Day of the Dead has been my favourite horror film since I was about 12. Granted, I should not have been watching it, but thanks to the Horror Channel showing it one night, and the uncreaky floorboards of our family home, I managed to sneak downstairs one night and record it. I was hooked on its vile gore, constant bickering between the scientists and military folk and its general unpleasantness.
This article is from my book GEORGE A ROMERO ON SCREEN, published about four years ago. You can get the book on Amazon....
Romero described Day of the Dead upon its release as “a tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.” This mental meltdown of communication just happened to be going on in the most claustrophobic, dark and depressing of settings. Whereas Dawn of the Dead provided viewers with the varied and colourful scope of the shopping mall, Day of the Dead had its characters, depressed and drained, bickering in a smelly, darkly lit underground mine. Any humour that had been present in Dawn of the Dead (the pie fight for instance) was totally absent in Romero’s next feature. The only laughs in the 1985 follow up are to be had are in watching Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) training the domesticated zombie Bub (played by Howard Sherman) how to enjoy human pleasures. The film is foul mouthed, at times sickeningly gory and absolutely brilliant. For me, a true tour de force of intelligent horror.
Romero has said that while Night of the Living Dead appeals to the zombie purists, and Dawn of the Dead has become the “party” zombie movie, Day of the Dead is adored by “the trolls”. By that of course he means the real gore nuts, the folk who crawl out from under their rocks to delight in some unforgiving zombie violence. Not to say Day of the Dead is not brilliant, it is just way more down beat, grim and in-your-face than its predecessors. It's my personal favourite of all six Dead films.
The plot focuses on a group of survivors living underground in a mine shaft, well away from the masses of zombies that roam free outside in the real world. On one side of the camp are the more sympathetic characters, the supposedly humane and scientific department who have a view to tame the creatures rather than destroy them. Lori Cardille plays Sarah, our guide through the chaos of the picture, who is in the middle of some advanced scientific research which can hopefully one day reverse the zombie process. At the other end we have the military point of view, which is a more primal stance against the zombie invasion; in basic terms, the army want the beasts dead, to do “nothing but drop over”. The military merely put up with the eccentric Dr Logan’s experiments because they believe, for some time at least, that they have to. They are led by Joe Pilato’s wonderful creation, Captain Rhodes, who is never short of an unpleasant expletive or put down. After tensions flare and build to an uncontrollable level, the conflict between the two camps eventually takes over and the battle of morals ultimately ruins their alleged safe haven. The film climaxes in one of the bloodiest and most powerful ways a horror film could ever end.
Romero went way down with Day of the Dead to a very small scale, especially when comparing it to the vast canvas of Dawn of the Dead. But once again it was circumstance and not mere artistic vision that orchestrated the changes. Initially, Romero had been given a 7 million dollar budget and the original screenplay shows a much bigger and more extravagant movie than the one that eventually hit the big screen. When the budget was halved, Romero found himself forced to downscale the production. What he couldn’t have, he made up for in other smarter ways. Action scenes in the script, including one at the harbour involving a huge gun fight with the zombies, had to be cut and replaced with more realistic sequences that fit the budget. For instance there was supposed to be an above ground camp site for the characters, but this was also scrapped due to a shortage of funds. As a result of such cuts, many of the people involved in the film remain disappointed with the results to a certain degree, bearing in mind what the end film could have been, had the original screenplay been used. But in retrospect the limitations probably made this a better film. As George has said, more money would have meant more supervision from the big wigs funding it. In exchange for less cash he was ultimately given more freedom, the opportunity to push the gore and not worry about an X rating (they were less liable to put up more money for an X rated picture back then). “I simplified it,” Romero said. “I brought it down to what its essentials were.” Producer Cletus Anderson said Romero put real anger into the script, anger was perhaps a result of having his large ambitions swept out from underneath him.
Romero had planned this to be “The Gone with the Wind of zombie movies” (Special effects man Tom Savini called the original script “Ben Hur with zombies!”) but the results are far from epic, which is all for the better in my opinion. Whereas Dawn of the Dead had gone BIG, its follow up returned to the “trapped” atmosphere of Night of the Living Dead, by far scarier and more impressive when looking back some 25 years on. But the script went under big changes and most of the original characters were written out and replaced before the finished product saw the light of day. Romero though, once again, focused his attention, at least symbolically, on the things of the era that bugged him. He was giving up on the government, could see a real downward spiral in morals, and once again he reflected a breakdown of civil communication.
Shooting mostly took place in an underground mine shaft in Pennsylvania, the humidity of the location making the process very difficult for cast and crew. The facility was used to store important documents, but also had caves and a few lakes within its depths. Crew found the place creepy and also said it stunk of mould. Rather fittingly too, the logo for the mine used a picture of the Greek mythological figure Medusa, with wild snakes hissing out of her hair.
Filming began in October and ended in December of 1984 at Beaver Falls, with an additional two months shooting at Fort Myers. The special effects team, led once again by the charismatic and gifted Tom Savini, had prepared the numerous gore effects between the months of July and October in Savini’s home basement. Effects man Greg Nicotero said that they worked on assembling props and sets that fit with the first draft for over two months, until the screenplay was altered and their attention was put into the new plot.
Of the first three Romero zombie movies, Day of the Dead received the most negative critical response and was seen as something of a let down in general. Money wise also, it came nowhere near to the success of Dawn of the Dead. Fans of Romero’s work and the horror genre in general however loved the film and it soon entered the canon of classic zombie flicks. Critics though were cruel and claimed the film was sexist and according to The New York Times it was full of “windy argument”. Criticism pointing out that the film was demeaning to women was denied by its lead actress Lori Cardille, who openly claimed her character was strong and intelligent. It is true that in most horror movies, women are either scared bimbos fleeing the creature as their clothes drop off or depicted as gun wielding tom boys. In comparison to the usual trends, Lori’s performance is strong and assured, and she is the one sole character we understand the most in this dark journey.
The movie shocked many people, most notably and memorably The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting. Their appalled statement included the following damnation: “Romero’s third low budget zombie chiller provides a loathsome and unimaginative mix of violence, blood, gore and some sexual references to demeaning women.” Not big fans then presumably?
Robert Ebert, who had previously been very complimentary about George’s movies, had little good to say about the new instalment. “The zombies in Day of the Dead are marvels of special effects”, he wrote. “Truth to tell, they look a lot better than the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, which was director George Romero's original zombie film. His technology is improving. But the zombies have another problem in Day of the Dead: They're upstaged by the characters who are supposed to be real human beings. You might assume that it would be impossible to steal a scene from a zombie, especially one with blood dripping from his orifices, but you haven't seen the overacting in this movie. The characters shout their lines from beginning to end, their temples pound with anger, and they use distracting Jamaican and Irish accents, until we are so busy listening to their endless dialogue that we lose interest in the movie they occupy. Maybe there's a reason for that. Maybe Romero, whose original movie was a genuine inspiration, hasn't figured out anything new to do with his zombies. In his second zombie film, the brilliant Dawn of the Dead, he had them shuffling and moaning their way through a modern shopping mall. The effect was both frightening and satirical. This time, though, Romero has centred the action in a visually dreary location - an underground storage cavern, one of those abandoned salt mines where they store financial records and the master prints of old movies. In the earlier films, we really identified with the small cadre of surviving humans. They were seen as positive characters, and we cared about them. This time, the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive. He (Romero) should quit while he's ahead.”
Ebert’s points are understandable, and he like many others was clearly disappointed by the film in comparison to the more upbeat and varied comic book delight of Dawn of the Dead. But the characters, as he points out, are not supposed to be likable. No one is going for points in this movie; theirs is a pitifully desperate situation and the constraints of the setting are causing them to behave like little more than animals. I thought Ebert might have understood such a realistic portrayal of human desperation.
While it had a somewhat muted response, especially in comparison to its predecessor, Day of the Dead still managed to make over ten times its budget at the box office upon release. There was still very much a healthy interest in Romero’s brand of horror it seemed, even if some of the reviews were far from complimentary.
On that note, I believe Rhodes is one of the truly great characters of horror, as unforgiving and brutal as any disfigured killing machine monster might have been. Joe Pilato brings a real energy to the role, spitting out the foul mouthed dialogue like he really means it. We sense true desperation in his Rhodes, and whenever he is on screen we feel on edge, not knowing what the enraged Captain might do next. Pilato is brilliant in his role, and one cannot understand why he didn’t go on to be a big star after this. When speaking of his audition, Pilato claimed he was thrilled to get the part and commented that he loved playing “a mean old son of a bitch!”
Lori Cardille is also fantastic in her role as one of the strongest female leads in horror history. As Sarah, she is attempting to keep her cool amidst the mayhem, the arguments and the violence. We, the viewer, are directly on her wave length, making the upset in the film all the more distressing.
Perhaps the most remembered and loved character in the film is the zombie Bub, played by Sherman Howard. As Bub is being trained to behave less primitively by the eccentric Dr Logan, his manner was set to be somewhat different to the other zombies. The only real direction Romero gave the actor for the role was to put in a bit of “infancy and innocence.” Howard, under this small amount of simple guidance, constructed a more rounded character as opposed to a mere beast with a dash of likeability, and immersed himself deeply into his role. He even went as far to assume that Bub was perhaps involved in the military before he was a zombie. At one point, when Captain Rhodes enters the room, Bub salutes him, perhaps revisiting a distant memory that had lodged itself in the back of his mind. Of course, Rhodes does not salute back, a decision which eventually costs him his life. But Bub has an increasingly noticeable air of humanity about him, which Howard has really captured brilliantly. When watching Day of the Dead, any small amount of sympathy we previously had for the creatures in previous installments is totally over shadowed. If anything, with most of the characters in Day of the Dead being close to detestable, we find ourselves routing with the zombies, clearly a telling example of how easily our moral values can be altered to suit our own emotional comfort.
The creature has reached an interesting point in the midst of Day of the Dead, in as much that it could perhaps, in given time, return to its former self. In Dawn of the Dead, it is noted that the creatures are not cannibals because they are no longer human and that they are driven by pure instinct. So while Logan’s practice was far from conventional, he was perhaps on to something, a long road that may have resulted in the reversal of the “zombie” state. It is unfortunately something that Logan never got to find out. But Bub has now reached an iconic status in zombie fandom. Even Romero himself commented that Bub had become “the quintessential, mainstream zombie.”
Another stand out performance for me comes from Gary Klar who plays Steel, the tough guy soldier built like a brick shit house. He is also given some of the best dialogue, in what is definitely Romero’s finest script. The words really reflect the panic and helplessness of the people in this hell. Theirs is an ugly existence, constantly on the brink of meltdown and this is reflected in the equally ugly dialogue; there is tension, jealousy, sexual frustration, machismo and greed. Few horror movies capture uncontrollable emotion in a truthful way as Day of the Dead does. While there are true elements here, regarding the lack of a proper understanding and communication, Romero really brings to life the feelings one might have if the zombies really did take over the world.
GEORGE A ROMERO ON SCREEN is on Amazon. It features reviews of all his films plus interviews with his key actors....
With news of the re-release on Blu Ray of Dennis Hopper's lost classic THE LAST MOVIE, here is an article from my book on Hopper, THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE...
"The ego problem - this is the crux of Dennis Hopper, but what is it exactly? It's something to do with coming from nowhere - an alfalfa farm in Kansas - and having a huge ambition - nothing less than to be a genius," so wrote Lynn Barber in her Guardian interview with Hopper, a man she clearly had little fondness for. "His determination to be a genius was, perhaps still is, total, but he never quite decided what sort of genius he would be. Unfortunately he made the common mistake of studying the lifestyles of geniuses rather than the work - what one might call the If-I-cut-off-my-ear-I-will-paint-like-Van-Gogh delusion. He observed that great actors were often drunks, so he started drinking, and then he observed that some of them also took drugs, so he did that too."
Though Barber's waffling is often misguided and rude in that particular piece, you cannot disagree that Hopper lived the life of the hedonistic artist while living in Taos, his new home in the wake of the cultural explosion caused by Easy Rider. Hopper had become abandoned and careless. With every drink, line of coke and casual bit of sex, he felt more and more like a true creative spirit. But the truth is that he wasn't being fulfilled in his work at Taos, and he was the first to admit it. There were too many distractions, too many hangers on getting in the way of him editing The Last Movie and getting anything done. Hopper was a great photographer, no doubt about that, and he was still getting to take great images, as seen in the documentary The American Dreamer where he expresses satisfaction with the work as he lays it out on the floor. But he never really followed up the plate shifting Easy Rider with that definitive statement for the 1970s. Filmmaking was open to Hopper for a very short time as being his primary outlet of complete gratification. After all, Easy Rider had been acclaimed as the film of the year by many and had won him the prize at Cannes. He was on the cover of every major magazine, touted as the next big thing in Hollywood. He needed to follow up Easy Rider or he'd be written off quickly as the one hit wonder wild man. So he went back to an earlier project, one that he had already written and wanted to make before Easy Rider. Enter The Last Movie.
Hopper saw The Last Movie as, quite plainly, a movie about the making of a movie. Like Fellini's 8 1/2, it became a metaphor for the film making process, a meta-film if you like. In it he stars as Kansas, a stunt coordinator looking after the horses on a Western shoot in Peru. When an actor is killed on set in the village, Kansas hangs up his hat (well, he leaves his hat on actually, but he quits) and settles in Peru with a woman. However, when the villagers start making their own movie with home made primitive cameras, they begin to act out the violence they saw being filmed earlier, not realising of course that it was performance. Kansas finds himself in the centre of these harrowing re-enactments, resulting in one of the most bizarre closing chapters to any movie in history. The film is told through three narratives, all of which overlap at random points.
If The Last Movie in effect wanted to put an end to the mystifying illusion of cinema, it also put an end to Hopper's run as the director to watch at that moment in time. When it was finally finished after a highly chaotic shoot and elongated editing process, critics detested it, the film execs at Universal refused to distribute it and the fans that did see it were let down after the accessible beauty of Easy Rider. What had happened to their Dennis? What had he done? Well, in short, he'd stripped down the accepted conventions of cinema away and shown us the skeletal framework on which a filmmaker hangs his tools, all plot, character development and narrative. Putting in orchestrated punch ups, "Scene Missing" captions and baffling sequences that blur reality and fiction, it was much harder work than Easy Rider. Indeed, even today, with Hopper's vision for the film well known and established, it takes a few viewings to get into the flow. The Last Movie exposes the fantasy and assaults the viewer without mercy. Again, like Fellini's 8 1/2, it's about the technique and damaging consequences of film rather than being an actual film for entertainment value. Somehow though, it's still entertaining. "It is an art film," Hopper once insisted, as if we needed telling.
Hopper had written The Last Movie with Stewart Stern, the man who penned Rebel Without A Cause, and had run into difficulties getting it made since the early 1960s. After Easy Rider's monstrous success however, he could basically do what he wanted, and a million dollar budget was a sizeable amount (nearly three times the one he and Fonda got for Easy Rider) for the period. But Hopper made a party of it, spending a large chunk of 1970 shooting his masterpiece in Peru, with friends like Dean Stockwell, Henry Jaglom and Kris Kristofferson along for the mad ride.
If it was at all possible, the editing process proved to be even more of a challenge than the shoot, where Hopper was encouraged by acclaimed director Alejandro Jodorowsky to make the film more unconventional, and inevitably, barely decipherable to mainstream viewers. He agreed to do so, resulting in a purposely disjointed shedding of cinematic skin, three interweaving narratives, revealing the grit of the big screen. The film was not only rejected, it was despised and mocked. Hopper was devastated, and even though it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, it sank and was removed from circulation. Hopper was hurt, and angrily rejected Hollywood for what it had done to his classic.
Reviews were vile, with Roger Ebert leading the onslaught when he gave the film a one star writing, "Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie is a wasteland of cinematic wreckage. There are all sorts of things you can say about it, using easy critical words to describe it as undisciplined, incoherent, a structural mess. But mostly it's just plain pitiful. Hopper hasn't even been able to cover his tracks; the failure of his intentions is nakedly obvious. Near the movie's end there's a pathetic scene in which he sits, half-stoned, dazed, confused, and says the hell with it. It feels like he means it. All of this - the fancy photography, the fragmented editing, the series of expensive performers and high-royalty songs - is just an elaborate rescue attempt. Hopper throws us off the scene by using title cards that say 'scene missing,' and if he leaves in clapboards and puts in a jolly hand-written 'The End!' when the movie's over, why, then, The Last Movie must exist on many levels, some of them droll, some significant, some intended as kind of an underground telegram to users. I dunno."
"The new film," New York Times wrote, "which opened yesterday at the R.K.O. 59th Street Twin Theater, was judged the best feature at the 1971 Venice Film Festival by the International Committee for the Diffusion of the Arts and Letters of Cinema - and I can only think that someone must be kidding. I know nothing about the committee, or its perhaps awesome mission, but its name is certainly as ornate, and as immediately meaningful as the movie on which it bestowed its prize. To make his Last Movie, Hopper seems to have had the resources necessary to transport to Peru a huge Hollywood company that included, in unrecognizable bit roles, people like Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Severn Darden, Jim Mitchum and Dean Stockwell. They must have had a ball, photographing each other and the local color, and I have no doubt that fantasy and reality did become confused, at least to the extent that The Last Movie itself comes to look every bit as indulgent, cruel and thoughtless as the dream factory films it makes such ponderous fun of. As a result, The Last Movie has enough visual style to suggest that it really does have something on its mind. That, however, turns out to be just another fantasy."
On the Merv Griffin Show in 1971, a solemn, spaced Hopper is kindly referred to as a big filmmaker by the host. "I was a big filmmaker," Hopper corrects, looking sorry. "I hit the top. We're all out here selling something. We're all in trouble on this panel. I'm out here trying to sell my movie, and it's kind of pathetic I think. I got raped. I'm on a personal trip like we all are. I made a movie called The Last Movie. It's a really a difficult movie. I'd rather not talk about it. I won Best Movie at Venice which has been a dream of mine all my life. I was more affected by European directors than American ones, that's where it was at. I won that festival yet nobody wants to see my movie, even though it's a complicated film... I think it's also a simple film. But that's enough about The Last Movie..."
Watching the video footage shows a wounded Hopper, afraid of coming across as self absorbed and pretentious, but also oozing self pity in a very understandable way. After all, this was his baby, the one film he had wanted to make for nearly a decade. The Last Movie is clearly a powerful artistic statement, yet it was shelved so quickly, despite the fact that it might have made its money back in time at drive ins and art house screenings. Even now, despite Hopper's death and its critical reappraisal, it's not so easy to see in the UK. Most importantly, a lot of people seem more interested in the wild making of the film than the film itself. As is so often the case with Hopper, people want to know about the myth, the drugs, the drink, the violence, the bad behaviour. Yet you can learn so much more about Dennis when you watch or investigate his work. The Last Movie is autobiographical, at least in part. After all, he's called Kansas, the place he was born. The character also has enough of the film industry and withdraws, which Hopper indeed did after the film's negative reaction cut him deep, and ruined his career in Hollywood.
"I immediately wanted to make The Last Movie after Easy Rider was a success," Hopper said years later, clearly more able to speak of his abandoned masterpiece in time. "I got a deal at Universal. 'Make a movie for a million dollars' was the deal. Really good deal. I did The Last Movie, Fonda did The Hired Hand, Bogdanovich did Targets, Monte Hellman did Two Lane Blacktop. There was no successful film in this programme (laughs). While I was making The Last Movie, a lot of things had changed in my mind since writing it years before. I really wanted to make a film about film. I went further into it. As an abstract expressionist, they used paint as paint rather than trying to make it into something else. I use clapperboard, cameras out of sticks, Indians taking over the set when the film company leaves and they start acting out the American movie violence. That's basically what it's about. I saw it the other night again and it looked really good. I really enjoyed seeing it. It was a tough movie."
Hopper always said that he enjoyed establishing the story of the film, then snatching it away right from under the viewer, as if to say "this isn't real, it's only a movie," rewriting the rule book again. Marketed and hyped as a follow up to Easy Rider, it's little wonder people were so disappointed. Easy Rider had challenged conventions of cinema itself, putting in music instead of dialogue and featuring avant-garde techniques to shake up the understood format of film. The Last Movie though, went one further and practically turned the camera round to show you the crew. It ended up like an extended version of the Mardi Gras scenes in Easy Rider. Gone was the glossy illusion of the old Hollywood, the wooden stiltedness of the film world Hopper had started in. No make up, no real plot, no quotable dialogue and no "stars". The Last Movie was to cinema what Bob Dylan's stripped back John Wesley Harding album had been to the wave of psychedelia sweeping across the world in 1968. The veteran of many a Western was taking us inside the making of that classic Hollywood genre and exposing America's somewhat questionable love affair with movie violence and bloody shoot outs for that it was.
“There wasn’t a script," Dean Stockwell recalled to Uncut Magazine. "He’d outline it, and then we’d go do it. But he was absolutely in control. In his own inimitable way. At that time, he was a piece of work like nobody I’ve ever known. Dennis was all over the place, all constant energy, you just couldn’t shut him up for a second – he had more energy than 10 people. He was awesome to be around.”
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, being around Dennis Hopper on a film set in 1970 is an experience that most of us can only imagine. Instead, we can watch The Last Movie and take a trip inside his head. And boy, what a head!
THE LAST MOVIE is out on DVD and blu ray now....
My book DENNIS HOPPER THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE is on amazon...
Here is a Q and A did a few years ago with STEPHEN METCALFE, writer of the play the film JACKNIFE was based on. In my view, JACKNIFE is one of Robert De Niro's most unfairly overlooked movies. This interview appears in my book on De Niro's films, Robert De Niro On Screen, which has just been re-released in a new edition, available now on Amazon.
What was the inspiration behind writing the original play?
The play was based on a true story told to me by a high school friend who served in Vietnam. It was the story of three soldiers – a fire fight took place, one man was wounded, one man died trying to save him and one man froze in fear. I found the voice for Megs in, of all places, a dive bar out on Long Island in the summer of 1979. There was a guy alone at a table, obviously a vet, now a truck driver, drunk and very loud, engaged in this frenzied monologue to no one in particular.
The voice and character became the basis for a one act play, Jacknife (you can get it from Samuel French). In the one act, Megs is visiting Bobby’s younger brother at college. He talks about Dave Flanagan, he talks about Bobby, he talks about what happened. The one act was very well received and one evening someone said to me in passing, you need to write a play about Megs and Flanagan’s sister. A light bulb sort of went off. The play, Strange Snow, began as a love story between opposites (merry and tragical, tedious and brief, that is hot ice and wondrous strange snow). The baggage that Megs and Dave were carrying came inevitably into the play later.
How did it come about to make a film of it?
By 1985 I had started doing some screenwriting work – rewrites. I decided if I was going to continue to do this, I needed to write an original screenplay. Strange Snow seemed like a likely place to begin. From a technical point of view it was a not a great screenplay. It was over written, at times it was far too static. And yet there was something there. It was put on that Hollywood list of “best unproduced screenplays.” It was subsequently optioned by producers who believed in it and set about trying to finance it and get it made.
How did De Niro get involved in Jacknife and what were your thoughts of him being cast?
The first actor who came aboard was Ed Harris who committed to doing Megs. I don’t know how the script got to De Niro but all of a sudden we had the news he wanted to do the role. (Unbelievably, Ed Harris said – hey, no problem, he wants Megs? I’ll do Dave). Frankly, I felt torn. There was the excitement of the moment – Robert De Niro wants to do the movie! It meant it was really happening and probably with a bigger budget. At the same time I felt that Ed Harris was more right for the role of Megs. If you read the play, you’ll see that there is a comedic as well as tragic quality to Megs. The first act especially plays funny between Megs and Martha – opposites clashing and attracting. Megs is a bit of a clown. When pressed, Martha calls him endearing. It is Dave who says you don’t know him – he’s crazy. I knew De Niro could play the intense side of Megs. I wasn’t sure he could play the clown.
What kind of research did De Niro do for the role?
I can tell you that in rehearsals I saw he had the entire script printed out in a bound six by eight inch booklet. Every time he turned a page you could see that each page was filled to over flowing with tiny hand written notes.
How did you think he grasped the Megs character from your original vision? How you do rate the performance?
I’ll be honest, but I’ll follow this up later. I was disappointed in the film when I saw it. I didn’t feel De Niro had grasped the comedic qualities inherent in the character. When he tried to, he came off as clumsy and uncomfortable. He wasn’t helped by the director, a very talented but stuffy Englishman, who also did not “get” the very American sense of humour and needless to say, had some problems communicating with De Niro on set. Having said that, other moments were breathtaking. I’ve always thought De Niro should have played Dave and Ed Harris should have played Megs. So it goes.
De Niro seems to be an actor who respects the writer of the material. Did you have up close involvement with him during filming and see him perform?
I was very much involved with the rehearsal process. The director, David Jones, came from the theatre and he was a proponent of staged rehearsal. He found a big space and had production people tape out the sets, locations, etc. and then for a week, he worked with the actors, staging scenes. I’m not sure De Niro was crazy about the idea but he played along without complaint. He was very quiet, very subdued, never committing to anything. It was more an internal than it was an external process for him. A number of times they need someone to play different characters and I was asked to step in. To this day, I can say I got to rehearse with the great Bob De Niro. One of the great disappointments of Jacknife was that it was shot during the WGA strike of 1988. Writers were not allowed to be on set. For all intents and purposes my involvement with Jacknife ended after the rehearsals.
Do you have any good stories about people's reactions to the film?
The TV producer, Norman Lear, saw the film, liked it very much and wanted to have lunch. Are you kidding? Yes! I armed myself with any number of pitches. Only he wasn’t interested in pitches, he was interested in lunch. Good conversation. Wine. Anecdotes. He had a turkey burger and insisted I have the house special sausages. When I said I liked them, he insisted on taking me back into the kitchen and getting me several pounds of them to take home with me. You sensed he did this with guests all the time.
How do you look back on Jacknife? Do people in general give you feedback about the film at all?
I saw the film when it came out and being unhappy with it, didn’t look at it again for a long time. I took solace in any number of good stage productions. Around ten years ago, perhaps when it was reissued on DVD, people started telling me how much they liked it. One day I sat down with it and put in the DVD player. With no expectations that it should be anything like the play I’d written so long ago, I watched it entirely on its own merits and I liked it very much. I saw subtleties I hadn’t seen before, I saw a story simply and honestly told. I was moved to tears. I find myself very proud of it now. My only regret is that I wasn’t part of the filming, wasn’t on set, wasn’t part of the production process. So it goes.
You can buy the book ROBERT DE NIRO ON SCREEN over at Amazon...
Below is a sample form my recent book on Pablo Picasso's formative years...
"WITH A GRIMACE AND A BELLOW OF FURY"
Picasso's Birth and Life in Malaga
“His mother was gaga about him.”
- Claude Picasso
The city of Malaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, still harbours the spirit of its most legendary son. Around every corner, the Picasso buff comes across one bit of Picasso related folk lore after another. The second largest city in Andalusia in Southern Spain, it's a place of wonder, equally striking and worn, both luxurious and earthy, contradictorily extravagant and plain. On one side of the city you have the bullring, which Picasso frequented as a boy, the Gibralfaro Castle on the hill which overlooks the whole of Malaga; then there are the ruins of the Roman theatre, where Picasso hung with the gypsies who taught him tricks, the river running through the centre, and the beautiful Malaga Cathedral, which remains one of the most popular tourist destinations of the city.
One of the other highly frequented hot spots is the building where Pablo was born, now a museum in his honour at Plaza de la Merced. He was born there on the 25th of October 1881, to his mother Maria Picasso y Lopez, and Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco, a painter and art teacher.
Some of the early stories of Picasso's life have entered the realm of unreal myth, and though they are irresistible and fitting with the legend's life to follow, they are also questionable. It is certain however that he was born dead and took a minute or so before calling out for the first time, as if he needed to consider whether this world was really for him. When the midwife had tried to revive his lifeless body on the table, she gave in and turned to the mother and father, ready to deliver the bad news. However, Don Salvador, Jose's younger brother, was thankfully present. Acting on impulse in the moment, he leant down and blew cigar smoke in baby Pablo's face. It had the desired effect. Pablo was alive.
Pablo was baptised a Catholic at the Church of Santiago in Malaga, on the 10th of November in 1881. Though he later became a firm atheist, those close to him have claimed he had something of an obsession with faith, and his multiple superstitions attest to this. Later works, such as 1932's La Crucifixion, and in fact all his crucifixion paintings (and there are a few) also highlight his secret obsession with Christ and his demise. By the time he painted his famous crucifixion picture though, Picasso was in his fifties and in the midst of a most turbulent year. Some have said his crucifixion works were a kind of "remedy for artist's block", but Picasso was clearly fascinated with the whole idea of Christ sacrificing himself for man, just as the bull was viciously sacrificed during the bullfight. Indeed, sacrifice was important to Picasso; women were sacrificed at his alter in the name of art, and in a fashion Jose was to sacrifice his own artistic aspirations when he put all his faith into young Pablo.
The world now knows him as Pablo Picasso, but his birth name was actually Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Those numerous middle names derive from his late uncle, his grandfather, his father, his mother's father, his godfather, and his godmother. The latter, Maria, was breast feeding Pablo at the time, as Pablo's mother had been left too exhausted by the traumatic birth to fulfill this role.
Pablo was named after his uncle, a well known doctor of theology who suddenly dropped dead three years before Picasso was born. The loss of Jose's brother was a serious issue in the family, especially for his two younger unmarried sisters who he supported financially. The death of the man was also symbolic; he was a God amongst them, and his connection to and avid interest in the Holy proved a comforting certainty in their lives. When he died, their whole world was rocked. One might say their belief in God himself might have been questioned, just as Pablo's would later be when a particularly traumatic event forced him to question what was really going on in the so called heavens above.
Usually, the life of a famous figure's parent is rather unimportant, uninteresting even. With Picasso it's the opposite; his father Jose, and to a lesser extent his mother, are vital characters in the artist's long story. Uncle Pablo had been a pillar of the community, and though Jose was no outcast, he was very different from the brother who encouraged and supported him. Jose adored painting and was much more introverted and reserved, known as the Englishman around Malaga for his pale skin and dark blond hair. But he was also a jovial man and a practical joker. There's a great story which concerns him buying an egg from a market seller, "eating" it raw and then producing a coin from his mouth, an act he repeated numerous times in a row, much to the delight of the trader.
Though well liked, and a keen socialiser to a degree, art was his passion. He would sit with other Malaga based artists in cafes, discussing the history of art. Yet he was at his happiest when at work
on his paintings. He taught art through the day, but it was when standing before a blank canvas, and seeing it fill with colour, that Jose came alive.
But with his heroic brother dead, Jose was left alone with his doubts; the doubts of his talent, his future, his destiny. Thankfully, Jose was not left out in the wilderness alone. He had met his future wife Maria, the woman who would bear him his children, young Pablo Picasso being the first to arrive. In name sake at least, Jose's brother lived on through his son, the little boy upon whom he had so much riding.
Jose and Maria had married in December of 1880, at the same church Pablo was baptised two years later. When he did arrive, Pablo lived a life surrounded by women, who pampered and fussed him like a young prince. His mother was always there by his side while Jose was at work, along with the female maid, while Pablo also regularly saw his grandmother and two aunts. As Malaga was in something of an economical drought, Jose wasn't just supporting his newborn son, but the women at home too. As well as teaching art, he had thankfully won the job of curator of the Malaga museum in 0, though this role was taken from him when they abruptly felt a curator was no longer needed. As teaching wasn't remarkably well paid, he made ends meet by selling his paintings, with the Malaga Town Hall famously buying one depicting his favourite animals, pigeons. Jose was the one with most of the pressure resting on him. To his relief, and after serious negotiations, he was reinstated as curator. As a bonus, he was also given space there to do his paintings, which came in handy seeing as there was such little space at home. To lighten his load further, the landlord at the Plaza de la Merced was lenient with the rent, and would often take Jose's paintings in place of cash if he was particularly hard up.
Maria was hopelessly proud of her son, calling him an angel and devil in beauty, insisting that passersby could not resist staring at him, this striking baby she held above all others. She instilled confidence in Picasso by praising him constantly as if he were some God sent gift, telling him: "If you are a soldier you will be a general, if you are a priest you will be a Pope." However much he adored it, he was not to be the sole subject of attention for much longer. When he was two, Pablo's sister Lola arrived. Shortly before her birth, Malaga had suffered a huge earthquake, and quite naturally Pablo connected these two traumatic events in his life. Forever, Lola was the bringer of this earth shattering natural disaster, destined to distract his mother who had been doting on him constantly since his birth. Still, as time went on, Pablo remained the family's bright light of hope.
When the news of the forthcoming earthquake was announced, the family left their cosy home for the safety of Antonio Degrain's house, an artist friend of Jose's who was away in Rome at the time, in order to avoid the full onslaught of its rampage. "My mother was wearing a kerchief on her head," Picasso recalled, "I had never seen her like that. My father grabbed his cape from the rack, threw it over himself, picked me up in his arms and wound me in its folds, leaving only my head exposed." In the midst of the upheaval Lola was born, and Pablo was no longer the baby. He had to share the spotlight, for now at least.
To read more, buy "From Malaga to Paris: The Formative Years of Pablo Picasso".
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Donna De Lory has had a fabulous career in music. Aside her own solo career, she's been in and out of Madonna's creative world for decades. Here she answers questions about her new solo record, recording with Madonna and the highlights from her thirty year career.
It must have been great growing up in such a musical family. Did you always know you would end up in the music business?
Yes!!! All I ever wanted to do was sing. It’s really all I knew from being around my father and so many great musical artists growing up.
You were only in your early twenties when you went on board the Who's That Girl tour. Do you remember your first meeting with Madonna? Did you gel straight away?
I had to audition for her and felt intimidated by her strong personality at first. I was nervous because I wanted the job so bad. When I got called to the rehearsal stage and we sang together, I knew our voices were magic and I had a good chance at getting the job. We always had a very professional relationship with a lot of respect for each others' talent.
Musically, I think that's a really great tour. There's a tightness to it. Was it hard work on that tour to keep it so good musically in the face of the mass hysteria?
We rehearsed so much and I loved every minute of it. I was so strong with my dancing and singing so it was not hard. The very first night in Japan I was nervous and thought, maybe I can’t do this... but after the first few bars of music I felt, ah, I was made for this!
How did it compare being a solo artist, when you had your first singles and albums out in the late 80s and early 90s? Was it a more fulfilling experience for you in some ways?
There was so much more responsibility on me to have success and have a hit record right away. It was fulfilling to know I was stepping out as an artist because I know that was what I always wanted to be. Actually what I always dreamed of being was a singer in a band like Stevie Nicks. I had so much more respect for Madonna when I went to tour with her in 1994 after I had released my solo album. It was nice to support her while she made all of the decisions and I just got to sing, dance and dress up in some amazing costumes and have so much fun with the audience.
I think Like A Prayer is Madonna's best album as a whole. What were some of your personal highlights from singing on the album?
I love Cherish and love to hear the way our voices blend on that song.
I'm Breathless is very underrated in my view. Was it fun to work on that one?
Yes because the music was so different, sounds from a different era. The vocal harmonies and style reminded me of old big band records of my mom's that I would listen to as a kid.
It doesn't get any more iconic than Vogue. What are your thoughts on that video and song now? It must have been a great experience.
I love that video! We were all so close and doing such great work. I think we were there around the clock for 2 days straight. I remember how strong that fan was as we danced. We all knew when we got the perfect take. It was a peak memory of my life.
Everyone must ask you mostly about the Blond Ambition tour. Does it often feel like a surreal memory, the sheer scale and iconic status of that tour?
It feels like a dream then I can watch some footage and remember all of the work that went into making that such a spectacle. We were dancing on the world! My daughter who is 16 said to me that she watched "Truth or Dare” and she loved it and could watch it over and over again!
1992 was a big year because you had your first solo record out and you sang on Erotica. How did those two experiences differ?
I spent months on my record writing and recording with different people. There were so many songs that I had written when I got my deal but we had to go with the ones the producers thought would be singles. Once again, it was always inspiring to me what a great songwriter Madonna was and how she would always take a different direction changing her sound. She had gotten to a place in her career then where she could do whatever music she wanted to do. It was refreshing to go work on Erotica to see what music Madonna was making and to be a musician and lend my voice and ideas to it along with Niki Haris who I still work with. Niki and I had a lot of fun singing on that album. Check out our version of Madonna’s Rain...
Out of your own solo albums, which do you like the best and feel the warmest towards? (People ask me this question about my own albums, so I know it's hard to choose.)
The Unchanging because it is a good mix of my artistry, song writing and love for world sacred music.
Bedtime Stories is, at the minute, my personal favourite Madonna album. Was that a good album to be a part of? How did you work your singing parts out on the album with Madonna?
We always started with her ideas then when she heard us sing our parts they could change and expand into something else. Niki and I always wanted to add more harmonies.
You then sang on her Nothing Really Matters single. How much input did you have on it and do you remember the recording well?
Yes, I loved the track and loved working with William Orbit - what a sweetheart and genius. When I first heard the track in the studio, I was blown away by the sounds they created together...
I often feel like the Girlie Show tour gets overlooked. Musically it's really tight. Did you enjoy this tour?
I loved that tour…. Amazing live band. Niki and I were featured in many numbers and that was exciting; it kept us very busy. I loved that version of Vogue.
I really like your The Unchanging album. There are so many varied sounds and vibes on that album. (I love the George Harrison cover.) Was that an enjoyable record to make?
Yes, I loved the recording process with Co-Producer Mac Quayle on a few tracks. He is such an amazing talent and we had so much fun in the studio in his home in Topanga not far from my house. It was also a highlight to travel to Woodstock NY to record with Tony Levin who is Peter Gabriel’s bass player. Peter is my favourite artist. I would love to sing with him one day. I just covered one of his songs, In Your Eyes in another band that I am in called La Machine De Reve.
Your new album is Here in Heaven. It's full of great songs. The production is brilliant too. How was it making this and are you enjoying the feedback from listeners? (I've been listening to it this week and I think it's brilliant.)
Thank you for the great compliment! I love to hear how people feel about the songs from the new album. I have made two videos for Listen and Piano Man and am planning my next one for the song Heaven Remix. This will involve more dancing and fun colourful costumes with an Eastern flare. I am also releasing new remixes every couple of months and plan to do limited edition vinyl as well.
Visit Donna's website for more info on her music:
My new book is out now, a surreal illustrated novella.
BLURB: Watching the Tracks is an illustrated novella by Chris Wade with ideas by Linzi Napier. The story follows Mike, a drifter who's made his way to a small town in England where he will board a train, for reasons he is not quite sure but will soon find out. While travelling he encounters a series of mysterious, nameless characters who reveal their own back stories, though none of them are quite what they seem. This surreal odyssey tells its tale through words and illustrations, revealing new layers as it heads towards its climax.
You can order my book here:
Making a film about Orson Welles is a daunting task. First you have to ask yourself what area of his life and work you are going to cover. Theatre? Radio? Film? His persona? His private life? He's an endlessly rich subject, a gift to any documenter of history. But there are even more important considerations when climbing such a formidable mountain. You also have to ask yourself why. Why make another documentary about a man who's had so many made about him in the past, both while he was alive and posthumously? Why not focus on someone else, someone less sung and praised, an obscure figure that rarely gets singled out? Well the answer to that question, for me at least, is that I am endlessly fascinated by Orson Welles, the man and the artist, the real person and the romanticised figure. I adore his work, yes, but there is a lot more to it than that. I love watching his movies, but I also enjoy reading about him, hearing him speak and learning as much as I can about his marvelous life. Why wouldn't I want to spend some time documenting such a fascinating man?
When I finally plucked up the courage to approach the man in documentary, I realised that the main contacts I had were all men who had met Welles when they were young, which seemed vital to me. Two of them saw Welles as a father-like figure; and he in turn viewed them as sons he never had. For Dorian Bond, Welles' assistant in the sixties and author of a wonderful memoir of his time with him ('Me and Mr Welles', History Press), Welles was a fantastical father who wished to pass on his wisdom, show Dorian the many wonders of the world as they whisked around Europe together, working on exotic film projects that never saw completion. Dorian was kind enough to speak to me for the film and his memories are heart-warming, enlightening and evocative. When he speaks about Welles, I am instantly transported back to the sixties, filming The Merchant of Venice, dining in Harry's Bar, living the life of a movie renegade.
I also spoke to Norman Eshley, who played the young sailor in Welles' spellbinding The Immortal Story, back in the sixties. Again, Norman simply took me back, so much so that I left the interview feeling like I understood Welles and his latter day modus operandi more than before. Then of course there was the essential phone call to filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who was a very important friend to Welles in the last decade or so of his life. They worked on films together, dined endlessly, and Henry even acted as a kind of agent to attempt to raise funds for Orson's cinematic visions.
Deciding to focus on the sixties onward (while also providing a back story for those who need reminding of the classic films and defining moments), I got a very personal insight into Welles' magical and exciting world, with all its ups and downs, its excitements and frustrations. It was one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable projects I have had the pleasure to take on, and I need to thank Henry, Norman and especially Dorian for their kindness and willingness to share such treasured memories.
Get the DVD here:
Here is an interview I did a couple of years ago (I think) with Gloria Norris, who was assistant to Woody Allen on three movies. I thought her insights were fascinating. They come from my book, WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN, which can be bought from Amazon and other online stores. The Q and A is below...
Gloria was Woody's personal assistant on Stardust Memories, Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Zelig. Here she discusses with me the making of these films, and of being close to Woody on three seminal movies.
What were you doing before working for Woody?
I was working on Raging Bull immediately before working for Woody. (And, yes, that film is one of my favourites too.)
How did you get the job as his assistant?
Woody’s previous assistant left and I heard through the grapevine that he was interviewing a few people to replace her.
Do you recall your first meeting with him?
The interview was, in typical Woody fashion, quite brief. I met with him and the producer, Bobby Greenhut. We talked about what it was like working for Scorsese, when he’d be hiring someone, very basic stuff. Woody is able to make decisions pretty quickly about who he wants to hire.
What kind of work were you doing on Stardust Memories?
I was on the set every day during shooting and in the cutting room and mix, etc. during post. I was often the intermediary between Woody and the crew and cast, funnelling information and issues back and forth. Woody solicited my opinions and feedback on a myriad of things.
Do you have any stand out memories from that film?
We shot for a few months without seeing any dailies because Gordon Willis was trying to find a lab that could process the black and white footage to his satisfaction. That was very challenging. Labs weren’t doing black and white much any more (Manhattan being one exception) and it took a lot of Gordon’s finessing to get the process to where he was happy with it. When we finally got to see the dailies, it was a marathon viewing. Woody, as is widely known, likes to reshoot quite a bit, and Stardust was no exception. However, in this case, it was magnified. Having not been able to look at footage and adjust as he went along, there were a considerable number of scenes, including the hot air balloons, which he wanted to reshoot. The shoot, consequently, went on much longer than originally planned.
One of the standout memories was in preproduction, we had these red cards printed up that we could pass out to any stranger we saw with an interesting look, inviting them to an open casting call. Woody was looking for people with unusual faces, and we weren’t going to find them just by calling in SAG extras. So, we really cast a wide net. It got you to really look at people on the streets of NY, on the subway, in restaurants, in a new way. Surprisingly, people were pretty receptive, even though the red cards didn’t mention Woody’s name. It was a different time and people weren’t quite as guarded. They actually showed up!
This was one of Woody's most criticised films but also one of his favourites. Was he especially impassioned at all during its creation?
It was a difficult shoot, because of the processing issues I mentioned. But Woody is pretty unflappable on the set, no matter what is going on. Some of the specific criticism the film received was a surprise to him. I don’t think he expected the level of vitriol, the way people took it as a personal affront. Yes, I know for a long time he said it was one of his films that he liked the most. I don’t know how he feels about it now. For me, it was and remains one of my favourites. I think the film really has a lot of complexity to it and gets richer and richer with repeated viewings. And, I think the film in general has become more liked over time.
You then worked on Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy with Woody. The mood must have been a lot lighter...
The mood didn’t seem that different on Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wouldn’t say it was lighter. The tone of a film doesn’t necessarily dictate the tone while making it. I do think the crew enjoyed being at that bucolic location, and being at the same location day after day makes things a lot easier, you’re not loading in and out, which is hard work. There was a lot of down time, as Gordon Willis was waiting for the light. A few days, it never was right, and we’d just turn around and go back to the city. Woody famously hates the country so he was always glad to get out of there.
What was a bit difficult was the fact that some of us were working 7 days a week, shooting Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy during the week, and then prepping Zelig on the weekends, scouting, etc. There was only a one-week separation between finishing shooting Sex Comedy and starting shooting Zelig. Essentially, they were shot back to back.
Zelig is one of his most complex pieces. What kind of work did you have to do for Woody on this film?
On Zelig we watched a lot of documentaries as research. I love docs, and Woody likes them too, so that was quite a lot of fun. Another thing, there were a lot of make-up tests. It was difficult to transform Woody’s appearance believably—it would be so easy now with CGI, but it was a big challenge back then!
This was another intense and demanding film. What was Woody like during its creation?
Again, Woody was pretty much the same on this shoot. He doesn’t shout or act out in the way some directors do. In addition, so many of the crew were the same from film to film, so there was a continuity, a fluidity to the process each time that made it sometimes seem like one continuous shoot, with breaks in between to edit. There was such familiarity, such a shorthand between Woody and Gordy (Willis), and that was something to behold. In my opinion, it was one of the most amazing director/cinematographer collaborations in the history of film. As far as Zelig goes, one of the biggest difficulties, other than the supreme challenge of believably recreating old footage and sound, was shooting on the streets of NY during a really cold winter. None of us—including Woody—enjoyed that aspect of the shoot!
How do you think of those three films now, looking back?
Whenever I come upon one of those three films on TV, if I start watching them, I can’t turn them off. I think they’re all great. But, of those three, Stardust is still my favourite.
What are some of your favourite memories of working on set with Woody?
Watching how scenes were choreographed was amazing, and really influenced my own work as a filmmaker to this day. Many times a scene would be entirely done in one moving shot—an incredible challenge for the cast and crew, but a powerful way to cover a scene. It is so totally antithetical to how most material is filmed, with tons of coverage. It’s a brave and beautiful way to shoot. Of course, great editing is a wonder to behold too, but I don’t think any other director so frequently chose to cover scenes all in one shot the way Woody has. Watching Charlotte Rampling, take after take, just silently look into the camera for a few minutes while Louis Armstrong’s Stardust played, was breathtaking.
How did he compare with the likes of De Palma and Scorsese as a man in control of the set? They are two of my other favourite directors I might add...
De Palma spends a lot of time in preproduction doing storyboards, similar to Hitchcock. Thus, a lot of the creative work is already done once shooting begins. With Marty, who came from an editing background, a lot of footage was shot and the film really comes to life in the editing. With Woody, the on set process, with scenes done in one shot, was where a lot of the creative magic happened.
You can get the book WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN from Amazon...
This post is a sample from Chris Wade's book BUSTER KEATON: THE LATER YEARS, available on Amazon now...
One thing that was unavoidable for Keaton, one of the last remaining silent film stars not only still working, but totally reachable and accessible, was that he would find himself, quite frequently in fact, referencing his own rich and iconic past. As the decades went on, the silent comedy era grew in reverence, and by the mid 1950s, while most of Buster’s classic films were some thirty odd years old, they were firm classics. The silent era was so long ago that it was open for pastiche and parody, not to mention affectionate tribute. Not only that, it was pretty easy for modern filmmakers and TV producers to authentically reproduce the feel and look of the era, even more so when one of its most well known icons was still around, and readily employable.
Of course, Buster didn’t mind self referencing his own legacy at all; in fact, he was often more than happy to, at least it seemed that way. After all, he was proud of that work, and spoke fondly, though modestly, of it in various latter day interviews. He had played a crumpled up parody of himself in Sunset Boulevard (a ghost from the past, a has-been, a waxwork),but there were other times where he got to affectionately reproduce the vibe of his golden years, given free reign to move his well known persona into another era and a whole new medium. He was no longer the maker, the director or the conjurer of illusions, but he could doff his flat hat to the days when he was.
One of the more respectful self-referencing credits (this one being close to self examination even) came in 1955 with a little known TV special called Silent Partner. Made for the Screen Director’s Playhouse series, and produced by Hal Roach Studios, Silent Partner not only gave Keaton a chance to don his trademark outfit, but also perform a more dramatic role with a fair amount of pathos.
The film begins on Oscar night, as the stars hob-nob and natter as a cheesy TV reporter informs us it’s the busiest Oscar night in years. Meanwhile, faded old silent film actor Kelsey Dutton (Buster Keaton) arrives in his favourite bar where the drinkers and the bar man speak of the fakeness of Hollywood. “A bunch of hoke,” says one customer. A rather glum Buster sits by the bar. The barman switches on the TV to watch the Oscar ceremony (Buster doesn’t care either way if he turns the television on or not), and a bunch of rowdy drinkers come in with a sports trophy, all ready to mock the phony award shindig.
On comes Bob Hope, presenting a “new award” for a respected figure, a movie mogul who has given so much to the motion picture industry. Mr Bale, the respected producer, takes the statuette, steps up to the microphone, and begins a rambling speech. Unexpectedly, he dedicates his award to Kelsey, who covers his face in embarrassment back in the bar. There is then a nicely (and authentically) shot flashback to Dutton’s first film role, a chaotic scene involving a ladder and Dutton attempting to save a girl from a house fire. The following scenes illustrate Dutton’s natural comic ability, cutting back to the Oscar speech speaking of the decline of Dutton’s popularity when the sound era arrived. Now it becomes painfully clear that Buster's own career is being referred to,
When he finishes his speech, the drinkers mock the ceremony, and say they’ve never heard of Kelsey Dutton. An ageing customer says Dutton was the biggest star in Hollywood, unaware that she is standing right beside him. The self-deprecating Dutton does not tell the drinkers he is in fact the star, in true Keaton style being a man with no ego. The ceremony continues, and we are shown more footage of Dutton’s classic silent films, with Buster donning a wig for the younger sequences. When the woman in the bar starts to realise Dutton is in the room with her, it takes a completely different turn. All of a sudden the cynicism for the shallowness of the movie world disappears, and Dutton becomes the focal point of the night. When the angriest of the macho drinkers attempts to rough Dutton up, he turns on him and humiliates the half wit. In walks the movie mogul, just at the right moment, to pick up Dutton and take him next door to the ceremony, where they are all eagerly awaiting his arrival. There he will be celebrated as a hero, while the producer hopes to rescue Dutton's flagging career.
Though The Silent Partner is a fun and entertaining quickie, it also has its fair share of sad irony. Buster is playing a variation of himself here, a silent legend long forgotten and tossed aside by Hollywood. There were other ironies too. He just happened to be playing this character, a very Buster creation, on a TV lot owned by Hal Roach, the very man who had led the likes of Laurel and Hardy through the silent glory years. Keaton is excellent in his role, but the silent segments do his legacy little justice. In reality, Keaton’s vintage classics were more surreal, much more sophisticated and accomplished than Dutton's. Still, the Dutton scenes are fun and accurate, but only to lesser silent comics, not reflecting the genius of Keaton. The saddest part of it all, of course, is the end, where the movie mogul expresses his gratefulness, and also his regret that the man responsible for his own current status as a respected Hollywood producer, showered with money, praise and awards, is all down to him. If it were not for this forgotten man, the producer suggests, he wouldn’t be where he is. Finally showing his gratitude for the man killed by the arrival of the sound era, he promises to revitalise his career. In reality, Hollywood had spat Keaton out, and wouldn’t let him near a starring role in a feature film. Guest roles and cameo bit parts were fine, but none of these Hollywood producers trusted Keaton to direct or star in a picture all of his own. The irony cannot have been lost on Keaton, and this egoless genius must have seen how apt it was that he was playing a character in such a predicament on a creaky low budget TV stage.
Still, despite these negative aspects and slightly tragicomic elements, The Silent Partner is one of the best things Keaton did in this era. And to be fair, the sudden appreciation the producer shows him, and promises Hollywood will too, did kind of come true, in a fashion at least. In 1960, he was given an honorary Oscar, a nod of respect to a man who had helped make the movie industry what it was. They would never give him another chance, but could at least pat him on the back and say “Well done, you did good.” Buster was touched by the Oscar, and though they had done him wrong in the past, he was big enough to accept it and move on ahead with the rest of his career; not in Hollywood mind you, but on the small screen and the world of independent film. The Silent Partner silently walked away from Hollywood, taking the hint.
Here is a Q and A I did with a true legend, the Roxy Music cover model, singer and icon AMANDA LEAR. In a sample from my book, ASPECTS OF SALVADOR DALI, I ask Lear all about her time with the legendary Spanish artist.
Singer, model and actress Amanda Lear was close to Salvador Dali for nearly twenty years. The cover model for Roxy Music and one time lover of David Bowie, Lear has been there and done it all, including being the muse of one of the greatest artists of all time during his later years. I was lucky enough to ask her some questions about Dali, and here she discusses her experiences with him, both Dali the superstar and the man he really was, away from the flash bulbs and spotlight.
I find it interesting that you didn't like the public Dali persona. You'd been around famous people before, so were aware of both public and private aspects of a personality. But in what ways did Dali differ in private?
I never liked Dali as a public figure. He was such a show off, always bragging that he was the best and that all the others painters were rubbish. Since I liked Picasso, I never got into Dali's work, I found it scary and weird.
The first meeting you had with him must have been amazing. Did Dali express instant fondness for you and see how you were to inspire his work?
Our first meeting was a disaster. I told him that I was studying art and that I wanted to be a painter. He told me that women had no talent and that they only could paint bouquets of flowers or crying babies, wishy washy art., real artistic creativity was a male thing, coming directly from the testicles. No balls no art. Then he said that I had the most beautiful skull he ever saw and that he liked my skeleton. I hated him, found him ridiculous and swore never to speak to him again. All this in front of a circle of admirers, parasites who adored him and applauded at his declarations. That was the public Dali. The next day he asked me to lunch and I discovered the private Dali, adorable, witty, educated and magical. And I fell for him. For 16 or so years I was with him and was never once bored or annoyed. He was so funny and inventive.
People describe the energy he had when painting. Is it possible to describe how he acted when painting, how he moved and expressed himself?
Posing for him was fun, he spoke all the time. Made great gestures, explaining what he was doing and being highly satisfied with himself as if he was creating a masterpiece. But mostly he was hurrying up to finish his drawing, throwing ink all over the place, more "action" painting than really caring. I did not like that. I was only impressed when he was carefully working on an oil painting on canvas. Then he was slow, precise, careful not to spoil his work by being too fast to complete it. There was only the two of us then, I was watching him paint and sometimes reading to him some pages of Proust. He was very patient, totally different from the show he put on when he had an audience.
You got to know him very well. How true was the theory that he invented the public Dali to combat the ghost of his deceased brother?
Of course he explained that his paranoia came from his childhood when he discovered that his dead brother was also named Salvador and he was never sure if his parents spoke of him, alive, or of his dead brother... Many psychiatrists were visiting him to study this famous paranoia. But Dali was far from crazy and he just enjoyed fooling them.
I imagine everywhere in the world Dali was famous and gathered a crowd.
Everywhere we went there was a crowd and photographers, journalists, and Dali loved it while I was sulking and hated the whole circus. I was only happy when we were alone.
How do you view the relationship between him and Gala? He obviously worshiped her, but do you believe she loved him the same back?
His wife Gala became my close friend, a sort of grandmother. She was very kind to me. Everybody hated her because she was trying to control the situation; she was tough in business, hard to deal with. She managed Dali business contracts, was greedy for dollars and frightened the entourage. But she liked me, she realised that Dali needed me for inspiration and my presence gave her the possibility to be finally "free". She could travel, go to the theatre with some friend and let Dali show off with me on his arm.
Were you saddened when he started to become ill and frail? The public Dali was no longer a possibility at that stage but the man you knew so well must have been there inside...
The end was pathetic. Gala died and Dali fell into depression. He had Parkinson's, could not hold a pencil or paint anymore. Surrounded by vultures who pretended to protect him and cut him away from his real friends. He told me he wanted to be buried near his father in Cadaques, then with Gala in Pubol. Finally they buried him in his museum in Figueres and visitors walk on top of his grave. It's revolting.
Do you remember where you were when he died, when you heard the news?
I was working in Italy when he died. Of course all the media wanted to interview me. I was the only person left who could react and talk about him. They flew me to Philadelphia for his retrospective, a beautiful show of his work. I felt like his widow.
Do you think a film will ever surface of you and Dali's relationship?
I sold the rights to my story to a Canadian film company, they are actually finishing the script (which I must approve) and we'll start the casting. Nobody can portray Dali. Perhaps Adrian Brody... we'll see.
I see Dali's influence everywhere today, and you must too. Do you think his influence is growing over time more and more, in fashion, art, film and music?
Years after he disappeared he is still very present. People finally ignore the scandals and the provocation; they rediscover the fantastic painter and genius that he is. His influence is enormous.
To read more, buy my book on Dali, ASPECTS OF SALVADOR DALI, on Amazon....