The Academy Awards? Oh, yeah, them … (yawn)

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – For the first time since I was a teenager, the Oscars hold little interest for me, well, aside from last year and the two years before that. I’ve forgotten, did they hold the Oscars last year?

Crafts people – DPs, designers, editors, music supervisors, costumers, hair and makeup, effects – invariably do work that is superior to the big names in front and behind the cameras so I hope the winning roster reflects that. I’m rooting for my friends, obviously.

In the best actor race, if Colin Farrell wins it will just encourage him although perhaps if he does win he’ll fall prey to the Oscar curse and never be seen again like the woman who played Nurse Ratched, the guy who played Salieri and that bloke who played Freddie Mercury, who ever he was. That would be good.

I like Bill Nighy very much and so he is my pick because he deserves an award for playing Bill Nighy every time so elegantly. I’m not sure Cate Blanchett, good as she is, warrants a third gong for appearing in a movie nobody will see, any more than Frances McDormand, good as she is, did for that nomad thing a couple of years ago. Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars but at least everyone at the time saw them. If they’re going to choose a woman from an unwatched picture, then the prize should go to Andrea Riseborough, who is lovely.

I enjoyed the first ‘Avatar’ well enough but for the sequel I am governed by one of my cardinal rules: Don’t go near the water. For best picture, I’m for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’. I didn’t see the first ‘Top Gun’, why would I? I won’t see this one either but Tom Cruise seems like a decent chap (Scientology aside) and he works so hard to keep the movie industry afloat. Good luck to him, I say.

I’ll be at home with my Blu-ray player watching ‘The Apartment’ or ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Vampire’s Kiss’ or ‘Lion in Winter’ or ‘Dr. Strangelove’ or ….

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John Williams said he never takes Spielberg for granted

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘My hope is that I can work with Steven for many years to come,’ composer John Williams told me. That was in 2000 by which time he had written the scores for sixteen Spielberg-directed movies starting in 1974 with ‘Sugarland Express’. Since then, he has scored thirteen more including this year’s ‘The Fabelmans’ and he was music consultant on last year’s ‘West Side Story’, which of course had music by Leonard Bernstein.

In a short break from their collaboration, Williams scored Brian Percival’s 2013 picture ‘The Book Thief’ and a handful of ‘Star Wars’ vehicles while Spielberg used Alan Silvestri on ‘Ready Steady One’.

The five-time Oscar-winning composer, now 91, told me he never took their collaborative closeness for granted. ‘I never make the assumption that he will not want to have another sound, or another composer to do one of this films,’ he said. ‘Should he wish to do that, it would be something I would salute and honour. I wouldn’t say welcome, but I would certainly honour his wishes and most of all respect them.

Even twenty-three years ago, Williams noted, ‘It’s probably the longest standing collaborative relationship of this kind that I know of in our world. It makes me feel enormously fortunate and lucky because he is a very great man, one of the great filmmakers of the period. Our association has been, for me, an absolutely rewarding, life-enhancing experience.

Williams told me that Spielberg, 76, hadn’t changed over the years. ‘We’ve really gotten along miraculously well from day one, I must say,’ he said. ‘He’s a very sympathetic and sensitive and warm person who’s as unspoiled and focused now as he was when he was a youngster, just 23 or 24 years old coming through the studio gate. He’s the same person today; same enthusiasm and the same energy, same straightness and lack of pretension.

Williams  said that his score for ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ represented an artistic breakthrough for him. ‘Particularly in the second half of the film,’ he noted. ‘The music for that film started out in quite a conventional way and then it sort of took a left turn as the film did. It became more and more fanciful, if you like, with the use of voices and electronic effects; auto horns turned backwards to match the lights of the spaceships; the orchestra doing polytonal and atonal kinds of gestures to introduce an otherworldly but beneficent kind of atmosphere that the arriving creatures seemed to bring with them.’

But he had no doubt that his score for ‘Jaws’ kicked things off. ‘It was the beginnings of our relationship really,’ he said, ‘and a lot of opportunity came my way as a result of it, including ‘Star Wars’. Steven introduced me to George Lucas and he was directly responsible for that relationship developing. The success of the ‘Star Wars’ films brought unbelievable opportunities. I worked for quite a few years with the London Symphony Orchestra on the “Superman” films and the “Indiana Jones” films. These experiences early on with those films were rich and brought with them unimagined rewards in future years for me personally.’

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Recalling … Lloyd Bridges, famous star of famous sons

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘Oh, you shouldn’t bother with Lloyd,’ said Dorothy Bridges, the actor’s wife of nearly forty years. ‘You need to talk to my boys, Jeff and Beau.’

It was 1976 and she had every reason to be proud of her sons as both had made a big impression in movies and went on to long careers. Lloyd Bridges, who was born on this day in 1913, was no slouch, however, with more than 210 screen credits over his lifetime. 

Sadly, Beau and Jeff were not on hand with their parents when I met them. With a group of actors including Charlton Heston, Chad Everett, Chris Connelly, Rob Reiner and Desi Arnaz Jr., Bridges was playing in Detroit in a charity tennis tournament sponsored by Hiram Walker.

The Canadian liquor firm’s Lauder’s Scotch brand was a sponsor of the tournament and hosted a lunch at their expansive facility across the river in Windsor, Ontario. Afterwards, some of the group toured the place where Lloyd Bridges was the biggest hit with the women in the bottling plant.

Like many character actors, he was relazed about his relative fame and was approachable and charming. He was known then for TV series including ‘Sea Hunt’ (left), ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show’ and cop drama ‘Joe Forrester’ plus many screen roles in films such as ‘High Noon’.

Charlton Heston was busy complaining about the Soviet flag he saw flying on one of the flagpoles overlooking the Detroit River. The Oscar-winning star let it be known loudly that he did not want anything to do with some damned communist flag. The Hiram Walker people reminded Heston gently but firmly that he was in Canada and Canada did business with the Russians. Heston growled, ‘I hope the stars and stripes are flying too’ and he was assured that Old Glory was flying elsewhere on the grounds. 

I strolled along with Rob Reiner (then of ‘All in the Family’ before his directing career) and Desi Arnaz Jr. as they chatted with staff and signed autographs. I was taken by surprise when a couple of girls in the bottling plant asked for my autograph.

‘No, no,’ I said. ‘I’m just with the paper.’ Reiner and Arnaz Jr. shook their heads. ‘We know,’ the girls said, ‘and we’d still like your autograph.’ I signed and Reiner, with a disgusted expression on his face, said to Arnaz Jr. ‘Makes you wonder what the fuck we’re doing here.’ When I met him many years later, he’d clearly grown out of his youthful boorishness.

Bridges, then 63, talked to everyone and later, despite his wife’s admonition, he sat down with me. He told me that he’d had 48-hours to learn how to scuba dive before he started playing a former navy diver in‘Sea Hunt’. His favourite for TV, he said, was ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show’, an anthology series that ran for one season in the early Sixties. His favourite film was  the classic Gary Cooper western ‘High Noon’ (above left). His TV show ‘Joe Forrester’ had just been cancelled but he said he wasn’t worried because he could pick and choose. That’s why he took the role of the goofy air traffic controller in the ‘Airplane!’ movies (left with Robert Stack) and manic physical fitness fanatic Izzy Mandelbaum on ‘Seinfeld’, which is what most people know him from today.

Bridges died aged 85 in 1998.

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Don’t mistake Anthony Hopkins for roles he plays

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – No one expects Anthony Hopkins, who turns 85 today, to be anything like Hannibal Lecter but he told me people do often assume he’s like other roles he’s played. 

‘I get a lot of people saying, oh, you shouldn’t be doing that, you play butlers and things,’ he said. ‘They were wonderful parts, “Shadowlands”, ‘Remains of the Day”, I really enjoyed them but I’m not like those characters, you know. I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger but I’m certainly not the butler in “Remains of the Day”. I’ve been a bad boy in my life. I wouldn’t say I was wild but I’ve lived life. I’ve had a good time.’ Continue reading

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Bob Dowling gave me the best job in the world

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I shall always be grateful to Robert J.Dowling, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter who has died aged 83, because it was thanks to him that for several years I had a job that even legendary Hollywood studio chief Sherry Lansing envied.

As THR’s European Arts Critic based in London, I reviewed the finest theatre in the West End, the top music concerts and the best of British television plus movies in England and at international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Edinburgh, Galway and once in Rio de Janeiro.

I met former actress Sherry Lansing, who  had been the head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox and CEO of Paramount Pictures, when she and her husband, film director William Friedkin, were guests of honour at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival. 

Standing outside the grand old Castello Visconti,  they appeared so happy to see someone from Hollywood that they latched on to me immediately. When I described my duties at THR, Lansing grabbed my arm and made sure that I sat next to her when we went inside for a banquet

‘Ray, you have the best job in the world,’ Lansing told me, clasping my hand.

‘Surely not,’ I protested. ‘You were the most powerful woman in Hollywood. You ran a movie studio. That has to be the best job in the world.’ 

‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘That was all tension and stress. Yours is the best job in the world, believe me.’

She was right and I had Bob Dowling to thank. U.S. President Bill Clinton also had been influential when he signed the family leave bill that allowed male employees to take twelve unpaid weeks off work with health insurance covered and their jobs kept for their return. That allowed Matt King, then managing editor of The Reporter’s Special Issues department, to do just that. 

My friend and former Los Angeles Herald Examiner colleague Karen Cusolito was working in Specials and she recommended to Editorial Director Randy Tierney that I would make a good stand-in for three months. Everything went very well and when Matt King returned, Randy and Bob Dowling asked if I wanted to stay on as a senior editor. When Matt was promoted into THR’s executive offices, I succeeded him as managing editor.

Once I’d proved myself, Bob gave me freedom to risk controversy with the anniversary issues I edited on topics such as the state of comedy and the increasing amount of screen violence. In one issue, I ran a full page of photos of a wide range of actors, men and women, holding all kinds of deadly weapons. With no words on the page, it made a powerful statement.

Bob was a salesman not a journalist but he knew that good journalism was invaluable. He encouraged us to produce real journalism even in supplements that marked milestones of shows such as reaching one hundred episodes. We didn’t just salute them, we examined what they did to get that far so others might learn. 

His view was that even in a celebratory issue, we should tell real stories and, like the best journalism, follow the money. He made a deal with a firm called Competitive Media Reporting to supply us with specific data on how much each Hollywood distributor spent on motion picture advertising in all the various media. I assigned serious and revealing articles on the topic.

We had good response to our specials. After I edited an issue about Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker wrote to Bob to thank everyone involved, naming each of us who’d worked on it. ‘What an amazing job you did putting together that issue,’ he wrote. ‘I’ve never felt so much affirmation, support and love from this motion picture industry in my entire career. You’ve actually managed to find new meaning in my favourite word, to ‘kvell’. That’s a quote from my mother.’

Gene Siskel told me he had been very leery about cooperating for a special issue on a major anniversary of his ‘At the Movies’ series with Roger Ebert. He feared it would be groveling. ‘Instead, it was real journalism, which surprised me,’ he said, ‘so thank you for that.’ Following a ‘Producer of the Year’ special, Mace Neufeld sent a note to Randy Tierney to say that he had told Dowling ‘in the future, in the unlikely event we are ever honored again, we will sleep easily knowing the kind of talent that handles the production of an issue like this’.

I wrote for and edited sections on all aspects of the art, science and craft of filmmaking talking to location scouts, production designers, editors, producers and completion bond specialists. What I loved most were the six music special issues each year, four on scores and songs for films and two on country music. My interest continued after I moved back to England in 1998 to be THR’s European Bureau Chief and then as arts critic.

Bluff and genial, Dowling used to ask me discreetly to rewrite his TradeView columns and he was an engaging lunch and dinner companion on his visits to London. 

It amused me on a trip back to Los Angeles when everyone followed Bob’s lead in having mineral water. As the token European, I was forgiven for being the only one to order a glass of wine. They didn’t know that when Bob and I ate in England, we would enjoy a glass or two of Scotch and share a bottle of wine.

I raise a glass now to a good man.

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Ted Danson’s epiphany in the African desert

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Ted Danson, who turns 75 today, has had an astonishingly successful career on television but there was a time when he wanted something else. After his sitcom ’Cheers’ became a massive hit in the early Eighties, his dream was to be a big-time movie star. Continue reading

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Mike Hodges: a brilliant filmmaker and great company

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Mike Hodges, who has died aged 90, was one of the greatest British filmmakers but producers often didn’t know what to do with him. He made only nine feature films but they include four splendid crime pictures – ‘Get Carter’, ‘Pulp’, ‘Croupier’ and ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ – and a rollicking space fantasy, ‘Flash Gordon’.

I first met Hodges in 2003 when American film producer Mike Kaplan, whom I’d gotten to know in Los Angeles, invited me to dinner at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with the director and principal cast of ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ including Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Jamie Foreman.  Continue reading

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When Julie Taymor met Paul and Yoko

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Julie Taymor, who turns 70 today, is known best for creating ‘The Lion King’ among a long list of theatrical productionsi but her films are just as fascinating such as ‘Titus’, ‘Frida’, ‘The Tempest’,’ The Glorias’ and ‘Across the Universe’.

I have been fortunate to spend time with Taymor and her creative and life partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal, in London, Ghent and Krakow (pictured with me above). I spent an afternoon at Abbey Road watching the couple record the score for ‘Titus’ and I moderated a panel discussion with them at the Krakow Film Music Festival in 2012. Continue reading

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Charlie Rich loved the blues more than country music

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Charlie Rich, who was born on this day ninety years ago, was one of the biggest names in country music. His recordings of ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘Most Beautiful Girl’ made him an international smash on country and mainstream charts. He won major awards, appeared in Clint Eastwood movies and headlined in Las Vegas.

I came to know him as my father-in-law when I married his eldest daughter, Renée. Charlie was a big man, handsome and imposing, whose impressive white locks had earned him the nickname the Silver Fox. Renée’s mother, Margaret Ann, was a gifted writer of songs such as ‘Life Has its Little Ups and Downs’. When Renée took me to Tennessee to meet them, they welcomed me into their spacious and elegant home called Foxwood on a few acres of gated land on West Cherry Circle in Memphis. Continue reading

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Stuart Margolin and James Garner: ‘a perfect friendship’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Stuart Margolin, who died today aged 82, was one of the great screen sidekicks working regularly with James Garner. Traditionally, in film and on TV, there have been two kinds of heroes – loners and those with sidekicks, There also have been two kinds of sidekick. Some sre there only to keep the hero from talking to himself. Others, the great ones, are there to drive the hero to distraction.

Stuart Margolin established himself as James Garner’s sidekick in the great tradition of exasperating sidekicks such as John Wayne’s Gabby Hayes in fifteen films.

‘That’s how I like to think of myself,’ Margolin told me in 1982 for a cover story in Canadian TVGuide. ‘Some guys can take a sidekick, others can’t. Jim didn’t have a sidekick for many years and he doesn’t need one but somehow this has evolved snd I think we work well together.’

Garner did exasperation very well and that’s where Margolin, who knew exactly what a sidekick was for, came in. ‘I have to be eccentric to the point that it gives Jim something to react to,’ he said. ‘He is the probably the best reactor in the business. I can be out there doing all manner of mad behaviour and it’s Jim’s reactions that will give the audience not only his character but my character too.’

Their partnership began when Margolin played a none-too-bright deputy named Mitch Mitchell on ‘Nichols’, Garner’s 1971 western series. Margolin had arrived in Hollywood in 1960 in a road company doing the play ‘End as a Man’ and decided to stay. He was born by the Mississippi River near Davenport, Iowa, but was raised mostly in Dallas, Texas, where his father owned and operated an appliance store.

At 8, he played Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with a professional company but he thought no more more about acting until he went to New York to live with his older brother Arnold,who was acting on Broadway un ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’.

Taking voice lessons to lose his Texas accent, Margolin gradually won small stage roles leading to the road company that took him to Los Angeles in 1960. There, he dound steady work on TV series such as ‘My World and Welcome to It’ and ‘The Partridge Family’ and acting in movies including ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Kelly’s Heroes’.

In 1970, he appeared in a series of blackout sketches on ‘Love American Style’, a TV series co-produced by his brother Arnold. When Garner’s manager Meta Rosenberg and Frank Pierson, creator of ‘Nichols’, were casting that series, they saw a clip from ‘Love American Style’ starring John Astin, whom they were considering for the role of a deputy.

‘In the scene, there was an actor who was unknown to us,’ Rosenberg told mee. ‘It was Stuart and we both said, let’s see him, he’s terrific.’ 

When Garner saw the clip, he agreed. ‘It was a sketch in which they ended up slamming a jail door in Stuart’s face and he made me laugh,’ he told me. ‘Anybody who could do that, have a door slammed in his face and make me laugh is doing pretty good.’

The show lasted for just one season but when Garner returned to television as a private eye in ‘The Rockford Files’, Margolin became a regular as Evelyn Martin, a chronic liar and reprobate known as Angel. Rockford had met Angel when he was wrongfully serving a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit and for which he was pardoned. Rockford has a soft spot for his former cell-mate despite his criminal nature. That series ran for seven seasons with Garner winning an Emmy Award as best actor and Margolin two Emmy Awards as best supporting actor.

His Emmy Awards took Margolin by surprise. ‘It sure caught me off-guard,’ he said. ‘You always think that the people who win these things must know people or are well-liked. I don’t hang around Hollywood so it came as a real shock to me.’

Margolin’s sidekick eccentricity found its purest expression in Garner’s reprise of his western show, ‘Breat Maverick’. He played Philo Sandeen, a Yugoslavian who came to the New World, decided that he preferred to live the way the Indians lived and preferred to go by the name Great Scout Standing Bear. Philo Sandeen was much more capable than Angel and more dangerous. Margolin said, ‘After a while, as Angel, it became incumbent to get a laugh on everything I did and I didn’t want to fall into that.’

Margolin, of course, was much more than just a screen sidekick. He was a writer, director, composer and singer. He began directing TV shows in 1975 doing several episodes of ‘Rockford’ and a short-lived TV MTM comedy series, ‘The Texas Wheelers’. He wrote the script and the song ‘The Ballad of Andy Crocker’ for a Lee Majors TV-movie snd he scored seven TV-movies including ‘Evil Roy Slade’. In 1980, he released a country-rock album titled ‘And the Angel Sings’.

He directed the two-hour opening episode of ‘Bret Maverick’, which was the NBC’s highest rated new show of that season. He also directred Garner’s NBC TV-movie, ‘The Long Summer of George Adams’. It was well-received but Garner thought Margolin did not get the credit he deserved. ‘It had the feel of a great European film,’ he said.

Garner was Margolin’s biggest fan. ‘If I had to work with just one actor every day for the rest of my life, it would be Stuart,’ he told me. ‘I just think he’s such a creative and talented actor and I want him around me.’

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