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Million Dollar Movie


Here’s David Thomson on Susan Tyrrell in Fat City:

So you say to yourself, this Fat City is pretty damn realistic, even if you know in your heart that “realistic” and Hollywood should not be printed on the same page—otherwise paper ignites. Still, you’re marveling at it, until Oma sits down at a bar counter and starts to talk to Billy. She is going to be what is called his “love interest” or the woman he fucks, but any part of you that feels for Billy is telling him to get out just as we all might remember we have something else to do a long way away if Oma sat down next to us. Except that she is ravishing and inescapable in her downright wildness and unpredictability. She’s in the book, but just try telling yourself that she’s working to a script. And wonder how she ever got in front of the camera.

Maybe she was twenty-seven, but—it’s no lie—she could have been seventy-two. In bars in classier places, like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you can find women who have had Botox and liquor enough to look like worn-out balloons. Oma is overweight, over-loud, blowsy, unwashed, out-of-line, trashy, drunk, beaten up, tough but self-pitying. She’s like a plate of hot chile, half-eaten, that has gone cold on the table. She is an astonishing creation, dangerous and pathetic, endearing and loathsome. Tyrrell got nominated as best supporting actress, and lost to Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are Free, a film I refuse to remember. She was nominated by the New York Film Critics Circle, too. Not that winning any award could have made any difference, except that she might have caused a great scene at the Oscars and had to be dragged off stage. Even in 1972, that show needed juice.

She kept on acting, though she admitted that she only worked when she had run out of money. She was in The Killer Inside Me, a lot of TV, many movies you’ve never heard of and in John Waters’ Cry Baby. A little over ten years ago, she had a rare illness—it must have come from thrombocytosis—whereby she had to have both legs amputated just below the knee. I suspect that if she had been thus afflicted in 1972, the fascinated Huston would still have cast her, and let her roam as she wished. He had a true instinct for wild animals, and I can pay the actress no higher compliment than to say that in Fat City she is not just something the cat dragged in. She is the cat.


Million Dollar Movie

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Greil Marcus chats with David Thomson.

[Photo By Sander Meisner via Je Suis Perdu]

Million Dollar Movie

Over at Narrative, dig David Thomson on The Long Goodbye:

Robert Altman was more persistent, and difficult, but he was never quite a movie brat, even if M.A.S.H., the biggest hit he would ever enjoy, is a 1970 film. Altman was from Kansas City (born in 1925). He fought in the Pacific War and had a long training in the Midwest making industrial films before moving into television. He was in his forties by the time he got to M.A.S.H., fourteen years older than Bogdanovich, and never a clubbable man. But Altman had a similar urge to address the old Hawksian models. That drew him to The Long Goodbye (1973), a new version of Raymond Chandler’s world (scripted by Leigh Brackett, who had worked on the original The Big Sleep in 1946).

But this was now the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, filmed in wide screen with an easygoing zoom photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and a total reappraisal of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The knowingness and the biting wit of Bogart’s private eye was replaced by Elliott Gould, untidy, hapless, perhaps a little druggy, a sucker most of the time, talking to himself, and a man who has a neurotic cat but no girl. Hawks’s fantasy had been immaculate and irresistible, but Altman saw Marlowe as a dreamy loser, falling behind the money race of L , inclined to trust the wrong people, but ever amiable. His single comfort in the film is the fond, mocking way the song “The Long Goodbye” (written by John Williams, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) is the only score to the picture, a refrain that keeps coming back in so many different styles and versions.

But The Long Goodbye opens and closes with the old standard “Hooray for Hollywood,” and it concludes with a gesture toward the unyielding conclusion to The Third Man. So Altman knew his history but he distrusted it and felt sick over the white lies of the factory system. In a sour Altman touch, Sterling Hayden plays the alcoholic writer who has given up the ghost, trading on our knowledge of Hayden’s own remorse over having been a friendly witness for HUAC. No one ever accused Altman of being a gentle fellow. He had a mean streak. But its offsetting benefit was the mistrust, solitude, and breakdown in his films, and it went with a helpless sympathy in the way he looked at the oddity of people. This was Altman’s third coup in three years. For in 1971 he had redrafted the Western as a melancholy love story about a fool who cannot impose his story on the world but who ends up with an epic triumph that no one notices in the falling snow and the lamenting songs of Leonard Cohen. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) had Warren Beatty as John Q. McCabe, in a beard and derby hat, a brothel-keeper of sorts in the Northwest, taken over and smitten by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), but such a chump at handling the local syndicate that he signs his own death warrant. (It’s another film about the defeat of the individual.)

As photographed by Zsigmond, McCabe and The Long Goodbye proposed a new way of seeing. For decades Hollywood had constructed and composed its images as framed things: they were the brickwork of stability. But Altman and Zsigmond substituted a slippery wide-screen vista where the slow zooms oozed in and out, and we were left as searching eyes. “What should I look at? What is there to see and what is hidden?” Altman often seems to film in what Gavin Lambert, referring to a part of Los Angeles, once called the “slide area.”

That was as radical a stylistic departure as Godard’s jump-cutting, for it argues that the screen’s threshold is a place for searching, instead of somewhere we receive decisive, chosen sights. The imagery relinquishes its old assurance, but we are drawn deeper into the maze and the illusion. And the melancholy in both these pictures is part of a forlorn inquiry, wistful over the old, vanished indicators. Altman went further still. Where once sound had been skillfully miked and the final soundtrack mixed, cleaned, and clarified, for sense and meaning, these two films leave us asking ourselves, “What did he say? Did you quite hear that?” The spatial confusion was aural too, and the players were miked separately, often with the new radio mikes, and a mix was then made that brought voices in or out and was seldom clean and not always audible. This may seem perverse, but a movie where looking and hearing are muddled or compromised may get closer to our uncertain experience of life than the emphatic precision of the golden age, when a shot or a frame did not pass without being completely informative and “correct.” “Was that take ‘okay’? If not, take it again.”

Another facet to his style was Altman’s developing interest in groups—and that was another novelty in American film, where the hierarchy of stars, supports, bit parts, and extras had been set in stone. Altman was always close to scorning or bypassing stars—he and Beatty got on badly because of this—and he loved crowded shots and group scenes. The first destination for that approach would be Nashville (1975), a whimsical portrait of the real place, with twenty-six roles of more or less the same size. Further down the road, Short Cuts (1993), derived from stories by Raymond Carver, was a panorama of Los Angeles in which the pattern of overlapping events conveys a very fresh sensibility for real turmoil held in place, or kept calm, by the principle that no single story, person, or self-centered universe really matters enough to be the center of attention. That’s one explanation for how Altman was making the most innovative American films in the moment of The Godfather. By reputation, Coppola’s picture is violent. But Brando’s Vito Corleone is as adorable as he is magnificent. Think of Joe Pesci in Casino (1995), and you realize how much hideous pathology is left out of Vito. He has a kitten in his lap in that opening scene; the enchantment goes all the way to the moment he is playing with a grandson in the garden and has his heart attack. He is gracious, kind, and sad.

Excerpted from Thomson’s new book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies.


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