August 30, 2013

Grappling with the Remake

Back in 2007, when this blog wasn’t yet a blog, but just a small mailing list of friends I would occasionally pester with movie-themed rants or punishingly detailed Oscar commentary, I vented a frustration about Hollywood’s unending parade of remakes. It’s a common enough complaint among movie geeks, to the point that ranting about it has grown a tad boring. Well…get ready to be bored.

That 2007 piece, which was eventually transferred to this blog for the reading pleasure of future generations, was inspired by news that John Carpenter’s Escape from New York was about to go under the remake knife. I had little good to say about the man sloppily wielding the blade: producer Neal Moritz, a stain on the landscape of contemporary cinema. Six years later, the remake train rolls ever on, and although Moritz’s planned Escape from New York hackjob never came to pass, the 1981 cult classic was on Hollywood’s lips again earlier this year, newly targeted for remaking…or to use a term that has gained credence since my initial piece, rebooting. Well, I’ve wanted to reboot this topic for a while, and recently there was a piece of news that prompted me to get on with it. But I’ll come back to that.

I concede that I have a knee-jerk reaction every time I hear about the latest remake plan, regardless of whether I’ve even seen the original film or have any affection for it. My immediate response is to get annoyed and defensive, bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality, blah blah blah. But if I move past that initial irritation, I would admit a few truths. First, remakes — like sequels, comic books, popular novels, TV shows, etc. — enable studios to traffic in recognizable properties that have built-in fan bases. Hollywood is increasingly wary of rolling the dice on original ideas, especially big budget original ideas like Pacific Rim or Elysium, so with each passing year the studios cling more desperately to known quantities that feel safe and seem more likely to pay off. I’m not saying I like it, but that’s the reality of the business, and it’s a reality that is entirely indifferent to how people like me feel about it. Second, each project should be considered on its own merits. Hating the idea on principle doesn’t change the fact that some movies are good candidates for remaking. Third — and admitting this makes me feel dirty because of that whole principle thing — there are obviously a lot of remakes that are pretty goddamn great. The more exceptions you can make for an argument, the weaker that argument becomes, so it’s hard to completely rail against remakes when they include some of the great movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz was originally made as a silent movie in 1925. Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was also remade from a 1925 original. The Maltese Falcon was made as a low-budget picture ten years before the Humphrey Bogart version came along. And I only learned about a year ago that Some Like it Hot was a remake of a 1935 French film called Fanfare of Love. Contemporary classics like The Thing, Scarface, The Fly and Cape Fear are all worthy remakes. So the trend can’t be dismissed outright.

At the risk of descending too deep down the rabbit hole, a few of the movies I just named raise additional points that should be mentioned, and the first requires dialing the discussion back a century. In two recent posts — Movie Mixtape #1 and A New Breed of Sequel — I referenced a book called The Genius of the System, by UT Austin film professor Thomas Schatz. This is a book about the rise and fall of the Hollywood Studio System, which I read for a film class in college. I read it again recently because I knew I wanted to write some posts about sequels, remakes and other Hollywood habits that we tend to treat as current or recent developments, but are in fact practices that have been a part of Hollywood from the beginning. So drawing on Schatz’s book, here are a few facts. Even during the silent film era, studios remade their earlier films. And once sound was introduced, there was yet another opportunity to cash in on familiar titles by making versions with sound. Not only were such 1930’s classics as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gold Diggers of 1933 examples of talkies that were remade from silent films, but they were remakes of silent films that had already been remade at least once before the 30’s versions that are considered definitive. In fact, Gold Diggers was based on a play to begin with, making it not only a third remake, but an adaptation of previously existing material. The version preceding the 1933 release came out four years earlier. Anyone who rolled their eyes about last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man rebooting that franchise a mere five years after Spider-Man 3 (and that includes me) might be strangely comforted to know that this has been going on for nearly 100 years. Remember Gus Van Sant’s head-scratching 1998 remake of Psycho, in which he recreated Hitchcock’s original classic shot for shot? Also not a first. When David O. Selznick put Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman under contract, he introduced her to American audiences with the film Intermezzo, a remake of her Swedish film from a few years earlier. But not just a remake. Selznick’s Intermezzo retained the original film’s lighting, camera angles, framing, blocking…everything. It was as close to an exact reproduction as director Gregory Ratoff could manage.

Whoever said lack of originality was exclusive to today’s studio executives?

The other point to mention, stemming from my examples of good remakes, is my personal allowance that I’m generally okay with American (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “English language”) remakes of foreign language films. Yes, I would prefer that more Americans would see movies in their native language, but we know that’s not happening anytime soon. Even I could do much better on that front. Most American audiences appear to live in mortal fear of subtitles, and will not expose themselves to foreign films. Given that reality, a well-mounted English-language remake seems like fair game to me in order to get a good story across. If the translation doesn’t work, then yes, you wind up with something that is not only a bad or mediocre movie on its own, but a bastardization of a more successful original (for example, the Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan romantic drama City of Angels, adapted from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire…although that film is partially in English). But you might wind up with a second classic, like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), or if not a classic exactly, then a respectable interpretation, like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage or Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

(Full disclosure: my American-remake-of-foreign-film exception could well be nothing more than a way to justify my deep and intense love for The Departed — based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs — which absolutely goes in the contemporary classic category.)

So whether I like it or not, I need to adjust my attitude somewhat about the whole remake machine. Like with sequels, the solution is not to abandon remakes altogether, but for the studios to consider more carefully what movies to remake and what movies to leave the hell alone. Which brings me to the recent news that prompted me to return to this topic. A long-in-development remake of Poltergeist is moving forward, likely shooting this fall, and actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell have signed on to play the lead roles originated by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. It’s salt on the wound when actors I love agree to take part in these examples of cinematic sacrilege. I know, I know; actors gotta eat too. DeWitt is an in-demand working actress, but she probably lacks the clout to pick and choose any project she wants. I’m sure that sometimes she has to take what fits her schedule at any given time in order to keep working. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if Rockwell doesn’t have the freedom to be more choosy, so his involvement is especially bothersome. In my perfect world, good actors would refuse to participate in remakes that are bad ideas, and so the projects would flame out.

And remaking Poltergeist is a bad idea. The 1982 original, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, remains perfectly effective – scary, creepy, exciting and emotionally rich. Even the visual effects still look great. The remake is being produced by Sam Raimi, written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 animated feature Monster House. Do any of them actually think they can make a better movie than the original? Lindsay-Abaire says he loves the film and hopes to pay it tribute. That’s nice and all, but movies aren’t cheap. Millions of dollars will be spent to make this movie that has already been made and doesn’t stand to gain from being made again. So why bother? Among the many reasons to let the original stand is that it featured actors who had a specific presence that can’t be duplicated. Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne isn’t just a generic movie kid; she is the vocal and physical embodiment of some of modern cinema’s most iconic imagery and dialogue. And then there’s Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played the psychic Tangina. Rubenstein was a one-of-a-kind personality who added immeasurably to the tone and mood of the film. Who’s going to compete with her? No attempt at a new version of Poltergeist can be anything more than a nostalgia grab and perhaps an excuse to push the envelope of frightening imagery. Even if I’m wrong, and they can make a good movie that has some value, can they make a better one than the 1982 version? I seriously doubt it. And that should be the launching point for any attempt at a remake. Can we do this better than it was done before?

My previous write-up included a list of 70’s and 80’s movies that I feared were in danger of being remade, and Poltergeist was one of them. In the six years since writing that piece, several of those titles have indeed been revisited, or at least targeted. The Karate Kid and Footloose have made it to the screen so far, while Carrie is due out in October. Police Academy, WarGames, and The Cannonball Run are in various stages of development. A Vacation remake/reboot was all set to go earlier this year, with Ed Helms as a grown Rusty Griswold, taking his own brood on a trip. (Because who wouldn’t want to expose their family to the kind of disastrous misadventures that forever scarred their childhood?) Christina Applegate was set to play Rusty’s wife, but the movie was put on hold due to creative differences between the studio and the filmmakers over whether to maintain the R-rated tone of the original or aim for a more inclusive PG-13. But again, here’s a case where the original should be left alone. Vacation remains a classic comedy that is no less funny for anyone watching today than it was for audiences in 1983. A new version would probably be a little more PC and, depending on which way the rating goes, a little more tame in the language and nudity departments. But I’ll bet it won’t be funnier.

The Carrie remake is a tougher call. On one hand, Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is a classic, and with its chilling third act, Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and rich subtext that has provided film theory classes with fodder for over three decades, many probably consider it untouchable. On the other hand, I watched it recently for the first time in years, and it does feel dated in some ways. Much of it is shot through a sort of soft-lens, dreamy haze – a deliberate aesthetic that De Palma was going for to serve his vision for the material, but one that runs the risk of feeling cheesy to newcomers looking at the movie for pure entertainment value. The style might not be an issue for budding film enthusiasts who are open-minded enough to appreciate films as artifacts of the time in which they were made (in other words, the kind of people who might first see Carrie in a college film class). But new generations of viewers who just want the pleasure of a good horror movie might have a hard time connecting with it, even though there is still plenty about it that holds up (Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s fanatical mother, for example, remains potent.) With Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, the remake has two strong actresses to fill Spacek and Laurie’s shoes, plus Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce could potentially bring an interesting new gender perspective to this female-centric story. So while my early thoughts were, “How dare they remake Carrie!,” the truth is that as remakes go, this one is arguably ripe for a new approach.

Still, if the new Carrie works, it will be among a minority of remakes that do. Other movies that weren’t on my 2007 list but have been remade in recent years include Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Red Dawn, Arthur and Conan the Barbarian – none of which needed to be remade. We’ve even entered the era of 90’s reboots with last year’s Total Recall (another Neal Moritz prize, another unnecessary revisitation). Of these movies, Clash of the Titans is the only one that did decent box office, but how many people really loved it? Or even liked it enough to keep it in their personal home viewing rotation? How many of these have taken root in the soil of pop culture? Nothing in the CGI-heavy Titans remake is as memorable or affecting as Ray Harryhausen’s frightening Medusa from the cheesy but charming original. When people talk about Arthur, they’ll be talking about the Dudley Moore version, not Russell Brand’s. When they think of Conan, they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Jason Momoa. When they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, they think of Robert Englund, not Jackie Earle Haley (another actor who, like Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell, should know better). When they think of Fright Night…well, I’m not sure anybody really ever thinks of Fright Night, but I bet those who do are children of the 80’s, and therefore think of the original.

In fact, Fright Night represents another problem with the remake machine. If the idea is that studios remake older movies from their back catalogs because there is built-in recognition, why do they remake so many movies that have so little relevance to contemporary audiences? A title like Fright Night probably meant nothing to most young viewers who would be the typical audience for that kind of movie. As for older audiences who remember the original with affection, are there enough of them to justify the investment of time and money in doing a remake that offers few differences from the original other than better production values? It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Studios target remakes to exploit recognizable properties, yet if the property remains recognizable, it’s likely because the original stands the test of time, thereby making the remake a pointless corruption. If the title isn’t recognizable to newer audiences, then where is the value in remaking it to begin with?

We see this over and over again. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman, is considered an important work within the director’s oeuvre, but it was not particularly successful at the box office. So who exactly was the target audience for the 2011 remake starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard? What was to be gained by remaking that movie? It had no resonance with today’s audience, and apparently made little effort to distinguish itself or bring something new to the concept. Gavin Polone, producer of such fare as Gilmore Girls and Zombieland, penned an anti-remake article for Vulture in which he pointed out that the 2011 Straw Dogs did not credit the novel on which Peckinpah’s film was based, but instead credited the original film as the basis for the new screenplay, suggesting there were minimal differences between the two. He also cites the 2006 remake of the classic horror film The Omen, which gave screenplay credit to the original’s writer, David Seltzer…even though he didn’t work on the new film at all. When the 2011 remake of Arthur opened to lousy box office, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece questioning the attempt to make a movie star out of Russell Brand. Near the beginning of that essay, he says, “It’s not just that the $12.5 million it made was significantly below the $18 million that had been predicted. It’s that the $18 million ‘expectation’ was itself a rather pathetic lowball figure, at least for a project that had the nostalgic pedigree, the built-in audience affection, and the ’80s-update curiosity factor that Arthur did.”

The whole idea of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes is that they are an easy and reliable source of income. But Gleiberman is right. If the best a studio could expect for an opening weekend gross was $18 million, then the obsession needs to be seriously reconsidered. Surely the projection was based on how the finished film was tracking; perhaps the studio had higher expectations when they greenlit the project months earlier. Still…how high could their expectations for a remake of Arthur (or of Fright Night or Straw Dogs) really have been? If the hopes are that the title will appeal more to fans of the original than to a new audience, then the insistence on remakes seems even more misguided. Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad told The Hollywood Reporter last year in regards to remakes that “…young people don’t know the original, older people have a nostalgia for it….” Yes. Young people don’t know the original, so where is the value in the title? And older people’s nostalgia is for the original, so why would they want to see a remake?  Maybe if a piece of material has truly outstanding potential to both connect with modern audiences and be superior to the original, it would make sense to proceed. But it doesn’t seem like the executives making these decisions are lending any serious thought to why a given movie should be revisited. They just see an old title and say, “Hey, it’s been 20 years since that came out. Let’s make it again!

Not that the entire remake machine is driven by the studios. Plenty of remakes come to pass because a producer, director or actor has an attachment to an older film and wants to bring it to a new audience (and has the clout to do it). I’m generally leery of this argument, as I think that anyone who has that much affection for a certain piece of work should respect it enough to leave it be. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong, I let it slide because he was coming off Lord of the Rings; if he wanted to make a snuff film, I probably would have been cool with it. Plus, I agreed with his argument that contemporary audiences and young viewers don’t want to watch old black and white movies – another fact that I’m not saying I like; just that it’s largely true. It’s kind of the same exception as the one for foreign films, though I’m less inclined to support remaking great old movies just because they’re old. The original King Kong still packs a punch today. I watched it for the first time on the big screen a couple of years before Jackson’s remake, and I was shocked, for example, at how violent the fights between Kong and the dinosaurs were. At one point, the giant ape kills an attacking beast by gruesomely prying back its jaws. And while the creature effects are primitive by today’s standards, there’s still something magical about them. Part of the joy of watching the movie was imagining how shocking and exciting it must have been to audiences in 1933.

Still, Jackson’s drive to remake King Kong was motivated by genuine passion and love, as opposed to cashing in on a title. I wish the same could be said for Neal Moritz, who I mentioned at the beginning…and at length in my previous post on this topic. Fucking Neal Moritz. When he renewed his production company’s deal with Columbia Pictures in 2011, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal said, “He has a terrific taste for stories that excite the imagination of audiences everywhere,” while Columbia’s Belgrad said, “He knows what audiences want.” That must explain the complete lack of interest audiences everywhere had in his 2013 films Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D., as well as last year’s Total Recall remake that nobody gave a shit about (and which lacked all the fun and personality of the Schwarzenegger original). Luckily for him, his commitment to churning out Fast and the Furious sequels keeps his bank account full and his industry standing intact. But really, the only respectable projects he’s been connected to in the last couple of years are the surprisingly enjoyable Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum TV adaptation 21 Jump Street (which is getting a sequel, of course) and the recently wrapped Showtime series The Big C, with Laura Linney. Those titles go on a short list of quality pieces Moritz has delivered over the years…a list that should be much longer when you take into account how much work he’s put out. (His company is called Original Film, which I would assume has to be a deliberate use of irony considering that nearly everything he does is a shitty, bland interpretation of existing material, except that I don’t think Moritz is clever enough to name his company ironically.)

While Moritz may be one of Hollywood’s most egregious examples of creative bankruptcy, he’s far from alone. Michael Bay has a production company called Platinum Dunes which is dedicated to making low-budget horror movies, but which prefers to remake existing ones rather than exert the effort to develop new ideas. Of the ten films Platinum Dunes has released since its first in 2003, seven have been based on previous movies, including genre classics Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only three have managed to gross over $100 million worldwide, and just barely at that. But because they were made so inexpensively, they all turned a tidy profit, so I guess there’s no incentive to create something new. At one point, they were developing a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, about which company partner Brad Fuller said, “We certainly come to [the project] with trepidation because of how important [the original] film is. But we’re going to see if there’s a great way to tell that story.” At the time, I suspected the quote continued, “Once we realize there isn’t, we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.” But for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be on their development slate any longer. Don’t worry, though…NBC recently announced they’re going to remake it as a primetime miniseries. I’m sure that will manage to erase all memories of Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic. Platinum Dunes, meanwhile, seems to be branching out to produce non-horror projects, but not necessarily more original ones. Their relaunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is coming next year.

It’s easy to dump on Michael Bay and Neal Moritz, but even great filmmakers aren’t immune to the forgettable or inferior remake. The Coen Brothers struck gold with True Grit, but they struck out when they tried to redo The Ladykillers. Among the less heralded work on Steven Spielberg’s filmography is 1989’s Always, a remake of the Spencer Tracy drama A Guy Named Joe. Sydney Pollack dared to mess with Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (sorry, but Julia Ormand is no Audrey Hepburn), while Sidney Lumet had a late career misfire with his take on John Cassavetes’ Gloria. I recall being outraged when Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, but I’m not sure what was worse: the offense of remaking such a brilliant movie, or the fact that the remake was apparently pretty good, earning favorable reviews and even BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Meryl Streep. Despite the positive reaction and presence of actors like Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schrieber, I still refuse to watch it. However the results turn out, I’m not quite sure why smart and talented directors like these would choose to spend their time mucking with someone else’s movie. Demme’s Manchurian Candidate seems to be the only one that actually tried to adapt its predecessor in an interesting way, yet with such a sensational original, it may also be the most blasphemous of these examples. So if it sounds like I’m saying that a filmmaker’s passion justifies a remake, I’m not. I don’t know whether the movies mentioned here were initiated by the directors or by the studios, but just because a good director loves an older film and wants to remake it for a new audience doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even excellent filmmakers can easily get lost in their own nostalgic notions of paying tribute, too blinded by their reverence to see that they are suffocating the thing they purport to love.

Another problem with the culture of remakes, especially when the original movies are fairly recent, is the lack of respect to the filmmakers — usually still alive, and often still actively working — who made the movie in the first place. Maybe they find it flattering that someone would want to take their movie and try it again, and indeed, some even actively encourage it. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, for example, produced this year’s remake of their influential cult classic Evil Dead. Go ahead and argue that Raimi’s barely budgeted original stood to benefit from better makeup and special effects. I counter that the whole reason Evil Dead remains popular is because it was marked by Raimi’s ingenuity as a director. He used the lack of funds to his advantage, and that prowling, trampling camera and the cheesy effects are exactly what lifted the movie above its simple premise and lent it a sense of fun and even charm, of which the remake seems entirely bereft. In fact, last year’s The Cabin in the Woods was almost an Evil Dead remake in spirit, following the same basic premise but then doing something incredibly fun and original with it. The new Evil Dead had no such creativity up its sleeve, serving no purpose other than delivering its scares in a slicker package and increasing the gore factor tenfold.

But who cares about a creative purpose when there’s money to be made.

Not all filmmakers share Raimi’s attitude toward their material being rebooted, but few have any power to prevent it, as the rights belong with the studios. (Though I’d bet that if Steven Spielberg wanted to stop Poltergeist from being remade, one phone call is all it would take.) Two years ago, there was an announcement that Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and their Departed screenwriter William Monahan were remaking a 1974 James Caan movie called The Gambler. The original was written by James Toback, who learned about the new version along with the rest of the world, when the news was published on Deadline. He had not been approached by any of the principal filmmakers or by anyone at Paramount, and though legally none of them had any reason to discuss the remake with Toback, he was surprised and offended that no one had bothered to ask for his blessing. In a lengthy reaction piece which Deadline published a couple of days after the announcement, Toback — an old school Hollywood Man’s Man — recounted how the original movie came together, explaining that it was a highly personal and autobiographical story. He writes that although the movie was widely acclaimed, it is largely forgotten, having been released with little attention during a period of leadership transition at the studio. Who knows if this remake will even happen. Movies gets announced all the time and then never materialize. There hasn’t been any news on the project in a year, and those latest reports stated that Scorsese was no longer involved and that Todd Phillips might direct. (That sounds smart. The guy who directed Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas has moved on, so let’s get the guy who directed The Hangover, Road Trip and Due Date.) I wonder how Toback would have felt about his movie being remade even if the players had courted his blessing. In the end he would have no say one way or other, but considering how personal the movie is for him, and how mishandled it was in the first place, I can’t imagine he’d have been pleased with the idea.

But who cares about respecting artists when there’s money to be made.

I’m not remotely foolish enough to think Hollywood’s reliance on existing titles is going to change, but a little wishful thinking can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. My wish is that studios could find a way of getting audiences to see older movies instead of spending millions of dollars remaking them, less successfully in most cases. What if popular directors or actors — people like Christopher Nolan or Robert Downey Jr. — could be enticed to make a short film, which would be shown in front of an older movie, along with a brief interview in which they discuss the movie and why they love it? If the movie is old enough that it feels too far removed in tone, mood or style from what today’s audiences are used to, then someone like Nolan (or Scorsese or Fincher or Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson or so many others) could help illuminate its place in film history, its significance, and how it paved the way for contemporary movies that are more in an audience’s comfort zone.

Why not ask Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, and other animation companies to produce new shorts that could also be shown in advance of the feature presentation? Or acquire existing shorts from independent animators whose work is never seen by wide audiences? (Those Oscar nominated Best Animated Shorts that no one has ever heard of are coming from somewhere.) The studios could re-release deserving movies surrounded by all of this new content that, taken together, would create a fresh experience (not to mention providing more bang for your buck, considering how expensive it has become to have a night out at the movies). The returns would be smaller, but the investment would be too, and there will still be plenty of money to make from other tent-pole movies that have become the studios’ bread and butter.

Even if older movies could actually get this kind of lavish treatment, it wouldn’t mean the end of remakes, but it might mean that studios could start being more selective with the targeted titles. I said earlier that the guiding question when considering a remake should be, “Can we do this better than it was done before?” But maybe I should amend that to say that it’s not a matter of better, but of whether a new version can genuinely offer something interesting that the original didn’t have. The problem is that in most cases, the filmmakers convince themselves — and then try to convince audiences — that they can. But rarely is that the case. One reason that Scorsese’s Cape Fear stands out as a success is that he gave the victimized family a more fractured and complex dynamic than societal norms allowed in 1962, the year of the original film. By placing flawed, complicated characters into the situation which the original film presented, Scorsese added a moral ambiguity to the story that justified revisting it, and distinguished itself successfully. If more remakes were approached with the same thoughtfulness, perhaps there would be a weeding out process resulting in fewer of them, and those that we got would be better. Remakes shouldn’t be made because studios see dollar signs in an older title, or merely because an old title is sitting around. They should be made because a filmmaker with a vision sees a genuinely creative opportunity to deliver a fresh take on a familiar story. And even then it should be done sparingly. Remakes, like sequels, have always been part of the Hollywood tradition, and that’s not going to change. What needs to change is the lack of thought, care and artistic integrity that results in an ever-growing pile of rotten reboots, reimaginings, and revamps.

Coming Soon: A look at some remakes currently in development, with an assessment of how bad an idea each one is.

December 15, 2012

The De Niro Dilemma

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not because of Christmas; because ’tis the season of movie awards! The Oscar nominations are less than a month away (begin to mentally prepare yourself for my usual, agonizingly deep immersion into that), but in the meantime, national and regional film critics groups are rolling out their accolades. This week saw nomination announcements for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Awards. And among the Best Supporting Actor nominees put forth by two of those three groups (the Globes denied a hat-trick) was Robert De Niro, for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s superstitious, football-obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook.

In an acting career spanning 47 years, more than 80 films, six Oscar nominations, two wins, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and countless other awards and nominations, De Niro is rightly regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. But it’s been a while since he’s been on the awards circuit. Because the hard truth we all know is that Robert De Niro has been lost. For the past 13 years or so, he has been wandering in a desert of bad movies and half-hearted performances, a shadow of the actor he once was. (It’s too bad he isn’t Jewish; perhaps ancestral instinct might have kicked in after a few years and helped him course correct.) So what happened? Good intentions that just didn’t pay off? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Look at the movies he made between 1973 and 1999, and the directors he worked with.

Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard)

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

The Mission (Roland Joffé)

Angel Heart (Alan Parker)
The Untouchables (Brian DePalma)

Midnight Run (Martin Brest)

Jackknife (David Hugh Jones)
Stanley & Iris (Martin Ritt)
We’re No Angels (Neil Jordan)

Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

Backdraft (Ron Howard)
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Guilty By Suspicion (Irwin Winkler)

Mistress (Barry Primus)
Night and the City (Irwin Winkler)

A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro)
This Boy’s Life (Michael Caton-Jones)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh)

Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Heat (Michael Mann)

The Fan (Tony Scott)
Marvin’s Room (Jerry Zaks)
Sleepers (Barry Levinson)

CopLand (James Mangold)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer)

Analyze This (Harold Ramis)
Flawless (Joel Schumacher)

Obviously there are some all-time classics in that era, and it’s an overall impressive filmography filled with strong, memorable, in some cases legendary performances and plenty of gifted directors. Not every film there is well-known, and not every one is a keeper, but by and large it’s a list that justifies De Niro’s status as one of the greats.

Now let’s look at what happens when we enter the new millennium.

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (Des McAnuff)
Meet the Parents (Jay Roach)
Men of Honor (George Tillman, Jr.)

15 Minutes (John Herzfeld)
The Score (Frank Oz)

Analyze That (Harold Ramis)
City By the Sea (Michael Caton-Jones)
Showtime (Tom Dey)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Mary McGuckian)
Godsend (Nick Hamm)
Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)
Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman) – Animated

Hide and Seek (John Polson)

The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro)

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

Righteous Kill (Jon Avnet)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)

Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones)

Little Fockers (Paul Weitz)
Machete (Robert Rodriguez)
Stone (John Curran)

The Ages of Love (Giovanni Veronesi)
Killer Elite (Gary McKendry)
Limitless (Neil Burger)
New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)

Being Flynn (Paul Weitz)
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortés)
Freelancers (Jessy Terrero)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Well, the man certainly keeps busy. That’s a long list of movies to consider. But a few things can be quickly gleaned.

1973-1999: Lots of intense drama. Lots of smart comedies. Lots of classics. Lots of strong, established directors. Lots of Martin Scorsese.

2000-2012: Lots of tepid drama. Lots of broad comedies. Lots of duds. Lots of undistinguished directors. No Martin Scorsese.

Now to be fair, I’ll say this. First, I have not seen a lot of the movies from the 2000-2012 span. Second, just because some of those movies weren’t big box office hits doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Third, just because critics may have had low opinions of many of those movies doesn’t mean they’re right. Fourth, just because many of the directors are less well-known doesn’t make them untalented.

But…when the reviews are bad, and the movies don’t connect with audiences, and they don’t go on to develop enduring reputations for being good, it’s not unfair to draw certain conclusions. And of the films I have seen from that era, few feature De Niro anywhere near his best. The performances are uninspired. He appears to have a lack of energy or interest. He doesn’t look engaged. Could it be that a bout with cancer took a toll on him? De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but the disease was caught early and he went on to beat it (probably with a baseball bat). Maybe the cancer affected the energy he brought to his performances, but the problems began well before his diagnosis, and have continued well after he received a clean bill of health.

It’s reasonable to think that as actors get older, some of their intensity and passion will subside or burn out. But if we look at some of De Niro’s key contemporaries, who were also considered the best actors of their day – Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall – we see actors that are still delivering excellent work, if not quite as consistently as in their early days. Yeah, Pacino has had his duds over the past few decades, and has veered toward overacting at times, but he’s also shown that he’s still got the magic, in HBO movies like Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack, and even as the bad guy in Ocean’s Thirteen. He’s also continued to do impressive work on stage. Hoffman doesn’t do a lot of leading man work anymore, but has shined in supporting roles in films like I ♥ Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Confidence, Barney’s Version and Stranger Than Fiction. He also headlined this year’s short-lived HBO series Luck, delivering a quietly cutting, laser-focused performance as a recently paroled gangster out for revenge. Duvall has also continued to do excellent work in roles large (Open Range, Get Low) and small (Crazy Heart, Thank You For Smoking). He had a tiny part in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with about five minutes of screen time managed to give one of the best performances of that entire year. And what about Meryl Streep? Defying the oft stated problem that no good roles exist for older women, Streep is in the most successful stage of her career, turning character driven comedies into box office hits, still slam dunking dramatic roles and winning her third Oscar earlier this year. I’d like to think that if these actors are still capable of delivering top-notch work, De Niro is too.

In fact, I know he is…because I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s great in it. He does his best work in years. His character is just a regular guy with a few idiosyncracies, but not every part needs to be Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle to give an actor something special to do. His performance isn’t astonishing or transformative, but it’s vigorous and fully energized. The role gives him something to work with, and you can see him having a blast with it. I don’t think that anyone expects him to pull another LaMotta or Bickle out of his hat at this point in his life, but earlier in his career he could turn even ordinary parts into something special. Consider the fire inspector he played in Backdraft. It was a fairly small role, and there’s nothing dynamic about the character on paper. But even though he’s just “a guy,” De Niro gave him an appealing dry humor and a short fuse that kept things interesting. He does the same sort of thing in Silver Linings Playbook, and that’s why he once again finds himself in the conversation for awards. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, it will be his first in 21 years. While accepting an honor in October for Supporting Actor of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards, De Niro joked that he had become much more accustomed to presenting awards than receiving them. Well take a look at your filmography Bobby, and it’s not hard to see why your trophy shelf hasn’t had many new additions of late.

While it’s great to see him back in the game with this new movie, I worry that it may be only a brief return to form. His upcoming projects look to be mostly of the same ilk he’s been turning out for years now. Commercial, broad, maybe kind of fun, but not worthy of his talent:

The Big Wedding, a comedy that boasts some fine actors like Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Robin Williams, but sounds like generic, madcap fluff.

Last Vegas, with De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman as four buddies who go to Vegas for a bachelor party when one finally decides to get married. Great cast, and these guys will surely play nicely off each other, but you can almost see the script being assembled by a studio marketing team.

Grudge Match, a comedy with De Niro and his CopLand co-star Sylvester Stallone as two ex-boxers who come out of retirement for one last fight. Kinda fun to think about Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta squaring off…but again, you know this is just going to be a middle-of-the-road exercise that might offer some amusement before it’s forgotten.

There are a few others listed on IMdb.com, but only two sound like they have some potential to be interesting: Malavita, a crime drama directed by Luc Besson and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron, about a mafia family who enter witness protection in France and struggle with the adjustment; and The Comedian, which I don’t think is even an officially greenlit project yet, but would be directed by Sean Penn and star De Niro (alongside Kristin Wiig, intriguingly) as an aging, Don Rickles-like insult comic.

Those movies could prove to be bright spots, but otherwise De Niro’s current line-up doesn’t inspire much hope. Maybe he made those deals a while ago, and the experience of making Silver Linings Playbook, along with the acclaim he’s receiving for it, will reawaken whatever passion or desire for quality material has been lying dormant for so long. What De Niro really needs to do is hook up with HBO. As I mentioned before, the cable network has provided great material for Hoffman and Pacino. The latter will be back on the air in 2013 playing music producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector in a film written and directed by David Mamet. How great would it be to see De Niro topline a series with the kind of rich storytelling and writing that HBO consistently offers? Maybe he can dip his toes in those waters slowly, with a nice season-long arc on Boardwalk Empire? C’mon Scorsese, you’re a producer on that show! Make it happen! Or hell, put the guy in one of your movies again. Just because Leonardo DiCaprio is your new De Niro doesn’t mean De Niro can’t be your old De Niro. Give the guy a juicy co-starring role! I know, I know…De Niro was supposed to be in The Departed, in the role eventually played by Martin Sheen, but couldn’t do it because of his schedule directing The Good Shepherd. But what about the other projects over the last several years that were going to see you two reunite? Haven’t you been attached to a gangster film called The Irishman for years now? What’s the holdup? Marty, help us out. We want De Niro back in top form, and we need you to help get him there.

Only time will tell if Silver Linings Playbook is a turning point for De Niro, setting him on a path back to the kind of quality roles and impassioned performances on which he built his reputation. Nothing can take away from the momentous work that marked his early career, but it’s sad and frustrating to see such talent squandered on dumb comedies and flat dramas. Silver Linings Playbook is a much-needed reminder that Robert De Niro is capable of better. Here’s hoping some talented writers and directors can steadily provide him with the material to match his skills, and that he’s ready to bring his A-game when those scripts arrive at his door.

August 14, 2012

It Was a Shark

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A few months ago, I wrote about this year marking my 25th anniversary as a tragic movie fan, and I cited the unexpected dramedy Nothing in Common as a movie that might have played a key role in my becoming such a fan…or at least in the timing of when it happened. The movie I write about here is one that most definitely affected my growing passion for movies, though it would be a few years after 1987 that its impact fully hit me. The movie was Jaws, and today it makes its debut on Blu-Ray disc.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I first took note of Jaws as more than just that shark movie I’d watch part of on TV with my dad. By then, my fascination with movies was all-consuming, and Steven Spielberg was more real a god to me than the one I was supposed to pray to in temple each week. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind through Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, E.T., Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg was the name attached to some of my favorite movies. It was my curiosity about him that led me to understand what a director does, and what an executive producer is. And Jaws was the movie where I first realized there was a technique behind movies. If Nothing in Common first showed me the emotional impact movies could have, Jaws first showed me that what I was watching was the result of a camera being placed in a certain position and zooming in, panning across, etc. The picture was being deliberately framed in a certain way to convey information or to help tell the story somehow. I probably couldn’t have articulated it as such at the time, but I understood that there was a method at work. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that realization changed my life. From that point on, I watched movies through a new pair of eyes.

It’s not that I hadn’t been struck by shot composition at that point. I noticed when something looked “cool”, even in movies I hadn’t yet seen. I remember watching clips of The Untouchables on Siskel & Ebert and other movie shows, and noticing  interesting shots such as the low angle view of Kevin Costner, towering in the frame with an ornate domed ceiling above him. But Jaws made me aware not just of how shots could look good, but how they could work for the movie. When the Orca departs the harbor to head for sea, the scene is photographed from inside Quint’s workshop, the camera slowly pushing in on a window which itself is framed by a pair of gaping shark jaws, suggesting that our three heroes are heading into the belly of the beast. The first of the film’s major beach scenes, which climaxes in the death of Alex Kintner, also made me aware of filmmaking tools. The way Spielberg focused on a sitting Chief Brody and his view of the activity in the water, using passersby to serve as camera wipes from one shot to the next, or the famous dolly zoom shot depicting Brody’s reaction to the fountain of blood that erupts upon the shark’s seizure of Alex. The Fourth of July beach scene, which also climaxes with a shark attack – this one on a man attempting to assist a group of boys that includes Brody’s son – ends with a shot as simple but effective as Brody looking up in the direction of the now departed shark, and the camera pushing in to suggest the inevitable showdown that will occur in those waters.

The things I learned from the movie didn’t stop there. Long before any English teacher introduced the concept of foreshadowing in literature, I learned about it as it related to Jaws. It wasn’t the movie itself, but a book about Steven Spielberg that I found in the library which illustrated how the director employed this technique. There was the dog playing fetch with his owner during the first beach sequence. Before the shark surfaces for Alex, we see the owner calling out the dog’s name, answered only by the stick floating on the water. Later, toward the beginning of the Orca’s expedition, Brody has a close encounter with one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks, eliciting a warning from Hooper that if he’s not careful the tank could explode. Spielberg then reminds us of the tanks later on, when the shark rams the boat, knocking Hooper and Brody off their feet and causing Brody to lunge toward the tank to keep it from falling over. The shark’s eventual fate is actually telegraphed much earlier, when Brody is at home looking through books about sharks. Among the many pictures he stops to ponder is one in which a shark has some kind of cylindrical device – it almost looks like a small missile – in its mouth.

I realize that I’m not illuminating these things for anybody now; just pointing out that at the time I came to understand them, they had quite an impact on me.

The most significant example of foreshadowing, as I learned from this Spielberg book, was how Quint’s Indianapolis story makes his demise inevitable. His tale of surviving the shark onslaught that killed so many who had been on the U.S.S. Indianapolis after it was torpedoed by the Japanese establishes his history with these creatures, reveals his true motives and seals his fate. It also happens to be one of those legendary scenes in movie history, not only for Robert Shaw’s riveting delivery, but for how it came about in the first place. In fact, Jaws is one of those movies whose behind the scenes tales are as famous and engrossing as the finished film. It’s a movie for which the public’s fascination never abates, and I had fun digging into some of the lore as I prepared this piece. So beware: this post is about to spin out of control into a rambling potpourri of thoughts, observations, trivia, etc. about Jaws. Feel free to abandon ship.

Quint has always been a point of fascination for me. In fact, Robert Shaw as Quint might be my favorite movie performance ever, though I don’t know if I could ever really commit to so bold a claim. Forget the fact that Quint is just a great character to begin with, but what Shaw does with him always struck me as wholly unique. Quint is so authentically bizarre that I could never imagine that he existed on paper in any way close to how Shaw played him. The little songs he sings (“Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”) and poems he recites (“Here lies the body of Mary Lee, died at the age of a hundred and three…”), not to mention his many other random mumblings…basically everything about him. It always felt to me like there was no acting going on there. No writer had come up with this guy. He just showed up on set, fully formed.

I finally decided – as I was preparing to write this – that I would see how exactly Quint did exist prior to the movie. So for the first time, I read Peter Benchley’s novel on which Jaws is based. I didn’t know much about it, or how it might differ from the movie, other than being aware that the movie omitted a sexual tryst between Hooper and Ellen Brody. Thinking of the characters as played by Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, it seems unlikely that they would ever get together. But the Hooper of the book is a much different character than the scruffy, bearded, genial guy portrayed by Dreyfuss. In the book, he’s clean-shaven and clean-cut, more WASPy and more openly flirtatious with Ellen, whom he knows from years earlier (she had dated his older brother when he was 10). The book puts a great deal of emphasis on Amity’s class differences, detailing a tense dynamic between the island’s blue-collar, year-round residents and the rich vacationers who come for the summer. It establishes that Ellen was once part of the latter, but her marriage to Martin Brody has removed her from that world, which she’s beginning to long for. Hooper represents a connection, and she pursues an affair with him. While Brody never becomes aware of the infidelity, he suspects it, and even before that he resents Hooper and his privileged status. They are not the fast friends in the book that they are in the film; their relationship is antagonistic throughout the novel.

The book also includes an organized crime subplot, in which Amity mayor Larry Vaughn is in trouble with some shady business partners, giving him an even more personal financial motivation to keep the beaches open and the summer money rolling in. The last significant difference between book and film constitutes a pretty big spoiler for people who may actually want to read the book, so I’ll hide the text and you can highlight it if you want to know. In the book, Brody is the only survivor of the final battle at sea. Hooper doesn’t escape the shark cage, as he does in the film. The shark busts through it and takes him before he can escape. When it surfaces, the lifeless Hooper is still clasped in its teeth. The deaths of both Quint and the shark play out differently as well. How the shark dies is actually unclear to me, but I think it’s the effect of multiple harpoon and stab wounds. Quint, meanwhile, isn’t eaten, but rather drowns when his foot gets caught in a rope attached to one of the barrels they fire at the shark. As the struggling fish swims wildly away, it takes Quint with it.

There are lots of other differences as well, but more in keeping with the normal types of changes that occur in the adaptation process. The role of the local newspaper man, Harry Meadows, is much larger in the book, while Mrs. Kintner’s encounter with Brody after her son dies is longer and angrier than the movie version. Something the book captures nicely which the movie doesn’t quite manage is how dire the effect on Amity will be if the summer tourist season fails. In the film, Mayor Vaughn is made out to be a bit of a villain, driven by greed to keep the beaches open despite the threat of the shark. “Amity is a summer town,” he tells Brody. “We need summer dollars.” But the movie doesn’t go much further than that, whereas the book lays plain that if Amity doesn’t make enough money in the summer, the town may literally not survive the lean winter. Businesses will fail, residents will have to move…Amity will become a year-round ghost town, and will never be able to recover.

Getting back to Quint, well, he’s certainly tough, terse and salty on the pages of Benchley’s novel, but lacks the distinctive personality he has in the film. Still curious as to how much of the performance sprung from Shaw’s own instinct vs. the screenplay, I fished around for that too. Benchley’s contract gave him first crack at the script, and the version he turned in was fairly different from both his novel and the eventual film. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had already decreed that the sex subplot be removed so that the story could focus on the adventure of the shark hunt, so Hooper and Ellen’s fling was eliminated early. Quint’s role also had to be expanded. He features much more prominently in Benchley’s script than he did in the book, and he is painted as a pretty eccentric guy. Many of the specifics are different from what would ultimately be featured in the movie, but I give credit where credit is due: Quint was as colorful in Benchley’s script as he was in the finished film.

It was determined that more work was needed on the screenplay, so the next draft was written by Howard Sackler, who had written Stanley Kubrick’s first two features Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, as well as The Great White Hope. Sackler had only a short time to work on the project, and apparently asked not to receive credit. From there, Spielberg hired a friend named Carl Gottlieb, casting him in the reduced-from-novel role of news reporter Harry Meadows as well. Gottlieb and Benchley received final credit for the screenplay. But as fans of the movie know, there were yet other writers involved. Stories have always swirled around the true author of the aforementioned U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue, and there still seems to be a lack of clarity. Spielberg has said, as recently as last year in an epic interview about Jaws that he gave to writer Eric Vespe (aka Quint) from Ain’t It Cool News, that Sackler was the first writer to introduce the Indianapolis story into the Jaws script. Yet the draft by Benchley that I referenced earlier  – supposedly the first draft to be turned in – features a short version of the tale. Who knows, maybe that script is a fraud, but the Indianapolis seeds are there. Check it out, and scroll way down to Scene 191. Either way, various versions of the story seem to agree that from there, Spielberg’s filmmaker friend John Milius took the speech and turned it into an epic, ten page stunner of a monologue. Then Robert Shaw, who was not just an actor but also an acclaimed novelist and playwright, took Milius’ speech and pared it down himself. Shaw’s version is what appears in the film. Supposedly. The full and complete genesis of the scene may never be known, but the end result speaks for itself.

Of course, I don’t know if any of the Jaws scripts floating around online can accurately reflect the finished product (unless they’re transcribed directly from that), since the film’s notoriously difficult shoot resulted in so much revision and improvisation. For anyone who might be interested, here’s another draft, credited to Benchley and Gottlieb. Although it’s much closer to the finished film, it’s still not exact, but it could be the actual draft that was turned in. Given how much new writing was done during production, there probably isn’t an official script that matches the final film. With shooting frequently delayed or impossible due to technical problems with the shark, evenings often found Spielberg, Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gottlieb and editor Verna Fields working together to delve deeper into the characters and relationships. They would come up with new ideas and Gottlieb would generate new script pages, so the film was constantly evolving. It’s generally agreed that the problems with filming the shark are a huge part of the reason that the movie is so good. Had the mechanical behemoth worked perfectly, Spielberg probably would have featured it more prominently, which would have lessened the impact it had. By being forced to show the shark less often, Spielberg was able to make count the moments when it was onscreen.

Some of my favorite elements of Jaws have nothing to do with the shark. The movie basically consists of two parts. Part One takes place in Amity as the town deals with its unwanted offshore guest, while Part Two follows Brody, Hooper and Quint at sea. And although most people probably think of the movie for the scenes on the water – from the opening sequence with the attack on Chrissie to everything in Part Two – I’ve always loved Spielberg’s depiction of Amity throughout Part One. He captures the community so vividly, presenting such a natural and authentic portrait of the townsfolk and their chatter. A lot of the smaller parts were cast with local actors, many of whom stand out so clearly. Though she is uncredited in the movie and never mentioned by name, one of the more prominent townspeople is Mrs. Taft, a hotel owner, played by the perfectly named Fritzi Jane Courtney. Tell me that this lady doesn’t exist in every single town in America, serving on the City Council or the school committee for like, 50 years. There’s also the big guy with the checkered hunter’s cap and the camouflage jacket who greets Hooper when he arrives at the dock. (“Hello back…young fella, how are ya?”) I’ve seen this character referred to online and in writings as Ben Gardner, but I don’t know when that is ever established in the movie. Gardner is mentioned a few times, but never in connection with this figure. And of course, who could forget another of Jaws‘ great minor characters, the heavy fisherman who has a comic reaction to learning what kind of shark he and his buddies have just caught.

The presence of people like this, backing up the naturalistic performances of Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gary and Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn, helps make the first half of Jaws as memorable and rich as any of the scenes at sea. Of course, the cast might have looked a bit different from how it ended up. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Brody, Hooper or Quint, other names were in play. Spielberg is said to have wanted Robert Duvall to play Brody, but the actor wasn’t interested, preferring Quint. Spielberg didn’t think he was right for the part, so they parted ways, though apparently the director later admitted that he was wrong not to have seen Duvall could have been great as the Orca’s captain. As it was, he first offered Quint to Lee Marvin, who turned it down. Then he went to Sterling Hayden, who was unavailable. Producers Zanuck and Brown had just worked with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and thought he would make a great Quint. Shaw turned it down at first, reportedly calling the novel “a piece of shit”, but his wife convinced him to take the part.

Richard Dreyfuss was Spielberg’s first choice for Hooper, but the actor turned him down at least twice, saying that he would much rather watch Jaws than shoot it. But then he watched a pre-release screening of his most recent film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and felt he was so terrible in it that if he didn’t have another job lined up before the movie came out, he might never be hired again. He begged Spielberg for the role, and the director was happy to comply. As for the part of Brody, Spielberg was having trouble finding the right actor, until he met Roy Scheider at a party. In author Nigel Andrews’ book about Jaws for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, Scheider recalls hearing Spielberg talking to someone about a project in which a shark would jump out of the water and land on the deck of a boat, cracking it in half. He thought they were crazy. A couple of months later, he says, Spielberg called him and asked him if he was interested in the part. Spielberg’s recollection is slightly different. In the Ain’t It Cool News interview linked above, he affirms that they met at a party, but says he was sitting on a couch and feeling a bit glum about his inability to cast Brody, when Scheider approached, introduced himself and asked why he looked so down. He says Scheider then suggested himself for the part, and Spielberg loved the idea, having enjoyed his performance in The French Connection. The actor did have concerns during filming that Brody came off as too weak and clumsy opposite Quint and Hooper, but he needn’t have worried. Brody is the audience’s surrogate, and as such we relate to him most easily. The film doesn’t disrespect him, but does derive humor from his aversion to the water and his lack of experience on boats. And he gets some of the best moments in the movie, from the shark’s first full-on appearance just beyond the chum bucket to the classic line that follows to the climactic showdown as the Orca sinks. Brody’s the fucking man.

Jaws became the highest grossing film in history during its initial run, and was the first movie to make over $100 million at the box office, ushering in – alongside The Exorcist and previous box office champ The Godfather – the blockbuster era. It has sometimes been denigrated for this, but in the 70’s more so than the decades that followed, great movies and box office hits were often one and the same. Like those two earlier movies, Jaws was based on a popular novel, and just like The Godfather, it is widely agreed that the movie improved upon and deepened an entertaining but soap opera-ish book. It went on to success at the Academy Awards, though it didn’t earn nearly as many nominations as either The Exorcist or The Godfather. Spielberg was actually being filmed by a TV crew on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, and his reactions display good humor despite not being nominated himself and the movie not being recognized in more categories. (C’mon, how was Robert Shaw not nominated?!?)

It eventually went three for four, winning Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Score for John Williams’ classic music. It lost only Best Picture. In the wake of the movie’s success, obligatory and inferior sequels followed. Scheider was apparently under contract to return, but neither Dreyfuss, Shaw or Spielberg were involved. According to Nigel Andrews’ book, Spielberg toyed with the idea of doing Jaws 2 as a prequel, telling the story of the Indianapolis, but the idea never went anywhere. I don’t even know if it’s true. Andrews cites no sources for any of the information in his book, and Spielberg says in the Ain’t It Cool News interview that he had no ideas about what he might have done with Jaws 2, and that he couldn’t face the prospect of another ocean shoot anyway. However as this article from Den of Geek! neatly summarizes, several attempts have been made to film the saga of the Indianapolis, with J.J. Abrams and Robert Downey, Jr. among the more recent names attached.

There’s so much more to say about Jaws, but it’s already been said in books, magazines, documentaries, etc. For the truly obsessive, I came across this amazingly in-depth blog called A Mouth Full of Butcher Knives, whose author delves exhaustively into the film, first by comparing it to the novel in detail, and then by analyzing it scene by scene. It’s an ongoing project that he’s still in the middle of, but his knowledge and ability to explore the film in various contexts is seriously impressive. Any Jaws lover should give it a look. So really, what can I add? This post has already gone off the rails. The main points are: Jaws was a formative movie for me; it’s a classic that never loses its power; the Blu-Ray is getting rave reviews and you should check it out not only to enjoy the film itself, but to dig into the extras and learn about all the stories I’ve been recounting (plus more) from the people who actually experienced them. I don’t know how one DVD could contain it all. They’re gonna need a bigger disc.

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