Saturday, March 22, 2008

Absinthe Drinkers

Above, Viktor Oliva's painting "The Absinthe Drinker," which hangs in the Cafe Slavia. Another absinthe drinker, Hemingway, had a favorite cocktail, Death in the Afternoon - a measure of absinthe in a champagne glass, fill to the top with Bollinger...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Billy Wilder: How Lubitsch Did It

James Linville: You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. "How would Lubitsch do it?" That confronts you every day. Is it a question you often asked yourself?

Billy Wilder: When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, stopped in the middle of a scene, I'd think, "How would Lubitsch do it?"

JSL: Well, how did he do it?

Billy Wilder: One example I can give you of Lubitsch's thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy which Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commisar, and we were wondering how could we dramatize that, without wanting to, she was falling in love. How could we do it? My partner, Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
Lubitsch didn't like what we'd done, didn't like it all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well... blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom and when he came back into the living room he announced, "Boys, I've got it."
It's funny, but we noticed that whenever he'd come up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
"I've got the answer," he said. "It's the hat."
"The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?"
He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter carries her things from the train. She asks, "Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to carry this?" He says, "Money."
She says, "You should be ashamed. It's undignified for a man to carry someone else things. I'll carry them myself."
At the Ritz Hotel where the three other commissars are staying, there's a long corridor of vitrines with windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, "That is ludicrous. How can a civilization that puts things like that on their head survive?" Later she plans to see the sights of Paris - the Louvre, the Alexander III bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she'll visit the electricity works, the shops with practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvin Douglas, all sorts of little things which add up, but we haven't seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room, overlooking the Place Vendome. It's beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They're finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, "No, no, no, it's too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don't you go to the races. It's Sunday. It's beautiful in Longchamps," and she gives them money to gamble.
As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That's it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we're going from there. . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. "Beautiful weather. Why don't you go have yourselves a wonderful day?"

Every dog has his day


Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic has given London another smash, this time a revival that flirts with being the definitive production of David Mamet’s brimstone-tinged 1988 satire of Hollywood culture, “Speed-the-Plow.” The hectic, jiving, over-the-top performances of Jeff Goldblum and Spacey himself are by turns obnoxious, scary, hilarious, and pathetic, but always superb, as was the actor-producer’s notion to bring two American film stars to play Hollywood buddies, two coffee-and-coke-addled bottom-feeding producers with the prospect of a commercial hit, along with attendant riches, booty, and opportunities for revenge, finally close at hand. The actors are so riveting, all overlapping dialogue and with a physical performance that the stage seems more a gym, and Mamet’s dialogue so kinetic, that they camoflage the fact that this is a thin, almost insubstantial play, in the form of a fractured parable object lesson.
Spacey’s Charlie Fox bursts into the studio office of his old friend Bobby Gould (Goldblum) to announce he’s got his hands on a hot script—”it has blood, action, a social theme.” Bobby a newly knighted executive, a species with a life expectancy akin to a first lieutenant in a trench at Ypres, listens intently, and when he hears that Dougie Brown, a much sought after actor has agreed to take the part, or in their Hollywood journeyman parlance, “to cross the street,” Bobby explodes. With Dougie on board the film will be not just another exploitive piece of junk about prison rape, but box office gold. Charlie only has Dougie’s commitment for 24 hours, but Bobby is scheduled to meet with the president of production the next morning. Their ship has come in. “We’re going to have to hire someone to tell us how to spend our money.” This calls for celebration, compliments (“You old whore”), this calls for coffee! Bobby rings for Karen (Laura Michelle Kelly), his temporary assistant, an unsullied ingenue hired, though she can’t work the phone or make coffee and doesn’t recognize the studio president’s name when he calls, because she looks good in a sweater. This, by the way, was the role implausibly filled by Madonna when she made her acting debut at the drama’s premiere in NY’s Lincoln Center. Charlie comments that if they put this one over Bobby ought to get so rich he’d be able to get a girl like her. Bobby, seriously miffed and mock-disillusioned, responds that it’s possible she’d like him for his own self. Long pause, return to reality, they laugh.
It’s not all backslapping and misogynistic secretary-ogling, however; there’s work to be done. The studio president has asked Bobby to provide a report, a “courtesy read,” on a “worthy” literary novel by a “cissy east coast writer”—a poetically written story about radiation, religion, and the end of the world, a pretentious-sounding work that sounds like just another… pardon my lingua franca… “piece of *&#@.” Bobby delegates the reading and reporting to Karen, and his work is done for the day.
Upon that implausible literary novel, and the question of whether Karen could like, and make herself available to, Bobby for himself, this story turns. Between an exploitive piece of trash and an equally hollow pretentious bit of junk, the play sets a not exactly Faustian pitting of Art vs. Commerce, though Mamet does an accurate if grotesque caricature of the overlapping warp and woof of how such dream-peddlars speak. What’s more, the play offers the occasion for one of the greatest theatrical pairings since Matthau and Lemon in “The Odd Couple.”

The Old Vic, London SE1, Until late Aril. Box Office 0870 060 6628
James Linville

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cowardly Tabloid Editors

The New York Post was aces in their coverage of New York governor's scandal, the emergence of Ashley Dupree (who'll no doubt star in her own VH1 reality show soon), and Eliot Spitzer's stepping down from office. That said, the cover headline the Post had wanted to use, but demurred upon, was "Spitzer Pulls Out."


the slow writing movement

"I write so slowly I could write in my own blood without hurting myself."
- Fran Lebowitz, from interview by James Linville, in Paris Review "The Art of Humor"

Friday, March 7, 2008

the werewolves and zombies of Facebook

... further to my thought on Facebook... consider: an actor I know who has played both a werewolf and a zombie in films and yet would never deign to join FB, or create a werewolf or zombie avatar. wouldn't deign. oh, he's a writer too, a good one