Composer Lalo Schifrin on fads and favorites

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin, who turns 90 today, is known for his concerts, recordings, film scores such as ‘Bullitt’, ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ and TV shows such as ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Mannix’ but don’t ask him to name a favourite.

‘I like all of them,’ he told me, ‘because it’s like asking a father which of his children he likes better.’

Schifrin has four Grammy Awards and six Oscar nominations to his credit and his musical reputation reaches far beyond Hollywood. Born in Buenos Aires into a musical family, he received classical training there and in Paris and then ventured into jazz in Europe and South America. He performed with Piazzolla and later Dizzy Gillespie, Xavier Cugat and Johnny Hodges. 

His own works range from concert music to jazz and he has recorded with artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes.

He has written many commissioned works and arrangements for orchestras around the world and for such events as the Three Tenors World Cup celebrations in Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. 

In 1996, he arranged and conducted a major concert in France to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first cinema images by the Lumiere Brothers. Some of the tree-hour concert is available on a CD titled ‘Film Classics’.

Schifrin declines to categorise film music. When I interviewed him for The Hollywood Reporter in 1998, he e told me, ‘In the whole history of talkies, since sound started in movies, you cannot talk about the state of the art in terms of music because it changes according to the movie and the composer and the style.’

He noted that B-movies sometimes have great music. ’I don’t think you’ll ever be able to make a generalisation because movies have one aspect that is artistic and the other aspect is industrial,’ he said. ‘It is an industry and, because of that, it depends on fads – wide lapels, you know? Basically, the composers who have personality, they do what they do. Bernard Herrmann, when he did “Psycho”, he was not going by fads, he was inventing things. The best composers are the ones who try to make a contribution by inventing things.’

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When Gillian Anderson hit a home run onstage

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – At the Royal Court Theatre in April 2004, a  tiny, waif-like creature strolls silently onto a wide, spare stage with the audience still settling and chattering and then suddenly becoming quiet.

There is a window to the rear of what is a painter’s gallery and the young woman stares from it for a long time. She comes to the front where her brilliant television eyes make us think we know this person. But any thought of Dana Scully from ‘The X-Files’ evaporates quickly as Gillian Anderson presents us with another Dana, an artist whose tousled, tied-up hair draws back from a face filled with the misery of failure.

In Rebecca Gilman’s ambitiously offbeat play ‘The Sweetest Swing in Baseball’, Dana is a successful painter who has lost her vision. The showing of her latest works has been a flop. Her agent and art dealer flap around her with the useless babble of middlemen. Then her previously stalwart boyfriend decides finally that he’d rather sit alone on an empty floor in a small apartment than live with her.

Depression strikes and Dana slits her wrists. Discovered in time by her boyfriend, she is sent to recover at a clinic where she spurns the serotonin reuptake inhibitors the doctors rush to prescribe but finds solace in the clinic’s dull routine and inspiration from two fellow patients.

Michael (Demetri Goritsas) is a gay recovering alcoholic doing his second detox and Gary (John Sharian) is a violent sociopath in for life because of his obsessive desire to murder a CNN newsreader.

When Dana’s medical insurers say they won’t pay for her to be there longer than ten days, she decides to fake schizophrenia, choosing the unlikely character of trouble-prone baseball star Darryl Strawberry as her alternate personality.

At that point, the play might easily have descended into absurdity but the reverse occurs as this outlandish premise becomes the fuel for Dana to rediscover her artistic drive and fight the parasites and hypocrites that success inevitably attracts.

Gilman demeans Strawberry not at all in seeing the humor in a white, painterly and very feminine young woman trying to take on the heft of a brilliant if troubled black athlete. Dana knows nothing of him except what her friends in the clinic tell her. At first, hearing of Strawberry’s drug demons and falls from grace, she decides that he’s \the most depressing baseball player on the planet’.

But, as she learns more about him, she starts to believe in the sweetest swing and soon she finds she’d rather be Darryl than Dana. Not only that but as Darryl she discovers a renewed passion for painting and her works are acclaimed again.

There’s a deliciously subversive touch to Gilman’s work here and director Ian Rickson and star Anderson get it entirely. All the players are good with Goritsas managing the difficult, sympathetic role of the gay alcoholic with appealing humor. Kate Harper and Nancy Crane fawn and bristle convincingly as the dealers whose faith in the hollowness of the art world is exposed by Dana/Darryl’s honesty.

Sharian is outstanding as the psychotic stalker, a far different kind of sociopath from the movies; he’s well medicated and indulgent of others’ extremes. With superb comic timing, Sharian delivers a wonderful speech about wannabes whose voluble praise hides envy and resentment.

Best of all is Anderson, who is onstage for all but a few seconds. She understands that she’s not impersonating Strawberry; it’s only Dana who wants to believe she can be him too. It’s a completely winning performance that builds to a final shout of defiance against the robbers of joy and despoilers of souls. She hollers it with belief and fierce humor: ‘Fuckers!’

(This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter on April 6, 2004)

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How ‘Oz’ made Judy Garland a legend

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Judy Garland was born 100 years ago today and died more than half a century ago but her legend lives on. Mostly, that is thanks  to the enduring popularity of  ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the song ‘Over the Rainbow’.  If things had gone differently, Shirley Temple would have played Dorothy and even as it was, the picture was not a success when it first came out. Continue reading

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Why Raymond Burr was called a potato baby

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Nostalgia was very much in the air in 1986 when I met Raymond Burr, who was born 105 years ago today. He was in the thick of it. His two long-running series from the Fifties and Sixties – ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Ironside’ – ran in syndication. ‘Perry Mason Returns’ had been the highest rated TV-movie of the previous year and a sequel did just as well. 

After he died aged 78 in 1993, stories emerged of how Burr had fabricated many details of his private life largely to shield the fact that he was gay. When I spent a couple of hours with him in the piano bar of the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles, that was not an issue. It was true that he was a world traveler, a gardener, a gourmet and a philanthropist. He was a wine expert, an authority on forestry, a grower of orchids and principal owner of a newspaper. Also, he was one of the most recognisable actors in the world. Continue reading

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One morning in New York with Jack Nicholson

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When he was a major star, Robin Williams told me where he thought Jack Nicholson stood in the Hollywood hierarchy. ‘There’s the rest of us,’ he said, ‘and then there’s Jack.’

One of the finest movie actors ever, Nicholson has long been retired but, as he turns 85 today, he remains an indelible and iconic figure. I met him in New York in 1975 at the junket for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (pictured below). Continue reading

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Lois Chiles on the trouble with James Bond

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lois Chiles, who turns 75 today, was the first American Bond girl as Holly Goodhead in ‘Moonraker’ opposite Roger Moore (above) but she told me that it hadn’t done much for her career. ’Has it anybody’s?’ she asked. Continue reading

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When Tom Clancy feared losing his mind

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Tom Clancy, who would have turned 75 today, wrote best-sellers adapted into hit films such as ‘The Hunt For Red October’, ‘Patriot Games’  and ‘Clear and Present Danger’ featuring CIA man Jack Ryan but he told me in 1988 that he was finished with writing because he thought he would go mad. Continue reading

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Why Elmer Bernstein smiled about Richard Strauss

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American composer Elmer Bernstein, who would have turned 100 today, wrote wonderful film music and he was terrific company with a fine wit.

He was an early favourite of mine with scores for pictures such as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Love With the Proper Stranger’.  Continue reading

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When Warren Beatty changed Hollywood forever

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – One afternoon early in September 1967, the film writers and critics of London gathered in a West End cinema for a screening of a gangster movie starring a pretty-boy Hollywood actor. The cinema was packed although few there believed the Warner Bros. crime picture would have any merit. 

The general mood was not helped when there was a problem with the projector. We were beginning to voice our impatience when on the screen suddenly came a series of snapshots of men and women in Thirties attire.  Continue reading

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Recalling Carl Reiner and his favourite film

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The late American comic and film director Carl Reiner, who was born 100 years ago today and died in 2020, made some classic comedies but he told me ‘Dead Men Don’s Wear Plaid’ (above) was his favourite. Continue reading

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