Thursday, August 21, 2014

The melancholy dynamo: Deceased Artiste Robin Williams (Part 2 of two)

Before I sink into Williams’ best performances, let me briefly touch on the beginning of his career on TV and two of the more memorable recent appearances of what seemed to be “the real Robin.”

Williams appeared on two short-lived NBC variety series in 1977. The most notable is The Richard Pryor Show, which was notoriously censored by the network and then canceled. The other one-season wonder was the resurrection of Laugh-In. This little chunk of the show includes Frank Sinatra and Jilly, Cindy Williams, Flip Wilson, and the new cast of zanies (featuring both Robin *and* the equally frenzied Lenny Schultz!).

Another nugget of Robin as a comic actor, this time on the absolutely brilliant America 2-Night (1978). Here he plays a small-town gigolo interviewed by Barth Gimble (Martin Mull) and Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard).

The contrast between early and “later” (read: recent) Williams is, of course, incredibly sad, since, as was noted in the Guardian piece that I linked to in part one of this entry, when he was revealing his inner self to interviewers he would get very quiet and incredibly serious. His sense of humor was still there, but it was a grimmer kind of humor, in which he tended to laugh at himself or at the inevitability of certain situations.

This was most prevalent in his interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. The interviewer was a very important one for Maron, as Williams was his biggest-name guest to that date and the episode cemented Marc’s role as a seeming “therapist” figure in his interviews (albeit a therapist who mentions his own addictions and problems at length). The result is a very touching and genuine interview that did indeed introduce us to the “real” Robin.

The most moving instance of this same quiet, reflective Robin appeared in the recent (2012) episode of Louie in which he and Louis CK (both playing themselves) meet at the funeral of a much-loathed comedy-club owner — a funeral at which they are the only attendees. It is a beautiful piece of work that is a testament to both LCK’s writing/directing and Robin’s acting:


But now, onto Williams’ film work, the crème de la crème in my estimation. Setting aside a bit part in the sketch comedy film Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses? (1977) — which was of course rereleased when he became a TV star Williams started at the top, as the star of Robert Altman’s large-scale, big-budget, ultra-imaginative (and often utterly crazy) Popeye (1980).

The film was trashed by critics when it came out and was reported to have been a flop at box office (although Altman’s obits noted it did quite well, rating as his second highest-grossing film behind M*A*S*H). In recent years it has been reappraised and now has a cult following, which includes Paul Thomas Anderson, who used a Popeye song from the film in Punch Drunk Love.

My take on the film is that it is a visual marvel that is also two-thirds of a great picture. I am a major Altman worshipper, but Popeye is one of that small group of his films that peter out in the last third — A Perfect Couple is the best example of this “almost perfect” type of film.

The last third of the picture devolves into a chase scenario (and then a fight, and then shtick with an octopus) — a chase at the end of a farce nearly always being a sign that a scripter gave up. In this case the scripter was the great Jules Feiffer, and the “descent” into endless frenzy was reportedly the result of the wild mood on the set (which was located on the island of Malta and was populated by well-medicated individuals); if I remember correctly, it’s been noted that the production ran out of money to get the end of the script shot.

When the film is working, it’s a cartoon come to life that benefits not only Altman’s unerring eye for casting — Shelley Duvall was the one and only choice for Olive Oyl — but his love of depicting unusual communities in his films. The other sublime aspect is the collection of songs by Harry Nilsson, which perfectly establishes the light and lively tone of the film.

Robin does a wonderful job as Popeye, naturally reveling in the character’s tossed-off asides and unique mode of cursing.

After Popeye came Williams’ first lead dramatic role, as T.S. Garp in the excellent movie adaptation of World According to Garp (1982). Robin incarnates Garp with depth and nuance — a far cry from his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-too approach to comedy.

As I noted in the first part of this piece, the film works beautifully because it points the viewer back to the book. Like Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), it’s an example of George Roy Hill tackling an episodic novel and producing an excellent film (without Slaughterhouse’s only flaw — a really flat lead actor).

The ensemble cast is all terrific — Glenn Close was never better and John Lithgow injected the perfect note of sincerity to his eccentric role. But, in the final analysis, the film rests on Williams. And, as often happens when an artist or entertainer dies, certain moments from their work acquire an added poignancy.

A lot of the movie comedies Robin starred in missed the mark. One that is half a good movie is The Survivors (1983). Michael Ritchie functioned as a sort of mini-Robert Altman in the Seventies, making perceptive films about the American Dream that were excellent time capsules that also happened to explore timeless issues — The Candidate, Smile, and Semi-Tough being the three best examples. 

The Survivors finds William teaming with Walter Matthau in a satire on the survivalist movement. The film makes very good points about America’s obsession with guns and militarism, until it basically becomes just a kooky, crazy comedy about Robin’s character’s personal war against a crook (Jerry Reed).

One of Robin's finest performances is in a film that most have overlooked, a PBS production based on a Saul Bellow novel called Seize the Day (1986). He plays a completely normal guy, a down-on-his-luck salesman in Fifties NYC. He needs dough for his wife and kids (and his mistress, who wants him to marry her). As the film moves on, he descends in a downward spiral that ends with a very memorable finale.

The film is one of those perfect “small movies” that evokes a place and time while also showcasing a great ensemble of actors. Director Fielder Cook reproduces the Fifties in beautiful detail — not that big a surprise, as he spent that period directing landmark TV dramas like Rod Serling's “Patterns.”

The incredible supporting includes Joseph Wiseman (as Williams' dad, another classic portrait from Wiseman of an old-fashioned Jewish gentleman), Jerry Stiller (in a scene-stealing role as a con artist), Tony Roberts, John Fiedler, William Hickey, Jo Van Fleet, and Fyvush Finkel.

The film qualifies as a great discovery for those who like Williams as an actor, but have only seen him in mainstream Hollywood fodder.

Awakenings (1990) was a happy convergence of compelling subject matter, two great lead performances, and surprisingly subtle direction by Penny Marshall. The oddest thing about the film, trivia-wise, is that it starred the two men who hung out with John Belushi on the night of his overdose and was directed by the woman he briefly left his wife for.

De Niro is in the spotlight giving the more broadly drawn performance (this being the time when every De Niro performance was still worth seeing — before the dry rot and the countless bad movies came along), but Williams matches him perfectly, playing the button down real-life doctor/author Oliver Sacks. Here is a wonderful scene featuring Williams, from the end of the movie.

The Fisher King (1991) is possibly Williams' best work on-screen. The film remains for me one of Terry Gilliam's best films, although it is not a traditional “Terry Gilliam film” (read: a project he instigated and/or co-scripted). It contains a beautiful fusion of everyday reality and the kind of lyrical imagery that Gilliam produces at his best.

The entire cast is terrific, with Jeff Bridges giving a characteristically terrific lead performance and Mercedes Ruehl stealing the film as his very down-to-earth girlfriend (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here). Each piece of the puzzle fits perfectly, with Williams being perfectly cast as a professor who went insane and became homeless when his wife was killed in front of him.

The palpable sense of tragedy that Robin was able to conjure is central to his character, but Fisher King is not a flat-out drama — his character actually belongs more to the “charming mental patient” portrait gallery that appeared in the Sixties and early Seventies (with Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment and King of Hearts being prime examples). The film is both a character study and a memorable love story.

Here Williams' character meets his object of obsession, an incredibly mousy young woman played to perfection by Amanda Plummer:

A disturbing and touching breakdown scene in which Robin's character loses it entirely as Bridges tries to talk to him about his real identity, and his enemy, “the Red Knight” appears in Central Park:

One of the film's most memorable and gorgeous scenes occurs when Williams pursues Plummer through Grand Central Station. Oddly, I had remembered this as a piece done in period costume. It isn't, but it is a slice of everyday reality transformed into radiant romantic fantasy by Gilliam:

Another unfairly overlooked film starring Williams is Being Human (1994), directed by Scottish director Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Local Hero). It's an incredibly ambitious film that tracks one character throughout different historical eras, five in all.

It's a bumpy ride that seems without a destination when the film finds Robin as a slave in Imperial Rome and as a Scottish traveler in Italy. By the fifth and final episode, though, it all becomes clear: his character is just an Everyman looking for a pair of comfortable shoes and trying to figure out how to reclaim the women and children he kept abandoning in his previous lives. His interactions with his children in a long beach scene at the end of the picture seem wholly genuine and very moving.

The whole film can be found here; this is the trailer:

As the Nineties moved on, I began to “detach” as a fan of Robin's work as an actor just as I had from his comedy in the early Eighties. This was the result of having seen Hook, Flubber, Toys, and Jumanji — all perfectly crafted kiddie movies that didn't do a damned thing for me. Williams continued to star in many, many features, make unbilled cameos in other movies, and do voices for cartoons.

Thus I wound up stupidly avoiding What Dreams May Come (1998), one of the best-loved of Williams' dramas, a kind of “Twilight Zone” afterlife saga based on a novel by iconic “Zone” scribe Richard Matheson. The picture is a heavy tearjerker that somehow never gets too Spielbergian (read: shamelessly mawkish) because there is an overload of imagination at work throughout.

The plot can best be summarized as “Orpheus in reverse,” as Robin's character dies, then tries to find his wife in the afterlife after she commits suicide (to make matters even more heavily, heavily dramatic, their kids died years before them). On paper I would run far, far away from this kind of plotline — especially with the added incentive of “state-of-the-art CGI effects” (state of the art for '98, that is) — but Dreams examines notions about death and “where we go” in a way that satisfies even a nonbeliever like myself.

For one of the most memorable scenes is when Williams finds himself in an afterlife that is actually a newly done oil painting, with the presumption being that art really is the stuff of life. The other notion that the picture explores — which of course acquired another level of sadness after Robin killed himself — is the idea that suicides are banished to hell. Here the notion is that good people who commit suicide (in this case Williams' wife, played by Annabella Sciorra) wind up in Hell because they can't forgive themselves.

The film is a bit uneven, but as with Being Human, its sheer crazy ambition makes it worth watching, especially for those looking for a mostly sad, but ultimately hopeful, love story (with a very odd cameo by Werner Herzog at 1:50 here). A favorite scene:

2002 might have been the most interesting year in Williams' movie career, for in that one year he starred in three films in which he played the villain — and he was a damned good villain.

The first of the trio is One Hour Photo (2002), a “small movie” that has elements of a crime thriller, but is ultimately a super-low-key character study. Robin is incredibly good as the lead character, a psychotic photo developer who has developed an obsession with a local family. We are both sympathetic to, and creeped out by, his character throughout the picture, and it's a very lonely, lonely piece:

Death to Smoochy (2002) is a very dark comedy directed by Danny DeVito that is (again!) half of a great movie. The first half sketches the characters — most importantly a moronically naïve children's entertainer (Edward Norton) and the man he replaces, a foul-mouthed, completely nasty kiddie show host played by Robin.

The script was written by Adam Resnick, the co-creator of the brilliant Chris Elliott show Get a Life and the only Elliott vehicle, the sublimely silly Cabin Boy. Here the characters are similarly brusque and cartoonish, but the picture sadly loses it in the second half and resolves with a race against time — the usual sign (see above, re: Popeye) that a comedy has hit the wall. Still in all, Williams is great as the seriously nasty “Rainbow Randolph.”

The final 2002 film in which Williams played the villain is Insomnia (2002), a cat-and-mouse crime thriller that finds L.A. cop Al Pacino in a small Alaskan town trying to apprehend psycho-killer Robin.

Director by Christopher Nolan (he of the “thinking man's action thrillers”), the film is extremely long and contains a very mannered performance by Pacino as “the drowsy detective” (see, this cop ain't used to the sun being out all night, so he never gets any sleep and just keeps moving around like he's in a dream or somethin'....).

Williams is very menacing, perhaps because he plays the character in such a laidback fashion. We don't see him in person until the film's second half, and even there he is mostly present in two-character scenes with Pacino, wherein he outshines our sleepy-boy by simply underplaying his part. Robin brings to mind Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, but with a sweeter voice and demeanor — making him all the more scary.

Fun trivia fact: one of the Alaskan cops is played by Paul Dooley, who was of course Wimpy to Robin's Popeye in the Altman film.

In many of his interviews, Robin noted that he fell off the wagon in 2003. He went into rehab in 2006, had heart surgery in 2009, and challenged himself with his first starring role on Broadway in 2011 (I do wish I had seen that). A few weeks before his death he checked himself back into rehab for what he called a “tune-up.” It's interesting to note that his filmography during this period is still as vigorous as it ever was, but the films were mostly pretty awful.
One major exception is Bobcat Goldthwait's pitch-black comedy World’s Greatest Dad (2009). Williams plays the father of, to put it plainly (and to quote the film’s dialogue) a teenage “douchebag” who dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation. He cleans up the boy's body, and in an echo of Robin's own death, makes the death scene look as if his son hanged himself. He also writes a tortured suicide note and later a diary, making his son into a persecuted but big-hearted humanitarian.

A pungent satire of both the gullibility of the American public and the “grief industry,” the film is very funny and extremely nasty towards its targets. Its fit in quite nicely with Bobcat's preceding film, the very funny Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005), another modern American morality play with a sting in its tail, and the absolutely terrific dark comedy God Bless America (2011).

Of course the film received “news” coverage when broadcasters and Net-gossip sites were looking for sequences in Williams' films that involved suicide. The fact that Robin had appeared in a film on this topic was labeled “shocking” in the click-bait write-ups, but the film ends with a sort of fascinating “purification” sequence and has a very simple message: people are who they are, no matter what happens to them. The celebrity-making machinery of the media moves lightning-fast and is often based on nothing more than a bunch of lies.

Fun fact trivia: Bobcat notes in this interview (at 5:20) that he wrote the leading role in the film for Philip Seymour Hoffman and initially asked Robin to appear in a smaller part in the film.


The only way to end this tribute to Robin is to spotlight his relationship with the quick-witted comic genius who made him laugh like crazy, Jonathan Winters. Winters also suffered from depression and was a recovering alcoholic. He never ended his own life, but comparisons of the two men are ultimately faulty, since they both came from different backgrounds, were of different age groups, and used their “madness” in very different ways in their comedy.

Perhaps the best footage of Jonathan cracking up Robin, and then the two trading odd improvs, is this outtake from a 1986 60 Minutes interview. Also wonderful is this goofy little sketch from Winters' 1986 cable special On the Ledge:

And the duo appeared on The Tonight Show back in 1991, with Jon reminding Robin of their time working on Mork and Mindy together: “You had access to more medication in those days....” It is indeed a lovely thing hearing Robin laugh at his hero.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The melancholy dynamo: Deceased Artiste Robin Williams (part 1 of two)

When Robin Williams burst on the scene, I was a young comedy fan who was ready to be blown away by his energy and insane verbal skills. My friends and I made a pilgrimage to the Unique Warehouse on Broadway in the NYU section of the Village (now ever-expanding…) to buy the suspenders that Robin wore on Mork and Mindy — yes, I was that big of a comedy geek and a fan for his frantic, hyper-kinetic mode of standup comedy.

I had two surprises lying in wait: the first was that Mork and Mindy came back for its second season and was really, really unfunny. I’ve only seen a few shows descend in quality that quickly, and in those cases it was because key writers or entire writing staffs were replaced (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; In Living Color). The damned thing just was nearly impossible to sit through. The writing seemed different, but also the “costar” was now the full-out star, new characters were introduced that dragged the show down, and the kooky sense of humor that punctuated the show was now wall-to-wall, except when mawkish messages were being imparted.

The second surprise was the better one, and the reason I’m writing this blog entry. It also led to me retaining an interest in Williams’ work, even when I wasn’t a fan of his standup anymore (by the early Eighties, it had become a mess of coke-fueled hyper-energy that couldn’t help but wear down the viewer).

The surprise was The World According to Garp (1982), in which super-mega-hyper Robin was quiet, gentle, and gave an incredibly moving performance. It didn’t hurt that George Roy Hill was a wildly underrated director whose adaptations of novels made you want to read the books his films were based on — surely a triumph for any director.

It was a revelation to see Williams give such a grounded, rational, human performance in Garp that I realized I’d have to keep track of what he did as an actor in the movies. This was, mind you, just at the point when for me his standup became unendurably manic — there is no trace of it online, but he was nothing less than obnoxious on a 1988 cable special called An All-Star Toast to the Improv.

On that special six comedians sit on stools, and each does his act in turn. Four of the other comedians — Robert Klein, Richard Lewis, Paul Rodriguez, and Billy Crystal — have their sets ruined by Robin, who seems clearly coked outta his brain (I know, I know he said he was clean as a whistle after '83, but he really does seem to be on *something*, if only caffeine, on the Improv special). He does physical humor (he did have a predilection for dick jokes) and shouts out lines while the other comedians are on.

Thankfully, Martin Mull acknowledged the situation directly by saying “I don’t blame you, Robin — I blame the man who gave you the shot backstage.” He also pointed to Robin while he was ad-libbing on his stool and declared “here is where your March of Dimes dollars go, folks….”

So, while Robin’s comedy act was turning aggressive, obnoxious, and — the single best word for a lot of his hyperactive behavior — desperate, his acting showed him to be an artist and entertainer capable of nuance and depth. (His TV interviews found him bouncing between the two poles, but constantly returning to “hyper”-land.)

There were both good and bad films in the Eighties and Nineties, peaks and lows in his work. Since he died, much emphasis has been put on the period in which he was fully sober — 1983–2003 — and I find it interesting that he did a lot of his best work during this period, but fell into a ditch of really lousy movies after he fell off the wagon. He also started making the kind of really mawkish family-friendly dramas that became one of his lamest (and laziest, given his talent) legacies.

Clearly he was a compulsive workaholic who gave everything (including his health and, at times, his sanity) to both his standup and his acting. The problem clearly became that he was working in too many movies — starring in some, doing voices-work for others, and making guest-star appearances in a whole other batch of films.

In one of the most interesting, and saddest, interviews he did back in 2009 for The Guardian, he acknowledged this fact: "In one two-year period I made eight movies. At one point the joke was that there's a movie out without you in it. You have this idea that you'd better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realize, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you.”

So what I want to do here is celebrate his great movie work, which unfortunately got buried in amongst the bad comedies and dramas, his heart-tugging family stuff, the many cartoons, the guest-starring silliness, and the many, many (many!) movies Robin made over the past three decades.

Unfortunately the 10-15 most brilliant of his films nearly got buried under an avalanche of mediocrities, and the critically lauded films we were supposed love, like Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and, god forbid, The Birdcage — the first three are very good movies, but have been lionized ad infinitum.


Before I commence in salutin’, I should of course address the nature of his death and how, very sadly, it will color the way his work is viewed from this point on (except to children, who will watch his kiddie stuff without knowing he’s the “sad clown who killed himself”). I discussed the Internet-as-kangaroo-court in my piece on Philip Seymour Hoffman — who coincidentally appeared with Robin in one of the ones I haven’t yet brought myself to watch, Patch Adams (the kind of a film that Jerry Lewis no doubt would’ve died to have made in his “Total Filmmaker” phase).

Reaction to Philip Seymour’s death included a great degree of Internet anger (read: self-righteous indignation from a person who won’t sign his own name) against him for having “abandoned” his kids. Robin, too, had three children he left behind, but perhaps it was that Williams was a constant presence in everyone’s life for three decades (read: his sudden death inspired memories of our youth watching him on TV and onscreen).

Perhaps it was also that Williams’ suicide was indeed a suicide, decisively, and was caused by depression. Whatever the case was, there seemed to be far fewer idiots coming down on him for having done something “bad” — Shephard Smith and Rush Limbaugh being two of the major exceptions.

What links the two together (besides, god fucking forbid, Patch Adams) is that both were haunted men and that fed into their performances. Philip Seymour was a chameleon who could work at any level (starring, supporting, cameo) in a film, whereas Robin began his film career (with Altman's Popeye) as a star performer and stayed at that level for the next three decades — even when he was giving a thoroughly genuine subdued performance, as in Garp or Awakenings, he took centerstage, if only because he had star billing and the lion’s share of screen time.

There also was a rush of surprise surrounding Robin’s death, since most people instantly identified him with his comedy persona: boundless energy, constant invention, different voices for each idea. That side of him did wear me down — as has been the case with every high-energy comedian, it’s a case of love ‘em or leave ‘em.

Those who were familiar with his best moments as an actor immediately flashed on the most touching moments where, inevitably, his characters confronted death, from Garp to What Dreams May Come (1998) to the great dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad (2009). He battled depression for many years, and that came through in his best performances (as with Philip Seymour). To be able to deliver such moments of truth, one has to tap into the saddest parts of one’s existence.

Robin’s utterly eager/somewhat desperate comic persona betrayed some of the sadness (if only because he was constantly trying to make people laugh, almost compulsively), whereas his acting utilized the sadness and then — based on the competence of the scripter in question — overcame it. 

Coming up in part two: a “hit list” of Williams' best performances that does not include the box-office sensations (and the Oscar winner).

On the 'vulgarization' of Genet's 'The Maids'

Isabelle Huppert can do wrong. Well, she can appear (and has) in films that aren't quite up to her standard of quality from time to time, but even in those she has given nuanced, detailed performances, making the films at least worth checking out, if not remembering. The notion of her performing in a production of Genet's classic The Maids is thus kind of a dream come true: the perfect actress meets the perfect role (that of Solange, the elder sister).

But the production of the play created at the Sydney Theatre Company that is now being staged in NYC at City Center is an “updating” with a grand new physical presentation and dialogue that has been vulgarized (plenty of fucks and cunts can be heard in the dialogue) and updated to the 21st–century with pop culture references to match (among them, a namecheck of designer Alexander McQueen and a dumb-ass interpolation of “Hi-Ho” from the Disney Snow White).

The updates are felt right from the beginning, as “the Madame” (Cate Blanchett, actually the character Claire as the Madame) makes herself up, while her playful, childlike maid (Huppert as Solange assuming the role of Claire) does crazy exercise-ish dance moves on the bed while the Velvet Underground's “I'll Be Your Mirror” is pumped through the house loud speakers (see, the women are sisters and role-players – they're mirrors, see?). While it is a joy to see Blanchett glamorizing herself while Huppert, legs parted, does some very sexual calisthenics on the bed, the scene is a pointless addition that alerts the audience to the fact that this will be a very “light” production of the play.

But that isn't all we see – director Benedict Andrews and Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton's super-techno updating of the play (“Genet might be a great playwright, but a little mixed media can't hurt!”) means that a giant video screen is above the bedroom set. On the screen we see still-frame details of flowers, the Madame's dresses, shoes, and the like; we also see a different angle on the action (Blanchett's shoes, Huppert lying on the ground, the women looking into mirrors as they make themselves up) and actions that take place offstage.

Herein lies the most abrasive portion of this reviewer's experience seeing the play – I bought a ticket for a nosebleed seat in the back of the mezzanine specifically because it seemed to be well-located in relation to the stage and because the seat in question was not one labeled “obstructed view.” But it did have an obstructed view of the production as a whole – the kind and generous folks at the Lincoln Center Festival and City Center didn't bother to note when one bought a ticket that if you sat in the mezzanine, the video screen would be blocked by the underside of the upper balcony.

So I can report only on what appeared on the very bottom quadrant of the video screen, because my entire section was indeed one with an obstructed view. From what I could see of it, however, the technique was wildly unnecessary and simply intended to “soup up” the proceedings.

What I could see quite clearly was the video cameraman hidden behind the nearly transparent wall. This is an “effect” intended by our two Genet revisionists. What it succeeds in doing – and not in a good way – is distracting us from the actresses trying to breathe life into characters who have been denuded-beyond-denuding so we can watch a technician feverishly rolling a camera back and forth, doing his work all throughout the play. (Genet preferred his “layering” in the casting – wanting teenaged boys to play the maids – rather than in the staging and set design.)

So where one sits in City Center can make the production even more irritating (and the costly kind of irritating to boot). But onto the other changes made to the play by director Andrews – who is hailed in the press materials as “one of Australia's most regarded theatrical talents” (not highly regarded, just regarded), but who definitely seems to have a spiritual connection to his countryman Baz “let's update this storyline – our audience has no attention span!” Luhrmann.

Andrews stages The Maids primarily as a comedy. The tone given to the material, the delivery and pauses the actresses give to their lines, the constant rewrites of the lines (I'd swear I heard the phrase “old school” go by at one point), and the fact that so much of it was staged as farce, not drama, made certain that the audience could yuk it up.

Perhaps Andrews and Upton felt that the play needed a modern “tone” and that would be tongue-in-cheek. The manner in which the play is usually staged was reproduced in the American Film Theater's splendid 1974 film of the play starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York.

That dramatic, heavily ceremonial tone is obviously something Andrews and Upton wished to “improve” upon, thus the farcical tone of his production – which then turns starkly dramatic every so often, when Andrews chose to return to the original text. The shift in tone dilutes the drama and seems to cast a pall over the audience, who, during the performance I saw, seemed disappointed by the dramatic moments and waiting with baited breath to laugh again. (It's the Baz Luhrmann Effect – keep things light and breezy!)

Lastly, there's the matter of casting. The 13 performances of the play are selling out in Manhattan because of the stellar duo in the lead roles. Blanchett is fresh off of winning an Oscar, and Huppert is arguably the best actress on the planet, so the two seem like a “dream team” in a well-known play with sexual/psychological/political overtones. (The last-mentioned aspect of the play is almost buried entirely in Andrews and Upton's vision, by the way.)

There is a definite oddness to the pairing, though, as Huppert is actually French and speaks heavily accented English (but pronounces the few French phrases and names that have been retained beautifully, as could be expected). Blanchett, for her part, starts out the play speaking in a British “posh” accent (when playing the Madame), and then returns to her own native Aussie accent (this being a production from Oz, after all) for the rest of the show.

Thus, playing two sisters who have presumably lived their whole life together in France, you have a real Frenchwoman and a lady from Oz. NYT critic Ben Brantley (who never met an encomium he didn't like) praised this casting, declaring that it “discounts any possibility of our accepting The Maids on easy naturalistic terms.” Good try, Ben (calm down, man!), but your mention of Huppert's accent being “unintelligible” means that the device is a failure. And it is.

To make the production even more odd, Andrews decided to vary the casting of the Madame away from the usual sort of actress who would play the role (an older aristocratic type, like Vivien Merchant in the 1974 AFT version). Instead he has cast Elizabeth Debicki (one of the stars of the Luhrmann “soup this up!” Great Gatsby), a sexy young actress who positively looms over Huppert (I couldn't tell if she's a foot taller, but she really dwarfs her fellow actress, even when barefoot).

So the Madame – who namechecks McQueen and is basically a fashion model who married well, instead of a pompous, condescending aristocrat – is a hot young number (the video feeds having shown us every line on Huppert and Blanchett's faces) who spends most of her time onstage in her lingerie and nothing more. In other productions, the sexual tension has been provided solely by the two actresses playing the maids, but in Andrews and Upton's rerowking, the Madame is also sexually charged, confusing matters entirely and, again, removing the overtly political aspect of Genet's original entirely.

As I started out saying above, though, Huppert can do no wrong. At the end of the play, she is left alone onstage to do a final monologue in which she speaks directly to the audience and reflects on her position in life.

This final scene erases (nearly) the memories of all of Andrews and Upton's innovations and brings the play back down to earth, and to the playacting dimension that is central to the whole affair. No more childlike bouncing around, no more focus on fashion, no more distractions from the acting and the dialogue, just an actress incarnating a character who herself is used to playing a role in her daily life.

Blanchett does wonderful things with her role, and Huppert ultimately triumphs over all the silly innovations dreamed up by Andrews and Upton. It's a shame they're not in a better production of this classic play.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The 'announcer's test' and the nonsense lyric

Summer is the season for silliness (and, evidently, alliteration). There is no greater place to discover purebred, 100% silliness than in novelty tunes (witness the recent welcome re-emergence of the one gent who singlehandedly has been keeping the genre alive, Weird Al). In this post I want to spotlight one piece of sheer ridiculousness and its connection to the world of “nonsense songs.”

Reportedly it was comic actor Del Moore who told Jerry Lewis about “the announcer's test,” a tongue-twisting, laundry-list recitation that was used at NBC to audition prospective radio performers. Lewis has been doing it now for more than half a century; I remember reading that at one point he recited it every night one week while guest-hosting The Tonight Show (I believe in the early Sixties).

The Wikipedia entry for “the announcer's test” indicates that Moore took the test in 1941 – at that point Jerry was a young comedian doing a record-miming act, so I doubt he stopped the records to do this crazy recitation. In any case, Jerry became identified with the piece, which starts off “One hen/one hen, two ducks/one hen, two ducks, three squawking geese...”

One has to wonder how many times Jerry rehearsed that, knowing his perfectionist, control-freak tendencies. The most curious entry in the recitation, concerning “Don Alverso's tweezers” (the name is also spelled “Alverzo”) is explained in one of the many books about Lewis, but I am damned if I can remember which book and who Alverso was – if you are in possession of such knowledge, leave it in the comments field.

People who are not Jerry fans (and I know you're out there, I can hear you audibly loathing him) might be familiar with this recitation as a silly memory test taught at scout camp or in school. I for one am always brought in mind of the “Sanzini Brothers,” the alter-egos of Flo and Eddie, who were the alter-egos of Mark Volman and Funhouse guest Howard Kaylan of the Turtles (seen right with some friends).
Howard and Mark did the announcer's test in their act as “the Tibetan Memory Trick” and included a live recording of it on their 1975 album Illegal, Immoral and Fattening.

I was unaware of the test's existence as a pop-rock single from 1962 – for this, I thank correspondent and “high”/“low” cultural connoisseur RC. The single was called “One Hen,” and it was performed by a group of studio singers named “the Blue Chips” for this project.
The men behind the single were Hugo & Luigi, two Italian-American cousins who worked in the music industry as writers, producers, and record label owners from the Fifties through the Seventies. Their careers included work with Sarah Vaughan, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis, Sam Cooke, and Isley Brothers. One of their final hits was “The Hustle” by Van McCoy in 1975.

In the meantime, they had a little habit at one point of taking foreign melodies and writing new lyrics (with co-writer George Weiss) without ever acknowledging the source for the melody. It's not known if they did this a lot, but there were two very big hits that were examples of this tendency: The Tokens' “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (from the South African musician Solomon Linda's song “Mbube,” better known over here thanks to Pete Seeger and the Weavers as “Wimoweh”) and Elvis's “Can't Help Falling in Love with You” (based on “Plaisr d'Amour” by Jean-Paul Egide Martini).

In this case there was no stated writer of the announcer's test, and they had to come up with the melody themselves (and it ain't much of a melody, just snippets of other tunes). It's quite a little ditty and it became the theme for radio personality Dick Summer (who I know and loved from his later days at WNBC and WYNY here in NYC) when he was on at nights on the Boston radio station WBZ. He called this crazy thing “The Nightlighter's Password.”

“One Hen” is simultaneously really catchy, very dopey, and kinda aggravating if you get it stuck in your cranium. After hearing it, I was brought in mind of the early nonsense songs that no doubt spawned it – tunes that were big hits that were also, by turns, catchy, dopey, and kinda aggravating.

Thus, I present a small handful of these suckers, since the subject of novelty tunes and nonsense songs is very wide, very broad, and most certainly deserves its own blog (it has its own podcast, on which more below; I'm sure there already is a novelty records blog – if so, lemme know in the comments field below).

These songs have existed since recording began, but they seemed to become super-popular with the advent of the big band era. In 1939, Kay Kyser had a major hit with “Three Little Fishes” (with its refrain “Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem chu!” – in looking that up, I got to see at least four distinct ways of spelling this nonsense).

The one that broke new ground by explaining its insanity was, of course, “Mairzy Doats,” the 1944 hit by the Merry Macs. The song is truly catchy as fuck, but like a lot of really good whodunits, it loses much of its allure once you've heard the “solution” (which one of the songwriters said came from his daughter's mispronunciation of something she learned in school), there's not much more to absorb.

Still, the song provides a great defense when the argument is put forth that all the music the “greatest generation” listened to was on the order of Gershwin, Porter, and Kern:

In the Fifties, nonsense songs exploded in the period before rock 'n' roll took hold of the mainstream. This kind of music regularly charted, was performed by name artists, and became its own subgenre throughout the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. The forefather of the whole (WWII and after) thing is of course the god Spike Jones (not Jonze), who begat all the later great weirdo acts, from Tom Lehrer to Zappa with all the stops in between. Spike requires his own blog post, and more than likely his own fan-appreciation blog....

You can blame the emergence of a steady output of novelty 45s on the supposedly super-wholesome and anodyne nature of Fifties culture (a concept that is disproved when one actually digs into Fifties culture), or perhaps because there were more producers like Mitch Miller who put novelties in the mainstream with “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?” and “Mule Train” (with its whipcrack); I prefer to nostalgize about the record Sinatra considered his worst, “Mama Will Bark.” 

In the early Fifties, the nonsense songs weren't as nonsensical. In fact some were was downright educational, like the Four Lads' “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” (which most likely spawned Soupy's awesome “Pachalfaka”). Younger listeners recall the 1990 cover of the song by They Might Be Giants, a band that has ventured into novelty-tune waters (and later kiddie music) at various points in their long career (the duo also has a penchant for writing earworm compositions whose lyrics cannot be dissected).

I was taught this ditty by my mother as a small child. She never embraced rock 'n' roll heavily in the Fifties, but she did fall victim to the occasional novelty ditty:

I could go on and on about novelty records, but won't (right now). I will, though, point you to an act that followed in the tradition I've been talking about, the vocal combo known as the Gaylords. They were a trio of Italian-Americans (do you sense a trend here? Another post could handle Lou Monte and nonsense deity Louis Prima!) doing songs like “The Little Shoe Maker” and “Ma-Ma-Ma-Marie.” 

But the earworms, man, the earworms... When the group performed in a distinctly non-Italian mode, they sang catchy Fifties tunes like this impossible-to-forget paean to a Chinese restaurant (which apparently has gotten a second life to a Mafia video game):

KBC – he of the Bitslap podcast – provided my intro to the music of the Gaylords. In one show he did a looooong time ago, KBC not only played “No More Chow Mein,” but the ditty below, “Papa Poppadopolis, the Happy Locksmith Man.” There is an incredible innocence at work here (the kind that was gone around the time of another song about a profession, Meri Wilson's “Telephone Man” – yes, the novelty-record trove goes deep, it goes verrrrry deep....).

And because this must end somewhere, I punctuate this discussion with a novelty/nonsense song that does actually hurt my head. It's sung by the calmest man in music, Perry Como, and is a carefully crafted tune that has a little “secret” to it... well, you'll figure it out in a line or two and you'll scream for mercy. This discussion of nonsense in music will be resumed at some point in the future.

Thanks to RC for the original “discussion” about “One Hen.” My thanks also go to the intrepid KBC, who continues to do excellent work on his weekly “Bitslap” podcast. He's currently on a short summer layoff, but has left us several years worth of old episodes and promises to be back in September!