"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).

"Planet of the Apes" (1968) starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, & Maurice Evans

It raises a lot of questions about our modern day society without letting social commentaries get in the way of the drama and action.

The movie based on this book [La planet de singes by Pierre Boulle] is an “Americanized” adaptation of it. Rod Serling did the first drafts of the screenplay, simplifying the plot by fitting it into the mold of his “Twilight Zone” TV series and introducing an anti-nuclear war theme not present in the Boulle novel.

Pierre Boulle raises such issues as balance of power, racism, the role of government, and evolution… 

The film is philosophical, creative, absorbing and scary. Excellent commentary on religion and just about everything else.

-Excerpts from comments on IMDB

This movie tells the story of George Taylor (Charlton Heston), when he and his fellow astronauts find themselves stranded on a seemingly unknown planet. It seems to have no life. After travelling across a desert, they discover plenty of life (incl. apes that are human-like and humans that are ape-like). The (orange) orangutans are the leaders; the (grayish) chimpanzees are intellectuals and technicians; the (black) gorillas are guards/police (or do grunt work). Taylor is shot in the neck rendering him unable to speak. He is taken to a human-ape study lab, where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee scientist. She notices that Taylor’s intelligence goes far beyond that of any other human she has seen; she encourages him to speak. However, the orangutan leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), sneers at Zira’s and her fiancé Cornelius’ (Roddy McDowall) belief in any human intelligence. He (and his council) won’t listen to reason. Despite Cornelius’ conflicted feelings towards Taylor, he agrees to help prove his intelligence.

As many critics and fans have noted, Heston basically played himself. This role is not unlike those he played before; he is often shirtless, tan, and bearded. Heston uses his physicality, as is needed for a action hero role. There are few moments (w/ Nova, the young woman who will be his “mate”) where his vulnerable side comes out. Zira and Cornelius are quite interesting characters. Hunter’s portrayal of Zira was considered very powerful by many viewers; she is the most developed character in the film. Hunter manages to make Zira what she was meant to be, more human then ape. The intelligent and curious Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) has a bit of a rivalry w/ Taylor (as they constantly challenge each other like males of any species).

Planet of the Apes is considered a pivotal work of American cinema. Modern viewers will be surprised (not only by the ending), but by the fine camera work, unique soundtrack (by Jerry Goldsmith), makeup (by John Chambers), and good performances. After the film’s success, there were sequels, a TV series, a remake and a prequel (2011). There were also toys/models, comics, cartoons, and T-shirts to sell. I think even those who avoid the sci-fi genre should check it out! The Simpsons (my younger brother was a big fan) did a parody of this film, so you know it left it’s mark on pop culture.

New Year, New Reviews: "Bombshell" & "Little Women"

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Bombshell (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, & Kate McKinnon

There are some fine performances here, esp. from Theron (in role of lawyer- turned-journo Megyn Kelly) and Lithgow (Roger Ailes); they are also transformed through prosthetics, wigs, makeup, etc. Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) was the most easy to empathize w/ (IMO); I wished she was had a bigger role. I have to admit that Kidman is having a great resurgence these past few yrs; I didn’t appreciate her skills (when I was younger). Robbie (I’m slowly warming up to her acting) plays a fictional character who is eager to get onscreen work. McKinnon (from SNL fame) becomes friends w/ her; they have some nice chemistry. As a whole, I was NOT blown away by this film (which may remind you of the works of Adam McKay, director of Vice). There are MANY cameos in to enjoy- I won’t give it away; after all, there are VERY serious themes to explore! If you follow the news/politics, then you should check it out ASAP! Otherwise, wait for it to come to streaming.

Little Women (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, & Meryl Streep

The new adaptation (directed by Greta Gerwig) is VERY good- I went to free screening w/ several friends the week before it was released (on Christmas Day). I’ve seen the major film adaptations- ‘30s, late ‘40s, and ‘90s (my family loved that one). There are a few odd choices w/ the casting, as you will see. This film has unique takes- it plays w/ time (starting from the middle of the book and going back, then forward); has more nuanced characterization of smaller characters; and Chalamet (who I really enjoyed) has a fresh take on Laurie (the boy who wants to belong to the March family in some way). Chalamet, who some feel is getting TOO many meaty roles, gives Laurie a light/humorous bent (one critic compared his movements to Chaplin). I loved Christian Bale’s take on Laurie- it will always be my fave. I thought Ronan made a great Jo; I thought the writing, then trying to publish, scenes were great additions. Pugh (who is a fresh face to me) does a great job as Amy, who is usually the sister people love to hate. Amy’s scene re: the practical side of marriage stands out in my mind. The scenery, clothing (some of which was styled by the actors), and music are great- as expected. I consider this a MUST-SEE for fans of the book or the previous movies!

Fourth Estate Film Series (AFI): All the President’s Men, Broadcast News, Network, The Front Page, & His Girl Friday

AFI Silver and Washington Monthly magazine presented a series of films that investigated the world of journalism recently (May-June 2019). Below are my thoughts.

All the President’s Men (1976)

“Follow the money.” Deep Throat’s (Hal Holbrook) words have guided reporters in the 40+ yrs since Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as “hungry” young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovering the Watergate scandal. The all-star cast also includes Jack Warden, Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men), Jason Robards (then in his waning yrs battling alcoholism), Jane Alexander, and Ned Beatty.

There was a post-screening Q&A with Bob Woodward (it was a full house, of course) moderated by Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris. There are a lot of phone calls, knocking on doors, as well as research depicted in this film. Though journalism has changed over the years (along w/ technology), Woodward pointed out that nothing beats in-person interviews where reporters can build trust w/ their subjects. Woodward is still going strong; in fact, he recently interviewed individuals who haven’t even spoken to Robert Mueller- WOW!

Broadcast News (1987)

This is one of my favorite films, as I’ve written before. It’s set in a DC TV network news bureau where the lives of three individuals are intertwined: ambitious producer Jane (Holly Hunter), telegenic anchorman Tom (William Hurt), and brainy field reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks). All three are fully fledged out characters, no one is a typical bad guy, and there is sparkling chemistry between both pairs- Jane/Aaron and Jane/Tom. Jack Nicholson (not billed) has a cameo as a powerful anchorman based in NYC. It launched the career of Hunter and was nominated for seven Oscars, incl. Best Picture.

There was a panel discussion with Academy Award-winning filmmaker James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, The Simpsons, etc.) and New Yorker Staff Writer Jane Mayer, moderated by Washington Monthly Digital Editor Eric Cortellessa. Though the work life/personality of Jane was based more on Susan Zirinski (who now heads CBS News), the love triangle was inspired by incidents in Mayer’s personal life; she had trouble choosing between a man who was “like a schlubby best friend type” (like Aaron) and another guy. Neither one was right, she admitted (LOL)! This film is more of a workplace comedy, not a rom com, as it puts career over romance. Albert Brooks (who plays Aaron and also worked on the screenplay) was the first one cast; they waited 6 mos to get Hurt; Hunter was cast a few days before filming started.

James L. Brooks considers this one of the best-written scenes:

There is also an alternate (happy) ending to the Jane/Tom romance:

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2010/11/14/two-movies-ive-seen-recently/

Network (1976)

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news anchor w/ slipping ratings, is informed that he is being let go, he launches into a rant (on live TV) proclaiming his intention to commit suicide on his next broadcast. The network’s execs (incl. Robert Duvall) decide to keep Beale on and exploit the ratings boost. Beale’s closest/oldest friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), thinks that he may truly be ill (going mad); he tries to care for Beale. Director Sidney Lumet’s examination of the news media depicts a cruel, ratings-obsessed world, in which populist sentiment is exploited for profit. One of the must-see films of the ’70s, Network earned 10 Oscar noms, incl. acting wins for Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, and the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.

There was a panel discussion with Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Beth Reinhard, a local veteran film critic, and moderated by Glastris. I used to see Page on the PBS commentary show- The MacLaughlin Group– along w/ other TV journos; he appears on MSNBC these days. The rise of Trump (UGH) was compared to what happened w/ Beale. Dunaway’s character would also fit in w/ the people making policy around Trump. Page also recommended another film, A Face in the Crowd, for those who enjoyed this one.

Here are my reviews:

https://knightleyemma.com/2018/07/31/network/

https://knightleyemma.com/2016/10/09/a-face-in-the-crowd/

Mr. Jensen (the scene-stealing Ned Beatty) explains to Beale how money makes the world go around in one of the iconic scenes from this movie:

The Front Page (1931)

Newspapermen-turned-playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made their names with the 1928 Broadway play The Front Page. Adapted for the screen in 1931, this is the story of star crime reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), fed up with his manipulative editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), and about to quit his job to marry his sweetheart Peggy (Mary Brian). But when a big story breaks, Hildy can’t resist covering it, even if it means putting his honeymoon on hold. The play was expertly re-arranged by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer in 1940 with their adaptation- His Girl Friday (see below). I watched it last year, but will check it out again (see the link to YouTube below).

His Girl Friday (1940)

This Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page (see above) with reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) recast as a woman, her love-hate relationship with hard-driving editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) now complicated by the fact that they were formerly married. These were career-defining roles for the actors in one of Hollywood’s greatest screwball comedies. There was a panel discussion with The Atlantic’s Film Critic Christopher Orr, New Yorker Staff Writer Margaret Talbot, and Washington Post Media Reporter Paul Farhi, moderated by Cortellessa. They touched on topics ranging from the rom com genre, portrayal of journos, Chicago history/politics, feminism (as it pertains to smart/clever/career woman Hildy), casual racism (at least in two scenes), and the enduring popularity on this film (the theater was nearly full, yet again).

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2019/01/11/awfultruth-girlfriday/

JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.