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Rest in Peace, Omar Sharif

OmarSharifZhivagoMovie star Omar Sharif has died. The actor, who was 83 years old, appeared in some of Hollywood’s most moving and grand motion pictures. Sharif made them more so.

Among his roles are the passenger ship’s captain in the terrorism-themed Juggernaut (1974), leading while balancing conflicting interests with an explosives expert played by Richard Harris. I think, too, of his blend of great potential and sadness as the daring entrepreneurial Jewish playboy—which nearly cost the Egyptian actor, reported to have converted from Greek Catholicism to Islam, his citizenship and career—in Funny Girl. From his role as the desert Arabian teaming against the Ottoman empire with Peter O’Toole’s title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to his role as a Moslem Turk adopting a Jewish boy in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), Sharif dominates the screen.

OmarSharifLawrenceofArabiaBut three movies capture his dark, sensually masculine and physical magnetism. In David Lean’s masterful Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif strides between measured and raw with his backswept black hair. As the title character in Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian novel, Sharif is gentle, intelligent and aristocratically civilized yet kindling with passion to write poetry, defy the Soviets and exact justice while falling in love with Lara (Julie Christie) during the Russian Revolution, always holding life as the highest standard—his is an unforgettable and powerful performance that precisely measures the impact in pictures of the incalculable toll of dictatorship on the man of ability. Doctor Zhivago is so mesmerizing, enchanting, and beautiful with its brilliant score by Maurice Jarre (which Sharif thought was too sentimental) and everlasting scenes of Moscow, Yuriatin and Varykino that it’s easy to overlook the scope and talent of Omar Sharif as the crippled man of the mind. Zhivago is Sharif’s best performance.

OmarSharifTYRRPerhaps my favorite role by Omar Sharif is as Davich, the peasant European revolutionary in screenwriter Terence Rattigan’s 1964 film, The Yellow Rolls-Royce. It is as the radical idealist opposite Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) in the tense, explosive, inspiring final vignette—probably more relevant than ever—that Omar Sharif matches hard, physical allure with kind, intellectual depth. His intensity is irresistible but it is also challenging. Bergman’s aristocrat is at the audience’s sympathetic center and one can’t blame her reticence to engage his character’s cause. But he is the embodiment in Rattigan’s short, polished featurette of the man of reason and the man of action. As the unconquered radical, he is every inch the hero.

Sharif lived privately as a playboy by his own admission, though was also one of the world’s top bridge players, creating a regular newspaper feature and, during his remarkable career, he portrayed Genghis Khan, Czar Nicholas II, Marco Polo and Che Guevara. He also played Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island (1973). Omar Sharif made the audience think in nearly every role. His death is a great loss.

Movie Review: Amy

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The story of Amy Winehouse, the “North London Jewish girl” who was a jazz singer before she became a pop star and spun out in a drug-induced death in 2011 at the age of 27, is well told in Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary. A single human life is precious, indeed, and this is what makes Amy so powerful. Whatever the cynics and people who relish with contempt blaming those who destroy themselves, this 2-hour film stands as a testament against letting life go easily, cynically and without examination.

Here, in Winehouse’s own words, with unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, is her short life story. In the telling and showing, Kapadia captures a talented woman of her self-loathing generation who came of age and fame in the digital era when a media feeding frenzy could hasten one’s demise faster than, say, Princess Diana. If you primarily want to blame Elvis, Marilyn, Whitney and others such as Michael Jackson for their own deaths, don’t see Amy. If you want to see how an artist comes undone with help from today’s culture and understand how to intervene, mitigate and stop the selflessness, Amy, whether or not you’re a fan of her music, is as simple and accessible as its title suggests.

The seeds of talent and self-sacrifice were planted in the beginning, and this is documentary, not psychodrama, so definitive answers are not forthcoming. But fellow Brit and Londoner Kapadia, who was a casual fan and lived near Winehouse in the lowest days, is moved by the desire to know what happened. Amy is journalistic, with facts laid bare through research aligned with numerous audio interviews that took him three years to obtain and record.

Clearly, the young child of divorce, who went bad when she was nine years old by her account, was damaged and derailed early in life. She made bad choices. But she was also at the mercy of parents, who both survive her and participate in the film, who did not establish boundaries. Amy goes from her home movies to club footage and recording sessions—from self-made success in Camden to self-made disaster in Belgrade—and, in the pictures and what happens in them, one can see that the petite, big-haired, pierced and painted Winehouse was also sucked into the death spiral by today’s lowest parasites every time she seemed ready to go straight.

Amy is about Amy to the extent that’s possible. Whether showing her as a girl singing “Happy Birthday” and “Moon River” in the opening frames to her jazz lament about a man not acting like a man, her retro hit “Rehab” and later stylings by the guitarist, singer and songwriter, including works with rock, pop and rap acts, the evidence that she could create meaningful music is on full display. Kapadia thankfully offers lyrics and subtitles, too. Intermingled throughout her ascent to stardom is the sleazy lifestyle, which began as a daytime indulgence in marijuana and continued with a lifelong dependence on alcohol, sex and drugs, including those prescribed for her depression and heroin, crack cocaine and nicotine. Add what should be obvious in the form of her eating disorder (bulimia) and Amy is an inked up poison pill. As rapper Mos Def puts it “she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She was a sweetheart.”

In other words, Amy Winehouse was a fast-tracked, foul-mouthed time bomb that everyone from Mos Def (going by another name here) to her father and Tony Bennett kept kicking down the road trying to cash in on her fame, persona and success without accounting for the consequences. The exceptions were chiefly her manager, Nick, whom she fired, her childhood friends Juliette and Lauren, and, tellingly, at one point anyway, Lucian, a Universal Music Group recording industry executive who insisted that she sign a contract to keep clean and sober before booking her on the Grammys (she signed and delivered—both in sobriety and appearance). In and out of bad relationships and a stoner marriage and rehab, becoming a cartoonish joke with her garish cosmetics which became a self-fulfilling imprisonment of self-hate, Amy Winehouse finally dovetails talent and tragedy and goes for a final nosedive, bookended by her hero worship of Tony Bennett, who comes off as somewhat complicit despite his polished efforts. Bennett at least gets the artist right when he describes her as “a true, natural jazz singer.”

That she never really sought to heal herself cannot be escaped. Neither can the fact that she never really had a model, friend or proper intervention for the help an addict needs from those who love the addict when she’s sober. Amy’s life ended on July 23, 2011 with a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than normal. That this intelligent, bright-eyed, British artist called her old friend and flatmate Juliette with pure clarity and said over and over that she was “sorry” days before she died—with her downfall constantly ridiculed by sniveling comics such as George Lopez at the Grammys and Jay Leno—proves only that inside the self-destroyer remained that girl who could sing with soul. Whether any good comes from Amy is up to those who know someone they love who is as artful a dodger as London’s lost singer.

Amy reminded me of the first time I heard “Rehab” in a dive bar in Silver Lake, with its energetic Wall of Sound bursting forth with this fresh, smoky voice that also sang jazz, blues and standards. I wondered then what would become of one who is celebrated with snide parody for living the life she portrayed. Amy brings to mind audiences turning the other cheek to Robin Williams‘ obvious despair, the cacophony of cell phone cameras when Heath Ledger‘s corpse came out on a New York City stretcher, and the endless taunting that people—sadly, intelligent people—do to flawed, damaged but talented celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and even to relatively unblemished artists such as Sam Smith. Amy revisits the short life of Amy Winehouse with honest, candid examination of facts and, through the words, pictures and lives of those she left behind, lets the awful truth speak, sing and be silent for what it is.

That the coarse, young modern female drank herself to death in a culture that now celebrates drunkenness and coarseness among young females may come as no shock. However, Amy, as its title suggests, urges the audience to never submit to coarseness and cynicism after the fact of a horrible, and stoppable, self-made death.

RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy, who died today in Los Angeles, was the godfather of geek subculture. As the rational Mr. Spock on NBC’s science fiction dramatic series Star Trek, he was a voice of reason at a time in American history when audiences desperately needed to hear one. His character was both a contrast to William Shatner’s heroic Captain James T. Kirk and DeForest Kelley’s emotional Dr. McCoy and Spock emerged as a central figure on Gene Roddenberry’s show. Nimoy, a Jewish poet, actor and director (Three Men and a Baby) should be remembered for his distinguished career in show business, too, not merely for his role in the Star Trek franchise, including early performances for dramatic television that predate Star Trek.

NimoyBut it is for his embrace of the genre and spirit that defines the Spock character that sets Nimoy apart and for reasons that transcend the iconic series. First, the 1966-1969 series, which heralded the “voyages of the starship Enterprise” and sought to “boldly go where no man has gone before” was a radical departure from traditional TV programming in many respects. Second, it was a commercial and critical failure, being cancelled for low ratings and largely dismissed or ridiculed by critics and dominant intellectuals. Third, the part of Spock, who was an alien though also part human, was so distinctive that Nimoy became indelibly associated with it once the cancelled series earned new fans through 1970s syndication (which, incidentally, is where I discovered it with my brother). Nimoy’s first book, I Am Not Spock (1975), was published at what was thought to be the peak of the cult success of the Desilu/Paramount produced series. It would be years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would be released and it hardly took Hollywood by storm.

In the intervening years, Nimoy carried on and memorably so in the 1978 remake of the nonconformist science fiction picture Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a psychiatrist. He later played in an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, hosted the syndicated series In Search of… (1976-1982), played in the Marco Polo telefilm and portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s husband opposite Ingrid Bergman in A Woman Called Golda for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award and of course he played Spock many more times after the Star Trek movies started to gain a wider audience. Nimoy appeared in the mediocre reboot in 2009.

Leonard Nimoy had helped bridge the gap between the wasteland of the late 1960s and the emergence and legitimization of geek culture in the 1980s. By the time the technology revolution launched in the 1990s, Star Trek was an established, respected brand in movies and television. Such acceptance may have fueled and ignited many an imagination for what huge and exciting industrial advancements were to come and Star Trek, with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in particular, led the way in cultivating an American, pro-Western, pro-industrial, pro-reason sense of life. In the words of Mr. Spock, and the late Leonard Nimoy had a hand in this, too: “Live long and prosper.”

These days, with the White House refusing to name an Islamic worldwide barbarian invasion as Islamic, it is all too rare to encounter such a blatantly pro-Western civilization, pro-capitalist, secular-rational-selfish formulation and his remarkable career on and off screen is as uniquely subversive and unusual as the roles he chose to portray (and he apparently did choose to portray Spock). May his Mr. Spock and what this iconic character means—the lone voice of reason defined by volition, not by blood, tradition or religion, acting on his own judgment, often against the collective and refusing to just follow orders—inspire future generations to be bold and radical in the spirit of uncompromising enterprise and may Leonard Nimoy rest in peace.

Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott

Turning to author, Turner Classic Movies host and Hollywood historian Robert Osborne (whom I interviewed about Robert Redford last month), I asked about the late actress Lizabeth Scott, whose 22 motion pictures made an indelible impression on moviegoers.

This is an edited transcript of our short interview.

Scott Holleran: Will TCM do a Lizabeth Scott tribute?

Robert Osborne: I’m not sure that we have enough of her flims unfortunately. Most of her films were for Paramount and Hal Wallis and we have to lease those. We have The Company She Keeps (1951 with Jane Greer), The Racket (1951, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan) and Pulp (1972, with Michael Caine and Mickey Rooney). There may be some United Artists pictures that we have. I think we have The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, with Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck) which is kind of in the public domain. We also have Dead Reckoning (1947 with Humphrey Bogart). You can’t do a proper salute without the right movies. For years, we didn’t have Psycho (1960) and we wanted to do a salute to Janet Leigh. You can’t do a salute to Janet Leigh without Psycho.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet her?

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Robert Osborne: Yes, I did. She came to a couple of Academy events. I hosted a tribute to Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott came. She was lovely. I used to see her at parties. She looked terrific, she was very chatty and she always fascinated me. There was a point when I saw her [as Ivy Hotchkiss] in You Came Along (1945) and she was my favorite actress. I pinned up pictures of her. But then she went into the film noir movies and she got into the Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake mode. I wonder if Hal Wallis, who saw something in her and wanted her under contract, hadn’t pushed her into the film noir mode—it would have been interesting to see what she would have become. [Pauses] You Came Along (1945 with Robert Cummings) is really a lovely movie. Have you seen that?

Scott Holleran: Yes.

Robert Osborne: She was such a charming leading lady in that movie.

Scott Holleran: Is Lizabeth Scott a good actress?

Robert Osborne: I think she was good. She was perfect for a movie star. She had the hair and the Bacall demeanor—I don’t think she was in any way a copy of Bacall—and she held her own with Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster and other overwhelming personalities. I always had the feeling that she wasn’t that gung ho about acting—kind of by her own choice; she kind of pulled out of it. If she’d wanted to do more, she would have. She was a smart cookie. I think she realized that what she had to sell was timeless—she was smart enough to know that. Bacall had a limited shelf life, too, but she went from the vamp in [Howard Hawks’] To Have and Have Not to becoming a character actress, which she did in The Shootist with John Wayne. In that sense, I think Lizabeth Scott knew she had a limited shelf life.

Scott Holleran: Did the smearing in Confidential help push her out of Hollywood?

Robert Osborne: I don’t think so. It was nasty. Of course, everyone believed it but, because she ran with a tony group of people, I don’t think it affected her. She was better known for being Hal Wallis’ girlfriend, which was never confirmed. But it got to the point where nothing that Confidential [the publication that printed the smear against Lizabeth Scott] published was believed.

Scott Holleran: Is she a wronged woman?

Robert Osborne: Is she wronged? [Pauses] She was certainly damaged by rumors.

Scott Holleran: Was there an out of court settlement?

Robert Osborne: I don’t know. You do bring up an interesting point. She was very chic and she had a lot of money. I had a feeling that her motivation [to act] had more to do with money than with the satisfaction of acting. You might say that Sally Field had to be an actress. With Lizabeth Scott, I think that having a nice bank account and living well was important to her. She knew it wouldn’t go on forever and she was smart enough to make as much money as she could while she could.

Scott Holleran: What are Miss Scott’s three most essential pictures for one who’s never seen her?

Robert Osborne: Dead Reckoning, which shows that she could hold her own with big name stars. Certainly, You Came Along. And I think that I Walk Alone (1948, with Burt Lancaster) is a terrific movie. She’s also very good in The Company She Keeps, with Jane Greer, which is about these two women—a woman who goes to prison and a parole officer—and you kinda think Lizabeth Scott would play the ex-convict and Jane Greer the parole officer but it’s the other way around. But I would say those first three.

Scott Holleran: Is it fair to describe her as a film noir actress?

Lizabeth_Scott-publicityRobert Osborne: I think so, because film noir is so loved—it’s probably the most loved genre of movies—it kind of describes her properly. She’s so adorable in Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley and other things. I don’t think Lizabeth Scott felt like she had to be an actress. But she was certainly qualified to do so much more.


Reference links

My Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott (2015)

Movie Review: Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott

Interview: Robert Osborne on John Wayne (2007)

Interview: Robert Osborne on Liza Minnelli (2010)

Interview: Robert Osborne on Robert Redford (2015)

Interview: Robert Osborne on Ernest Borgnine (2009)

Commercial Links

Buy You Came Along

Buy Dead Reckoning

Buy Loving You

Buy The Racket

Buy Pulp

Buy The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

 Buy I Walk Alone

Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott

Recently, I talked with author, podcaster and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin (whom I interviewed about the new and final edition of his annual movie guide last year) about the late actress Lizabeth Scott, who died on Jan. 31.

This is an edited transcript of our short interview.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet Lizabeth Scott?

Leonard Maltin: I met her twice, ever so briefly. Many years ago, we met at a reception honoring Hal Wallis—Bette Davis and Earl Holliman were there—and then again at the Golden Boot awards years later.

Scott Holleran: What do you think of her?

Leonard Maltin: On screen for me she defined the word sultry, which I realize brings me nearly into cliché territory, and most recently I saw the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration of Too Late for Tears (1949). I think I’ve underrated the film in the movie guide—she was good. Whether she had more range than we realize or she was perfectly suited to those femme fatale roles we’ll never know. But she certainly filled them very well.

Scott Holleran: Is she a good actress?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, I think so.

Scott Holleran: What are three essential Lizabeth Scott pictures?

Leonard Maltin: Dead Reckoning because it’s one of her more significant films. It teamed her with Bogart at the peak of his career and it’s a good movie. Then I would add Too Late for Tears because I think it is a prototypical film noir with a great part for her because she’s so persuasive as the femme fatale, and I suppose Pitfall (1948).

Lizabeth_Scott-publicityScott Holleran: What’s at the root of her cinematic appeal?

Leonard Maltin: She had a unique look—her looks were unusual. They were not conventional Hollywood looks and she had a certain bearing and attitude that seemed particularly suited to that film noir genre. She didn’t look like a sunny ingénue. So she’s always convincing.

Scott Holleran: Is it fair to describe Lizabeth Scott as a film noir actress?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it’s unfair because that’s what we really remember her for—but it is limiting because it implies that that’s all she could do.


Reference Links

My Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies and the Last Movie Guide (2014)

Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (2015)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies (2011)

Interview: TCM Host Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott

Dead_Reckoning_(1947)_film_posterCommercial Links

Buy Too Late for Tears

Buy Dead Reckoning

Buy Pitfall