ her father; both are humble, straight-forward, but also very proud. Vikrant Kapoor (Anil Kapoor), a slightly older record producer, discovers Mansi’s knack for singing/dancing and helps her climb the ladder of success. As Vikrant exlains, he takes songs from the villages and turns them into hits (remixes). Manav tries to make amends, but Mansi ignores him. In time, Vikrant, finds himself developing feeling for Mansi, too.

Taal (meaning “rhythm” in Hindi) is a must-watch for its hit soundtrack; the music (composed by a young A.R. Rahman) is considered “timeless!” I thought all the songs were great; I esp. liked Ishq Bina (featuring Sonu Nigam), Taal se Taal (sung by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan), and the remixed version of Ishq Bina Ishq Bina (sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy and Sukwinder Singh). Early in the film, it’s fun to see Rai w/ almost no makeup and wavy (natural) hair; she looks fabulous nonetheless! The ’90s hairdos, bright colors, and funky styles the back-up dancers/singers wear are a blast from the (recent) past. There is simplicity, innocence, and a flow to (most of) this story. The woman at the center of the story isn’t given much agency; Mansi goes along w/ what Manav or Vikrant have planned. The movie was shot in some unique locations, incl. Toronto, Ontario and Niagara Falls, NY.

SPOILER-FREE Review: "Marriage Story" starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.