Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Better than her material: Isabelle Huppert in ‘Phaedra(s)’

Isabelle Huppert is a fearless performer, whose presence in a film or play is often the No. 1 incentive to see it, as she is constantly working to challenge herself and chooses to appear in the most difficult and varied projects imaginable. Few other stars make such a concerted effort to keep their work fresh and unpredictable.

Often, though, she is the best thing about a given work. Case in point was Phaedra(s), a “triptych” of three one-act plays that appeared at the BAM “Next Wave” festival from Sept. 13-18. The production was a pretentious mix of grandiose themes, shrill action, and bewildering tangents.

I've talked on the Funhouse TV show about the two reasons I think Huppert is the finest actress working in film today. The first is that she is an absolute master at depicting characters experiencing a breakdown — be it an emotional, psychological, or physical breakdown, there are few performers currently working anywhere in the world who can do this in as deft a way as Huppert.

The other aspect of her work that is so impressive is that she is willing to play unlikeable characters, and in fact seems to seek those kinds of multidimensional roles out — not villains, mind you, but women who are often abrasive or selfish or emotionally distant (as people frequently are in real life). American stars love to be loved — it's the clearest path to good reviews and Oscars, so they steer clear of the types of characters that Huppert pursues and then incarnates to perfection. (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn had a heyday doing those kinds of parts, but both seem to have fallen into the wilderness.)

Her interest in conflicting emotions and emotional meltdowns clearly drew her to Phaedra(s), the brainchild of director Krzysztof Warlikowski. He and many of the cast and crew are Polish, although the play was developed and first staged in Paris, and later brought to London and NYC, where English subtitles were projected above the stage. Warlikowski decided to join together three one-acts that tackle the Phaedra/Hippolytus legend in very different ways.

The first piece, by the Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, is the closest to the original myth, about a woman who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, is spurned by him, accuses him of having raped her and, after he is put to death by his father, kills herself. Huppert first played the goddess Aphrodite, then Phaedra, who in this incarnation does sleep with Hippolytus.

The piece was rendered in a hyper-minimalist fashion but, to put a modernist spin on the proceedings, Hippolytus is introduced to us speaking into a video camera (we see him from behind as he stands in a Lucite “room” that was rolled onto and off of the stage). The play is preceded by an Arabic rock tune performed beautifully, with a dancer doing a sexy “exotic” routine that seems included solely to indicate (like the video) that this is a multilayered work.

The second play, by British cult figure Sarah Kane (whose suicide at 28 looms large in her legend), is a modern-day variation on the tale, with Hippolytus (Andrzej Chyra) as a spoiled playboy, whose stepmom Phaedra gives him a blow job before she learns that he's been sleeping with his stepsister (her daughter). Warlikowski chose to have this play take place almost entirely in the Lucite room (“they're like caged animals, see? The modern world is like a multimedia prison cell, folks!”).

A TV set is on during this piece and it shows the Psycho shower scene in slow-motion on a loop, synchronized to the violence of Hippolytus' actions. Again, a message as subtle as a flying mallet, and a thoroughly distracting touch that would better serve a gallery installation than a play.

Between the second and third plays was an interlude in which the sexy dancer came out and performed her exotic shimmy in spangly bra and panties. At one point she narrowly avoided a wardrobe malfunction (for a production with so much sex in it, there was no nudity).

The “industrial” sounding music increased in speed and served as the only element that distinguished the dance routine from something you’d see in a nice hipster “modern burlesque” show. (“Sexy for the men *and* the ladies in the audience!”) What it had to do with the legend of Phaedra was… exactly nothing.

The third and last one-act was a thematically related piece by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, in which famous author Elizabeth Costello (Huppert) is interviewed on a French TV talk show by a chatty host (Chyra) about the sexual relationships in ancient times between gods and humans. This was the “comedy” of the evening but it clumsily switched gears to find the author and the talk show host suddenly acting out dialogue from Racine’s Phaedra.

Despite the fact that there was a lighter tone to Coetzee’s play, one still got the impression of watching a spoof of avant-garde theater. Productions at BAM frequently give off that impression — it has, of course, been the NYC home for many Robert Wilson productions, each one of which seems to be a carbon copy of the one that preceded it, albeit using a different primary color palette.

The final distractions included in the production were clips from the two films shown during the Coetzee play. The first was from Frances, showing Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) receiving electroshock therapy and the “state of the art” lobotomy that jumbled her mind for the rest of her life; the second was from Pasolini’s Teorema, showing a god in human form (Terence Stamp) coming on to a human (Silvana Mangano). 

The fact that the clips were (again) heavily distracting from the piece we were watching was a given — but the presence of the Frances clip was indeed baffling (so much so I don’t remember how/why it was shoehorned into the proceedings).

Throughout the evening — have I forgotten to mention that the production ran close to three and a half hours? — it was apparent that Huppert’s performance was superb and the plays were interesting at best, overblown at worst. The one lengthy scene that didn’t involve Huppert — in the Kane play, which was started before the single intermission and concluded afterward — found Hippolytus (Chyra) and a priest (Alex Descas, familiar from the films of Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch) discussing the suicide of Phaedra. Both actors did a fine job with the scene, but Huppert was sorely missed — her energy had been driving the proceedings, taking our attention away from the gimmicks and messages that infused the material.

For over three hours Huppert simmered, suffered, seduced, and exploded (on at least three occasions she screamed “Je l'aiiiiiiame!” – “I love him!”). Her portrait gallery of multidimensional characters was enhanced by a trio of bravura performances in what was otherwise an unpredictable but wildly overblown affair.

On Saturday Sept. 17, Huppert did a Q&A about the play at BAM (no recordings or photos allowed). She spoke with philosophy prof (and devout Bowie fan) Simon Critchley about her approach to acting and her answers were, unsurprisingly, direct and matter-of-fact.

“I don't have a theoretical approach,” she declared, adding that there is “no mission” involved in her performances. “The story matters very little for me,” she stressed — for her it is all about "bringing the vision of the director” to life. She referred to her work with theater directors and filmmakers as both a “secret conversation” and “an existential adventure” (she excused herself for the grandiose sound of this last phrase).

The audience Q&A portion of the event was, true to form, filled with audience members making lengthy statements about themselves before asking their questions. (This is a characteristic of so many Q&A sessions with artists and entertainers in NYC that it almost becomes a parody of itself.) The only one that was intriguing, albeit beside the point, was from a gent who claimed he had been unable to speak to Jean Seberg when he met her and was similarly silenced when he met Huppert years before.

His question (when it was finally broached) was about the role of Joan of Arc. Huppert noted that she worked with Seberg (on Le Grand Delire in 1975 when Isabelle was 22 and Seberg was making her next-to-last film, four years before her tragic death at 41) and got the chance to talk with her about having worked with Otto Preminger (Huppert made her English-language debut in Preminger's failed 1975 thriller Rosebud). She commented on her own experience playing Joan of Arc in an oratorio in which she was suspended 32 feet above the stage on a small platform.

She had no further remarks about Seberg, but stressed again that she, Isabelle, performed her roles to make the character “live” and to collaborate with certain directors. Her track record is certainly unblemished because, even if the film or theater production she's starring in is sub par, she is consistently superb. 

Note: I was unable to identify the photographers who took the images above; if those photographers would like me to credit them (or to remove the image), please drop a line to ed at mediafunhouse dot com.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Contained explosions: the screen persona and refreshing honesty of Deceased Artiste Gene Wilder

There have been a flood of pieces written about Gene Wilder in the days since his passing. A handful of his film performances are so beloved (and rightly so) that the emotions unleashed by his death have been of the kind that usually accompany the passing of a pop star or an A-list movie star. Wilder hadn’t been in a box-office hit since the Eighties and yet viewers have a strong love for him, a love that was kindled by about a half-dozen truly great films and another half-dozen that are well remembered because of Wilder’s interaction with other great comic actors.

I would argue that anything Wilder was in from the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies is worth seeing — the Eighties much less so, and he gave up the ghost in the early Nineties, working in only a handful of TV movies and series before an unofficial “retirement” in 1999.

A quick commercial break…

The brilliance of his low-key performances, which often erupted into wonderful outbursts of hysteria, was showcased perfectly in the Seventies — that period in which so many performers and filmmakers made superb films and then it all disappeared in a Star Wars-fueled frenzy of crap.

Although most discussions of that era deal exclusively with dramas (or films that were both drama and comedy like The Long Goodbye), the “maverick” period was also exceptional for comedies. Three alumni of the Sid Caesar “school” of comedy writing — Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and (to a lesser extent) Neil Simon — crafted a number of truly excellent films that, in the case of Brooks and Allen, were as daringly original as the brilliant “revisionist” films of that period, and the best all-around comedies since the Golden Age of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Fields & West.

Wilder was an integral part of this, as he costarred in one of the most perfect comedies ever, The Producers (1967), and starred in and coscripted another flawless picture, Young Frankenstein (1974). During the period of “maverick cinema” he made his debut in Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a prologue to the flood of brilliance provoked by the success of Easy Rider), made the three classics with Mel, starred in an underrated romance (Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, 1970), made a memorably downbeat comic TV movie (Thursday’s Game), reunited with Le Grand Zero in the ambitious mess Rhinoceros (1974), distinguished himself in Woody’s anthology Everything You Ever Wanted to Learn About Sex… (1972, seen at right), played a rabbi in the Old West in the Robert Aldrich much-loved comedy The Frisco Kid (1979), and gave an unforgettable performance as the infinitely cool, refined yet cruel, Willy Wonka.

Two of the lesser known items above: first a scene from Quackser Fortune

and the entirety of Thursday's Game:

Like many, many others, after Jaws and Star Wars pushed Hollywood into the “blockbuster zone” from which is has never escaped, Wilder never got the same kind of roles after the mid-Seventies because those kind of comedies weren't being made any more. The two masters of American film comedy in the Seventies, Allen and Brooks, became, respectively, a fine filmmaker whose films were no longer overt comedies (and whose artsy ambitions were visible in every Bergman lift) and an unfortunately spotty, uneven director who eventually looked, sadly, like he was copying those (coughZuckerAbrahamsZuckercough) who had learned from him.

So the reason that Wilder's death was greeted with an outpouring of sadness was based on a handful of sublime performances he gave us in the span of a decade. He underplayed his roles beautifully during that period and thus, when the time came — as it so often did — for him to explode, the resulting hysteria was funnier. Willy Wonka might well have remained his best-remembered role because he is the one Wilder character who was utterly in control of his environment.

Wilder was a disciplined actor and, despite his repeated protests in interviews that he was not a funny person, he had perfect comic timing and was (let's be honest here) incredibly lovable. The maverick era saw Woody Allen and Elliot Gould at the two poles of Jewish masculinity in screen comedy — Woody as the uber-nebbish, Gould as the disaffected guy who was big enough to actually fight back if he wanted to.

Wilder was somewhere in between, since he was never as macho as Gould, but he was a more developed, well-adjusted, and more handsome nebbish than Woody. He could thus make Victor “Fron-kon-steen” both a convincingly debonair socialite and a raving madman.

It is a joy to explore Wilder through the Seventies, doing the occasional scene-stealing cameo (as in The Little Prince) while also starring in a string of features that range in quality from absolutely perfect to ambitious misfires like the American Film Theater version of Rhinoceros, which found him reuniting with Zero Mostel:

After the maverick Seventies turned into the blockbuster Eighties, Wilder's career did truly slow down. The films he directed in the style of Young Frankenstein didn't take off, and he was too "neurotic" to play in more conventional rom-coms. His films with Richard Pryor and The Woman in Red (1984) were the only box office successes in his later career (more on those below).

Having invested wisely and never a part of the Hollywood “industry” he stopped making films in the early Nineties, and subsequently appeared in only a handful of TV movies and sitcoms, like the rather bleak Something Wilder (1994-’95), which did have one interesting guest-star:

What interested me about the interviews with Wilder is that, while some of his anecdotes were indeed stories he'd told time and again —how cheering up his ill mother made him a comic performer (best discussed in the interview below), how he met Gilda Radner and his widow Karen — he was also incredibly honest about the relationships with the three individuals that interviewers and members of the public wanted to know about.

The first was, of course, Mel Brooks. Wilder often cited Mel as the one person who got his acting career going for real, after a few years of working in supporting roles in theater and TV. In the process of talking about The Producers Gene also spoke about how welcoming Zero Mostel was to him.

Even though Wilder was Brooks' first choice for Leo Bloom, he found out that he had to audition for Mostel, which made him incredibly nervous. Zero's way of calming him down was to kiss him on the mouth upon meeting him.

The other reminiscences of Zero that Wilder offered were pleasant memories of having lunch with him. When the rest of the cast and crew would be out, he and Zero would sit together eating their sandwiches, with Zero telling him about his past, including his years of being blacklisted as a “Red.”

An animated tangent: Zero and Gene worked together on two films (Producers and Rhinoceros) and the “Letterman” cartoon segments on The Electric Company (the narrator is none other than Joan Rivers).

Back to Mel: Wilder spoke affectionately of him in interviews, discussing the fact that (in spite of Brooks' reputation as an ad-libber), his films contain little to no improvisation; what he wanted performed was the script as written. In various interviews, particularly the Biography episode below, Gene discusses the scrapped project the two were to make after Silent Movie was completed — a comic take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was dropped when Wilder read that John Cleese had announced a similar project.

Wilder was polite in his interviews in the 2000s (done to promote the five books he wrote), but he was also uncommonly honest (perhaps because he had nothing to lose, having essentially retired from performing). In interviews like this one from 2005 with WNYC's Leonard Lopate, Gene declared that Brooks' films became less interesting when Mel took the starring roles in them.

A bold pronouncement, though sadly true, because as funny as Brooks was and is, his two absolutely perfect films are ones he didn't appear in, while the films he starred in range from uneven but still fun (High Anxiety) to abysmal (Life Stinks). He didn't star in his last two films (the Robin Hood and Dracula spoofs), but by that point his films had indeed started to look like copies of the work of those who were inspired by, or simply imitating, him.

Wilder could be equally blunt about his own work. I was surprised to hear him say in the Biography program above that he wasn't a very good director, as he had spoiled his comedies with untold amounts of “schmaltz.” While I have affection for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and The World's Greatest Lover (1977), it is very true that they needed some of Brooks' over-the-top comic approach, while Mel's post-Young Frankenstein films could have used a dose of Wilder's restraint.

Wilder was also very honest in his statements about his four-time screen “partner” Richard Pryor. He maintained that he had fond feelings for Richard, but that they never really socialized. He was also quick to say that Richard was hard to take during the making of Stir Crazy (1980) because he was always arriving on-set late (that being the time when Pryor was heavily into cocaine).

I'm a major fan of both gentlemen but have felt for years that those movies in which they were paired as a team are unfortunately well below par for both of them. I confess I avoided the final film, Another You, but the other three are indeed meager fare for very talented screen comedians. 

Silver Streak (1976) is an action comedy into which they were shoehorned (pleasant to watch, but not very funny). Stir Crazy is a disappointment for all involved but was incredibly popular at the time it was released (by the point where a prison rodeo has taken over the picture, you tend to forget why you love Gene and Richard so much). 

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) was the grimmest of the bunch. Wilder proudly noted that he rewrote the screenplay (which was significant to him because it was how he met his wife Karen), but the film is as sad as hell. The villains are interestingly cast (Kevin Spacey and Joan Severance, straight from their stint together in the TV series Wiseguy), but there's an air of tragedy hanging over the film. At the time it was shot, Gene was dealing with Gilda Radner's terminal cancer and Richard was starting to look ill (he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis).

So both men look haunted throughout this light comedy and, to make matters worse, it's a farce about a blind man and a deaf man who stumble onto a criminal conspiracy. Like the other Pryor-Wilder films, it made a lot of money but was just another mediocre comedy vehicle picture.

Wilder's life was indeed filled with many triumphs, but as he got older, there was a vibe of tragedy that viewers associated with him. This was due in no small part to his “dream relationship” with Gilda Radner. Everyone was so smitten with both of them that their real-life romantic union seemed like a comedy dream come true — the love story of Leo Bloom and Roseanne Rosannadanna.

The details of their relationship were chronicled in countless interviews, Gilda's memoir It's Always Something, and Gene's autobio Kiss Me Like a Stranger. It did seem like a perfect romantic comedy partnership — although the three movies they made together were as meager as the Pryor-Wilder comedies. Their love story was doomed to a tragic end because of the return of Gilda's cancer (which she celebrated beating in her memoir), which lead to her death in May 1989 (a week after See No Evil... was released).

The amount of affection the public had for both of them, and still has (those of us who remember and love 'em both), ensured that Wilder was to be forever thought of as “the tragic widower of Gilda Radner” long after her death. His involvement in founding the charity Gilda's Club further identified him with her.

Thus, it's fascinating to hear him say in the very informal and informative interview below (which isn't dated by the 92nd St Y on YouTube, but which took place in 2007) that Gilda was definitely “not the love of my life.”

He clearly had loved her, but the chronological truth of the situation is that he began dating his widow Karen less than six months after Gilda's death, and he and she remained married until his death from Alzheimer's last week (their union having lasted 27 years; he and Gilda were a couple for seven years).

The honesty that Wilder exhibited in these interviews is not just endearing, it's rare to find in chats with movie stars, who spend most of their time walking on eggshells when asked about their feelings for a collaborator or a loved one.

Wilder's most notable characteristics as a performer were his lovable-nebbish quality and his tendency toward hysterical explosions. The fact that he was uncommonly blunt in conversation makes him even more lovable in my estimation.

"I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!"