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Posts Tagged ‘Urban Cowboy’

“Who is this Ben Foster guy? And where did he come from?” That’s how my search started.

Every once in a while an actor comes around and kind of stops you in your tracks. It happens when you’ve never seen them in a film before and they don’t even appear to be acting. To use a directors phrase, they are in the moment. They make you ask, “Where did this actor come from?” I’ve only experienced that a half-dozen times in my life. A few performances I can think of are Denzel Washington in Glory, Scott Glenn in Urban Cowboy, Brad Pitt in Thema & Lousie, and Edward Norton in Primal Fear. And it happened last week when I saw Ben Foster in The Messenger.

So I wanted to know where Ben Foster came from and I was surprised to find that he was raised in a Fairfield, Iowa. (A town Mother Earth in 2006 listed first of “great places you’ve never heard of.”)  I was also surprised that, though Foster’s only 29, he’s been acting in films and TV for the past 14 years. I don’t recall ever seeing him before. Never saw him in Six Feet Under, 3:10 to Yuma, or Alpha Dog. And before he started acting in films and TV he was doing community theater in Iowa. And doing it well.

One article said he started doing theater when he was eight. According to IMBD he, “wrote, directed, and starred in his own play at the age of 12, a play that won second place in an international competition.As an actor friend once told me the important thing for an actor to do is “get stage time.” Apparently, Foster got a lot of that in Fairfield, a small town of less than 10,000 people that had four community theaters in it.* Fairfield is an unusual small town that I’ve called the San Francisco of Iowa. There is no shortage of art galleries and vegetarian restaurants thanks in part to Maharishi University that is based there. (I saw David Lynch speak there a couple of years ago.) Interesting place.

Foster attended the Interlochen Theater Arts Summer program in Interlochen, Michigan when he was 14, and at 16 dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles and began working on TV and movies right away. But keep in mind, by that time he had already been acting for eight years. I imagine he had more stage time that most 16 year olds in L.A.

In 2003 he won a Daytime Emmy for his role in Bang Bang You’re Dead. And before that break through performance in The Messenger he had been in over 80 TV episodes or movies, and in total, acting for 2o years. It all kinda goes back to the 10,000 rule again, doesn’t it?

As a related side note, last week here in Iowa I happened to go a community theater performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was an entertaining and great performance by at the Waterloo Community Playhouse. I’ve been to theaters of all kinds all over this country and one thing that impressed me about this performance was the worked showed. I mean that in a good way. The work they did showed in the set and costume design, the blocking, the performances, the lighting, the music, everything.

At the dress rehearsal I saw the director, Chuck Stiwill, said before the show that there was a cast of just over 50 people and twice that working behind the scenes. (Who knew it sometimes takes 150 people to put on a show in community theater?) Some of the people had been working on the show for two months. Rehearsals were nightly, and yes, there were several children in the show. Perhaps future Ben Foster’s getting in their stage time.

Dream big, but always remember to be faithful in the small things that come your way. And keep in mind that there are also writing opportunites in community and regional theaters around the country as well as summer stock shows.

P.S. And if you know of an 8-12 year olds who are interested in learning filmmaking check out Apple Camp.

*Today Fairfield is home to the 522-seat Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts.

Scott W. Smith

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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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There are two performances by actors that stick in my mind as transcending acting. In both performances I had not see the actors before which helped bring a sense of heightened reality to the roles they played. And both come down to a single scene that burned into my memory. One was Denzel Washington and his role in Glory when he was being whipped, and the other was Scott Glenn’s role in Urban Cowboy when he drinks from a bottle of tequilla and eats the worm.

Glenn had actually been kicking around Hollywood for 15 years by the time he played the tough ex-con in Urban Cowboy.  But as he approached 40 he had given up on Hollywood and moved to Idaho with his wife and family. His agent talked him into auditioning for the role and the rest is history. From then on the former Marine was a Hollywood movie star.

What I remember when I watched his performance is that I thought, “This guy isn’t an actor, he’s a real bad ass.” Glenn has said he picks roles not for the story but whether or not the character interests him as something he wants to spend four months doing. But there is a Glenn quote I remembered reading years ago that I thought would be a fitting quote of the day.

I couldn’t find the original quote but did find one in the same vane where in speaking about his decision to move to Ketchum, Idaho back in 1978 Glenn said:

My plan was to get a job as a bartender and apprentice myself out as a cross-country ski guide for hunting and fishing and do Shakespeare in the park in Boise during the summer until the kids were older.”

That’s a spirit I can appreciate.

 

Scott W. Smith

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