Jane Fonda will be honored this month with the American Film Institute’s 42nd AFI Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala event in Los Angeles. In tribute to Fonda, AFI is showing a retrospective of her works. This week at the AFI Silver Screen Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD (a Washington, DC suburb) I sat in its smallest theatre to watch my favorite Fonda film, KLUTE, the 1971 mystery/thriller for which Fonda won an Academy award for Best Actress.
KLUTE is an enigma. Dark, in its cinematography and its subject matter. A thriller/mystery whose mystery is revealed midway through the film because it is not the ‘who done it’ that is at the heart of this film. At its essence KLUTE is an invitation to witness a lifestyle we would never want to inhabit but piques our curiosity and titillates.
Fonda’s character, Bree Daniels, is an aspiring actress and an experienced call girl. Her three-act plays performed in hotel rooms where anonymous men are her appreciative collaborators. She confides to her psychiatrist that the dalliances with men are better than her acting auditions because in the former she always gets to play the part.
Fonda gives flesh and complexity to her character. She is physically, emotionally and mentally agile in this role with moments of brilliance that are startlingly effective.
Donald Sutherland plays her foil and later protector with a sameness that makes him charming. The word ‘nerd’ had not come into fashion when this movie was made but Sutherland’s character, John Klute, is just that. A moral square from a small Pennsylvania town who is thrust into New York City’s seamy scenes of drugs, prostitution and free love. His straightness is not hypocrisy. He is not like her other John’s. Although Bree manages to seduce him, as she knows she will, his steadfastness is the lure that eventually catches her.
The two other stars of the movie are the cinematography by Gordon Willis and the film’s use of audio. Best known for his work as Director of Photography on the Godfather trilogy, Willis didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his work on this film but he should have. KLUTE is his palette for contrasting scenes of flat color, silhouette and neo-noir realism. Martin Scorsese says of Willis’ work in this film: “There are movies that change the whole way in which films are made, like Klute, where Gordon Willis’s photography on the film is so textured, and, they said, too dark.”
We hear a lot of Fonda’s voice in KLUTE. At the psychiatry sessions, in the acting auditions, in the one-sided conversations her character has with men who call to introduce themselves and set up dates. The murderer in KLUTE likes to audiotape his interactions with women and he seems obsessed with Daniels. We watch the tapes twirl on a small recorder as he listens to her “come hither” chatter over and over, her words inadvertently giving him permission to confuse his acts of violence against prostitutes as free-spirited nonconformity, “…there’s nothing wrong in what you want.” Private Investigator, Klute is also listening after he wiretaps Daniels’ apartment to acquire information that will help him solve what he thinks is a simple missing person case.
In KLUTE we are eager eavesdroppers and voyeurs. Fonda makes us want to watch. She strips off her clothes with deliberate nonchalance. Her seventies bohemian haute couture and bob hair style brings a smile. Her vulnerability in the riveting, minutes-long, close up scene at the film’s climax is powerful. She has become Bree Daniels and we feel her pain.
If this film were made today, Director Alan Pakula would likely elongate the climax by adding slow motion or slowing the cuts and putting more light on the subject to extend the fear. Yet, he makes KLUTE interesting to watch throughout. Sutherland’s pouty lips and placid eyes make him as adorable as a beagle. The panoramic shot of models lined up for a cosmetics casting call is fascinating. Roy Scheider’s easy meditation on pimpdom is at once sexy and dangerous, and fun to watch. The scenes of the late 60’s/early 70’s disco culture are spot on.
Do yourself a favor and give KLUTE a viewing. AFI will celebrate Jane Fonda at its tribute which will be shown this month on both TNT network and Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
DIR/PROD Alan J. Pakula; SCR Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis. US, 1971, color, 114 min. RATED R.
Little girl with braids akimbo
We see the wisdom in your eyes
That captures heart and hope and courage
When even voice falters.
When words return
They offer a singular understanding of individuality. Humanity.
Age and grace give you a place of honor and admiration deserved. Yet not the most important thing. For the light of a true voice remains well beyond faltering accolades.
I am really an aficionado of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. By all accounts he was a quirky, often mean, task master but a genius at storytelling I am as much fascinated by his ego and his personal aesthetic as by his cinematic technique.
I adore his fascination with blonde leading ladies (I don’t know what this says about me).
His leading men are most often older, strong and handsome but not in the style of today’s Hollywood pretty boys (Cary Grant excepted).
He makes his locales and landscapes an integral part of his storyline. In fact, these geo-characters are very often antagonists or serve to foreshadow a film’s resolution.
I admire his collaboration with prolific film composer Bernard Herrmann who has scored the music for nine Hitchcock films.
His works have an elegance to them. Even his bad guys (or girls) are usually sophisticated, well dressed and prone to impeccable manners (unless they happen to be birds).
He loves to play mindgames and his heroines are almost always flawed. He is both a lover of women and a misogynist; a great observer of human behavior and a narcissist. He is an auteur with both a spanning vision and attention to nuance.
Three of my Favorite Hitchcock Films:
North by Northwest –I love the sexy interplay of Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill) and Eva Marie Sainte (Eve Kendall). Mt. Rushmore is displayed as an amazing and frightening player much in the way the Statue of Liberty is used in Hitchcock’s Sabotuer (1942). Actor, James Mason is a delicious spy with a villainous, flat-toned voice dripping with British accent (although we suspect he is a German spy). His henchman, portrayed by Martin Landau embodies simmering danger. Grant’s mother is played with campy fun by actress Jessie Royce Landis. Finally, there are highly memorable scenes: the crop duster on a desolate road, Cary and Eva clinging to the nostrils of Abe Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore; Grant in the auction house and careening drunkenly along mountain roads. There is great atmosphere and acting in 1959’s North by Northwest.
Rear Window–In this 1954 Hichtcock film beautiful, floating, blonde fashion publisher, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly) pursues rugged, unglamorous photojournalist, Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart). In Hitchock’s prototypical cat and mouse banter, we immediately begin to understand the tensions of this romance. There is also biting comic delivery from actress Thelma Ritter as Jeffrie’s housekeeper. The setting–the courtyard of a New York City apartment complex–is key in this film. From the vantage point (sometimes seen through the special effect of binoculars) of a rear apartment we witness the comings and goings of the development’s residents including the brooding, lumbering, un-neighborly Lars Thorwald (played menacingly by Raymond Burr). When Jeffries suspects Thorwald has murdered his wife, the fun begins. This film is wonderfully confining. The Stewart character is wheel-chair bound, still recovering from an injury received in one of his harrowing assignments. The view is layer upon layer of cramped, personal scenes of domesticity and drama where even the violence is small: a body in a trunk, a curious puppy found killed; a thwarted suicide and finally, a climactic death battle (with flash bulbs as weapon) in a single room. The claustrophobia of Rear Window adds to the brilliant tension of this film.
Marnie–This film is a personal favorite. It does not have the critical acclaim of other Hitchcock films but has an eerily fascinating dark side that is less flamboyant and more interesting than Psycho. There is the requisite blonde (Tippi Hedren) and the older love interest (Sean Connery) involved in romantic gamesmanship. But in this film the game is more erotic and dangerous born out of a hunter’s fascination with its prey and the hunted’s determination to remain untamed and secretive even when caught.
Louise Latham is memorable as the disassociative mother for whom Marnie longs. Baltimore, Maryland has a secondary, but important role capturing a place where shameful secrets can flourish. In the foreground young girls skip rope on a narrow sidewalk of rowhouses and in the background is a matte-painted harbor where, surly, shipbuilders, laborers and sailors still congregate. The film ends on this scene–a long shot–as the children’s sing-song blends into the stirring score of Bernard Herrmann. It is the detail, the turns, the contrast of wealth and poverty and, ultimately, the compassion that gives Marnie its rich palette and makes it a formidable spellbinder.
Hitchcock will continue to fascinate fans like me along with writers, film critics, and new audiences lucky enough to see the Alfred Hitchcock Presents dramas in syndication on cable.
Meanwhile, there is a new film Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins as the venerable director during his filming of Psycho in 1959. The film opens this week (November 23, 2012). There was also a recent HBO film The Girl depicting the alleged sexual harassment by Hitchcock directed at Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. Hedren has said Hitchcock embodied both genius and evil.
I traveled to Nashville (Music City) last week to be a panelist for a discussion about diversity. The panel was okay, but it was the morning in Nashville filled with amazing stories about some of the legends of black music that still resonates with me.
The musical energy in Nashville is palpable. Music venues abound in this new South city, and almost everyone is either in the music business or knows someone in the business. Case in point, the shuttle driver who regaled me with stories of the biz on our trip from the airport to my hotel. The driver-by-day, musician-by-night has played in and around Nashville for more than 30 years. He told me of seeing Little Richard who resides in a downtown Nashville apartment several times a week still resplendent in make-up and rhinestones. Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) at nearly 80 years old lives a good life, according to the driver, because of another legend, Michael Jackson.
Jackson, who bought the publishing rights to a broad range of music in the mid 1980s (including the Beatles catalogue) owned the greatest hits of Little Richard. The story goes, Michael phoned Richard, invited him to a meeting, and returned the music rights to this living legend. Kudos to Michael Jackson for his compassion.
As the driver and I approached my hotel, he excitedly informed me that B.B. King had performed in Nashville the night before and was staying at my hotel. King’s entourage was loading equipment and suitcases into his bus when we pulled up to the hotel; that’s when I felt my music fan persona fully surfacing in all it’s Sybil glory. I checked into my room, grabbed my camera, and returned to the lobby to catch a glimpse of the King of the Blues.
I sat in the lobby for a couple of hours (I recently heard the term “lobby lizard” for what I was doing–it sounds slightly better than stalker) and it paid off when I met and chatted with B.B. King’s daughter, Shirley King, a musician in her own right. Shirley has a fabulous spirit and love for her father (she performs in Chicago as the ‘daughter of the blues’) and invited me to take a picture with her and her dad when he finally emerged from the elevator into the lobby.
B.B. is wheel-chair bound, so is Little Richard who is recovering from hip-replacement surgery, but their influence has no boundaries. These men, through their genius, tenacity and hard work have helped to shape the landscape of American music; and their contributions have been widely recognized. They are both inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Another thing they have in common: “Lucille” a number 1. hit for Little Richard in 1957, and B.B.’s iconic, ebony and pearl, Gibson guitar. The legends never fall.
I adore a good mystery and I really enjoy reading Walter Mosley. I saw him at a recent book signing at the cherished Washington, DC independent bookstore Politics and Prose. Mosley read from his new work and was peppered with questions from a large and appreciative audience.
I’d become a fan of Mosley while reading my first Easy Rawlins mystery and I was one among many at the reading that evening who loved the characters in this series. Someone asked Mosley if he missed the charismatic Easy and the sociopathic “Mouse” Anderson and Mosley answered emphatically that he did not. He must have seen the collective sag of our soldiers so he admitted that he had not intended to “kill off” Easy, it just seemed to happen and then decided to leave Easy’s demise as written. That revelation confirmed what we already felt-Mosley may have created Easy Rawlins for the page, but Easy is such a strong force he has created a life of his own.
Just a week ago, I watched Devil in a Blue Dress, based on the first novel in the Rawlins series. The film has a very cool Denzel Washington playing Easy and the inimitable Don Cheadle as Mouse. I’ve seen this film several times and I’m always amazed at its brilliant design. Carl Franklin directed and wrote the screenplay for this cinematic gem that is at once raw and endearing. It’s not often the case that a movie version of a novel can satisfy the way the book does. That this film succeds, is a tribute to Walter Mosley’s authentic voice and his genius at developing vivid and enduring characters.
p.s. I am always happy when reading a well-written mystery. In future blogs, I’ll give tribute to Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries; the brilliant Blanche White series by Barbara Neely; and, of course, there’s Agatha Christie.