On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson whose credits include writing for Fosse/Verdon and the series The Americans. She talks about that and bringing the life and career of Aretha Franklin to the screen for the movie Respect.
There’s an old epigram – If an awards show falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Well, the old saying is something like that.
As readers of these pages know, I have been posting a column I wrote 15 years ago about what a scam on the American public the Golden Globes are. Not just utterly meaningless, yet postured as a supposed “Precursor” of the Academy Awards, but coming from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that has a grandiose-sounding name, but empty in substance and a history of scandal (including being able to buy an award win), to the point of being a joke within the Industry – but it got ratings before movie studios saw it as a free way to promote their films, and by ensuring celebrities would show up to get praised, TV saw it as a great way to get viewers.
All that came to a head last year, with even more scandal, until finally even NBC had enough and pulled the plug, no other major network picked it up, and the HFPA lost its lifeblood. Only days before I posted my annual column, I wrote that an investigation by the Los Angeles Times resulted in a story lead by Josh Rottenberg who wrote --
"...Times reporting revealed the group is still struggling to shake its reputation that the voters are easily swayed by high-priced junkets in exotic locales and cozy relationships with studios, networks and A-listers. Even as the HFPA fended off allegations brought in an antitrust lawsuit by Norwegian journalist Kjersti Flaa, some of the group’s own members have raised mounting criticisms of its alleged ethical lapses and self-dealing. The HFPA has said the allegations are unproven and “simply repeat old tropes” about the organization. (Flaa’s suit was dismissed by a federal judge in November. An amended motion is pending.)
"The Times investigation also highlighted the fact that the group currently has no Black members, further fueling criticism over this year’s Globes picks, which didn’t include any of this year’s Black-led awards contenders..."
Yes, you read that right -- no Black members. By itself, that’s bad enough. But as my annual articles explains, seeing this in context of the HFPA's history makes this scandal all the more Standard Operation Procedure, and all the worse.
To be clear, the lawsuit referenced above was dismissed though was under appeal, and I don’t know the result or if there is one yet. But, of course, just because someone brings up your old problems -- whimsically called "old tropes" – that doesn't mean those old problems weren't very real and didn't exist, nor does it mean that some of them, or most, or all, don't still exist today.
But though I knew of these latest problems, and the concerns of NBC to the point of dropping its broadcast, I was boggled by how far the Golden Globes fell.
I was waiting to repost my annual article this year as soon as I bothered to check when the Golden Globes would be given. At the very least, I figured some basic cable channel might broadcast them, the E! Channel, for instance.
It turns out that it all not only went way under the wire, it was buried. I was boggled to find out that they actually had the “Golden Globes” this past Sunday. And not only was there not TV broadcast of the event – there was no host. And no celebrity presenters. And…and no actors there to even accept their “awards”!
They just sort of have had a small gathering and announced things. They could have saved a lot of effort and just sent out a press release.
I couldn’t help seeing two “awards,” but honestly I have no idea what all “won.” Nor do I care – or ever care. If you held an office pool, it would have as much substance and likely more voters than the “Golden Globes.”
But still, a tradition remains tradition. And at the very least to explain their disappearance, here again is that
* * *
The PreCurse of the Golden Globes Rides Again
'Tis the season for awards - and that means on Sunday it was time to read and hear (repeatedly) how the Golden Globes matter because they are "precursors to the Oscars," remarkable for their mystical ability to predict the Academy Awards. Of course, if you repeat any mantra enough, people will believe almost anything But then reality rears its pesky head and gets in the way.
Indeed, the dirty little secret about the Golden Globes is that they're the biggest flim-flam scam on the American public today. Okay, other than "Mitt Romney is a far-right conservative."
(And one of the main reasons that keeps it such a "secret" is because most people don't have the slightest clue who in the world the Hollywood Foreign Press is that gives these awards. That's a little sending a congratulations gift to someone who was named "Man of the Year" and not realizing that the honor was given by an online website that sends out the certificates for $18.)
I have absolutely no idea who "won" what last night. Alas, the depth of human caring simply doesn't stretch that low. Mind you, it's not because they're just awards - hey, awards are entertainment, and can be as fun as anything. It's because the Golden Globes are to awards what a Black Hole is to French toast. There's no connection, but at least with French toast you can pour on syrup and not have human existence sucked out of the universe.
When someone said, "The show must go on," clearly the Golden Globes hadn't been invented yet.
Four years ago, I wrote about the Golden Globes, and because they keep coming back unrelentingly like a crazed zombie, I updated and edited it a year later. And now it's become a bit of an annual tradition, the same as one calls in a gardener to stop the crab grass from spreading any further. Because the foolish hype gets more out of control each year - and since if I saw someone crossing the street into an oncoming truck I'd always yell to stop - I figure it's worth revisiting that piece.
Until recently the Globes were so comatose that even a new health care system couldn't have diagnosed them to life. But three things changed: movie studios realized they could get massive free publicity. Television recognized that if celebrities attended, people would watch anything. And actors grasped they'd get to appear on TV and receive awards. It was the Holy Trinity of PR.
Before even attempting to dismiss or defend the Golden Globes, however, it's important to understand what exactly what it is. And it starts with a bit of flim-flammery.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which presents the Golden Globes, has always had only one thing going for it - an incredible-sounding name. That name comes across like A-list journalists in trenchcoats from Paris Match, Die Welt and the Neptune Gazette. In fact, however, the HFPA, while representing many fine, individual, full-time reporters, is largely comprised of stringers (part-timers whose day job is other than journalism). And many are neither foreign, nor active in the press. Membership is whimsical: some get permanent status; others are inexplicably refused even entry. (The London Times is not a member. A reporter from the renowned Le Monde has been turned down for years. Happily there is a representative from the movie hotbed of Bangladesh. Honest.)
Yes, of course, movie awards are utterly pointless to all human life forms, except the winners. It's just faflooey. Nothing more than fluff. And the Globes are the fluff on top of the fluff. But before dismissing them further, remember: around 20 million viewers tune in to the Golden Globes. If that many people are going to spend their time on Earth watching the circus, it's at least nice to know who sent in the clowns.
And that's the kicker. At last count, the Globes are voted on by just...get this...86 people. Yes, you read that correctly. 86. For comparison, the Oscars, Emmys, and Writers Guild/Directors Guild/SAG awards are each voted on by about 6,000 professionals of their respective industries.
The good news is that with only 86 people voting it cuts down on the hanging-chad problem.
Any club is entitled to give awards. But most don't get to take over three hours of prime time on national network television.
The history of the Golden Globes is peppered with so many scandals about buying awards that Frequent Shopper points should be instituted. The most famous is when Pia Zadora's then-husband gave lavish parties to the HFPA, and she won New Star of the Year - for the ridiculed disaster "Butterfly." For the 2000 Awards Sharon Stone's representative sent gold watches to all then-82 voters. Only after this became a public embarrassment was the plunder returned. And Ms. Stone received a best actress nomination for The Muse.
But the big myth about the Golden Globes - indeed their one false hope to even a wisp of validity - is that they are an impeccable predictor of the Academy Awards.
(Why anyone cares about predicting the Oscars is another matter entirely.)
But the reality is - the Golden Globes as a "Precursor to the Oscars" is not only not close to true, it's worse than not close to true. Which is near-impossible.
Keep in mind that six of the 13 Globe categories are split into drama and musical-comedy - which allows for twice as many chances to be "right." Some categories have had as many as nine nominees. People watching at home eating cheese dip probably get half the Oscar winners right by pure guessing. (My mother correctly predicted Philip Seymour Hoffman's win, and she hadn't even seen "Capote" at the time.) Yet it's almost impressive how wrong the Globes are at "precursing."
Last year, the Golden Globes did well in all the acting categories, picking all four winners (keeping in mind that they give twice as many acting awards as the Oscars, so they have twice as many chances to be right). But they got Best Picture wrong, Best Director wrong, Best Screenplay wrong, and Best Foreign Language Picture wrong.
Going back to the year before, here are all the Golden Globe categories.
Best Picture (drama) - right
Best Picture (comedy) - wrong, not even nominated for an Oscar.
Best Actor (drama) - wrong
Best Actor (comedy) - wrong, not even nominated for an Oscar.
Best Actress (drama) - right
Best Actress (comedy) - wrong, not even nominated for an Oscar
Best Supporting Actor - right
Best Supporting Actress - wrong, not nominated for an Oscar.
Best Director - right
Best Screenplay - right, but the Oscar-winner for Original Screenplay wasn't nominated by the Golden Globes
Best Foreign Language Film - wrong
Best Animated Feature - right
Best Score - right
Best Song - wrong, not nominated for an Oscar.
It is unlikely that these results over the past two years would win your office pool. If you want to be considered a precursor, that would seem to be the minimum requirement.
And these were both pretty good years for the Golden Globes.
In 2006, the Oscar for Best Picture was "Crash." The Golden Globes didn't even nominate it among their 10 finalists!
It becomes scary bad when you delve deeper. But having a limit on my Care-o-Meter, with zero interest to go back and check year-after-every-year, I decided to try an experiment. To be very clear, there is absolutely nothing even remotely scientific about it. Rather, it's the testing equivalent of throwing darts. No scientific meaning. Just picking a totally random year. But in its randomness, it has a separate meaning: it could have been any year.
I closed my eyes, pointed at the screen blindly and grabbed a year. The lucky winner was 2001. It looked good - it even had the name of a movie ("2001") about it. Alas, "lucky winner" turned out to be a contradiction.
The Globe winner in 2001 for Best Picture musical/comedy (Almost Famous) wasn't even nominated for the Oscar. The two Golden Globe winners for Best Actor were Tom Hanks and George Clooney. Swell actors, but the Oscar went to Russell Crowe ("Gladiator") - and Globe-winner Clooney didn't even get an Oscar nomination.
Renee Zellwegger ("Nurse Betty") won the Globe's Best Actress, musical/comedy. Alas, she didn't get nominated for an Oscar either.
It gets worse.
For supporting actress, Marcia Gay Harden won the Academy Award...but didn't even receive a Globe nomination.
In fairness, that was a random choice and therefore hardly definitive, as I said. Not proof of anything. Unfortunately, to be fair, I figured I'd at least go back one more year, and the results were as dismal. The year before, in 2000, the Golden Globes gave their two Best Actor awards to Denzel Washington and Jim Carrey - but the Oscar winner was Kevin Spacey (and Carrey wasn't nominated). Tom Cruise won the Globe for Supporting Actor - but Michel Caine got the Oscar. And remarkably, although there were nine Globe nominees for Best Original Score, their winner didn't even get nominated by the Academy, and the Oscar winner (The Red Violin) wasn't nominated by the Globes!!
Not good as far as precursors go.
Certainly, other years may show better results. Or...okay, maybe not. But the bottom line is not whether the Golden Globes are right some years or really wrong others. It's that if you're doing to be a "precursor," if you're going to be predictive, then you have to have a steady standard that can be relied upon. Every single year. And the only thing steady about the Golden Globes is that they do not "predict" anything. Set that in granite and plant the gravestone, once and for all.
All this said, this year the Golden Globes actually do have a reason to watch. Ricky Gervais is hosting again. It's why God created the DVR and fast-forward button.
Of course, underlying all of this is that the Golden Globes or Oscars are all just awards. They have no real meaning, except to those who win. For the rest of the planet, they're just entertainment. Still, even entertainment is more substantive when we value those behind it. There's a reason TV doesn't broadcast your office pool.
Further, for as little meaning that all awards shows have (including those given out by an industry to itself), the reality is that people watch the broadcasts. And they watch them because there's a perception - as in the Emmys, Tonys, Grammys and Oscars - that the people giving the awards know what they're doing. It's a perception the Golden Globes have falsely milked for decades, scamming the public.
In the end, for those who insist on watching the Golden Globes, watch them and accept them for what they are, and you can live in blissful peace - 86 members of a shaky organization that stumbled onto a goldmine with studios and networks, and who present a lively TV kegger.
And that's why Globe winners appear so goofy on the air. Because they understand what you now know. Everyone loves a good joke.
One day after writing this above, Patrick Goldstein in the L.A. Times, wrote an article about a story broken by The Wrap about the longtime, former publicist of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association suing the organization.
"Michael Russell, who ran press for the show for 17 years, has charged the HFPA with fraud and corrupt practices. He claims that a number of members of the organization accepted money, vacations and gifts from studios in exchange for nominating their films in addition to selling media credentials and red carpet space for gifts. He also says the HFPA accepted payment from studios and producers for lobbying other members for award nominations."
Today we enter "Bob Goes Into Minutiae Land," a strange and unwieldy place, over something that I know is minor -- but as much as it's mostly something that only rubbed me badly personally, I think has at least a somewhat wider perspective.
I watched Being the Riccardos last night, and largely enjoyed it. There were some things I thought were wonderful, and others not so much. I’ll leave the details at that, because the matter at hand was this one thing that bothered me as admittedly minor as it is. Though not as minor as it seems, which I’ll get to.
The biggest head-scratcher about it, though, is that I found it totally unnecessary. For the life of me, I don’t know why in the world one of the first things Aaron Sorkin writes in the movie is to have a character say that I Love Lucy was watched by 60 million people every week, and then Sorkin even repeats that a few minutes later. And it’s not remotely close to true.
Just to make sure, I looked up its audience. The most famous episode in the legendary series, where she has the baby, was one of the most-watched shows in the history of history, a phenomenon – and had 44 million viewers. Which was an amazing 75% of the potential viewing audience. For Which means for I Love Lucy to have had a weekly viewership of 60 million people, it would have had to have 100% of America watching every single week. Everyone in America with a TV watching, each week.
And this isn’t hard to find out. Anyone can do it, easily. Just to a search for the words -- I Love Lucy baby episode audience million.
This is what you’ll get. The very first thing at the top. In big, bold letters. You can't miss it --
And that’s for the most popular episode the show ever had. One of the most most-watched episodes of any TV show, ever, even up to today. One episode.
In fact, the best I can find is that it maybe got about 30-35 million people each week – which is massive. (That said, an article here in Esquire says the series got 15 million viewers a week – which is still huge, considering that the U.S. population in 1953 when the episode aired was 158 million, less than half the population today…AND few households actually had television sets compared to today. How few? There were 17 million TVs in use in 1952...and 285 million today!!)
So, why in the world would Aaron Sorkin almost double (or quadruple) its actual audience as almost the first thing to write and repeat it moments later – which is so easy to check – and risk your credibility right off the bat??
Yes, as I said, I know this fairly minor, but – again, because it was the first thing and they emphasize it so much and repeat it – it bugged me.
For starters, because it’s so easy to check and so wrong, it’s risks at least some of the audience not believing anything you write after that. (I’m not saying that Mr. Sorkin got anything else wrong -- in fact, I suspect it's a richly-researched screenplay and that most of it is spot-on) -- just that it lets some of the audience consider that possibility, no matter how accurate it may otherwise be.)
It also puts very wrong information out into the world and have it now be taken as fact. And that is the case of what’s happened – just do another search for “I Love Lucy” and “60 million” and see how many newspapers and publicans now refer to that as fact in their reviews of the movie.
On a totally personal level, it took me out of the movie immediate and probably is part of the reason it took me almost an hour before I put it out of my head (as much as I could) and got more involved in the film. I did ultimately enjoy it, but that’s a long time to get there.
And finally, it’s so unnecessary. If you say, as the movie does, that today a TV show that gets 15 million viewers is a top hit, and then say that I Love Lucy got an audience of (let’s say…) 35 million people in the U.S. --that would still leap out as a gigantic number. Even more so if you noted that in 1953 there were only half as many people in the country and only about 17 million TVs in use, compared to 285 million today.
It’s a very well-done movie, not one I personally loved, but definitely enjoyed. And as a screenwriter I understand stretching reality to make a larger truthful point. (After all, as a starting point, probably all of the dialogue is made up, to make a larger truthful point.) But stretching reality, and getting a basic fact wrong, repeatedly and unnecessarily, are two very different things. And for all the films strengths and flaws, this is one blatantly inaccurate fact I don’t understand why he did it.
Well, okay, I can probably understand. Aaron Sorkin probably wanted the number to be even larger than it was to give it an even more emotional, dramatic impact. But as I noted, the reality is filled with plenty of emotional, dramatic impact all on its own. Arguably even more if you give the facts in full perspective.
Is it possible that Sorkin got the research wrong? Possible, yes, since most things are “possible.” But it’s not likely. He’s too great a writer with too good a team supporting him to have gotten something that basic and easy to know is wrong. I found that the number was very wrong in about eight seconds. Is it possible that he found one (or more) sources that incorrectly said the series got 60 million viewers each week and felt that gave him the creative license to use it? Yes, that’s possible – though if so, it would be deeply irresponsible given the full research he most-certainly did and would know the number was wildly wrong. (Again, it’s most-watched episode got 44 million viewers.)
Is it possible that he mixed up “60 million viewers” with a “67 rating” (which is the percentage of people watching who have TVs)? No, Aaron Sorkin has created and run three TV series – he knows the difference between viewers and ratings.
So, he most-likely did it intentionally to make a greater point that didn’t need to be made. It’s not the biggest problem in the world. But it knowingly put grossly exaggerated information out into the world on a large, national scale, and I’m past the point where, even on something small, I think that’s a good thing.
But, yes, it’s a minor fact (just one that obviously bugs me…), and still a pretty enjoyable, well-made movie. Here’s the trailer.
Around the World in 80 Days may be my favorite movie. And I loved the novel. So, it’s all near and dear to my heart. The casting of David Niven as Phileas Fogg is near the top of the most perfect casting in Hollywood history.
Everything I’ve read about the new limited series from the BBC on PBS that begins tonight makes me cringe. But I like David Tennant (even if his style has nothing to do with how Phileas Fogg is written) and the production looks rich (even if it has little to do with Jules Verne’s story), so I've thought I'd likely watch – and hope that it keeps enough of the Verne tale and its sensibility to make me want to watch all the way through.
Then the reviews started coming out. I usually don’t read reviews, but I saw the title of the one by Yahoo’s critic, and it was “More cringeworthy than fun,” so I figured I’d skim it.
It sounds horrible. Not for the reviewer’s opinion – which I might agree with or not, but is just personal opinion – but for the details on how they changed the story. And…it does sound cringeworthy.
Just one example. There is a female character in the new "version" nicknamed “Fix,” which is clearly taken from the name of Inspector Fix, the Scotland Yard detective who tracks Phileas Fogg around the world, mistakenly believing he robbed the Bank of England. But this new "Fix" character is not a detective but the daughter of a newspaper magnate who joins the journey to document it -- which is almost exactly the Natalie Wood role in The Great Race. So, perhaps there is no Inspector Fix in this, and (it seems -- since for this "version" the female reporter would appear to be the potential romantic interest -- that likely means perhaps no Princess Aouda joining them halfway around the world in India.
Now, that might seem no big deal, except that the Princess is basically the reason for the novel! The very end of Jules Verne's novel notes that Phileas Fogg spent as much money as he won, so he got absolutely nothing out of that. He writes that the only thing Fogg got from his journey was finding the love of his life -- which leads to the last line of the book, “And after all, dear readers, isn’t that worth traveling around the world for?” So, they’re cutting out that??! To be clear, if they make this reporter his love interest, that’s not one and the same. It's totally different because he doesn’t travel the world to find her, since she starts the trip with him in London and therefore is with him from Day One.
And there's a lot more from the few other comments I skimmed. Further, there are main character names in the new "version" I've never heard of.
To be clear, I don't hold it against them remaking an Oscar Best Picture. They've actually been many remakes of the story -- some straightforward (like a TV mini-series in 1989 with Pierce Brosnan, that was fairly well-done, but quite bit flat), and most clearly going in their own direction. And that's fine when you're not making an pretense of really telling Verne's story. But this seems to be suggesting it is actually doing Around the World in 80 Days, when it's not.
And I don't expect others to love the movie and novel as much as I do. Indeed, for people who never saw the original in the theater during its initial release or a 15th anniversary re-release (that I rushed to see), it's very hard to capture the utter joy of the movie, wonderful as it is whatever the screen. But there are two “problems” with Around the World in 80 Days being a person's favorite movie –
The first is that, as much as I enjoy seeing it in any venue, including a revival art house theater or letter-boxed on Turner Classic Movies, it was specifically made for a massive 70mm widescreen -- indeed, producer Michael Todd developed a widescreen technology called Todd-AO, which was sort of a massive widescreen competitor of Cinemascope, and that’s when Around the World in 80 Days is at its best. (One of my father’s favorite scenes in all of movies -- and it's high among mine -- is the famous sequence with Fogg's balloon bouncing across the huge screen from left to right as it travels over the Paris sky and then the French Alps, as that glorious theme music plays. It’s wonderful whenever I see it, but it doesn’t have the glorious majesty and impact of being on a screen so big that it overwhelms you.) Now, imagine a little kid staring up in total awe at this stunning vision overwhelming him.
And the other “problem” is trying to introduce an audience to the movie who doesn’t know all those spectacular cameo appearances laced throughout the movie. (In fact, Michael Todd coined the term "cameo" that we now all know.) To most audiences today, these more than 50 remarkable cameos of some of movies' all-time greats are just unrecognizable “day players” taking a small character role -- and not “Oh, my God!! That’s Noel Coward, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, Sir John Mills, Buster Keaton, Beatrice Lilly, Robert Morley, Sir John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Gilbert Roland, Trevor Howard...and..." on and on. Virtually every few minutes, someone new, someone amazing shows up." That's one of the stunning accomplishments of the original, but with the realities of life, it's pretty much lost to most modern audiences. Such is life.
So, alas, it's very difficult for audiences today to get the same appreciation for the movie as it offered for technical and societal reasons. Even if it again gets released in a theater than can show the Todd-AO widescreen (as it did for its 15th anniversary), those amazing cameos will mean little to most people. But all that takes nothing from what the movie was. And also explains why I understand adaptations that put their own twists on it.
But I have no plans to watch – I have far too much great affection for the movie and novel to care much for something that's not putting its own twists on, but rather appears to be totally rewriting the story in ways that seem problematic while purporting to be Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. That said, I do want to see how it starts and sets Phileas Fogg and Passepartout off on their journey. I suspect it may be a fun production for many who don't know the novel or original Oscar-winning Best Picture -- and may be cringeworthy for some of them, as well. I may also possibly tune in to a later episode just to see what they’re doing, but that’s it. Bizarrely, the article says it’s already been renewed for a second season. Second season?? That means they either don’t resolve it in season 1, or they’ve come up with another story line.
I'll leave things with these three videos. The first is the trailer of the original movie --
And here it is, winning the 1957 Best Picture Oscar. (Though the video runs four minutes, Michael Todd's acceptance ends around two minutes in) --
And we'll go out with the joyous main theme, performed as the "Sky Symphony" (during the balloon sequence) from Victor Young's Oscar-winning score --
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guests are the team of screenwriters behind the epic feature film Dune: Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth. Between them, Spaihts wrote such films as Passengers, and co-wrote Dr. Strange and Prometheus; the film’s director Villeneuve wrote Maelstrom (and got an Oscar nomination for directing Arrival), and among his many credits, Roth won the Oscar for writing Forrest Gump, and has screenwriting Oscar nominations for co-writing A Star is Born (2019), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Munich, and The Insider. And got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture as one of the producers of Mank.
The other day, I wrote here about the Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, a story that runs backwards, following the disintegration of the partnership of three friends who write for the theater and go back through their lives to where they met in college, filled with enthusiasm for the future.
A reader, Ken Kahn, sent a link to an excellent production that was done in 2013 as a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. I've embedded the full show below --
Which reminds me of something related to this that I wrote here two years ago, on September 5, 2019. Here’s that article –
Really, Truly Rolling Along
It was just announced that Richard Linklater is going to make a movie of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, that has a book by George Furth, who had previously collaborated on Company.. The story concerns three people who have been friends for 20 years since college -- a songwriting team of shows and a female theater critic -- whose friendship is disintegrating and looks at their story in reverse, showing us how things fell apart from just idealistic beginnings. This upcoming movie is notable for two reasons: the first is that the original musical was a big flop, running for only 16 performances (though it's had a bit of an afterlife), and the second is that Linklater is going to film it over the course of 20 years!.
Clearly, this is an utterly fascinating way to make Merrily We Roll Along, watching these three people's lives play out "almost" in real time during the 20 years of the show And oddly, it’s not totally surprising that Linklater is doing it this way – because he did a similar thing with the movie Boyhood that was released a couple years ago. He filmed that over a 12-year period.
The musical, by the way, is based on a play by the legendary Kaufman and Hart, who most famously wrote the classic You Can't Take It With You. Though the original play of Merrily We Roll Along (like the subsequent musical) was a flop, as well.
Obviously this is a massive risk -- not just to film it over 20 years, but doing not only a little-known musical, but one that was a flop. (The original London production only ran 71 performances.) But I wish it much success. I actually like the show a lot, and have seen a couple times, as well as the fairly-good 2016 documentary about the original production, The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Ever Happened . But as much as I do like the show, the hardest reality to get around is that most people don’t seem to like it. While making it with the same cast aging along properly could help how people respond, I don’t think that that’s ever been people’s biggest complaint. (Though casting has always been a slight issue.) Mainly, though, people don’t seem to like that the story is ultimately-unhappy and that it's told backwards, which doesn't make it any happier, even ending on youthful optimism as it does, which admittedly is bittersweet, since we know where it leads.
Clearly, they all know what a massive risk this is. And for all the risk went ahead because they're excited by the possibilities and feel it's all very much worth it. And I assume they have big hopes but limited, realistic expectations. But still…
I’ll add one more risk: who knows what the movie industry will be in 20 years? Will there still be theaters? Will it all be streamed? Will they even still be using film? Will it all be digital? Will some other technology have been developed? Will everything be 3-D? Will everything be interactive where you can pick-and-choose angles and scenes? Will everything be high-resolution? Will actors regularly be computer generated? Will technology move so fast (as it does nowadays) that this will look like a black-and-white, herky-jerky silent film of 1919 compared to Gone with the Wind color spectacular in 1939? Will it look like the first 8-inch screen black-and-white fuzzy TV that takes 30-seconds to warm up in the early 1950s compared to living color 30-inch TVs, remote controls, instant-on, and watching big-screen Cinerama in the early 1970s? Will it look like stop-action Godzilla in the early 1970s compared to “Jurassic Park” in 1993? Will it look like the basic movie theater and TV experience in the 2000 compared to a world where watching in the palm of your hand on a 4-inch telephone, streaming services, pausing live action on a DVR and rewinding, 72-inch home Smart TVs connected to the Internet, digital, binge-watching of today are the everyday norm?
But as I said, I do like how they tell the story – and even used a similar technique in part of a very low-budget film I co-wrote. Maybe using the same actors will make a difference to people’s reaction. And maybe they can figure out a way to do the film inexpensively, like Boyhood. But this is a musical, so that’s trickier. Also, 30 years ago, maybe this would be THE definitive way to make the movie work best, filming it over 20 years. But today with prosthetics and computer imaging, I don’t think it’s as necessary. Yes, it will certainly get HUGE attention by doing it this way when it’s finally released, and being done in “real time” will add great emotion to watching it. But today it’s still just not necessary. And doing it this way, while utterly fascinating and in many ways admirable, also has a touch of arrogance and pretentiousness. Because it's not really necessary.
They announced the three leads, and that’s another tricky matter. Not only the question of “Will they still be around in 20 years?” -- which is probable, but still a huge risk -- but will their names matter? One of the three is Ben Platt, who’s a Tony-winner for Dear Evan Hansen and excellent, and a great choice. But the movie of his Tony-winning role flopped. The other two might be excellent -- Blake Jenner and Beanie Feldstein -- but neither are yet stars. He was in Glee,” though not much of nigh note since. She recently starred in Booksmart (which got good reviews but flopped), has had some solid work, and had a role in Lady Bird (oddly, playing the same role in the production of Merrily We Roll Along they do within the film that she’ll play in this movie), and a growing career. But in 20 years…who knows?
Hopefully we’ll be around to see it. And I greatly admire the attempt. And really do like the show. Clearly, there’s a side to this that is really great and adventurous and very cool. And a side that seems arrogant and pretentious. But best wishes to it.
The show also has a very good score that got a Tony nomination. And four standout songs that have had a bit of an afterlife, something incredibly rare for a Sondheim musical. "Our Time" is used by a lot of high school graduating classes. "Good Thing Going" is another. And here are the two others --
This first is a wonderful rendition by Carly Simon of "Not a Day Goes By."
And while this is hardly the definitive version of the reasonably well-known "Old Friends," it may be one of the most fun, and is the way they ended the 1986 Emmy Awards, with a menagerie of legendary, old-time TV stars. (Not to worry, though the video goes for over six minutes, the song ends around four minutes in, following a lead-in by host David Letterman.)
Yesterday, my pal Mark Evanier wrote about one of his favorite musicals, Merrily We Roll Along. I like it too, though have had debates with friends about it who find it terminally flawed because of its structure. I don’t agree – hence why I like it.
Mark posted a scene from the show, which follows three friends – a songwriting team and a script writer – backwards, from when their work relationships are breaking up to the enthusiasm when they were young, meeting and starting out. You can see his post and the scene here.
There is another scene in the show when the two songwriters are starting out, and audition their songs for a producer. He likes their work, but won’t produce it because he says that the songs are too difficult and need to be “hummable” (something Sondheim railed against his entire career.)
This is that scene and song, “Opening Doors,” which they re-created for a good documentary on Sondheim’s work, Six By Sondheim. The performers are Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera and Laura Osnes.
Oh. One other thing. The person in the scene performing the role of the producer is – Stephen Sondheim!
(Note: the scene is interrupted by a cut away to Sondheim as himself, talking to the actors – as themselves -- about the scene he wrote for the show. That’s not what I’m referring to about him playing the producer. After he finishes discussing what he was writing for Merrily We Roll Along and why, the film cuts back to the scene.)
No, that's not just a holiday greeting, but something else entirely. Let me explain...
I’ve remembered to mention this a few times previously, but usually not until a week before Christmas. So I wanted to be sure to bring it up well in advance this year. And that's to recommend one of my favorite, little-known holiday films, Joyeux Noel. It was nominated for a 2005 Best Foreign Language Oscar, based on a true story in WWI. Since the holiday is still three weeks away, that should give folks time to perhaps get it from Netflix or whatever online service you subscribe to before the season is out. Though it's great any time of the year.
I really thought Joyeux Noel should have won the Best Foreign Language Oscar they year it was nominated, but the award that year went to a South African movie, Tsotsi. That was quite good, but for my own taste Joyeux Noel stood out as a substantially better film. Tsotsi told an important story, in an important country at an important time in its history. And it told its story well, though I didn't think it was special filmmaking. I suspect its "importance" helped a lot. But Joyeux Noel was just...joyous. And wonderful. And beautifully made.
The film tells a fictionalized version of a famous story you may have heard -- how in World War I, four armies faced each other on Christmas Eve, ready for battle, but among themselves decided to call a truce for that one night. The movie isn't just "feel good," there's a great deal of drama and intense tension, and it's all told superbly.
It was also the first movie I'd seen Diane Kruger in, though I didn't realize it at the time, since she wasn't a well-known star in the U.S. then. She plays an opera singer, and interestingly her singing is dubbed by a soprano who was one of my folks very favorite, Natalie Dessay.
(I should note for those wary of foreign language films that one of the armies at the crossroads is British, so a good part of the movie is in English.)
Here's the trailer. It doesn't remotely give a sense of the rich, especially-tense drama at stake and tends more to focus on the warmth, coming across like nothing more than a feel-good movie of the holiday season. It's much more than that. But you should at least get an idea of it all, most especially how exceedingly well-crafted the movie is.
By the way, here's a link to it on Netflix, by clicking here. You'll note that it has four stars -- and a 7.8 rating on iMDB. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics rating is a high 74%...but the audience rating is even higher, at 89%. So I'm not alone on this...
For today's Holiday Music Fest, we have something a bit different, in that it isn't a song and has no song in it. But it fits the spirit and also the continuation of Hanukkah. It's a wonderful filmed-sketch that Stephen Colbert did on his show this past Monday, dealing with how many new Christmas movies there are on TV (notably on Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel), but almost nothing for Hanukkah. I'll let him explain and then go further to help rectify the oversight --
And then, as a sort of companion bonus, this is a trailer for a new movie made for Comedy Central that premieres on Saturday, December 4. It's written by -- and co-stars -- former Saturday Night Live cast members Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch as the Clüsterfünke sisters, and is a parody of ALL those made-for-TV holiday movies notably on Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. (In fact, when Rachel Dratch was a guest on Seth Meyer's talk show this week, she said that -- although this is not a Hallmark movie, which she re-emphasized several times, they did consult on it a bit. And the scene they showed was very funny.) So, here then is the trailer for A Clüsterfünke Christmas – Comedy Central Dec. 4
Well, we finally come to the end of our year's effort with the Song of the Month, posting a song with that month in its title. I found the results pretty interesting -- I thought it was pretty good the first six months of the year, with a lot less options from July on. In the second half of the year, only September had a bunch of very good options. Until finally reaching December.
This month's bundle shouldn't come as a big surprise, what with holiday festivity popping up all over the place. The only question is what to pick. I almost went with "December, 1963" from The Four Seasons, but as well-known as that is, it's best-known by its sub-title, "Oh, What a Night." Merle Haggard had a big hit with "If We Make It Through December," though that isn't festive enough for such a festive month. And Sara Bareilles has a good one with "December.
But I think I'm going to go with a song from the 1970 movie musical Scrooge. It's the best in keeping with the season, and isn't well-known, so it deserves the attention. And so, we end our Song of the Month year with Laurence Naismith singing -- "December the 25th.
Fun Fact: Seven years earlier, Naismith starred in the Broadway musical Here's Love, written by Meredith Willson, based on the movie Miracle on 34th Street -- playing the role of...Kris Kringle!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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