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Posts Tagged ‘The Ten Commandments’

(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.

The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today. 

These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.

Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back  in 1937.

It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor. 

His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?

And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.

Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.

I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.

And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set  seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.

And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.

 

Scott W. Smith

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