One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 10
By Laurence Lerman
Alright, I’m gonna pass on the Italian cinema this week, as there are those who pointed out that my previous column was published on Independence Day weekend, and I could have skewed a little more American. (Or even mentioned anything American.) I shall attempt to make things right—while continuing to mine HBO Max’s sprawling library of 2,000-plus titles—by filling in one of the empty slots on my Clint Eastwood dance card. Is that American enough for you?!
Between the films he’s directed, the ones he’s starred in and the balance where he’s done both, Clint has been part of at least a half-dozen bona fide classics and another dozen truly great ones. But over the course of more than six decades, he’s also had his share of misses. Back in the late Nineties moving into the 2000s, Clint went on a tear, buying up the rights to hot novels and quickly putting them on the screen while their bestselling embers still glowed. Some of them worked (Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County in 1995) and others didn’t (John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997), but that didn’t slow the superstar down. Of the quartet of popular crime novels Clint adapted during those years, 2003’s Mystic River by Dennis Lehane was the big winner, with David Baldacci’s Absolute Power (1997) and Andrew Klavan’s True Crime (1997) tying for a distant second. For my first stream, I decided to go “hemoglobular” with the fourth of the bunch, Clint’s 2002 adaptation of Michael Connelly’s Blood Work, where he plays a retired F.B.I. profiler recovering from a heart transplant who tracks down a serial killer whose latest victim happens to be the provider of the heart that’s beating inside his chest.
Directed with his customary efficiency and linear storytelling style, Blood Work is serviceable if not very memorable—a straightforward procedural involving ballistics and blood types, spiked with a couple of brief action sequences and a climactic showdown that hearkens back to the finales of Clint’s Dirty Harry films of the Seventies. Surrounded by such notable—and younger!—costars as Anjelica Huston, Jeff Daniels and Paul Rodriguez, Clint was in his early seventies when he made Blood Work, marking the beginning of his remarkably fertile codger period. All in, he has directed, produced and frequently starred in a staggering 17 films since 2000, including, more recently, the wildly popular American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016) and 2018’s The Mule (2018), which Clint also starred in.
Scanning Clint’s filmography, I noted 2000’s unexpectedly enjoyable Space Cowboys and remembered that Jack Nicholson was initially slated to be its star. It made sense as he had played a washed-up astronaut in Terms of Endearment opposite Shirley MacLaine. That was a good one, though I preferred Jack going mano-a-mano with Meryl Streep in Heartburn, Mike Nichols’s 1986 comedy-drama based on Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical account of her failed marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein.
Along with the 1989’s darkly comic War of the Roses, Heartburn is my favorite to take a seethingly acidic look at an unhappily married couple—and, as usual, one that never should have gotten married in the first place. The day-to-day lives and ultimate unraveling of the union between Streep (a food writer) and Nicholson (a political columnist) deliver primarily because of the pair’s heavyweight performances (which include a few dazzling improvisatory scenes, led by a sequence where the two are eating pizza by candlelight and singing songs with “baby” in the title.).
Heartburn opens with Nicholson and Streep meeting each other at a wedding, which they portentously ditch to get a drink by themselves. Strolling the Upper East Side, they share their first kiss beneath the marquee of the Cinema 1 at 60th and Third, which reads, “Best Foreign Film – Mephisto.” More portentousness, right? But even better, a prompt for me to eagerly queue up Mephisto, the 1981 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film, my only knowledge of which was the passionate embrace enjoyed by the film’s director, Hungary’s István Szabó, and its star, Klaus Maria Brandauer, when it won the Oscar nearly 40 years ago. (You can still see it on YouTube.)
Mephisto puts a modern spin on the Faust legend by making its central character an intense German stage actor in late-Thirties Berlin who finds unexpected success among the Nazis when he portrays Mephistopheles in an adaption of Goethe’s Faust. His performance is so embraced and admired by the Party that they elevate his career and put him in charge of the national theatre. Reveling in his popularity and rising social position, “Mephisto” abandons his conscience and turns his back on the cultural restrictions, moral compromises and sheer brutality of his Nazi patrons. By the final act, his Mephisto’s soul and very life have become compromised in ways he never could have imagined.
Based on the book by Klaus Mann and modeled after German actor Gustaf Gründgens (whose collaborative relationship with the Nazis continues to be disputed), Mephisto makes for two hours of rich, engaging European cinema—its outstanding story, fine acting and superlative production values and period detail answering the question of how a savage Fascist regime could seem appealing to a hungry actor seeking glory. I was familiar with Szabó and Brandauer from some of their post-Oscar English-language work (particularly Brandaeur in 1985s Out of Africa and the Connery-starring Bond reboot Never Say Never Again from 1983), but Mephisto persuaded me to schedule their two other European collaborations, 1985’s Colonel Redl and 1988’s Hanussen, both of which earned Oscar nominations.
I returned Stateside for another American stream from the oh-so-American Woody Allen. Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story is a curio from 1971—a short film produced for PBS that profiles a fictional political advisor to Richard Nixon, Harvey Wallinger (played by Woody). Incorporating archival material and newsreel footage with new voiceover à la Woody’s later Zelig (1983) and Carl Reiner and Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), this mock documentary is hysterical, filled with great zingers like, “I want you to get an injunction against the Times. Yes, it’s a New York, Jewish, Communist, left-wing, homosexual newspaper. And that’s just the sports section.”
Real funny stuff…created by Woody just as he was beginning to roll out his greatest work.
It also features cute little bits from Woody’s go-to ladies Diane Keaton as his Wallinger’s cross-eyed wife, a blacksmith major from Vassar ("If you are ashamed, it's American sex.”) and Louise Lasser as his ex-girlfriend, who announces to the press how lousy he was in bed and then wakes up to find herself drafted.
As the story goes, PBS asked Woody to cut some scenes that they thought were a bit much—it was 1971 and the station didn’t want to jeopardize its funding from Washington. Woody refused and though PBS reportedly offered it to member stations to broadcast at their own risk, the program was ultimately never aired.
But in the spirit of America—of anarchic, rebellious, uncensored America—a tape of a scratchy work-print leaked out of WNET’s New York offices and made it onto YouTube (among other places), where many people, including me, have enjoyed it over the years.
Wallinger was to be Woody’s final television project until his 2016 six-episode series Crisis in Six Scenes for Amazon Studios. I would have loved to have seen Woody embark on more television work—it’s where he got his start—but I’m assuming the artistic control he’s had over his feature films for decades was considerably more appealing.
Can you blame him?
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.