Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Honor To Be Nominated - Shampoo

Number of Nominations: 4 – Supporting Actor (Jack Warden); Supporting Actress (Lee Grant); Original Screenplay (Robert Towne and Warren Beatty); Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell and George Gaines)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress)

Several months ago, around the time Rules Don’t Apply was released to thunderous waves of indifference, I was surprised to find myself having to explain who exactly Warren Beatty is to a few younger people. This wasn’t an isolated incident and, while I don’t think any of the people I spoke to would necessarily describe themselves as hardcore movie buffs, they certainly aren’t entirely ignorant of film history. They were very aware of Beatty’s contemporaries, including Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. But Beatty and his work had made little to no impact. By the time the Oscars rolled around, social media reactions to this year’s Best Picture snafu confirmed what I already suspected: an entire generation has grown up without a single clue who Warren Beatty is.

As I rattled off titles of Beatty’s most famous films to these twenty-somethings, it gradually occurred to me that it was no wonder they’d never heard of him. He’s only made half a dozen pictures since around the time they’d been born in the early 1990s and none of them really lit the world on fire. His biggest hit, 1990’s Dick Tracy, didn’t leave much of a footprint after it left cinemas. Today, it’s warmly regarded by certain fans as sort of a cultish curiosity but nobody has clamored for Dick Tracy Returns in the years since (except, perhaps, for Beatty himself and he’s in no hurry). Both Bulworth and Bugsy have their admirers and supporters but that isn’t the same as having fans. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to speak up for Love Affair or Town & Country, the latter of which is the nadir of multiple careers.

But even the movies that made Warren Beatty an icon have had surprisingly little staying power. Odds are the first movie that jumps to mind with Beatty is Bonnie And Clyde. But Beatty was already a huge star by the time it came out in 1967. He struck it big in his debut, 1961’s Splendor In The Grass, a soapy potboiler that really has not aged well. None of his other movies of the decade made much of a mark (although some are worth checking out) until Bonnie And Clyde. That film’s impact should not be underestimated but, for whatever reason, it’s no longer a movie many people check out just for the hell of it. I first saw it myself in a film history class. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to see. It was something I was required to see.

As both a movie star and a filmmaker, Warren Beatty is inextricably linked to the late 60s and 1970s. Many of his movies were very popular at the time of their release but they remain trapped there in amber, occasionally revisited by those who experienced them first but rarely discovered by new audiences. There is no better example of this than Shampoo, Beatty’s first venture as hands-on star-as-auteur following the success of Bonnie And Clyde. It was one of the biggest hits of 1975, was nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, and is even ranked at #47 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list of the best American comedies. But while I was certainly aware of it, I’d never actually seen it until recently and, judging by its relatively low popularity ranking on such sites as Letterboxd and IMDb, I suspect I’m not alone in that.

Beatty (who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne) stars as George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser whose talent as a stylist is equaled by his proficiency as a lover. He’s eager to open his own salon but when the bank won’t take his request for a loan seriously, he agrees to meet with Lester (Jack Warden), the conservative business tycoon husband of his client/lover Felicia (Lee Grant). Lester, who assumes George is gay, agrees to consider the partnership. He asks George to escort his mistress Jackie (Julie Christie) to an election night dinner party he’s hosting, unaware that she used to be George’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, Jackie has become something of a mentor to George’s current girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and invites her to come along as well.


Shampoo is an unusual film in many respects. Beatty and Towne took William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife as their inspiration and it’s easy to see how Shampoo could be translated back to the stage. The action takes place in a tight 24-hour time span and the characters and their histories are woven together in the style of a classic sex farce.

The film takes place during the 1968 election and televised results feature prominently throughout. The deliberate foregrounding of the first Nixon/Agnew victory, coming just a year after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, calls attention to the fact that Shampoo is a period piece, albeit one where the “period” was less than a decade earlier. But America had changed substantially in those seven years in both mood and style. Beatty, Hawn and Christie don’t even look the way they do in the movie on the poster. There, they’re given a contemporary makeover that looks more like the cover of a 1975 issue of Esquire than a bit of movie marketing. But this is very much a movie about the end of the 60s and the counterculture, the rise of conservatism, and the ultimate failure of both of these value systems. I can almost imagine a remake of Shampoo set during the Trump/Pence election coming out in 2023, although who knows what the world will look like then.

But while Shampoo is explicitly political and the sympathies of noted lefties like Beatty and director Hal Ashby aren’t exactly difficult to crack, its sexual politics are a bit harder to pinpoint. I do think it’s a mistake to view art of the past through the prism of today’s societal attitudes. So while Beatty’s casual dalliance with Grant and Warden’s sexually aggressive teenage daughter (played by Carrie Fisher, no less, in her film debut) probably wouldn’t pass without comment in today’s world, the fact that it does here shouldn’t necessarily ruffle too many feathers.

Also, while the movie isn’t exactly progressive in its views of homosexuality, it’d be a stretch to call it homophobic. George certainly isn’t bothered by the fact that Lester and other men think he’s gay. Indeed, it’s in his best interest that they do. And only once does Beatty start to edge toward the clich├ęd, limp-wristed flamboyantly gay caricature that most movies would use as their default mode and even in that moment, he stays a safe distance away from it. But actual gay people are pretty much invisible in this movie. This is homosexuality as a plot contrivance, not as a way of life, which may be offensive in its own way to some but it isn’t really what the movie’s about.

On the other hand, the movie is very much about women and that’s where its perspective gets a bit muddled. You’d be on thin ice if you called Shampoo a feminist movie. Sure, the women here are all sexually liberated and sleep with whomever they please, whenever they please. But for the most part, they all want to sleep with Warren Beatty and define themselves based on how much Warren Beatty wants to sleep with them. Goldie Hawn’s Jill is a model (or an actress…even her job is vague) weighing a job offer that’ll take her to Egypt for a few months. It’s annoying that she even has to think about it. There’s no indication that George loves her even half as much as she seems to love him and Jackie tells her as much.

George eventually realizes that Jackie’s the one woman he’s ever truly loved but that epiphany comes too late for him. Unfortunately, it isn’t because Jackie realized she doesn’t love him. It’s because Lester has decided to divorce his wife and run away with her. Jackie defines herself entirely by the men in her life, ultimately aligning herself with the one most likely to take the best care of her.

The film’s only Oscar win went to Lee Grant for her supporting turn as Lester’s wife, Felicia. Grant had been nominated twice before in this category, for her debut in 1951’s Detective Story and in Ashby’s The Landlord in 1970, and would be once again the following year for Voyage Of The Damned, so it’s fair to say that the Academy had been wanting to give her one for awhile. A victim of the blacklist after she refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, there was likely an element of Hollywood Survivor Reward to her victory. Her competition included Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin, both for Nashville which may have split their votes, and Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro for Farewell, My Lovely and Once Is Not Enough, neither of which were recognized in any other categories. Not that Grant wasn’t a deserving winner. She gives a strong, funny performance in an unfortunately underwritten role. Towne and Beatty’s script simply isn’t all that interested in developing the women in George’s life. That’s the weakness that prevents Shampoo from being truly memorable.

In many ways, Warren Beatty’s insistence on controlling nearly every aspect of the films he agrees to do is what has prevented his legacy from reaching new audiences. For one thing, he is not a fast worker and in Hollywood, out of sight does often translate to out of mind. But more importantly, other filmmakers haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with him and use his persona and talent in new and interesting ways. One of Beatty’s best roles is in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller but it’s hard to imagine him agreeing to be in that picture if it had been made even five years later because he wasn’t the one calling the shots.

I’m sure even Hal Ashby would concede that Warren Beatty was the driving creative force behind Shampoo. And in the end, the film isn’t much more than a very interesting, intermittently entertaining time capsule, simply because the star at the center of the action fails to recognize that he is the least interesting thing about his own story.

Shampoo is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Honor To Be Nominated - X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Number of Nominations: 1 – Visual Effects (Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer)

Number of Wins: Zero

By now, it’s widely accepted that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a blind spot when it comes to superhero movies. Even though the decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees was largely seen as a corrective to the specific omission of The Dark Knight back in 2009, there haven’t been any superheroes in the category since then. (Unless you count Birdman and you shouldn’t.)

Granted, there hasn’t been an overabundance of superhero movies recently that have really deserved a Best Picture nod. Deadpool’s surprise nomination for a PGA Award only raised its Oscar chances from impossible to unlikely. But what is perhaps more surprising is how poorly superheroes have done across the board, even in categories they might be expected to dominate. It barely requires two hands to count the number of superhero movies that have won any kind of Academy Award: Tim Burton’s Batman, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles (which wasn’t based on a comic book but I’ll allow it), The Dark Knight, Big Hero 6, and now (sigh) Suicide Squad. If you want to stretch it, we could include Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which received a comparatively warm reception from the Academy, and Men In Black, a movie most people either don’t realize or don’t remember was based on a comic book. That’s almost as bad a showing as movies based on toys, games and theme park attractions.

Today, superheroes are an inescapable part of the pop culture landscape, generating billions of dollars and dominating both movie theatres and television. But when 20th Century Fox gambled on X-Men back in 2000, superhero movies were still risky. These days, we seem to get a new superhero movie every few weeks. But that first X-Men movie was the only one of its kind that year and the first real superhero movie we’d seen since Spawn and Batman & Robin fizzled out back in ’97.

(Note: Marvel did have its first taste of success with Blade in 1998 but the marketing downplayed its comic book DNA to focus more on bad-ass vampire action. And yeah, M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstructionist take on superheroes Unbreakable also came out in 2000 but I think we can agree that it’s a different type of beast than the movies we’re discussing here.)

Perhaps because it was a little early to the party, the X-Men franchise has never quite received the respect some of its contemporaries have enjoyed. At first, it lived in the shadow of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The fact that Bryan Singer’s X2 outperformed the original both with critics and at the box office was soon overshadowed by how much Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 improved on its predecessor’s reputation. Both franchises were damaged by their third installments. But while Raimi decided to cut and run and Sony chose to start over after Spider-Man 3, Fox kept on truckin’ after Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand stumbled with critics. After all, the money coming in was still good.

Shortly after the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, the X-Movies entered the spinoff/prequel stage with the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While Marvel was being lauded for their ambition and scope, Fox was beginning to look like they didn’t know what they were doing with the X-Men. At this point, it would have been easy for Fox to follow in Sony’s footsteps and do a hard reset on the franchise. Instead, they doubled down on their previous work with X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, two movies that allowed them to keep all of the elements that were working and get rid of those that didn’t.

The culmination of all these years’ worth of world-building, Days Of Future Past is, if anything, a little too ambitious for its own good. By its very nature, it was always going to be a little complicated in its attempt to reconcile multiple timelines. But while the X-Men movies have always featured sprawling ensemble casts, DOFP seems to go out of its way to introduce even more characters, some of whom are barely given more than a minute or two to establish themselves. At times, it feels like the movie should come with a cheat sheet just so you can keep track of who’s who.
 
Not Pictured: About a dozen other guys.

Still, whenever a franchise can still surprise and impress audiences and critics with its seventh installment after over a decade, it must be doing something right. After Marvel and Sony worked out an arrangement to incorporate Spider-Man into the MCU, fans began to hope Marvel might work out a similar deal with Fox. Besides the X-Men, of course, the studio also has the rights to the Fantastic Four. Since that property has been thoroughly botched, fans would love Marvel to just take control of the FF lock, stock and barrel. But even fans who want the X-Men to fight alongside the Avengers don’t want to see these movies wiped clean. Ideally, they’d like the timelines to somehow merge or blend together so that they can be incorporated into the MCU. It isn’t likely to happen but it does prove that Fox has made more right decisions than wrong ones when it comes to the X-Men.

Despite fan loyalty, critical acclaim (most of the time) and box office grosses of over 4 billion dollars, no X-Men movie received a single Oscar nomination until Days Of Future Past was recognized for Visual Effects. Why this one? Not that the effects work isn’t impressive but is it truly that much better than what had come before?

Well, it is and it isn’t, which is probably a big reason why it didn’t win (it lost to Interstellar). Visual Effects is actually a tough, somewhat strange category. It’s one of those categories where, if the voters aren’t all that impressed by the year’s eligible films, there can be only three or two nominees or they’ll just give it to somebody outright. Some years, it’s not unheard of for the Academy to turn this car around and nobody gets an award. Lately there’s been no shortage of effects-heavy movies for their consideration but if you want a shot at this prize, be prepared to show audiences at least one thing that is impossible.

The effects in the X-Men movies have always been a bit workmanlike. They’re fine. There’s nothing really wrong with them, for the most part. But there also isn’t anything like the opening sequence in Gravity or that tidal wave in Interstellar that lingers in your memory and has audiences asking how they did that. Claws coming out of hands, girls walking through walls and folks massaging their temples or waving their hands in the air while they manipulate ice or fire or whatever? That’s all very nice but we’ve seen it plenty of times before.

The post-apocalyptic hellscape of DOFP’s future scenes and the shape-shifting Sentinels certainly didn’t hurt the movie’s chances at a nomination. But if one thing put the movie over the top, it was the “Time In A Bottle” sequence featuring Evan Peters’ Quicksilver making short work of an attack in a cramped, sprinkler-soaked kitchen. As entertaining as previous entries had been, none of them really had this kind of conversation starter setpiece before. Nightcrawler’s infiltration of the White House in X2 came close but it wasn’t scored to a Jim Croce tune. Never underestimate the power of a pop song to help land a scene in the film history books.

Even though the X-Men’s first time at bat didn’t bring home a trophy, there’s no reason to suspect Days Of Future Past will be the franchise’s last nomination. Even though Hugh Jackman (and apparently Patrick Stewart) are saying goodbye to the series with Logan (out this weekend), the series itself will continue. Considering the rapturous reviews Logan has been receiving, it isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility that it may find itself in contention next year. Jackman’s 17-year stewardship of the character is unprecedented and an impressive achievement in its own right but arguably the biggest hurdle standing between him and a Best Actor nomination is the calendar. Oscar voters are not known for their long memories and nomination time is a long way away. And while actors aren’t often recognized for this type of role, it would be kind of nice to see Jackman’s work given the validation of a nomination.

The X-Men movies have been taken for granted for too long. They’ve been doing this longer and more successfully than most of their contemporaries. And they haven’t been content to simply rehash the same formula over and over again. Movies like Deadpool and Logan (not to mention TV shows like Legion) show a willingness to innovate and expand the genre’s parameters. After all these years, you’d think they’d have more than a single Oscar nomination to show for it.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past is available on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.