Stepping Out of Character
Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they’re not, well, criticizing? They’re a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to ‘girl’ singers. Go figure.
With that in mind we thought we’d indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they’re not even getting paid to do it.
Is this the age of lists or what?
Taking their cue from the American Film Institute, everyone from your aunt to your plumber is doing a movie list. I decided to list the reasons why I shouldn’t, coming up with only one: No one cares. Not good enough. So here goes.
Purists, take note: These are my favorite movies, those I could see, and have seen, again and again. For example, I originally had in my elite 10 Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” for my money the best mob movie ever. But then I asked myself if I wanted to see it again. Well, yes, but not right away. So out it went, demoted to the “almost” list, along with “An American in Paris,” “Double Indemnity,” “Five Fingers,” “Goldfinger,” “The Graduate,” “Great Expectations,” “House of Games,” “Manhattan,” “Murmur of the Heart,” “Nashville,” “Network,” “North by Northwest,” “The Player,” “Ran,” “The Servant,” “The Shooting Party,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Z.”
My Top 10, alphabetically:
‘ANNIE HALL’ (1977)
The very best of Woody Allen’s best, at once rip-roaring hilarious and tenderly romantic, with Allen’s neurotic (what else?) comedy writer, Alvy Singer, falling obsessively for Diane Keaton’s evolving Annie in a New York relationship that is undermined by their own epic insecurities. This is one of those movies I laugh at when just thinking about it. Among its many major hoots are Alvy’s childhood flashbacks and his bedtime adventures with Annie, whose idea of foreplay is smoking a joint. Alvy: “Why don’t you take sodium Pentothal? Then you could sleep through the whole thing.” If you doze through even a frame of “Annie Hall,” check your pulse.
‘DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB’ (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s uproarious Cold War comedy projects a terrifying absurdity that remains relevant after all these years (see: India and Pakistan). At its heart is a looming U.S.-Soviet nuclear crisis instigated by Sterling Hayden’s loony Air Force commander, who believes the Commies want to deprive Americans of their “precious bodily fluids.” For sheer genius, catch Peter Sellers’ trio of characters that includes the ghoulishly mad ex-Nazi scientist Strangelove. Vot a movie!
‘JULES AND JIM’ (1961)
This magnificent collaboration between French director Francois Truffaut and actress Jeanne Moreau is a period piece about the ripening lives of close friends: a German played by Oskar Werner, a Parisian played by Henri Serre, and the woman they both adore. She is Moreau’s moody, erratic, utterly inexplicable Catherine, one of filmdom’s most haunting, enigmatic females. The trio’s enduring affection for each other across 20 years, and the story’s ultimate bizarre twist, are as indelible as the Americanized version, “Willie and Phil,” is forgettable.
‘THE KILLING FIELDS’ (1984)
The emotional core here is the friendship, often uneven, between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian translator-assistant, Dith Pran, beautifully played by Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor, respectively. Even more memorable for me, though, are director Roland Joffe’s clanging, pulsating scenes of U.S. personnel bolting chaotically from Phnom Penh in 1975 just ahead of the incoming Khmer Rouge, then the chilling arbitrariness of the coming holocaust that murdered 3 million.
‘KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS’ (1949)
What fabulous turn-of-the-century fun, a lovingly crafted little black comedy from the Brits and a tour de force for a young Alec Guinness, who plays eight family members whom Dennis Price’s impoverished but resourceful Louis Mazzini must erase en route to becoming a duke. Guinness is ever the superb minimalist, but Price, peerless as a haughty, amoral cad, is the juice here, assisted by whispery Joan Greenwood as the equally larcenous Sibella.
‘THE KING OF COMEDY’ (1983)
Although one of Martin Scorsese’s least-discussed efforts, it’s one of his most profound, and just a huge kick thanks to Robert De Niro’s portrayal--comic with an undertone of danger--of bent Rupert Pupkin, whose dreams of fame as a TV talk show host turn out to be not as delusional as they initially seem. His big break comes when he stages a high-profile kidnapping with his outrageously funny sidekick, played by Sandra Bernhard, ultimately affirming a truism of the electronic age: Do something famous, whether loopy or even criminal, and you’ve got yourself a bestseller and TV career.
‘RICHARD III’ (1955)
Perhaps not Laurence Olivier’s best Shakespeare rendering but the one I never tire of, in part because his villainy here is so transfixing, and also because the Duke of York is arguably the most charismatic scoundrel in literature. I admire Richard’s courage, shrewdness and triumph over physical adversity, yet despise him for slaughtering his way to the throne and am quite happy to see him go. Though just as happy to welcome him back.
‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’ (1952)
Debbie Reynolds is adorable, and Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor spectacular, tapping grandly together in this witty, utterly joyous and very musical musical set in the Roaring ‘20s. So what’s not to celebrate, including Jean Hagen’s classic silent film star whose transition to talkies is sabotaged by her irritating whine. His magic feet notwithstanding, that undersung comic actor Kelly helps make “Singin’ in the Rain” so funny that it could stand alone just as comedy.
‘SOME LIKE IT HOT’ (1959)
Buy Jack Lemmon as a woman here, and you’ll buy Godzilla as Peter Pan. But there’s so much comic wattage in this frantic Billy Wilder classic--from Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag to Marilyn Monroe’s vulnerable Sugar Kane--that the credibility gap swiftly vanishes.
‘THE THIRD MAN’ (1949)
For these reasons, I’ve always found this film irresistible: Anton Karas’ distinctive zither score; director Carol Reed’s stunning use of shadows and night to spread intrigue and suspense; Orson Welles’ balance of suave humor and menace, and his tantalizingly delayed entrance as reputedly dead criminal Harry Lime, with Reed giving us a fleeting glimpse of the fugitive’s mug in a pitch black doorway. Also here are Joseph Cotton as Harry’s old pal, Holly, and Alida Valli as his still-enamored former lover, Anna. Both have their devotion tested as Trevor Howard’s earnest army major presses them to betray the predatory Harry. The concluding scene--Anna striding past Holly as if he were invisible--is one of the most haunting movie exits ever.