Monthly Archives: September 2009

Happy Birthday Ms Bacall

Today is the 85th birthday of one of the last great movie stars of the golden era: Lauren Bacall. She may have been among the sexiest screen goddesses, but she was born plain-old Betty Joan Perske in New York City in 1924. Her mother was Romanian-German and her father was Polish. Bacall’s parents divorced when she was six years old, and she was brought up by her mother and grandmother.

When she left school she won a place at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in her home city. However, lack of funds and the refusal of the academy to grant scholarships to women meant that she had to abandon her studies at the end of the first year. Desperate to get an acting job, Bacall frequented theatrical hang-outs and earned her crust by working as a model in the bustling “garment center”, where girls were hired to model gowns for buyers. Her first modelling job ended when her boss found out that she was Jewish.

After months of pavement-pounding, Bacall made a breakthrough of sorts into Broadway when she landed the job of usher in a chain of theatres. She made her Broadway debut – as Lauren Bacall (Bacal had been half of her mother’s maiden name) in March 1942, in a tiny role in an ill-fated production entitled Johnny 2×4. Later that year, Bacall modelled for a fashion shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. When the magazine came out, it changed her life.

Slim Hawks, Mrs Howard Hawks, saw the cover photograph of this sexy and sullen-looking newcomer and brought it to the attention of her director-producer husband who immediately arranged for Bacall to have a screen test. The result was a role in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s book, with the action transferred from Cuba to French Martinique and cracking dialogue by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman.

As Marie, nicknamed Slim, the girl who suggestively teaches Humphrey Bogart’s bemused but beguiled character how to whistle, Bacall was an instant hit – a new kind of tough femme fatale, with a deep, manly voice and a masculine way of pursuing her romantic quarry. She smouldered as, with a knowing smile, she traded suggestive dialogue with Bogart. And her habit, which he taught her as a way to stop her nerves from showing, of keeping her chin down when she was on camera was a crucial part of what became known as “The Look”.

Their chemistry was immediate – and very obvious. Bacall and Bogart, who was 45 to her 19, fell in love and began an affair – he was married at the time – which led to their marriage in 1945.

Bogie and “Baby” went on to work together in several of what were the best films of both their careers – notably Hawks’s archetypal film noir The Big Sleep (1946), in which she exuded even more cynicism than in her first film. Other Bogie-Bacall collaborations include the thriller Dark Passage (1947) and the atmospheric melodrama Key Largo (1948).

Bacall had her first child, Stephen (“Steve” was the nickname Slim gives to Harry Morgan, Bogie’s To Have or Have Not character), in January 1949, but was back at work soon afterwards – in the 1950 melodrama Young Man With a Horn, opposite her teenage beau Kirk Douglas. Other notable 1950s films included the colourful comedy How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which, as the brains behind an apparently fool-proof gold-digging operation, she has to babysit dumb blondes Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, and the all-star soap opera Written on the Wind (1956). However, Bacall – who gave birth to a daughter, Leslie, in 1952 – spent much of that decade caring for Bogart, who had lung cancer.

Shortly after Bogart’s death in 1957, Bacall moved to New York and the stage, and was absent from the screen for five years. In 1961, she married Jason Robards Jr and during their eight-year marriage, she had another son. She then divided her time between Broadway and Hollywod, winning a Tony award for her performance in the show Applause in 1970 and, in 1996, an Oscar nomination for her role as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Bacall, who has emerged as a feisty, no-nonsense grande dame of the showbiz world, continues to work – she has three films in post-production at the time of writing – and to terrify interviewers with her frankly expressed opinions on everything from ageing (“Your whole life shows in your face – and you should be proud of that”) to being a “legend”. Her two volumes of autobiography are among the best published by anyone in the movie business. A striking woman, even in her mid-80s, she stands for an era in which stars had personalities and principles – they certainly don’t make them like her anymore. Her forthcoming Honorary Academy Award is well-deserved and long-overdue..

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She’ll Have What She’s Having – Julie & Julia review

If ever there was a poster girl for butter, it’s Julia Child, the doyenne of TV cooks, whose story – or at least the part of it that began in France – is told in the new Nora Ephron movie Julie & Julia. This comedy-drama cuts and splices the lives of Child, who brought French cooking into every American home thanks to her TV shows in the 1960s, and Julie Powell, a young New York office worker who writes a blog about spending a year cooking her way through all the recipes in Child’s landmark French cookery book for Americans.

Child never tired of singing (or perhaps warbling would be a more appropriate verb) the praises of butter so it’s amazing that during her year-long cook-a-thon, Julie Powell (according to the film) didn’t seem to put on a single pound in weight. But then, she wouldn’t – because her part of the film, although based on real life, smacks of the aspects of Nora Ephron’s previous movies that were particularly unrealistic, irksome and formulaic.

There’s the wisecracking best friend (see Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle), the shabby chic apartment (You’ve Got Mail), the obligatory scenes of bonding in front of the telly (watching Casablanca in When Harry Met Sally, An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle etc). Somehow, Ephron even manages to sneak that old Annie Hall influence in there too: the lobster scene? Hello?

I have no aversion to movies that bear little relation to real life, but when you have a film in which the heroine – sorry, one of the heroines – works in a call centre dealing with the bereaved of 9/11, the glossy Hollywood sheen doesn’t seem appropriate.

Where it works just fine is in the scenes, woven through the film, in the Paris of Julia Child’s experience in the 1950s. Paris in any period has a romantic charm but Child’s Paris particularly so, because it’s where she discovered her calling, having already – as we know from documents released after her death – worked as a spy. In Paris, where her new husband works for the American embassy, she casts around for something to occupy her time and eventually comes up with the idea of taking classes at the Cordon Bleu cooking school.

As a Brit, I didn’t know anything much about Julia Child. And what little I did know about her – that she had a funny, high, comedy sort of a voice – was only through a hilarious (and now, I realise, totally accurate) impersonation by the brilliant jazz musician and off-the-wall raconteur Marty Grosz who used to offer an omelette signed by Julia Child as a prize if anyone could guess the tune he was singing, from its obscure verse.

Ever the chameleon, Meryl Streep does an amazing job of bringing Child to life (though it does come as a surprise to learn that she’s supposed to be just 37 at the start of the film). An ungainly, gallumphing, well-built (6 foot 2) and rather plain woman, Child comes across as having been quite at ease with her appearance – even amidst a sea of petites Parisiennes. While they may have been picking at their tiny portions like sparrows, Child devours food and relishes every opportunity for a new gastronomic experience. Streep gets the voice, the breathiness and the near-hysteria and certainly seems to embody the character, but it’s not a performance that really sheds much light on the character. She’s not onscreen enough.

Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, is onscreen plenty, however – and she is undoubtedly the less interesting and intriguing of the two heroines. She is also, as portrayed here, the 2009 version of Sally from Ephron’s best film, When Harry Met Sally. Once you notice the similarities between Meg Ryan in WHMS and Amy Adams in J&J, it’s difficult not to start playing spot the lack of difference. They have the same mannerisms (watch how the teary and tipsy Julie brandishes her wine glass), the same way of enunciating key lines (“I could write a blog. I have thoughts..”), and when Julie has her “meltdown” on the kitchen floor, you almost expect her to wail “and I’m going to be 40” a la Sally.

For me, the big surprises came towards the end when we realise that Julia Child was still alive while Julie Powell was conducting her blogging and cooking project. The next surprise is that Child lived to the ripe old age of 91, despite the copious amounts of butter she had consumed throughout her life. And the third is that for all this is a feelgood film, there is no attempt to avoid the fact that Child, when interviewed during Powell’s blogging/cooking project, expressed total disinterest in it.

Actually, here’s another surprise: that Ephron didn’t just call the film When Julie Didn’t Meet Julia.

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The Wintour Issue

If I thought I was having a grim month in terms of persuading commissioning editors to part with their pennies, it’s nothing compared to how soul-destroying it must be to work on American Vogue. How do I know this? Well, because I spent the morning watching, sniggering, empathising and cringing at the eagerly anticipated film The September Issue, RJ Cutler’s utterly fascinating and hugely enjoyable documentary which charts the production of what is always the biggest edition of the magazine of the year.

One by one, staff members are crushed by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s apparently breezy dismissal of photos, ensembles or ideas that they have sweated blood over. But it’s the veteran creative director, Grace Coddington who inspires the most sympathy. Although she and Wintour have been colleagues for two decades, she knows that her boss will make her decisions based on her own judgement alone – with no consultation. Every spread she completes is chopped by Wintour, and always when she is elsewhere in the building.

Indeed, Coddington’s editorial tussles with Wintour provide most of the drama and tension in the film. (Cutler was lucky that Coddington, being older and more Wintour-wise than the rest of the staff, was self-confident enough to speak her mind for the camera.)

Of the two women, Coddington is the one whose passion shines through. Next to her (and the insanely flamboyant editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley – who we don’t see enough of), Wintour has about as much passion as a dead fish. While Coddington is always on the look-out for inspiration and ideas, Wintour, her head bowed at Lady Di angles and her eyes often hidden behind her heavy fringe or her sunglasses (or both), seems introverted – as someone who relies solely on their own judgement and opinion must inevitably be.

Coddington, who could get a job as an Elizabeth I look-alike if she ever gets completely fed up with Wintour, dreams up the most ravishing images (that 1920s shoot! the French chateau spread!) but it’s clear that she gets carried away and, like most of us, takes it personally when other people start hacking away at her work. She doesn’t seem to know when to stop once those creative juices are flowing – so of course Wintour has to edit her output. As she says, decisiveness is her greatest strength.

Aside from revealing that her children are her biggest weakness, and apart from a brief hint of embarrassment at her own admission that her siblings are bemused by her career, Wintour gives next to nothing away about what makes her tick and what drives her. She must be passionate about fashion and about Vogue to devote so much time and energy to them, but there is nothing in her manner or in what she says that distinguishes her from anyone else doing a terrifically high-pressured job.

There’s no sense that she gets anything out of it, or that it’s fulfilling – or even that she loves clothes. Only once does she register pleasure when a dress is presented to her. Every other time, she looks bored or disinterested. At YSL, she almost defies designer Stephano Pilati to impress her, and watching her making him squirm is embarrassing.

Some kind of explanation of how Wintour came to wield such power would have been useful because in no other context would an artist take direction and criticism from a magazine editor. It doesn’t happen in music or in literature or in art. Of course, fashion is a different world – but it’s shocking to realise that the Wintour-inspired character Meryl Streep played in The Devil Wears Prada was really not a caricature; in many respects it was a fairly faithful portrayal of someone who is terrifying but in a thoroughly understated way.

Wintour points out that she inherited a character trait from her father – his inscrutablity. Turn a camera on her and it seems to increase the inscrutability. She may have a fearsome reputation but, based on what we see in this film, she doesn’t appear to have a personality.

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Remembering Lester

Since the end of last week, when I wrote my piece on Lester Young, the extent of his enduring appeal has become apparent as various jazz musicians – players of all instruments – have shared their thoughts about this unique character and his enormously influential sound.

Over the next few days, I’ll be adding the memories and impressions of those who met him, who admired him and who were inspired by him, as well as their suggestions for required listening.

DICK HYMAN (piano, US): “When I was playing for Lester Young in Birdland in the 1950s, he amazed me one night by calling Lavender Blue – it was then on the hit parade. It was a really silly sort of song. Its full title was Lavender Blue Dilly-Dilly. It was the most foolish and un-hip thing and to hear Lester Young calling for it, I thought he was joking. But we played it and it worked fine – he knew better than I that the tune had that kind of potential. I would never have guessed it!

“We had a good working relationship, but I can’t say I knew him. Probably few people did. I recently introduced his recordings to a young musician who had never heard them, whom I thought was a little glib and unconcerned with where he was going in his lines. Lester always told a story when he played.

“My own favourite tracks would be any of the very earliest recordings he did with Basie – such as Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Lester Leaps In.”

JIM GALLOWAY (saxes, Canada):  “Lester is, of course, one of my all-time favourites and proof that less is more. It’s really difficult to home in on a favourite recording. Favourites in music and art aren’t fixed in stone and vary with one’s frame of mind, but the one that springs to mind today is the 1957 Newport Festival when he guested with the Basie band. On One O’Clock Jump he plays five wonderful choruses with the band swinging like no other band could. He could say so much with only a handful of notes – just as a Matisse drawing could with a few seemingly simple lines.

“I never did meet Lester, but travelled and played a lot with Buddy Tate who knew him well. He often said that Lester really didn’t want to go on living, but thought he would make it to 50. He almost did.”

JON-ERIK KELLSO (cornet, US):  “I love Lester in all his periods, and consider him one of my biggest musical influences, so it’s not easy for me to pick my favorite tracks. It changes day to day, week to week.

“That said, his Lester Young Trio sides with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are right up there for me. The chemistry between them is lovely, and Prez really sounds strong and comfy. This setting affords the opportunity for him to ‘stretch out’ and ‘tell his story’, as they say.

“I love his creative musical phrases, his pretty tone, his laid-back feel, his swinging beat, and his unorthodox approach (paving a new direction aside from the Hawk disciples, his way of finding the road less traveled, unusual phrase endings and song endings). Plus, he was simply one of the coolest people ever (hell, I think he actually invented “cool” as an expression as we know it!).”

ALAN BARNES (saxes, UK): “I love Lester Young. In fact, I named my record label, Woodville, after his birthplace. Why? Because he wasn’t just a great musician: he seemed to have an ‘other-wordly’ quality – which has a magic beyond definition and can’t be analysed- and because he changed the music forever. It wouldn’t be how it is without him.”

SCOTT HAMILTON (tenor sax, US): “Pres was the first tenor sax player I really loved and it’s hard to narrow my favorites down to a few but these ones are my perennial favorites since childhood: Back To The Land (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946), Up ‘N Adam (with Hank Jones, Ray Brown & Buddy Rich, 1950), I Can’t Get Started (from Jazz At the Philharmonic, 1946), You Can Depend On Me (with Basie small group, 1939), and Sometimes I’m Happy ( with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, 1943) is a little masterpiece. ”

ALAN BARNES: “My very favourite Lester Young track would be Somebody Loves Me with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946. The pianist fits with him superbly and it’s Lester at his relaxed and inventive best. He was a total original and worked at right angles to the more obviously ‘virtuosic’ sax players. “
BOBBY WELLINS (tenor sax, UK): ” I went to New York with Vic Lewis in 1950. I was 21, and was just too excited to take everything in. I used to eat just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish that I loved – for $2. It was a hotel where a lot of showbiz people – musicians and people on the road – stayed. I suddenly saw this person standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young!’. I couldn’t help myself – being young and foolish, I shot out across the road and shouted: ‘Lester!’.

“I told him that I was over with a British band. He had a high-pitched voice, and he said: ‘Oh yes, I heard you were over with Vic Lewis.’ It was so sad. He had this old dirty raincoat, and there were rumours that he was drinking a lot. I asked if I could buy him a drink, and he said [Wellins sounds like a female impersonator as he mimics Young’s voice]: ‘That’s very nice of you.’

” So we went in and sat down and, of course, as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator, they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me, and I’d see this look of disbelief on their faces, and they’d come over and I’d introduce them.

“We sat there for so long. We talked about everything -current affairs, New York. I told him I was too excited to take it all in. ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He had on his pork-pie hat – he never took it off. That’s what I saw first. I saw the hat, then the tall figure. He didn’t have his saxophone. The next week he was doing a recording, and he invited me along but we were flying back to Britain.

“Most of the people I idolised were the offspring of Lester’s influence, like Stan Getz. I never even asked him [Wellins sounds rueful as he says this] what mouthpiece he used. In retrospect, he was a bit bedraggled.

“People forget about how Lester played earlier in his career. They don’t listen to his solos in the Basie band when he was absolutely tearing around but in that lovely way he had of doing things.”

ALAN BARNES: “I know Bobby Wellins and Duncan Lamont met him in the early 1950’s on an American tour. Lester got quite a crowd of British musicians around him in the hotel foyer, happily accepting drinks, and made a comment about going upstairs to get ‘he loaves and fishes’ – whatever that means.

“There are plenty of stories about Lester in Dave Gelly’s book – as well as some great insights. He suggests that Lester’s erratic later work – sometimes struggling to get the sound, sometimes brilliant – may have had something to do with the state of his horn. Also, in a book called A Lester Young Reader there’s a lovely essay by Bobby Scott who, as a very young man, spent time with Prez on a Jazz At The Phil tour. They were drawn to each other because they were both outsiders: one for reasons of youth; the other because of not fitting in.

“Lester was quite a character. He hated anyone crippled being on the same flight as him – he felt that the chances of crashing were greater if they were on board – and referred to them as “Johnny Deathbeds”! However, he could be re-assured if a baby was amongst the passengers as he thought the almighty wouldn’t be mean enough …

“He also referred to Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC of Birdland, who required bribing to pronounce a name correctly, as “Half a Motherf***er” which is pretty good.”

SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON (broadcaster & writer, UK): “Anyone who loves Lester Young and Ben Webster understands the full joy, range and possibility of the tenor sax. They are the gods who define the instrument.”

WARREN VACHE (cornet, US): “Lester Young was one of the most influential musicians to have ever walked the planet. His approach to music was unique, deeply felt and profoundly important. He paid the price for this dedication and talent while he lived, working for small fees, constantly traveling, and suffering many personal disappointments and indignities. In short, he had a miserable time while he was with us and in return for our mistreatment of him and his kind left us some of the most uplifting recordings ever made to sustain us in our daily lives and inspire us to greater heights.

“To reduce his life’s work to ‘your favorite track’, is, in my thinking, to continue the indignity and mistreatment he suffered throughout his life. Lester Young’s music was a gift, the magnitude of which it is clear we don’t fully appreciate or understand even today 100 years after his birth.

“To really appreciate his genius, I suggest you play all of his music, all day long, and do yourself the favor of shutting up, not imposing your own opinions and values, and actually listening. Let the profundity impress upon you what it will. If you learn nothing more than: although Lester Young is dead, his music is certainly alive and well.”

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