One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 7
By Laurence Lerman
Rarely do I kick off a column with a reference to my accountant, but I was speaking to mine the other day about the easygoing times prior to the COVID-19 virus, the economic crash, the still-developing Black Lives Matter protests, and the anger we both felt toward our current chief executive, when my accountant mentioned The Prisoner of Shark Island, a 1936 John Ford film whose title screamed “Saturday afternoon adventure serial”...
Nope. It was actually about Samuel Mudd, a 19th Century Southern Maryland doctor who was imprisoned for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
My accountant has given me good tax tips in the past, so why not try a film he’d recommended? And so the stream begins.
Warner Baxter—a silent film sensation who made the successful jump to talkies—stars as Mudd, whose name becomes just that after the limping Booth appears at his door one rainy night and the good doctor follows his code and sets the visitor’s broken fibula. What Mudd doesn’t realize is that his patient acquired the injury while escaping Washington’s Ford’s Theater after shooting the president in his box seat a few hours earlier.
Arrested, sentenced to life in prison, forced to endure some harsh treatment by a sadistic guard (a genuinely terrifying John Carradine) and punished for an aborted escape attempt, Mudd is then called into action to take charge of a yellow-fever epidemic after the prison doc has fallen ill. Lives are saved, the idea of a pardon is floated and, yeah, there’s a happy ending.
When it comes to Ford, I’m mostly up on the dozen or so boldface titles he made with John Wayne—biggies like They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and so on. The Prisoner of Shark Island (a fictional name referring to Dry Tortugas, the island off the Florida Keys where Mudd was imprisoned) is an appropriately patriotic, “justice will prevail” kind of film, a theme Ford spent the majority of his career exploring. It works in this case, even if Nunnally Johnson’s script takes some liberties with the recorded history. Regardless, it got me in the mood for another push-to-play presidential title.
I decided to go for broke with Oliver Stone’s 1995 Nixon—not the theatrical version, but rather Stone’s nearly four-hour-long director’s cut. Focusing as much on Nixon’s accomplishment as it does on his wrongdoings, and even attempting to trace the earliest roots of his renowned paranoia and anger, Nixon might be the most even-keeled look at U.S. politics Stone has ever made (and that’s saying a lot). And the film is a Who’s Who of mid-Nineties Hollywood stars, with Anthony Hopkin’s star turn receiving ample support from Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh, James Woods, Power Boothe, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Sorvino and the much-missed Madeline Kahn as the ever-loquacious Martha Mitchell. (“Best sex I ever had,” E.G. Marshall’s John Mitchell gleefully whispers about his wife at one point.)
Like him or loathe him, at least he was a president that got along with China…
Hopkins’ portrayal of Nixon was underappreciated in that film—as was Dan Hedaya’s take on the 37th President in 1999’s Dick, writer/director Andrew Fleming’s reimagining of the Watergate scandal as seen through—and affected by—the eyes of giggly D.C. high school teens Betsy and Arlene (Kirsten Dunsts and Michelle Williams, both delightful), one of whom develops a serious infatuation with the soon-to-be-disgraced President of the United States.
Hedaya turns up the “tricky” on suspicious Dicky to its comical extreme in Dick as his two new teenaged “Presidential Dogwalkers” get themselves unknowingly involved in all things Watergate. This includes taking on the role of “Deep Throat” for Woodward and Bernstein (portrayed here with bungling idiocy by Will Ferrell and Dave Foley), and Williams accidentally taping over 18 minutes of Nixon’s secret tapes with an earnest rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You.” (Later on, an alarmed Dunst will insist: “You can’t let Dick run your life!”)
Having made the jump to adult stardom following a wildly successful career as a child and teen, Dunst was one best parts of the underseen On the Road, Brazilian-born filmmaker Walter Salles’s respectable 2012 adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s landmark 1957 novel. She plays the role of the Neil Cassady character’s stable second wife Camille, who makes the scene following his road-tripping marriage to saucy young first wife Mary Lou, gamely portrayed by Kristen Stewart just as she was wrapping up her star-making Twilight movies.
Actually, I 86’ed On the Road before pressing play—I didn’t feel like traveling back in time with Kerouac. At least, not that far back. Stewart had received some good write-ups on her latest, the 2019 politically infused thriller Seberg, which focused on the late actress Jean Seberg’s involvement with the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers in the late Sixties.
Kristen Stewart clicks as the titular troubled star, particularly in the film’s later scenes when her romantic dalliance with black activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackey) raises eyebrows with Hakim’s wife Dorothy (Zazie Beets), Jean’s initially agreeable husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and the FBI (led by a beefy Vince Vaughn), who target Seberg under the bureau’s COINTELPRO surveillance program. It’s the surveillance and harassment of Seberg that leads to the decline of her mental health and career, and her eventual suicide in 1979.
Having watched Seberg early last week just as George Floyd’s murder sparked Black Lives Matter marches and protests, I wasn’t looking to watch anything else involving government encroachment and rights violations, let alone in the manufactured guise of a Hollywood movie. So, I decided to leap from the made-for-Netflix examination of Jean Seberg’s life to a full-blown production in which she appeared—and one that was actually mentioned in Seberg. It could probably be considered Seberg’s most successful film (critical and cultural success of Godard’s 1960 Breathless aside): 1970’s Airport!
The film that launched the disaster movie cycle of the Seventies and beyond, and the first in a series of increasingly ridiculous airplane catastrophe flicks—not to mention a whole slate of parodies of bloated Hollywood genre productions—Airport remains, well, a very big and very watchable movie, the kind of bestselling film adaptation of a novel—this one by Arthur Hailey—that Hollywood loves to package and produce.
Like Nixon some 25 years later, Airport is chock-full of stars of its era—and a bunch from Hollywood’s storied past as well. Let’s see, on the ground you have Seberg, Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Maureen Stapleton, Dana Wynter and Lloyd Nolan. And then up in the air are Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Barry Nelson, Gary Collins and Oscar-winning stowaway Helen Hayes. What could go wrong with that kind of line-up? Well, don’t ask a bomb-toting Van Heflin…
It’s big and cheesy and fun—and certainly a pleasant break from following the news, which deserves the utmost attention when not taking a break with a popular entertainment like this one.
I have a pleasant memory of Airport making its television premiere on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in the fall of 1973 and my parents allowing me to stay up late on a school night to watch it. It was a time when one looked forward to the premiere of a big movie on the broadcast airwaves—before cable TV, before home video formats, before streaming. And if you were a kid who’d never seen the movie before, you’d look at the newspaper ads and posters and imagine how great it might be…
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.