Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 3: Ulu Grosbard

Ulu Grosbard is quite different from the other filmmakers in this unofficial troika, who are bonded by the fact that they all died in 2012 and all had great monikers. Grosbard was a perfectionist whose career was split between the stage and the screen — he made only seven feature films and his theater directing became more and more sporadic as of the Seventies, but it was noted in one of his obits that he was willing to pay the price to get the right cast and the right production (that price, he honestly confessed, was “not working”).

Grosbard received a three-second acknowledgment in the necrology that aired on the Oscars this past Sunday, but I think he’s deserving of far more than that. I never saw any of his stage productions, but four of his seven films have stuck with me for many years, thanks to their emotional honesty (he was quoted as saying the theme he sought in the works he directed was “human behavior in crisis”) and absolutely superb acting by his stars.

Born Israel Grosbard in Belgium (Ulu was a nickname his brother gave him), he moved with his family to Havana in 1942 to flee the Nazis. He worked as a diamond cutter (!) in Cuba, after which his family moved to America, where he studied at the University of Chicago and the Yale School of Drama, before joining the U.S. Army (he became a U.S. citizen in ’54).

He did his first professional work as a theater director in the early Sixties, with a play called The Days and Nights of BeeBee Fenstermaker. Working on that 1962 play he met his wife Rose Gregorio (seen right, with Dustin Hoffman), who had small parts in his films, but has had a great career as a character actress in film and on television.

Grosbard’s first film credits were as an uncredited assistant director on a trio of early Sixties classic dramas, The Hustler, Splendor in the Grass, and The Miracle Worker.

His resume as a Broadway director is very impressive: the mid-Sixties off-Broadway production of View from the Bridge starring Robert Duvall, The Subject Was Roses (right), and Miller’s The Price on Broadway, and on to the original production of American Buffalo (1977) starring Duvall and Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb, as well as lesser-known works by Beth Henley and Paddy Chayefsky. Mamet said about him, he was “one of three or four people I’ve ever met who has any idea how to direct a play.”

But his most accessible legacy for most of us are his films. His debut, The Subject Was Roses (1968) is a gorgeous piece that, although it is primarily a filmed play, is a marvelous reflection on father-son difficulties that features three perfect performances by Jack Albertson, Patricia Neal, and a young Martin Sheen.

His next four films all featured brilliant lead work by top-notch actors in their prime — two with Dustin Hoffman (Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and Straight Time (1978)) and two with Robert De Niro (True Confessions (1981) and Falling in Love (1984)).

Straight Time has acquired quite a cult reputation over the years, and it is a fine, grim little crime film, but the works by Grosbard that impressed me the most were Roses, Kellerman, Falling in Love (this for the simple fact that he was successful in getting those master chameleons, De Niro and Streep, seen above with Ulu, to simply play “normal people”), and Georgia (1995).

Georgia came during a very long run of absolutely exemplary performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it is definitely one of her finest moments onscreen. The films was scripted by her mother, Barbara Turner, and reworks a classic dilemma — the “good” sibling vs. the “bad” one — in a very intelligent way, focusing on the fact that the wholesome sib (Mare Winningham) has a beautiful singing voice but seems to have little passion for her music, whereas her drug-addicted sister (JJL) feels music to her very core, but is not a very tuneful singer.

The Oscars are incredibly bad arbiters of what is really good in American cinema, but if there had been any justice in 1996, Leigh would’ve won Best Actress for Georgia, if only for the moment in which she sings an agonized version of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” onstage, crystallizing her character’s pain, her love of music, and her complete divergence from her sister’s pitch-perfect singing. (For some reason, the scene is available on YT in two parts, here and here, thereby spoiling its cumulative squirm-worthy effect; I recommend you check out the film in its entirety.)

And then there is Harry Kellerman…, a wildly underrated masterwork from the early Seventies that was out briefly on VHS, but is now “MIA” in the U.S. The film boasted the only original screenplay by the great Herb Gardner (whose other scripts were adaptations of his plays), its source being a Gardner short story that was anthologized in 1968.

The plot concerns Georgie Soloway, a reclusive wunderkind of rock (half Phil Spector, half Dylan), played by Dustin Hoffman at the very peak of his excellence. The women he dates start receiving nasty phone calls from a certain “Harry Kellerman” denouncing Georgie; in the meantime he tries to keep his sanity while meeting up with employees (his accountant, played by Dom DeLuise), friends (Gabe Dell), and his therapist (the terrific Jack Warden).

These days the film is best remembered (if at all) for its Shel Silverstein soundtrack, written for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. What makes it so unforgettable, though — besides its slips from reality to fantasy and back again — is its magnificent dialogue by Gardner. No scene better encapsulates that than the showcase moment for the absolutely perfect Barbara Harris.

I am a major fan of Ms. Harris’s work (read this tribute) and, just as Jennifer Jason Leigh deserved an Oscar for Georgia, Barbara (seen at right with Grosbard) deserved a Supporting Actress award for this tour de force scene. When I saw Herb Gardner speak before the film in the early Nineties at the Film Forum here in NYC, he noted that there were only two pristine prints of it in existence at that time — the one belonging to him and the one that Hoffman owns.

He also spoke with great fondness of the sequence below, noting that much of it is a first take for Harris — the fact that Hoffman’s head is in frame in certain shots is not an “artistic effect,” but rather Grosbard making use of her first, gorgeous rendition of the material.

Harry Kellerman… was thought of as bewildering and self-indulgent. It certainly isn’t linear, but with Gardner, Grosbard, Silverstein, and an absolutely sterling cast, it remains a must-see picture that is pretty hard to see. Thus, I offer Harris’s absolutely moving and beguiling sequence in its entirety (she appears in a few more short scenes, but is then called by “Kellerman” and her relationship with Georgie is ended):

No comments: