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Posts Tagged ‘Breaking Away’

Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….

Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.

Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.

Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation.  Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.

Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.

There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)

At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);

The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.’”

There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)

From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.

Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine;  “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.

Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.

Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie  The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.

Whip It (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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