Recalling Dan Tana’s barkeep Mike Gotovac, an L.A. legend …

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Legendary Dan Tana’s barkeep Mike Gotovac died aged 76 on May 15 following complications caused by Covid-19. He was among the many rich characters I encountered in my time in Los Angeles and I recall clearly the first time we met.

The evening after the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989, a group of us from the paper went to Dan Tana’s, the fabled West Hollywood restaurant for a meal. As we waited just inside the door, somebody recognized columnist Gordon Dillow from the photo on his column and Jimmy Cano, the city’s best maitre’d, asked if we were all from the HerEx. When we said we were, everyone in the place applauded and we weren’t allowed to pay for anything.

We knew we’d found our new spiritual home. 

Dillow, Mark Schwed, Charles Fleming, Deborah Hastings, me, and assorted other ex-HerEx staffers became regulars. As everyone in L.A. knows, Dan Tana’s is a great Italian restaurant but really a little Yugoslavia with staffers from several nations in that former country. Mike, a Croatian, was as colourful a bartender as you’d ever wish to meet, he was incredibly efficient, entertaining and good-hearted behind his cantankerous facade. He poured a generous Stoli rocks and after every third one, for a few regulars, the next was free accompanied by a glass of water to keep us steady.

Mike and I became friends due to our mutual love of international football.  Watching World Cup and Euro Cup games wasn’t so easy in the 1990s but Mike would arrange for games to screen early in the mornings and a few soccer lovers would gather at dawn at Tana’s. One time, I made the mistake of leaving my car parked on Santa Monica Boulevard and, of course, when I emerged blinking into the sunshine, it had been towed. That was an expensive game.

Another time, Mike invited me down to the Croatian American Hall of San Pedro to watch a Croatia game. His hospitality there was as friendly, open and generous as it was at Tana’s. It was there that I learned for the first time that Marco Polo was not Italian but Croatian as he was born, as Mike was, on the Dalmation coast, which in Polo’s time was part of the city-state of Venice.

When I left Los Angeles to return to England in 1998 to become European Bureau Chief of The Hollywood Reporter, I had a big farewell party with friends from my other regular drinking spot, the Robin Hood British Pub in Sherman Oaks. I also had a party at Dan Tana’s. Jimmy, who died aged 66 in 2010, made sure we had plenty of tables and Mike presented me with one of my favourite treasures … a Dan Tana’s red waiter’s coat. I have it still. 

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When Kenny Rogers welcomed me to Los Angeles

By Ray Bennett

We flew into LAX from Toronto, checked into the Sportsmen’s Lodge in the Valley, went directly to the then open-air Universal Amphitheater and were led to seats in the front row just as the biggest entertainer in the world strolled onto the stage: Kenny Rogers, who died today aged 81.

It was in early May 1978. TVGuide’s Canadian editions had just been purchased from the US parent company and art director Brian Moore and I were in Los Angeles to talk to freelance writers and photographers as we began to establish our own identity.

Journalist Sue Reilly, who wrote cover stories for People Magazine, was our stringer and she met us at the airport. Sue had arranged tickets to see Kenny Rogers, who’d just been on the cover of Time (or maybe Newsweek) as the highest paid performer in the world. It was unforgettable on that first evening ever in L.A. to see that genial man with modest talent keep a joyful crowd entertained beneath the moon and stars.

A few years later, 1983 I think, I saw Kenny Rogers perform again at the CNE in Toronto. I was still with TV Guide Canada and for some reason I was invited to go backstage either at intermission or after the show, to say hello to him. He was relaxed and very personable as we sat, just the two of us, and chatted over a couple of beers. He was far from being my favourite singer but I liked him immensely. He was still huge and it was quite something to reflect that there I was just having a quiet beer with the biggest star in the world.

That first trip to L.A. was the first time I met Sue Reilly, who wrote regularly for TV guide Canada and has remained a great friend, and she set up meetings with potential local contributors. One of them was writer David Gritten and I assigned him stories for every magazine I edited after that. When I returned to live in L.A. in 1989, David introduced me to Los Angeles Herald Examiner managing editor Andrea Herman, who hired me as Arts and Entertainment Editor for an incredible few months in which I began some lifelong friendships.

Also on that trip, I met future roommate and now longtime friend, photographer Maureen Donaldson, who introduced me to her pal TV Star Anne Lockhart. They took Brian and me to Olvera Street to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and on our last night took us to Dan Tana’s (my first visit to what years later would be a regular drinking and dining spot) before driving us to LAX for the flight home.

We had great expenses and Sue had tried all the glam hotels but they were booked so she resorted to the old dependable Sportsmen’s Lodge. On many subsequent visits, I stayed at places like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Four Seasons and the Beverly Wilshire until I realised that the Lodge was perfectly fine in a good location close to all the studios with a good coffee shop where I ran into Jack Palance one morning. Robert Wagner told me later that the hotel had once been a favourite for rascals in the screen community for afternoon delights. But I digress.

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My wish list for the 2020 Oscars: ‘Little Women’

Best Picture

My favourite film of the year is Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ with its splendid filmmaking, intelligent update of the story and wonderful performances. The film I admire most is Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ with its biting satire, great comedy, astute insight and rollicking surprises.. I enjoyed some other nominated films:  Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, James Mangold’s ‘Le Mans’66 (Ford vs Ferrari)’ Todd Phillips’s ‘Joker’ and Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’. Three I thought were awful … Quentin Tarantino’s ‘ Once Upon a Waste of Time in Hollywood’, Martin Scorsese’s ‘Geriatricfellas’ and Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Duck’.  I would have liked to see nominations for Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’, Josh and Benny Sadfie’s ‘Uncut Gems’, Celine Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady On Fire’ and Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘Clemency’. I also enjoyed Gavin Hood’s ‘Official Secrets’ and Todd Haynes’s ‘Dark Waters’

Will win: ‘1917’ Should win: ‘Little Women’ (above)

Best Actor

Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as always in ‘The Two Popes’, adding depth to dialogue that’s intelligent even as it involves two decent men talking about an imaginary friend. Adam Driver does a much better job of portraying a whiny asshole in ‘Marriage Story’ than Leonard DiCaprio does in the wretched Tarantino film. Antonio Banderas is solid in Pedro Almodovar’s surprisingly dull ‘Pain and Glory’ but Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising in ‘Joker’. I would have liked to see Adam Sandler nominated for his frenetic turn in ‘Uncut Gems’ plus Christian Bale for his scrappy racer in ‘Le Mans ‘66’ and Eddie Murphy for his warm and funny performance in ‘Dolemite is My Name’. 

Will win: Joaquin Phoenix (above) Should win: Joaquin Phoenix

Best Actress

The more I think about ‘Marriage Story’, the more impressed I am with Scarlett Johansson as a woman trying to emerge from an oppressive marriage to fulfil her own ambitions and be a good mother. It’s an intelligent and nuanced performance. Saoirse Ronan is equally appealing in ‘Little a Women’ and Cynthia Erivo widens her range impressively in ‘Harriet’. Charlize Theron does her best in an under-written role of a woman abused by her employer in ‘Bombshell’ but it’s not a very good film. Neither is ‘Judy’ but there’s no question that Renee Zellweger nails her portrayal of Judy Garland on her last legs. Better than all of them is Alfre Woodard as a firm but compassionate and increasingly conflicted death-row prison warden in ‘Clemency’. It’s a profoundly gripping and moving performance.

Will win: Renee Zellweger (above) Should have won: Alfre Woodard (above)

Best Supporting Actor

Scorsese drags Joe Pesci, one of cinema’s great hams, out of retirement and gives him nothing to do except wander about like a creepy uncle with none of the malice of which he’s capable while Al Pacino, as a cheerier uncle, is simply miscast as the big, blustery Jimmy Hoffa in the tediously boring ‘The Irishman’. Tom Hanks is just what you’d expect as Mr. Rogers in the pedestrian ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’. Brad Pitt has shown in his acceptance speeches at various awards presentations that he is embarrassed to be nominated for doing next to nothing in the Tarantino film except swoon over DiCaprio, take off his shirt, drive around an affectionately recreated Los Angeles and smash people in the face. He should be. Best of the nominated bunch is Anthony Hopkins who shows the progression of a troubled and guilt-ridden religious figure in ‘The Two Popes’. Better than all of them are Korean veteran Kang-ho Song (left) as the lazily devious poor father in ‘Parasite’ and Timothée Chalamet as the rich kid who grows from louche privilege to sensitive compassion in ‘Little Women’.

Will win: Brad Pitt Should have won: Kang-ho Song or Timothee Chalamet (with Florence Pugh below)

Best Supporting Actress

Scarlett Johansson is by far the best thing in the otherwise ridiculous ‘JoJo Rabbit’ and Kathy Bates does her usual sturdy job in Clint Eastwood’s misguided ‘Richard Jewell’. Margot Robbie is just fine as an abused woman in ‘Bombshell’ and Laura Dern is very effective as a dynamic divorce lawyer in ‘Marriage Story’ although it’s a one-note role much as Allison Janney’s was in ‘I, Tonya’ and she won the Oscar. Best of the nominees is Florence Pugh who conveys the youngest ‘Little Women’ daughter’s growth from brattish child to sophisticated woman with immense polish. I would have liked to see nominations for Cho Yeo-jeong (left) as the blinkered rich mother in ‘Parasite’ and Park So-dam as the smart and tricky poor daughter in that film. 

Will win: Laura Dern Should win: Florence Pugh

Best Director

Will win: Bong Joon-ho Should win: Bong Joon-ho

Best International Film

Will win: ‘Parasite’ Should win: ‘Parasite’ (above)

Best Original Screenplay

Will win: ‘Parasite’ Should win: ‘Parasite’

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Will win: ‘Joker’ Should win: ‘Little Women’

Best Music

Will win: Hildur Guðnadóttir Should win: Hildur Guðnadóttir 

Best Song:

Should win: ‘I’m Standing With You’ by Diane Warren from ‘Breakthrough’

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Martin Shaw hasn’t always been a TV copper

Martin Shaw as George Gently x650

By Ray Bennett

Martin Shaw, who turns 75 today, is known best for playing TV coppers in “The Professionals” and “Inspector George Gently” but he also has had a long stage career in roles from Stanley Kowalski to Lord Goring to Elvis Presley, and he loves to fly.

The Birmingham-born actor is regarded as a prickly interview subject but when we chatted in 2011 for a story in Cue Entertainment, we got along fine, possibly because we’re about the same age.

Shaw won international fame as Doyle, a young action hero in tight jeans with his hair in a huge perm alongside Lewis Collins as Bodie in the action series “The Professionals”, which ran from 1977 to 1983. The actor made clear at the time his displeasure with “The Professionals” and he had no desire to talk about it now.

Shaw, left, with the late Lewis Collins in 'The Professionals'

Shaw, left, with the late Lewis Collins in ‘The Professionals’

But when I asked him if Doyle might have grown up to be George Gently, the shrewd senior officer with short steely hair and a manner to match, he said: “Good question. It’s hard to answer because Gently is a real person, a real character, and Ray Doyle wasn’t.”

It couldn’t have happened because “The Professionals” was very much a 1970s show while “George Gently”, which commences its eighth season on BBC One this year, is set in the 1960s. Shaw said he was drawn to the role because of the way he was created by writer Peter Flannery in the pilot script.

Gently is a policeman who has been hardened by war and his wife’s murder: “George is an old-time copper. He fought in World War Two and he’s a very tough, seasoned fighter. He knows about hardship and has seen tough times.”

It was intended to be much darker than the series has become, Shaw said executives saw potential in the relationship between Gently and the younger policeman played by Lee Ingleby so it was “softened” for broader appeal: “The pilot ended with the baddie, a very mad man played by Phil Davis, being hanged. The priest said, ‘‘Do you have any last words?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Make it fucking slow.’ Blackout. That was how dark the pilot was, but it became a different show.”

Shaw as Elvis onstage

Shaw as Elvis onstage

Shaw said the 1960s setting has allowed the show to delve into social and cultural issues of the time such as police brutality, capital punishment, racism, wife beating and abortion: “In the UK, it seems to me that necessarily everything stopped during World War Two. From 1939 to 1945, everything stopped. Then, from ’45 to ’60, everything was still at a standstill because we were in recovery. And then, suddenly, there was more than 20 years of movement and progress that developed in about 18 months.”

Before “George Gently”, Shaw had the title role in the legal series “Judge John Deed” for six seasons from 2001 and played writer P.D. James’s forensic detective Adam Dalgleish in “Death in Holy Orders” in 2003 and “The Murder Room” in 2005: “Interestingly, I’ve played more homosexuals than I have cops. But we make a lot of cop shows. It’s just what gets noticed. It’s either an observation or an indictment; it depends on your point of view. You’re either gonna be a copper, a lawyer or a doctor. That’s it.”

As a young man, he was at drama school with innovative artists such as French director Michel St. Denis, British director Peter Brook, and playwright Charles Marowitz. His early work was at the Royal Court Theatre, and with leading theatrical directors William Gaskill and Peter Hall and future filmmakers Roman Polanski and Lindsay Anderson (“O Lucky Man”): “My start, long before ‘The Professionals,’ was with all these people and it was such an exciting time to be an actor.”

He credited a 1974 run in London’s West End as Stanley Kowalsky in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” as a major breakthrough and in 1985 he played Elvis Presley in the long-running play “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Alan Bleasdale. Shaw was an Elvis fan but he said the show was a challenge: “I used to sit up until 3 in the morning watching the documentaries … stop … freeze frame … play bits back … and then learn my lines … get up at 6 to learn more lines. It was hard bloody work. There were so many expectations but I was constantly reassured both by [writer Alan] Bleasedale and [producer Bill] Kenwright, and the director Robin Lefebvre, who said, ‘We don’t want an impersonation. This is a performance. Get on the inside.’ It sort of evolved by osmosis and I got to be like him anyway. Then we got the Evening Standard Award, so it was obviously well received and well respected.”

Shaw onstage with Jenny Seagrove in 'The Country Girl'

Shaw onstage with Jenny Seagrove in ‘The Country Girl’

Among his greatest stage successes was his appearance as Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” which was directed by Peter Hall and ran on Broadway for 307 performances from April 1996. Shaw was nominated for a best actor Tony Award and won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding featured actor in a play. I saw him on the West End stage at the Apollo Theatre on Oct. 11 2010 in Clifford Odets 1951 “The Country Girl” and he and co-star Jenny Seagrove were outstanding in roles played in the 1954 movie by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, who won an Oscar.

A keen aviator who gained his pilot’s licence more than 20 years ago, Shaw has made several documentaries for the BBC about military exploits involving planes such as “Aviators” (2006), “Dambusters Declassified” (2010), and “Jericho” in 2014.

His interest in flying started with his father as far back as he can recall: “I was born and raised in Birmingham no more than a mile or two from Castle Bromwich, which was where they made and assembled and tested Spitfires and Lancasters. From my earliest memories, the sky was always full of aeroplanes. We went flying in an old biplane from Castle Bromwich for 5 bob each  (5 shillings in old English money). It just started from that.”

A thoughtful man who prefers country solitude to city life, he reflected on the passage of time. For the “Dambusters” documentary, he navigated a plane as it flew at low level toward the dam of the Möhne reservoire, which was the target of the May 1943 raid by RAF personnel from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. When they landed, he did some pieces to camera and interviewed people at the dam: “I found that incredibly moving; far more moving and disturbing than I’d expected because it was such a peaceful and a pretty place. To imagine that I had been born at the end of a conflict with all of these lovely people around – pushing prams, and having picnics in this beautiful place – and I was part of a race that had triumphantly destroyed this area and killed thousands of people … we all talk very glibly about the futility of war but it’s never been more powerfully brought home to me than being underneath the Möhne Dam and surrounded by lovely people on a beautiful spring day. Time just makes it utterly and completely nonsensical.”

He said he is glad, though, to have lived when he did: “We’ve got the vocal memory; we’ve got the word of mouth. I think we’re possibly the last generation to have that because people after us have got these things (points at my digital devices). My grandmother used to tell me about the Wild West Show. She saw the Wild West Show in Birmingham at Bingley Hall. She saw Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull. She used to tell me when I was a little boy: ‘He rode up on a big white horse and he had a big white hat and a long pointy yellow beard and long yellow hair, and he reared up on the horse and said, ‘Look over there, ladies and gentlemen, and all the Indians came out led by Chief Sitting Bull.’ And I’ve heard that. It’s living.

The “Dambusters Declassified” and “Jericho” documentaries are available on YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAlaPEfcX2Q and

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35qsu9HsYos

 

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It’s the ‘Royal Toy Story’ for Harry and Meghan

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – In ‘Toy Story 4’, the beloved cowboy action figure contemplates leaving the old gang to go off with a beautiful outsider. In the United Kingdom’s version, the monarchy, a much-loved prince wants to do the same.

Think of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as Woody and Bo-Peep.

In the Pixar films, the toys come alive when no-one is watching. In the monarchy, we don’t much care what they get up to when the lights are out (although maybe we should) so long as they do as they’re told in public.

We pay for the monarchy and give them no power whatsoever so that we never have to put up with someone like the criminal conman now in the White House and be obliged to salute him as president and commander in chief. Our own mendacious charlatan, Al Bozo de Piffle Johnson, is merely the prime minister so he can never put on airs as head of state. The Queen’s Speech to open Parliament is written for her by the current government. When the P.M. goes to to Buckingham Palace to seek the Queen’s ‘approval’, it’s a charade. The notion that Bozo ‘lied to the Queen’ is like saying that ventriloquist Edgar Bergen could lie to his puppet Charlie McCarthy. We pretend it’s all real to keep dictators at bay.

When members of the royal family perform ‘royal duties’, they do so for our benefit, usually for a service, agency or charity. When Lord Dampnut stages one of his rallies, the ridiculous farce is for only his benefit. When the Duchess of Cambridge attends a function, it’s to aid others. When Ivanka Trump shows up somewhere, it’s always for personal profit.

In any institution such as the Crown, Hollywood or the Vatican, it’s usually not the centre of attraction that’s the worst problem but the sycophants who flock around. In the U.K., it’s the cap-doffing boot-lickers who bow and scrape and despise any who choose to demur.

They are encouraged by the right wing press whose goal is to keep the populace as docile as possible. The Daily Mail and the Metro are owned by the billionaire Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, who lives in France. The Daily Telegraph is owned by billionaires Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay, who live on Brecqhou in the Channel Islands and in Monaco. The Times and the Sun are owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who lives in the United States where he also owns Fox News.

They urge their readers to embrace, fawn over and occasionally scold the royal family in the same way they do competitors of reality and talent shows on TV although their shows are more like ‘Strictly Come Prancing’, ‘Britain’s Got Airheads’ and ‘I’m an Arsehole, Please Keep Me Here’.

Meghan never stood a chance with them as she is unforgivably American, an ‘actress’ and something that no woman in the history of the royal family has ever been: gorgeous. Not to mention that, well, she’s not exactly, not entirely, er, white. Racism is at the heart of the matter and there’s no getting away from it.

It was Harry’s misfortune to be born into a rigid institution. It was Meghan Markle’s mistake to think that to play a duchess in ‘Royal Toy Story’ wouldn’t be scripted as tightly as her series ‘Suits’. They are human beings but given the hardships and horrors faced by most people in the world, their fate is of no more consequence than that of Woody and Bo-Peep.

Besides, the pliant wife of the future King of England has already supplied three more toys to keep us amused: Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, poor kids.

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Recalling Peter Cook and his effortless comedy

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Peter Cook, who died 25 years ago today aged 57, was the funniest person I ever saw and ever met. He was naturally, effortlessly funny but he was never ‘on’ in the way some comedians seem to always be performing.

He was famous for the Tony Award-winning stage shows ‘Beyond the Fringe’ (1962) and ‘Good Evening’ (1974), the much-loved British television series ‘Not Only … but Also’ (1965-70), and films such as ‘The Wrong Box’ (1966) and ‘Bedazzled’ (1967). But his legendary status in the U.K. derives from his many television appearances as a satirist in the Sixties and Seventies, the stage shows ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ and ownership of the groundbreaking Establishment nightclub in London and the humour publication Private Eye.

I spent time with him in 1981 when he was in Los Angeles making a short-lived sitcom titled ‘The Two of Us’, an American version of Donald Sinden’s British Seventies comedy series ‘Two’s Company’. Relaxed and easy-going, he said he had never planned his career. “Career goals, or whatever they’re called? No, a number of things have happened obviously not by chance. I’ve written stuff and worked on stuff but I haven’t really thought of my life in terms of a career that has some peak to which it should aspire. Or any depths to which it should sink, for that matter. Or any plateau along which I should walk. It just seems to have gone along.”

He said he discovered he could be funny while at Cambridge University. “At school, I used to wander around doing stuff that led to catchphrases. Why this confidence was there, I don’t know but it was.” He started writing comedy professionally while still at university. He wrote the famous ‘One-legged Tarzan’ sketch at age 18 and sold it and several other sketches to Kenneth Williams for a West End review called ‘Pieces of Eight’. By the time ‘Beyond the Fringe’ came along, he was established and joined Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore for the show at the Edinburgh Festival.

As to his influences, he said, “I’ve never quite known. I would say probably Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan would be the ones who sort of filtered through in some way and stayed. ‘The Goon Show’ had enormous influence among many others. Evelyn Waugh is my favourite writer.” 

One of his regrets was that his screenplay based on Evelyn Waugh’s newspaper satire ‘Scoop’ was never filmed. “I would have loved to have done it. I was going to play William Boot. We updated it. Africa remains in turmoil and we introduced a new character, an American CIA man, the most unsuccessful CIA man they have who is thrown out of this small African state. He was called Charles Ivor Arlington with his initials on the luggage that his mother had given him. He was constantly trying to bug things and people. It was a good script. I was pleased with it but we couldn’t raise the money.”

Best of all, during our time together, over lunch at the Wine Bistro and in his dressing room at the CBS Radner Studios, was when he simply let his mind wander. We were talking about his sketches with Moore: “Whenever I see Dudley, we can get something going anytime, upper class or lower class, it just sort of flows out without any thought.”

He said he loved vague sort of upper class people: “Oh, do, do, do come in the … what do we call it, dear? … room, oh, room, yes. Sit down on the, ah, we get them in, man brings them up … chair! When we first bought this house,  what did we have when we first bought this house? We had our whole life in front of us, that’s what we had. Well, we still have, of course, but there’s less of it now. I remember in the old days, I never thought about having my life in front of me or behind me. Always thought my life was just to left of me but apparently it wasn’t. It was in front of me. And tomorrow’s the last day of the rest of my life, is it? No, today is the first day of the month so you shouldn’t eat an oyster.”

I told him that my old friend, another Peter Cook, and I used to telephone people at random and see if we could start a conversation. He ran with it: “I thought I’d give you a ring because, you know, we haven’t talked for some time. In fact, we never ever have talked and I thought it was about time we established some sort of contact. Why? Well, I mean, if one starts asking why, one would never do anything. So I thought I’d give you a ring, ask how you are and, indeed, ask who you are. I have your name but that could be an alias. Do you spy for anybody? I’m in the pay of the Koreans at the moment. I have to go down to the fish market every Tuesday and look at the fish. I meet a little Chinese chap there. I give him a piece of paper and he gives me a piece of paper. Then I have to ring through to my, well, I wouldn’t call him my superior, I’ve never seen him. I only speak to him on the phone and give him some secrets about what’s going on. I have to make them up because the fellow I meet down at the fish market doesn’t speak a word of English. My sort of secrets are, well, they’re completely secret because I forget them as soon as I’ve been told them.”

Cook said he was “rather annoyed” at Cambridge when nobody asked him to become a spy: “Bit of an insult, really. I spoke French and German, fine material. The only trouble with being a spy is that you can’t talk about your work to anybody. You can’t come home to your wife and say, ‘I’ve toppled the leader of Ecuador.’”

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Why Erin Gray loved being in ‘Buck Rogers’ on TV

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Happy 70th birthday to Erin Gray – co-star in Ricky Schroder’s long-running Eighties sitcom ‘Silver Spoons’ and many other TV roles including Col. Wilma Deering in ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ … still busy today, she was always a great interview.

She told me she loved the sci-fi show: “I loved the stunts. I loved having to swing a gun, climb mountains, fight the bad guys.” One of the highlights, she said, was working with Jack Palance on an episode titled ‘Planet of the Slave Girls’.

“As a child, Jack Palance was always the evil man and here he was the evil Kaleel. I was charging down a corridor to come face-to-face with Jack Palance and I’m supposed to attack him and save the world. I’m going, ‘I don’t believe this. This is what it’s all about. This is Hollywood.’”

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FILM REVIEW: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

By Ray Bennett

Martin Scorsese’s puerile veneration of low-life thugs and violent sociopaths reaches its apotheosis in his leadenly dull crime picture ‘The Irishman’, available now on Netflix.

Over nearly three-and-a-half tedious hours, he takes a hoodlum named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, top with Al Pacino) at face value as he makes dubious and unsupported claims about the number of men he murdered including the disgraced union mobster Jimmy Hoffa.

The corrupt head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Hoffa went missing in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982. The film is based on the 2004 book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank (The Irishman) Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa’ by Charles Brandt. 

Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (‘Schindler’s List’) wrote the script for Scorsese’s film but it’s just a long and boring litany of alleged murders by a loathsome creature with no character or personality. The film establishes Sheeran as a war criminal in combat in Italy in World War II and shows him as a thief happy to rip off his boss’s beef from the truck he drivers. That leads to employment with gang leader Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci, below left)) for whom he murders without conscience.

Rather than show all the killings, which might serve to remind viewers of the worthlessness of his central character, Scorsese freezes the frame every so often and sticks a label on a man with details of when and where he was gunned down. Then he has a montage of Sheeran throwing a weapon into a river, further distancing him from the crimes.

Mario Puzo invented mob lingo out of whole cloth for ‘The Godfather’ but Scorsese just has a couple of lines to work with. It’s embarrassing watching Al Pacino try to say with a straight face, “I hear you paint houses” … meaning he spills blood when he kills people … and De Niro reply, “I also do my own carpentry”, which means either that he cleans up after himself or he makes coffins, it’s not clear.

The film uses a CGI technique intended to make the aging actors look younger but it’s a pathetic joke. The procedure trims some fat from their heads and smooths out the wrinkles but it does nothing to obscure their geriatric body language. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment early on when Sheeran first meets gang leader Buffalino who calls him “Kid” when he’s clearly old enough to collect his pension.

The director drags in Pesci, one of the screen’s great hams, but gives him no scenery to chew on. He wanders about looking like a creepy uncle with no hint of the menace that supposedly keeps the killer and many other villains in thrall. De Niro chews the cud and grimaces a lot, as usual, and makes no attempt to suggest anything Irish about the character. 

Al Pacino is miscast as the big and blustery Hoffa and he wanders about like a cheery uncle going on constantly about “my union’, whose reputation he blackened by selling out to mobsters.

The only interesting character in the film has barely any screen time. Anna Paquin (left) plays Sheeran’s daughter Peggy who  observes his cruelty as a child and grows up to revile him. Shrewdly, editor Thelma Schoonmaker includes a lengthy and wordess close up of Paquin as she stares at her father and conveys the woman’s pain and disgust. A film about how she managed to become a decent person growing up in the home of an unregenerate murderer might make a good film.

Scorsese makes it clear that Sheeran is a psychopath with not a shred of empathy for others or contrition over his supposed crimes but still he tries to humanise all of the criminals by showing them in family situations and religious ceremonies. He even tries to engender sympathy for Sheeran as he nears the end of his life and contemplates mortality although only for himself, never for anyone else

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill says in ‘Goodfellas’. Judging from his adoring films, it’s pretty clear Scorsese did too.

Released: US: Nov. 1 / UK: Nov. 8 (Altitude Films); Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin; Director: Martin Scorses, Screenwriter: Stephen Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt; Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto; Production designer: Bob Shaw; Music: Robbie Robertson; Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; Costumes: Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell; Production: Tribeca Productions, Skielia Productions, Winkler Films; Running time: 209 minutes

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘Clemency’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Alfre Woodard gives a profound and memorable performance in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘Clemency’, a moving examination of the personal tolls exacted by the death penalty.

Most such stories focus on the victim and the condemned but Chukwu takes a rare look at the people whose job it is to carry out capital punishment. In particular, it’s about Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard), who carries out her grim duties with a calm authority that belies the increasing doubts and tumult inside her.

After overseeing a dozen executions, one goes seriously awry and while she remains committed to seeing through the procedures of state-sponsored killing, her sober resolve begins to fray. Compassionate but firm in carrying out every rule, she strives to remain aloof from the passions and emotions that engulf the families of both victim and convicted killer.

She meets the arguments of campaigning lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) with a rigid adherence to the laws and rules she is obliged to obey. Her coolness begins to affect her marriage, however, and she finds release only in solitary drinking.

When a condemned man named Anthony Woods (Aldiss Hodge) runs out of appeals that suggest he might be innocent, she must confront the fact that she is powerless as the state’s regulations run their course.

The director draws fine performances from the entire cast with Woodard certain for awards attention if enough potential voters see the film. Shot without fuss by DP Eric Branco with a nuanced score by Kathryn Bostic, ‘Clemency’ makes its points subtly but is nonetheless powerful for that.

Viewed at Toronto International Film Festival; Released: US: Dec. 27 2019 (Neon); UK: TBA; Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldiss Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff; Director, writer: Chinonye Chukwu; Director of photography: Eric Branco; Production designer: Margaux Rust; Music: Kathryn Bostic; Editor: Phyllis Housen; Costumes: Suzanne Barnes; Producers: Timur Bekbosunov, Julian Cautherley. Bronwyn Cormelius, Peter Wong; Executive producers: Kathryn Bostic, Johnny Chang, Emma Lee, Alfre Woodard; Production: ACE Pictures Entertainment, Bronwyn Cornelius Productions, Big Indie Pictures; running time: 113 minutes.

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‘The Go-Between’ and ‘The Criminal’ restored for Blu-ray

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Blacklisted American film director Joseph Losey was a major force in British cinema in the 1960s and ’70s and two of his best pictures – ‘The Go-Between’ and ‘The Criminal’ – will be released on Blu-ray on Sept. 16 as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics collection.

Losey worked in television and theatre in New York City, spent time in Germany and studied in the Soviet Union before settling in England during Hollywood’s communist witch-hunt in the 1950s. As a result, he brought an outsider’s view to the British class system in ‘The Go-Between’ and its crime world in ‘The Criminal’.

Stanley Baker (above) had made the murder mystery ‘Blind Date’ (1959) with Losey and they would go on to film ‘Eva’ (1962) with Jeanne Moreau and ‘Accident’ (1967) with Dirk Bogarde. In ‘The Criminal’, Baker plays an ex-con who plans another robbery that leads to complications with a gangster played by Sam Wanamaker. Stark and violent, the film co-stars Grégoire Aslan, Jill Bennett and Margit Saad. Black-and-white cinematography is by Oscar-winning DP Robert Krasker (‘The Third Man’) with a score by British jazz great John Dankworth.

Also released as a digital download, the film’s Blu-ray and DVD package includes a new commentary by film histoian Kat Ellinger and a stills gallery. StudioCanal says it used the original camera negative wherever possible for the restored version and turned to other sources where severe damage had occurred. Elements were scanned at 4K resolution in 16bit, and the distributor says, “The project involved over 200 hours of manual frame-by-frame fixes and resulted in the creation of a new DCP and a new HD version, which were produced with the same high technological standards as today’s biggest international film releases.”

Losey had made two pictures – ‘The Servant’ (1963) with Dirk Bogarde and ‘Accident’ (1967) with Bogarde and Baker – from screenplays by Nobel Prize-winning playwrite Harold Pinter before they teamed again for ‘The Go-Between’ in 1971. Set in Norfolk in the sweltering summer of 1900, it’s a lyrical drama about the illicit love affair between a posh woman named Marian (Julie Christie), who is engaged to marry a viscount named Hugh (Edward Fox), and a local farmer named Ted (Alan Bates). The lovers use a visiting youngster, Leo (Dominic Guard, pictured top with Christie), to exchange messages until the lad’s crush on Marian begins to complicate matters.

Following her big break in John Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ opposite Tom Courtenay in 1963, Julie Christie (left) won the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for best actress for Schlesinger’s ‘Darling’ (1965) opposite Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey and made classics such as ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965), ‘Fahrenheir 451’ (1966), ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ (1967) and ‘Petulia’ (1968) before she appeared as Marian in ‘The Go-Between’. 

Alan Bates (below) had starred in ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ (1961), ‘A Kind of Loving’ (1962), ‘Zorba the Greek’ (1964), ‘Nothing But the Best’ (1964), ‘Georgy Girl’ (1966), ‘King of Hearts’ (1966), ‘The Fixer’ (1968) and ‘Women in Love’ (1969). He also had starred opposite Christie in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ (1967).

Their chemistry along with an insightful script, nuanced direction and a fine cast that includes Margaret Leighton and Michael Redgrave helped the film win the Palme d’Or at the 1971 Festival de Cannes. It was nominated as best film in the BAFTA awards. Pinter won the BAFTA award for best screenplay while Guard was named best newcomer and Fox and Leighton won the supporting awards. Christie and Losey were among other nominees for the film including cinematographer Gerry Fisher. Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand (‘Summer of  ’42’) wrote the music.

StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics 4K restoration will be on digital download and the Blu-ray and DVD packages will feature several extras including interviews, a news feature from the time of the filming, the original trailer and a stills gallery.

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