Directorial Debuts: Part II (1970’s)

The 1970’s is my favorite decade of cinema by far. Most of my most admired directors had their heyday during this ten-year period, and the majority of films I consider my all-time favorites came out here as well. In Part I of this series, I concentrated on the dearth of great film debuts since 2000 and I suppose there are a few reasons for this. And though the 1970’s brought us the debuts from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Ron Howard, Adrian Lyne, Catherine Breillat, and a host of other notable talents, I wouldn’t necessarily classify their first efforts as being overly impressive. Here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1970’s. Again, this is surely not a list of who I believe the best directors are to come out of the decade…I’m just judging first films here and the impact it had on cinema and the rest of their careers. As always, I’d love to see who you might include.

5. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

One of the most influential horror films in cinema history, without question. And a film that will always freak me the fuck out. I’m not sure if it’s because Hooper’s film is so low budget (less than $300,000), but the quality of it gives the feeling of a snuff film that only adds to the fright factor. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive and he does manage to get solid performances from a cast of complete unknowns. The irony with this horror flick is that it got an R-rating (though Hooper was fighting for a PG) and even Roger Ebert cited the movie “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” when in fact, there is very little blood or gore at all. A testament to the power of the mind and Hooper’s strong work here. Leatherface, inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, is without a doubt, one of the most terrifying and haunting figures in movies, as he waits for his prey in his dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. Hooper would go on to direct the ill-fated sequel and a host of other horror flicks, but has never managed to outdo this first grand effort.

4. David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977)

Um…yeah. Not really sure what to say here. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly said it best when they wrote, “Eraserhead is about that which can’t be described.” I could not have put it better myself. Since its initial release, the film has become one of the all-time great cult classics and is the epitome of “the midnight movie.”  Those familiar with the extraordinarily remarkable resume of Lynch, will surely be able to see a number of his favorite themes being introduced here for the first time. Lynch started work on the film when he was given a small grant by the AFI Conservatory, but the money of course ran out and it took him over 5 years to shoot — in spurts. Eraserhead is certainly not for everyone…in fact, it’s not for most. However, you can surely see the singular artistic vision that is David Lynch’s — his style, pacing, use of music, visuals, are all on display, and if not for this work, Mel Brooks would have had nothing to be so impressed by to hire him to helm The Elephant Man.  One significant sidenote – the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. So there’s that…

3. Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me, 1971)

The Oscar-winning director behind such mighty works as Mystic River, Million Dollar BabyUnforgiven, and A Perfect World began his filmmaking career with this gripping psychological thriller. here, Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a brief fling with Evelyn Draper (a frightening Jessica Walter), an obsessed fan of his. It doesn’t take long for Draper to become more than a little obsessed with the DJ and eventually becomes quite the deranged stalker. The film was released before many stalker films of its kind began to come out, and, rarely seen, showcased a psychotic female villain. Fatal Attraction, anyone? After years and years of working in front of the camera, it is clear that Eastwood picked up a lot from working with great (and not-so-great) directors and puts that knowledge to most impressive use here. A sign of wondrous things to come from this mighty artist.

2. Erroll Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978)

The movie that launched the career of one of America’s premier documentarians. Of course, the main focus of the film is about the pet cemetery business, but the way Morris frames the work, it becomes about so much more than that. Themes of the afterlife, the inevitability of one’s own mortality, what pets mean in our everyday lives seep through and stay with you long after the film ends. There is no narration at all — unlike some of today’s “documentary” filmmakers, Morris refuses to editorialize for us and tell us what to think. It’s a fascinating film that many — most notably Werner Herzog — thought would never see the light of day. Herzog famously wagered that he would eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. True to his word, the great director consumed his own footwear, and became the subject of the delightful short 20-minute film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The score…Morris 1, Herzog 0.

1. Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973)

Not simply a magnificent directorial debut, but one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s, period.  Made for around $300,000, Malick began working on Badlands after his 2nd year at AFI. The film revolves around the cross-country killing spree of sociopathic Kit (Martin Sheen) and young Holly (Sissy Spacek), after he charms her away from her dead-end South Dakota town.   The film managed to steal the limelight from Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it played at the New York Film Festival and critics were unanimous in their praise for the new filmmaker who depicted the violence in a very cold and remorseless way rather than with brutality and gore. Using America’s Midwest as the backdrop, Badlands plays a bit like Bonnie and Clyde (and perhaps a forerunner to Stone’s NBK), but the characters seem more real and the acts, more haunting than Penn’s piece. This film will surely be on any “Best Debut” list, but there is surely a reason for that. Malick, one of cinema’s most visionary directors with a painstaking eye for detail, cemented his reputation at the onset here, prompting his star Spacek to say (after working with him), “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Amen.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART III’ will give us the best from the 1960’s. 

Another Needless Reboot? Oh Joy…

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but can someone please tell me what is the point of rebooting the Spiderman franchise? I know there can only be one answer, which is money (probably tons of it, which is sad in itself), but if you can give me a better explanation, I’d love to hear it. I thought Sam Raimi‘s first two Spidey films were pretty darn excellent — never mind the third one, which was an absolute disgrace. I understand they were making a fourth and that was cancelled. Now comes The Amazing Spider-Man, scheduled for release in the summer of 2012. I know I have asked this many times before on this very website, but…is Hollywood really that desperate and so lacking in the original scripts department? If so, I have a couple of treatments sitting right on my desk.

I can understand why Marc Webb would sign on to direct this. He was behind the wonderful (500) Days of Summer and a project like Spiderman could potentially put him on the Hollywood A-List for blockbuster films. I get that. Andrew Gardfield is a wonderful actor – I have enjoyed his work thus far and yes, he actually fits the part of Peter Parker quite well. They’ve also made sure to sign on a number of other very gifted Thespians to join in, including Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Sally Field, Denis Leary, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, and Julianne Nicholson (who I absolutely adore). Pretty nice cast. The trailer? It looks equally impressive — and if there were not three very recent Spiderman films, I would be super excited to see this.

My problem? Other than a few tweaks here and there…a new character introduced here, a different subplot there – what is point of all of this? I remember back in 2006 when I was duped into seeing Superman Returns with Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey. It looked new. It looked nice. But I walked out asking, “What was the friggin’ point?!” It didn’t vary very much at all from the original 1978 film and quite frankly, wasn’t nearly as good. In essence, it was the same story of Clark Kent from beginning to end – just snazzier looking. I will not be duped again in July 2012.

In the end, it’s about the money. I understand that and I can appreciate the business that is Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for the trick. Each of us has the right to purchase a ticket to see a concert, a sporting event, a theatrical piece, and yes, a movie. We also have the right to stay away and not buy a ticket…to stand up and make the statement that we will not go to the multiplex to see anything you put on our plate. As an audience, we should be smarter than that and demand more. The upcoming Spiderman film bothers me. It is telling me that Hollywood execs think so low of us that we will buy  re-tread after re-tread. What bothers me even more — is that much of America probably will.

Peter Eramo Ranks: The Top 5 Performances of Marlon Brando

For my money, Marlon Brando was the greatest actor the silver screen has ever seen. A student of the famous Stella Adler Studio, there was simply no one better. Before James Dean and the method actors that would later follow, Brando brought a completely new style of naturalistic and instinctive acting to film. With his debut performance in “The Men” (1950), he was the very first of his kind…a forefather, a godfather of method acting in cinema. As a high school student, I was an obsessive fan of his, taking in as much of his performances as I could. As a theatre major in college, Brando was the epitome of everything I looked up to in an actor. To me, he could do anything he set his mind to; look and sound and play any part whatsoever. I remember feeling devastated when he passed away at the age of 80 in 2004, but I always have his films that I can pop in at anytime and relish in the viewing of watching a true actor at work. His resume is not as vast as most as he never seemed to love what he did, which is a shame. Many consider him to be a tremendous waste of talent because of this and I can understand that. Brando was a complex man with many passions. Sadly, for all his God-given talent, it didn’t seem like acting was ever one of them.

I have of course seen every Marlon Brando film, some of them many times. Even in the “stinker” movies he was involved in (and there were a few), he still managed to shine and give a wonderful performance. This is a list of what I believe to be Brando’s Top 5 screen performances of all-time. It is NOT his Top 5 movies, because then I would surely put “The Godfather” at #1. This is simply judging what I think were his greatest achievements as an actor in his too few 39 film roles.

#5. Col. Walter E. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig… cow after cow… village after village… army after army…”

I was tempted to put another here (like “Sayonara” or “Mutiny on the Bounty“) for a number of reasons. One is his short amount of screen time, but more importantly, Brando’s approach throughout seems less than stellar: he came late, he came grossly overweight, he never read the book, he didn’t know his lines, he had Francis Ford Coppola read the book aloud to him and was a bane in his director’s side during the entire process. Having said that, he does give one of the most memorable performances in screen history here. Coppola managed to get around the weight issue in how he shot all of his scenes. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the assignment of finding and killing Col. Kurtz on his remote compound and to “terminate with extreme prejudice.” So the entire film is building up to Willard finally meeting this enigmatic, psychotic Colonel. The character resonates within the viewer’s psyche before we even meet him. And when we do finally see him, Brando does not disappoint. He is a madman, a philosopher, a war hero, an intellect, a God among his people. He commands your attention in each scene he is in and creates a haunting, complex figure in Col. Kurtz.

#4. Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

“You think I’m gonna interfere with you?… You know, maybe you wouldn’t be bad to interfere with.”

He was the talk of Broadway when he created the role in 1947 (under the direction of Elia Kazan) and blew audiences away with his animal-like ferocity and fresh approach to the craft of acting. With Kazan directing the film and a stellar cast around him (all 3 won Oscars), Brando stars in only his 2nd film and now becomes the new Hollywood sensation. His iconic cry of “STELLA!!!” is now embedded in the most memorable moments in film. His brutal taunting towards (and rape) of his unbalanced sister-in-law, Blanche (Vivien Leigh) is a fascinating watch. You’ve never seen a dinner table cleared in this fashion before. Here, his huge presence is tormenting throughout and you never know what Stanley’s next move is going to be. What Brando does is amazing though — he manages to bring some tenderness and helplessness to this seemingly despicable man. His love for his wife is clear to see, even though he sometimes has a funny way of showing it. I never get tired of this film and can watch him play this part anytime. This is one of those rare parts that, when a newer actor tries to re-create it on stage in some revival, he’s already got his first foot in a ditch as it can never measure up and will always be held up to comparisons of what Brando did here.

#3. Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954)

“You think you’re God Almighty, but you know what you are? You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinkin’ mug! And I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I’m glad what I done!”

Many put this at #1 and I would have no problems with that as he is absolutely phenomenal here in his first Oscar-winning performance. Brando plays an ex-boxer here, a man who coulda been so much more, who coulda had a better life, who “coulda been a contender.” Instead, he is now a longshoreman who is struggling with his conscience to stand up to a corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) after witnessing a murder by Johnny’s men. He meets the dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) and when he begins to fall for her, he begins to have second thoughts about everything he once thought. The scenes he has with Father Barry (Karl Malden) are terrific, as we get to watch two friends play off one another yet again. The scene in the car opposite Rod Steiger breaks your heart and is now properly viewed as being a scene for the ages. Terry Malloy is a complex character, with so many layers. Brando is so subtle and so brilliant that he manages to show us each and every one of those layers. If you have never seen this “Best Picture” winner and you consider yourself a student of film, then this is a must-see.

#2. Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972)

“But I’m a superstitious man. And if some unlucky accident should befall him, if he should be shot in the head by a police officer, or if should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning…then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room. And that, I do not forgive.”

I don’t even think I need to write anything here. Brando. Godfather. Done!  The man was only 47 when he filmed this. No one at Paramount wanted him involved with this project. Thank God Coppola got his way. It is not only one of the top 3 best pictures ever made, but Brando is nothing short of sensational here as the patriarch of the Corleone crime family. He rightfully wins his 2nd ‘Best Actor’ Oscar here and creates a character that will be well-remembered for as long as there is such a thing called movies. The way he looks down Santino’s body and tells the undertaker, “Look how they massacred my boy” gives me chills. The way he feebly waves his hand at Tom when he learns that it was Michael who did the killings; the way he tells Tom that “this war ends now”; the beautiful scene he has outdoors with Michael; his improvised scene with the orange peel in his mouth; how he scolds Sonny for airing his thoughts out loud…you want me to keep going??? There’s about 50 more! It’s all ingenious, all exceptional and done by a virtuoso of the craft of acting.

#1. Paul in “Last Tango in Paris” (1973)

“Even if a husband lives 200 hundred fucking years, he’ll never discover his wife’s true nature. I may be able to understand the secrets of the universe, but… I’ll never understand the truth about you. Never.”

I look at this film as the greatest film actor giving his greatest screen performance — it is raw, uninhibited, courageous, multifaceted, daring, and vulnerable. Director Bernardo Bertolucci helps in letting Brando strip himself of everything but his emotions in this superb film. There is no hiding here, and it is in this performance that we see Brando the person most clearly. He brings everything of himself into the difficult role of Paul, the American expatriate who meets the beautiful young Parisian, Jeanne. His wife has just committed suicide and his insides are now swarming with rage and grief. He begins a sordid, dark and mysterious love affair with Jeanne where names are forbidden and sexual pleasures are the only fare on the menu. Brando’s monologue towards his dead wife is genuine and masterful. When he does open up to Jeanne for a brief moment with an anecdote about his childhood, it is riveting to watch. I can watch this film anytime because (1) I just love the movie and (2) I get such a thrill out of just watching Brando do his thing. It’s a spellbinding watch and one of the greatest performances ever put to film. Just watch this entrancing monologue and look at the myriad of emotions this guy goes through so seemlessly, so effortlessly. It’s a wonder to watch…

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