Just back from the Crusades after twenty years, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood peers up at an abbey window to espy his onetime Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) decked out in nun’s habit. “What,” demands her scruffy swain, “are you doing in that costume?” “Living it,” she retorts. In Robin and Marian, Richard Lester’s superb deconstruction of sustaining, fatal legend, Robin is a player past his prime, so taken by his own heroic mask he would choose to die under its weight. In fashioning one of his finest performances, Sean Connery must have called upon something of his own struggle with a devouring fiction, the near-loss of his own face to a single fixed expression of heroism.
In forty years of filmmaking, Sean Connery has climbed into a remarkable variety of cinematic costume: suits from Savile Row, uniforms of every stripe, American West gear, exotic regalia from loincloth to kilt to Spanish grandee’s piratical splendor, the robes of a Benedictine monk, the sturdy tweeds of an elderly British archaeologist, and the slightly seedy duds of a boozy publisher. He’s been spy, soldier, scientist, submarine captain, cop, poet, miner, thief, messiah, sheikh, fertility god, and dragon. No matter the clothes, period, or genre, Connery displays the sangfroid of an instinctively naturalized citizen, at home from Sekandergul to Oz.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Brian Dennehy recently passed away, age 81. I always liked him. Here’s a 1996 cinebio no one got to read (no mention of his Broadway triumph as Willie Loman, just around the corner), and I hope not far away you’ll find a 1985 Film Comment piece I wrote about Silverado. I won’t pretend it’s about Brian Dennehy, but in it as in the movie, he looms large. —RTJ
Birth: July 9, 1939; Bridgeport, Connecticut Education: Columbia and Yale
Bearlike, silver-haired actor whose grin may betoken shrewdness, affability, or menace, Brian Dennehy shaped up as one of the premier character actors of the 1980s. In the Marines, he was the radio voice of Dear America from Vietnam in 1965–66, after which he returned to postgraduate study, odd jobs, and then roles Off- and on Broadway; his big break came with David Rabe’s barrack-room drama Streamers. Making his film debut as a dumb, inadvertently dangerous footballer in Semi-Tough (1977), he worked steadily in films and television—perhaps most impressively, in Michael Mann’s TV-movie The Jericho Mile (1979) and as Don the Mazatlán bartender who listens so well to Dudley Moore in Blake Edwards’s ‘10’ (1979). And he really should have had a 1985 supporting actor Oscar for either Walter, the leader of the benign extraterrestrials in Cocoon, or Cobb, the amiable villain who just about steals Silverado from an all-star cast. He wasn’t even nominated, and starring roles in The Check Is in the Mail (1985), F/X (1986), and The Last of the Finest (1990) got him nowhere. Peter Greenaway tapped him for the blustering lead of his art film The Belly of an Architect (1987), which brought Dennehy a Chicago Film Festival award as best actor. But Dennehy is a cagey pro and he knew in his belly where his best chance lay: in television, where he has reigned as king of the TV-movie and miniseries since 1990. His performance in 1993’s Foreign Affairs, opposite Joanne Woodward, won him a Cable ACE award.
Myrna Loy is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for December. Here’s a bio written two decades ago. It’s all still true. – RTJ
Myrna Loy Born as Myrna Williams, August 2, 1905; Raidersburg (near Helena), Montana
Death: December 14, 1993; New York, New York
Myrna Loy was a Montana girl who broke out of the Grauman’s chorus line to play vamps and houris in the 1920s and early ’30s, then became the paragon of sophisticated—though always respectable—womanhood on the American screen.
Dear Lord, that voice. Any proper appreciation of Michael Ironside should begin with that voice, which fashions an entire Home Depot’s worth of gravel into something iconic and shivery, on-camera or off. (If DC doesn’t get him to reprise his animated role as Darkseid for live action, they’ll be making, well, yet another huge mistake.) Ironside’s supreme command of that infernal timbre makes him an invaluable character actor: Even when the movie is dreck—stand up and wave hello to the nice people, Highlander 2: The Quickening—Ironside can always be counted on to bring it. Just as he can be counted on to bring it to Portland this Saturday, for a screening of Scanners, with the Man Himself in attendance.
The problem with writing about Jeff Goldblum’s speech patterns is that the things that make them so distinctive—the spoken italics, the stutter-step changes in pitch, the sense that he’s parodying his own line readings, sometimes in the middle of said line—are almost impossible to replicate in print. Consider this valiant effort to transcribe Goldblum’s Goldblumisms, taken from Independence Day: Crucible, a novel that serves as a prequel to Independence Day: Resurgence.
“I’m not—clearly not—the leader type. Evil counselor, I can do, you know, the guy plotting in the shadows, Cardinal Richelieu and so forth—”
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE GOLDEN YEARS. By David Shipman. Crown Publishers. 576 pages. $10. THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE INTERNATIONAL YEARS. By David Shipman. St. Martin’s Press. 568 pages. $15. JAMES CAGNEY. By Andrew Bergman. Pyramid Publications. 156 pages. $1.45 (paperback). THE FILMS OF JAMES CAGNEY. By Homer Dickens. Citadel Press.249 pages. $9.95. CAGNEY. By Ron Offen. Henry Regnery Company. 217 pages. $6.95. THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BOOK. By Arlene Croce. Outerbridge & Lazard, Inc. 191 pages. $9.95.
A favorite movie moment of mine comes in Hitchcock’s Shadowofa Doubt: Joseph Cotten, playing Uncle Charlie “the Merry Widow murderer,” eludes two detectives and then makes a longdistance phone call. He asks the operator for “Santa Rosa … Santa Rosa, California” and Hitch dissolves to shots of a lyrically peaceful small town. The movie is one of the director’s very best, but the special moment I’m thinking of now is produced largely by Cotten’s way of saying the name of a town. Cotten’s voice reflects the lyrical mood of the shots that follow, but it also brings an element of longing, of regret, of lost illusions, of nearly irretrievable memories. It is all very appropriate for the character, a man subtly but permanently warped by a traumatic initiation into the violence and vulnerability that he associates with the big city in particular and the modern world in general. But the moment is also something that is unmistakably JosephCotten: It is enhanced by a definitive part of his screen presence, that unique mixture of a modest nobility and a weakness which is quiet, refined and fatal. And this presence in turn is, for me, a function not just of Joseph Cotten at a particular moment, but also of the Joseph Cotten I remember from CitizenKane, The MagnificentAmbersons, LoveLetters, Duelinthe Sun, TheThirdMan, SeptemberAffair, etc.
I mention all this partly because of my delight in discovering that an actor whom I’d almost always found “good” has taken on a meaning that transcends questions of acting skill. Now I look forward to future viewings and reviewings of SinceYouWent Away, PortraitofJenny, Niagara and others with a passion that exceeds my merely professional interest in the work of John Cromwell, David Selznick, William Dieterle, Jennifer Jones, Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe. Above all, I have begun to see Joseph Cotten as a kind of auteur, as a creative force in his own right, as a film artist who has brought his own personal style to the movies (or, if not that, found it there) and who has created something lasting and genuine for which he may deserve as much credit as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, William Dieterle, King Vidor, Carol Reed … all of whom, of course, have great merits of their own.
Actress, playwright, stage director and filmmaker Adrienne Shelly made a big splash in the small pond of eighties American indie cinema as the offbeat lead in The Unbelievable Truth (1989), which introduced both Shelly and filmmaker Hal Hartley to audiences. Their sensibilities were a perfect match and they reteamed for Trust (1990), but while their careers parted after this, they remained remarkably parallel. Like Hartley, she purposely avoided the Hollywood game. Remaining on the East Coast, the diminutive, red-headed actress largely committed herself to idiosyncratic indie films (Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, 1992, Sleep With Me, 1994) with occasional guest-starring gigs in East Coast-based TV shows like Homicide and Law and Order. She had come from the stage and continued writing, directing and performing in the independent theater scene in New York, and she made the leap to filmmaker with her feature directorial debut, Sudden Manhattan (1996), a film very much in the brainy, talking, wryly absurd vein of Hartley, but with a different perspective.
Shelly was poised to finally break into mainstream filmmaking on her own terms with her third feature film, Waitress (2007), when she was murdered in November 2006, the victim of a senseless homicide. The film, starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion and featuring Shelly in a sweet supporting role, debuted at Sundance months later to great reviews and landed a major distribution deal.
In 2000 I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing her when she accompanied I’ll Take You There, her sophomore feature as a director, to the Seattle International Film Festival. It was her third appearance at the festival she called her favorite (at least she said so to me: “I just find it to be so friendly and really just about the filmmaking”) and she gave me nearly an hour of her time, talking about the features and short films she directed, her beginnings with Hal Hartley, and her work on the New York stage. She laughed easily and often while remembering details and describing events from the shoot, and seemed genuinely appreciative that someone had invested so much into her films. “Sometimes you write something and you know that there is another meaning behind it and you wonder if anyone is going to get it, is going to see it,” she said near the end of our interview. “It’s nice that you picked up on all this.”
Sean Axmaker: How were you cast in Hal Hartley’s films? You had never been in a film before The Unbelievable Truth.
Adrienne Shelly: It was a freak thing. I sent my head shot to his office. There was an ad in the newspaper called Backstage, this was two months before he started casting for The Unbelievable Truth, and the office that he was using at the time was being shared by several different companies and one of them, I guess they were making music videos, and I had sent my head shot in. It was a fluke. When I first started, I used to send my head shot around. And someone held up my picture and said, ‘Why not audition her?’ They actually put another ad in Backstage that I didn’t see, specifically for the movie, and I never would have sent my head shot in for that because it said, ‘We need a model type,’ and I never thought of myself as a model type. I’m so small and, you know, not a model type. So I never would have gotten the part unless I had sent in my head shot in for this other thing, for this music video.
The first time I saw John Ireland must have been in Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren, 1951). My dad was a sucker for movies about the US Cavalry, and made me one too. The film had a profound impression on a five-year-old me—mainly for the stunning moment when Lloyd Bridges gets tattooed straight up his right side by three arrows in quick succession (a special effect whose timing and execution are still stunning 65 years later)—but also for the face and bearing of John Ireland. Even if it would be a while longer before I learned his name, I’d point him out as “that guy” whenever he showed up in something else I was watching.
Ironically, he’d already done his best-known work by then; but I’d be well into adulthood before the benefits of film societies, rep houses, videotape, and eventually digital redistribution would afford me the opportunity to catch up with the films of his meteoric rise: A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945), My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, 1947), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949), All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen, 1949). Not a bad first five years.
Look at him in Red River as Cherry Valance, comparing pistols with Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, two vital young screen actors trying each other out in a scene suggesting a future confrontation with Garth (and with Clift) that never comes. Lurking in the background of the film, fall guy for a fake set-up, Ireland’s Valance transfers his animus to John Wayne’s Tom Dunson, calling Dunson out at what he alone thinks is the climax, only to get the barest flyswat of a gunshot from Dunson, who whirls, shoots, and turns back to his relentless march toward Garth without ever breaking stride. We don’t even know whether Valance is killed or only wounded, so peremptory is his dismissal. But the strength and dignity of Ireland’s investment in Valance remain among the most remarkable features of this most remarkable film. (Of course, offscreen, he’s the one who married Tess Millay—well, Joanne Dru—his second marriage, and it lasted eight years, 1949-57.)
Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.
Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.
Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?
Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.
One summer evening, while visiting the shooting set of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, I found myself chatting with John Hurt, never a knockout in looks but always a terrific actor. The easy banter, the charming way he leaned to light my cigarette, the suggestive slide of his eyes—suddenly there was a spotlit place where an ordinary encounter had been heightened into the possibility of dramatic story and character. Then he was summoned by his director, to disappear from view behind a poolhouse door. As he emerged, pointing a gun, it was as though that door frame had been a camera wipe. Hurt was Other, lethal and hard, a slight man moving with the weight of his own history and the terror of the moment. Not sure how to convey how astonishing this alchemy was; Hurt had transubstantiated, shaping how he would be seen by the camera.
Acting is authentic mystery. Sure, you can say it’s just putting on a face and pretending to be somebody, something you’re not. A matter of craft, in the word’s positive and negative meanings. But beyond consummate liars and confidence men, there are those capable of unforgettable transformation. Such protean players look like magicians, able to access other selves, body and soul. Are they vampires—like Liv Ullmann’s hollowed-out actress in Persona? Do they dredge truth out of the dark well of their past, tap into collected memory, to illuminate characters that look and feel like us? And what’s the cost to the chameleon? Does it sear like flaying, or is there ecstasy in becoming wholly Other?