March 13, 2012

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This the final post in my series on the films of Robert Mulligan. Click for parts onetwo and three.

As much as Robert Mulligan is associated with the South, for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon, he was actually born in the Bronx. A few years after his tepidly received L.A. noir The Nickel Ride (1975), he adapted Richard Price’s Bronx-set second novel, Bloodbrothers, which was released in ’76 (the film came out in September of 1978). An epithet-laced trawl through an Italian working class family, Mulligan toned-down the language (from the book’s first page: “His hand smelled from that oily shit inside Trojans”), but captured the twitchy, carnal energies that fueled such texturally dirty talk.

Robert Surtees, who had shot Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (’71) and The Other (’72), returns as the director of photography, although the the gauzy images of those films are replaced with hard-edged, dark blue tones. Clearly Mulligan was impressed with Jordan Cronenweth’s similarly detailed work in Nickel Ride. The film opens in a helicopter shot of a smoggy Bronx as night falls, crossing highways and subways until there is a cut to a crane shot that eases onto the facade of Banion’s Bar, seemingly the palpitating heart of the borough.  This amiable joint, the local watering hole for the construction worker’s union, is named after wheelchair bound Irish carouser/owner Banion (played with immense warmth by Kenneth McMillan) who trades handjob jokes and chummy backslaps with the volatile De Coco brothers, the insecure macho teddy bears whose family is the center of the film.

Banion’s is more home to the brothers than their walk-up apartments, filled as they are with the disheartening markers of adulthood like children, wives and bills. Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco) and his brother Chubby (Paul Sorvino) are the patriarch of a struggling clan, with Tommy’s wife Maria (Laila Goldoni) on the brink of a nervous breakdown, while his fragile, feminine youngest son has been browbeaten about his weight into anorexia. Tommy’s hope lies with his eldest, Stony (Richard Gere), a handsome, reassuringly hetero playboy who is about to enter the construction union. But alas, Stony has dreams of escape, implied in the cut from Banion’s to the elaborately outfitted cavern-disco he frequents, with faux-stalactites dripping from the ceiling in honor of his own raging, confused hormones. Focused by the straight talk of liberated chick Annette (an inflammatory Marilu Henner) Stony shirks construction for a job as a recreation assistant at the local hospital, fulfilling his dream of working with kids. Tommy is incensed, and Stony has to choose between family or freedom.

The script by studio veteran Walter Newman (Ace In the Hole) is overstuffed with incident (and received an Oscar nomination for it), and Mulligan embraces the abundance by pushing for an across-the-board hysterical style of acting. This is grating and invigorating in turn, with Tony Lo Bianco performing as an over-gesticulating stereotype, while Paul Sorvino’s papa bear routine secrets away layers of pain that well up in his often overfilled eyes (although he does have the benefit of the most emotionally naked monologue in the film). Richard Gere is effective in mumbly James Dean mode, a figure of naive charm starting to become aware of a world outside the Bronx. Although, as with all of Mulligan’s coming-of-age films, this knowledge is rife with dangers. Just as William and Jane fly away into uncertainty in The Pursuit of Happiness, so do Stony and his brother drive off into the unknown, with only a few bucks to their name, but a dream of independence just over the horizon.

There is none of this richly moving ambiguity in Same Time, Next Year, a stodgy farce that Mulligan cranked out quickly the same year. It was released in November of 1978, only two months after Bloodbrothers. It was based on a hugely successful Broadway play of the same name, about two lovers who meet once every year for a one-night stand. Written by TV scribe Bernard Slade (The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family), it ran for close to 1500 performances and netted Ellen Burstyn a Tony Award. For the film, Slade wrote the screenplay and Burstyn returned to play the role of Doris. Charles Grodin, who played George in the stage version, was replaced by Alan Alda.

It is nothing more than a filmed version of the play, taking place almost entirely in a hotel room, with little choreography inside the frame. It’s mostly Alda and Burstyn jawing back and forth at each other.  Robert Surtees returns as DP (his final film credit), and it contains the warm, nostalgic filtered light of Summer of ’42, but is only shown to its full beauty in a few exterior shots. The play itself is a clunky contraption, revisiting the lovers every five years or so, larded with cheap signifiers to denote each era. In the 60s, Burstyn dons Native American dress and talks about protesting, while Alda slides into a suit and talks about voting for Goldwater. The characters get lost in symbolism, and never crackle with erotic intensity (which comes with casting Alan Alda). The film was then of course nominated for four Oscars.

Mulligan, now deep into his 50s, began to slow down his working pace considerably. He had made ten features in the 60s, and six in the ’70s, but would go on to direct only two films in the ’80s, before capping his career with The Man In the Moon in 1991. He was still garnering awards and praise, so it is likely Mulligan could have been more productive if he so chose. But with the  turn to Jaws-imitating blockbusters, perhaps there were just not many appealing projects offered to him. His next feature, the supernatural romantic-comedy Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) would tend to affirm this theory.

Never one for “high-concept” plots, Mulligan has here agreed to direct a very loose adaptation of Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands (1976), about a woman whose dead husband begins to haunt her when she is to marry again. At the time of its release, the original was the most successful film in Brazilian history. It seems Mulligan could only make his kind of intimate drama if it had this kind of box-office goosing gimmick. And despite how ill-suited he was to this kind of genre mash-up, it ends up as a diverting treat, if not at the top-tier of his accomplishment.

He’s helped by a game cast, first and foremost Jeff Bridges, whose uptight Egyptologist at the Met Museum honorably channels Cary Grant’s similarly anal scientist in Bringing Up Baby. While not matching Grant’s athleticism and uncanny comic timing, Bridges does have a talent for embattled exasperation, his expression one of barely concealed disgust. And as Grant is drained by the  kookiness of Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy family, so is Bridges of his rich fiance, Sally Field. Field is innocuous in her usual chipper munchkin routine, so Claire Trevor (as her mother) easily sashays away with the show in her final feature film. It is worth watching just to see her grand industrial-strength bitchiness cut Bridges down to size. James Caan, as Field’s ghost husband, is woefully miscast as a charismatic Broadway choreographer, but he is nothing if not game, which could be said for this entire film, a modern contraption that Mulligan manages to make look towards the past. The film performed modestly at the box-office, finishing with $15.78 million, right in between Death Wish 2 and the re-issue of Star Wars (according to Box Office Mojo).

Then came the longest layoff in his career, six years, before he agreed to make Clara’s Heart (1988) for Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, MTM. He was clearly only willing to make films on his terms at this point, and this coming-of-age tale returns to his favored themes of maturation and disillusionment. Based on the novel by Joseph Olshan, it follows teenaged David (Neil Patrick Harris, in his first screen role), as he grapples with the death of his baby sister and the resultant crack-up of his parents’ marriage. He turns to his Jamaican nanny Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) for stability and strength. I harbored fears that this would devolve into one of those Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies where the kindly black character solves all of the rich white people’s problems, but thankfully, things simply get more complicated from there.

Mulligan had the good fortune to hire Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man) as his DP, and the film includes some of the most emotive set-ups of his career. In the opening sequence, Mulligan and Francis hold a close-up of David as a funeral ends, with flashes of black tuxedos passing him in the foreground. It is an image of a boy made scattered and incomplete by mourning. Later, they execute another shot of incompletion, during one of his parents’ arguments. In one long take, the mother is sitting screen right in a living room, the father to the left, in his study. The rooms are separated by a wall, so each are ensconced in their separate worlds. This image alone defines the dissolution of their union, and yet another rupture in David’s life.

His relationship with Clara is fraught, as he transitions from bratty teen to the realization that she is the only stable part of his life. They test and circle each other, waiting to expose each other’s vulnerabilities, as their racial and class boundaries are forefronted by Mulligan (the cut from David’s suburban mansion to the Jamaican neighborhood in Baltimore acts as a closure – there is not easy passing between these two zones). They develop their own wary love for each other, and by the time Clara reveals her own past traumas (that are as vast and unresolved as David’s), they accept each other for the imperfect, guilt-ridden creatures that they are. This is Mulligan’s kind of (ir)resolution, the recognition of limitations his own happy ending. So he ends it with another close-up of David, this time free and clear of all obstructions, aside from the ones in his memory. The film bombed, earning just over $5 million (right behind the Chuck Norris cheapie Hero and the Terror) and earned no Oscar nominations.

The Man in the Moon is a distillation of this theme of irresolution, one which opens with the idolized older sister saying, “sometimes things just don’t make sense, and all of a sudden, I get scared.” As with the opening shot of Bloodbrothers, Mulligan has his DP (Freddie Francis this time), crane his camera down into the film’s thematic heart, instead of a bar, it’s a screened in porch. This downward craning shot also has an echo in To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the camera descended a tree and outlined the main drag of the town, before backtracking to introduce Scout. The Man in the Moon‘s shot reveals another headstrong tomboy, Dani (Reese Witherspoon, who, like NPH, makes her screen debut. Mulligan was an ace talent scout). She is listening to Elvis’ “Loving You” for the umpteenth time, and is chastised by her older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield), who a few moments later will discuss her undefinable fear.

The story is utter simplicity, but rendered with subtlety in Jenny Wingfield’s original script (her first). Dani is in the process of trashing her Elvis posters and fixing her attentions on a real live boy – the dreamy new neighbor Court (Jason London). He literally crashes her childhood idyll, jumping into a swimming hole she had considered her own private domain. This rupture spurs Dani’s maturation, and engages her in a world of petty jealousies, shocking violence, and unutterable tragedy. All of Mulligan’s coming-of-age stories are steeped in death, the loss of innocence revealing the world in all its unresolved, unanswerable reality. Dani, as with Scout, or William (Pursuit of Happiness), or Hermie (Summer of ’42) has the veil removed from their childhood games, and they shift from a mythologized childhood to fraught adulthood. This transition is made visible Mulligan’s through subjective camera, the low-angles in Mockingbird and the idolizing slow-motion of ’42 changing to sober eye-line matches and close-ups.

Dani is visualized in tracking shots, speeding from house to lake in frolics of determined intensity. The first is seen before her initial encounter with Court at the lake, the last in a mournful sprint from her first funeral service. She opens by racing to something, and ends by sprinting away, into the unknown.  There is also a visual rhyme to that opening crane shot, which has its correlate in the shattering closer. The camera drifts towards the front of the house, reversing the opening shot, before cutting to the interior. It floats past the newborn baby and settles on their  Mom and Dad in bed, as Dani asks (offscreen): “Marie? Is it always going to hurt this bad?”. The implicit answer is in their father’s face, played so engagingly laconic by Sam Waterston, who has an inexplicable smile on his face as he turns and faces his wife, happy to be at home, regardless of the tragedies outside.

This reverie stops as Mulligan cuts to a static shot of the walled-in patio, where Maureen is combing Dani’s hair. Now the dreams are in the interior of the house, and the adolescents outside are growing into the no-nonsense world of static two-shots:

Dani:  “Sometimes, I think that nothing’s ever going to make sense again”

Maureen: “Maybe life’s not supposed to make sense.”

Dani: “Doesn’t that scare you?”

Maureen: [whispered] “Yes, it does.”

Maureen’s tossed-off lines at the beginning of the film, meant to assuage Dani’s own insecurities, are now repeated, and have accrued layers of resonance. It is one of those scenes that can reduce me to tears, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it, which has made this particular transcription particularly vexing.These lines are an acknowledgment that there is no governing logic to our lives, but whatever happens, that it can be endured with grace. There is no better way to encapsulate his extraordinary career than those words of Dani and Maureen, in their brave resignation.

So, watch some Mulligan.


February 28, 2012

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This is the third part of a series discussing the complete filmography of director Robert Mulligan. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

As the 1960s ended, so did Robert Mulligan’s collaboration with producer Alan Pakula. After seven films together, Pakula embarked upon a successful directing career of his own, beginning with the college romance of The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969 (which would earn Liza Minnelli her first Oscar nomination). Mulligan also tried his hand at courting the youth market,  starting production on The Pursuit of Happiness late that same year, although it was not released until 1971. It was the first coming-of-age story that Mulligan directed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and its melancholic sense of lost innocence pervades all of his work in the early 1970s.

As with all of the Pakula-Mulligan productions, The Pursuit of Happiness was adapted from a novel, this time by Thomas Rogers. The rights were purchased by David Susskind, a prolific producer of TV movies who re-entered theatrical features with this low-key story that was shot late in 1969 (he made the hit sex comedy Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) immediately afterward). Sidney Caroll (The Hustler) wrote the script, but a revision by George Sherman introduced so many changes that Caroll requested his name be changed to Jon Boothe. The final draft follows lapsed-radical William Popper (a morose Michael Sarrazin) as he argues with his student-activist girlfriend Jane (Barbara Hershey) and accidentally sulks his way into prison. There he decides to drop out of society for good.

Working on location in NYC with D.P. Dick Kratina, who had just shot seedier parts of the city in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Mulligan crafts a sympathetic, though distant, portrait of a disaffected ex-Leftist youth. Mulligan, who had joined the Marines at the tail end of WWII, was an outsider to the violent revolutionary stirrings of the 60s, saying that, “We were in the process of a nightmare that I didn’t understand. and that I didn’t feel anyone else understood. I mean, the riots were going on, the campuses were being burnt, the ghettos were being burnt, the marches were going on, people were being killed. It just didn’t make any sense.” Pursuit is his attempt to comprehend a generation he is entirely disconnected from, and the result is a film of great sensitivity and sadness, because he can never bridge that gulf.

Kratina and Mulligan open the film on a close-up of a toy sailboat, bobbing in a park pond, inter-cut with shots of William. He is instantly identified as adrift and alone, cutting through a sea of humanity, each protesting inaudible causes. Kratina’s camera roams with a cinema-verite freedom, the frames crammed with idealistic bodies that William swiftly navigates away from.William ignores them, Sarrazin’s face holding a persistent dopey calm, a smirk perpetually creeping up his lips. He slices his way to his girlfriend (an engagingly perky Barbara Hershey), who was originally inflamed by his passion, and now vaguely annoyed by his apathy and creeping nihilism. Their academic world is filled out by their Hippie pal Melvin (an adorably manic Robert Klein), who is seen mostly sleeping in William and Jane’s bed.

Their circumscribed world comes apart when William is involved in a car accident, and faces serious jail time. Then the world outside floods in, and with it the revelations that he comes from a rich, well-connected family, and political resentments ooze out of every corner. His aunt asks, “still a communist?”, while his grandmother bluntly states how her neighborhood declined once the “negroes and jews” moved in. Because of his wealth, he gets fine representation from a blustery E.G. Marshall, who pithily comments that “when you got in trouble, you came straight for the reactionary bastard.” The sense of class betrayal is ever-present, no more so in the painfully bittersweet scene when William declines his Grandmother’s offer to inherit the family mansion. She, like William Buckley Jr., wanted to “stand athwart history, yelling stop!”, but had to watch her grandson embrace the multi-cultural future instead.

When William decides to escape America once and for all, it should be a moment of triumph, and would be in a traditional counter-culture movie of the period. But Mulligan senses tragedy in this breakdown of society, no matter how nakedly corrupt he has shown it to be. Their departure sequence occurs in near-silence, after an uncomfortable barter with a smarmy pilot played by William Devane. The transaction is starkly capitalistic, as if the couple is swapping one exploitative system for another (one of crime). So when they take to the air, headed for Mexico, the overwhelming emotion is not one of release, but of unutterable sadness. The lovely Randy Newman song that plays under their escape captures this ambivalence perfectly:  “Let me go, let me go, let me go/Don’t give me the answer/cause I don’t want to know”.

Columbia Pictures delayed the release of The Pursuit of Happiness for over a year, perhaps because of how “square” the film would look next to Easy Rider (1969), and put it out to little fanfare in February of 1971. In the interim, Mulligan shot the deeply personal Summer of ’42, which Warner Brothers released to enormous box office in April of that same year. It’s a nostalgic coming-of-age tale of three young boys as they spend a summer on Nantucket. Seemingly tailored for Nixon’s so-called Silent Majority, with its loving evocation of small-town American life, it nevertheless retains the ambivalent melancholy of The Pursuit of Happiness, its youths also lost inside of different kinds of American myths.

Herman Raucher wrote the autobiographical script in the 1950s while as a TV writer, but he couldn’t get anyone to look at it. He was acquaintances with Mulligan from those days, and once the director gained enough clout, was able to get the picture funded for “a million dollars” (interview in the TC Palm). The story centers on Hermie (Gary Grimes) and his infatuation with Dorothy (a dreamy Jennifer O’Neill), the beautiful army wife whose husband is fighting during WWII.

It is Mulligan’s first collaboration with the great DP Robert Surtees (The Last Picture Show), and they opt for heavily filtered images of browns and greens, the beaches fading like old Polaroids. This sense of the movie as memory is enhanced by the voice-over, which is read by the director himself. The events are clearly past, mythologically so, with scenes of troops sailing off to war, first dates at the movie house, and fumbling over an old sex manual. These are scenes that could come out of a Budweiser commercial, but Mulligan invests them with such emotion and detail they become monumental. He shoots Hermie’s hand marching down the shoulder of his date as if he was conquering Normandy. One starts to notice the expressivity of clothes and objects, the gritty texture of Hermie’s beach shoes and rolled up slacks, as if a Victorian orphan in short pants, unfit to be seen in the presence of Dorothy’s snug cable sweaters and J. Crew yachtswoman wear. Through Hermie’s gaze, Dorothy is a mystical object.

The penultimate sequence, in which Dorothy falls into Hermie’s embrace, is a marvel of tonal ambiguity, as unexpected as the close of The Pursuit of Happiness. What should be Hermie’s glorious climax is a scene of mourning and cold comfort. Hermie enters her room, and Mulligan and Surtees isolate objects of her presence: a cigarette, a skipping turntable and a crumpled letter. The room is heavy with her presence, a ghostly atmosphere. Hermie resets the music, and Michel Legrand’s score fills the room, opening a space for Dorothy’s entrance. She enters, and it’s become clear her husband has died. The music ends and the clicking sound repeats with grief-stricken repetitions. Dorothy falls into Hermie’s arms, and Mulligan continues to focus on details: feet, hands, shadows on wallpaper. Neither are whole individuals, Dorothy is slowly collapsing, Hermie overwhelmed to keep her together. The lurid climax of the usual hetero sex comedy has turned into something tragic and uncertain. In the end, the ghostly Dorothy disappears, and Hermie is left to look at the ruins of his childhood, saying in retrospective voice-over, “I lost Hermie, forever”.

The Other (1972) is also about loss, but fudged into the Manichean machinations of a boilerplate horror tale. It’s adapted from actor-turned-author Tom Tryon’s best-selling novel about twin boys who have a penchant for astral projection, hallucinations and a few murders. It is 1935 and Holland and Niles Perry live an idyllic-Satanic life in Connecticut, stealing jam from the neighbors and a finger from their dead father. The family’s maid, Ada (Uta Hagen, in her first screen role), has been teaching the boys how to astral project their bodies, but has begun to suspect these lessons are not being used for good.

It retains the thrust of his other work in this period, of the tragic death of childhood illusions (and no viable afterlife), but the vehicle for this idea is a rickety one. Tryon’s script never develops a coherent character out of either twin, both just inexpressive conduits for a few slaughters, with no childhood left to mourn. Without this emotional undertone, the film becomes a slog of unmotivated plot twists. The child actors, Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, are eager but uncharismatic, never gaining the unaffected naturalness of the kids in Summer of ’42 or To Kill a Mockingbird. These tots are always over-emphasizing their lines, more or less pounding them flat. Despite all these dramatic flaws, the film still looks gorgeous, with Mulligan and Surtees bathing it in a golden-green glow, and pulling off some impressive subjective camera shots, which become fractured along with Niles’ psychology.

Mulligan followed up this misfire with one of his greatest works, The Nickel Ride (1974)Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueller tricks of an addled mind. Instead of youth passing into adulthood, it is about middle-age passing into death.

Originally called 50-50, Eric Roth recalled in Backstory 5 that it was supposed to be about “a man turning fifty, a film noir with intimations of mortality.” Robert Mulligan agreed to make it for producer David Foster, his first film after making McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), who had secured a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. The lead was originally intended to be played by George C. Scott, but he had to drop out, leaving the part to relative newcomer Jason Miller, fresh off of The Exorcist. Miller is extraordinary, giving a performance of hollowed-out intensity. He painfully maintains his everyman persona at the local watering hole and with his painfully young wife (Linda Haynes), as his fears start to devour him. His speech becomes clipped and his face draws ever tighter into a skeletal mask. At his lowest point he is stalled by the side of the road, an infernal red tail light edging his body, sure that his life is about to end. He just sighs, “Things change.”