#350. Dead on Release

A variety of reasons can exist for an actor to not be alive by the time their movie is released. Some actors are old and die from natural causes (like Spencer Tracy, who died 17 days after the end of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)). Others might be involved in accidents either on the set (like Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994)) or in the course of living their life (like Anton Yelchin from the Star Trek reboot). The entertainment community mourns the lives taken so early on in their careers, but many actors have died via suicide due to either their approach to acting or the pressure of acting influencing their decisions. Sometimes a mental illness that gives an actor their creativity can also drive them into a suicide as well. This week’s two films highlight some actors who died before their films were released.

Year: 1956
Rating: Approved
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

At the age of 24, James Dean was a star to be reckoned with. In four short years, he appeared in a handful of uncredited roles, but he also earned two back-to-back nominations for Best Actor in 1955 for East of Eden and in 1956 for Giant. The trick with his nomination for Giant was that he had been killed in a car accident late in 1955, thus making this nomination the first of its kind to be given posthumously. Not only did Dean die before the release of Giant, but he also died before the release of his most iconic role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). One can only speculate the amount of prestige such an actor would have accrued over a lifetime of acting. Even with only three credited movies to his name, the American Film Institute still placed him at #18 on their list of 50 top actors of the last century.

Jett Rink (James Dean) is a farmhand who works for Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) on his Texas ranch. When Bick brings home a lovely wife in Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), Jett is immediately stricken with her. He helps show her the ropes of the property, thus inspiring her to change some of the living conditions for the migrant workers. After the accidental death of Bick’s sister, who also ran the household and had a spat with Leslie, Jett is bequeathed a small portion of the property. After Jett finds oil on his land, he manages to become wealthier than the Benedicts. Jett, still enamored with Leslie, eventually starts dating her daughter, which further sours the relationship between him and Bick. After realizing his children will not follow in his footsteps, Bick finally allows Jett to drill for oil on the remainder of the Benedict property.

The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Some actors die before their movies finish filming, leaving a noticeable gap in their performance. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman are noticeably absent from certain scenes in movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015). Some actors have their performances digitally completed and adjusted using CGI, or even sometimes completely created decades after their death (as was the case with Peter Cushing in Rogue One (2016)). While Heath Ledger had completed filming on The Dark Knight (2008), none of his scenes were altered after the fact by director Christopher Nolan. Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, but some feel his “method acting” approach helped push him over the edge via his role as The Joker. He is only one of two people who has posthumously won a Best Actor Oscar, the other being Peter Finch of Network (1976) fame.

After Batman (Christian Bale) has raised the stakes for Gotham’s crime-fighting, a new force has appeared to oppose him with a gospel of violence and chaos: the Joker (Heath Ledger). As Batman tries to rid the city of crime via his vigilante actions, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) tries to do so within the confines of the law. The Joker, having taken control of the majority of Gotham’s gangs, continues to escalate the situation to get Batman to reveal his true identity. Eventually, Batman finds himself in a corner as the Joker makes him decide between the lawful justice of District Attorney Harvey Dent, or Batman’s girlfriend, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). On top of this life-or-death decision, the Joker pits a ferry full of tourists against a boat full of terrorists in a game of “who will die first?” Batman, finally able to catch the Joker via a clever use of technology, must now retreat to the shadows.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 young actors gone too soon

#316. Television

Over time, it has become difficult to distinguish between television shows and movies. With the advancement of production values for television shows, each episode looks a lot like a mini-movie. Even movies have become more “serialized,” with character arcs and other minutia crossing over between separate films (I’m looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe). So if it is not for entertainment content, what does television provide us? Clearly, the first thing television offers is convenience. We can watch television on our own time in our own homes. However, there is another benefit of television: the most up-to-date content; or, at least that is what it used to provide. With the internet offering non-stop, live content, television is no longer the “go to” for this material. This week’s two films highlight the challenges, struggles, and behind-the-scenes of television.

Year: 1976
Rating: R
Length: 121 minutes / 2.02 hours

There once was a time when television was not on 24/7. It provided content for the day, and the network would go off the air for the wee hours of the morning. Being a network during this era of television was simpler because the amount of created content needed on a daily or weekly basis was small. Starting a new network certainly had its challenges, as was seen in UHF (1989). On top of creating interesting content, maintaining viewers, and keeping them engaged has always been the challenge of television networks. What may be in vogue one week may drop off entirely if the content does not engage audiences. Fads come and go quickly. From trivia shows to reality television, knowing what is popular at the time can make or break a network. Behind this content, there are people. People who make decisions about what the viewer gets to watch.

Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is always on the lookout for the next big show on television. After sealing the deal for The Mao Tse-Tung Hour to appear in the fall season, she turns her attention to the new hot personality: Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Initially, Beale was a news anchor whose falling ratings led to an angry tirade on the news, consequently skyrocketing his ratings through the roof. Diana convinces her boss to make the news show into something more “entertaining” and receives rave reviews when it transitions over. Because of the success of the show, Christensen finds herself in a new romance with her boss. Unfortunately, for her boss, Diana’s one true love is her job, which has its benefits and detractors. When Beale gets a little too excited about network politics, Diana finds the perfect solution in hiring terrorists to assassinate him and to kick off the next season of The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.

Year: 2014
Rating: R
Length: 117 minutes / 1.95 hours

At its most basic level, television is entertainment. Even the news needs to keep its viewers entertained so they will keep coming back for more. Local news has a bit of an edge in its market because the only competition is with other local news stations. People living in a community will always have an innate desire to know what is going on around them, so the local news with the latest scoop will likely earn their viewership. Sometimes, human-interest stories can bring in the viewers, but we all know the violence of our everyday world is truly what entices people to tune in. These stories might give us anxiety if they happen near where we live, or they could comfort us to know that justice still reigns in our region. In the end, these stories often need video footage to aid in the television program’s presentation of the news.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is eking out a living selling stolen materials from construction sites. One night, in his escape, he runs across a car accident where he learns that freelance video journalists film these events and sell the footage to local news stations. After a few failed attempts, Lou finally manages to get an exclusive and sells it to KWLA 6. It turns out, the station is looking for footage of violent incidents in the poor parts of Los Angeles to make the wealthy neighborhoods feel safer. As Lou continues to provide content, he manages to blackmail the morning news director into a relationship. Since his business is starting to take off, he also hires an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), who helps navigate him to police scenes. Unfortunately, Lou gets a little too ambitious and ends up in a high-speed chase to obtain footage of dangerous criminals. Can Lou and Rick get out of their predicament alive?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 terrible slaves to television

#315. Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet is perhaps the best director you’ve never heard of. While his films have garnered almost fifty Oscar nominations, they’ve only earned six. None of these six were for Best Director, but he was nominated at least four times over his long and distinguished career. One of the reasons most people aren’t familiar with his work is that the heyday of Lumet’s best works was in the 1970s. During this decade, his films garnered the vast majority of Oscar nominations, as well as all of the Oscar wins (in a three-year period). While his career has spanned six decades, most of his films aren’t recognizable, despite his prolific filmography. Many of these films are critically acclaimed, even to this day. This week’s two films highlight some of the best that Sidney Lumet’s directing had to offer.

                                                                          Dog Day Afternoon
Dog Day AfternoonYear: 1975
Rating: R
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

In 1974, Lumet directed Murder on the Orient Express, a movie that garnered the most Oscar nominations to date for one of his films. With six nominations, only Ingrid Bergman’s performance managed to snag a win, the first for a Lumet-directed film. One year later, Dog Day Afternoon (1975) would pull the same feat, with six nominations and one win for Best Original Screenplay. One of these nominations was for Lumet’s directing, which was his second overall at the time. Many will recognize that Al Pacino helped to cement this film in the history of popular culture. Perhaps his inclusion in this film was in part due to his iconic portrayal of the eponymous Serpico (1973) in the Lumet-directed film from two years prior. If anything, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon show that Sidney Lumet can direct Al Pacino to be on either side of the law.

While Serpico has Al Pacino portray an honest cop of the same name, Dog Day Afternoon goes in the opposite direction, allowing him to portray bank robber Sonny Wortzik. Sonny is new to this crime game and botches his first robbery at the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. Soon, the cops have been called, and only two of the original three robbers are left to hold the bank hostage. Sonny is able to get the public on his side by letting a security guard go due to an asthma attack but also riling them up by yelling about the recent Attica Prison riot. It is eventually revealed that the reason for the failed robbery was to pay for Sonny’s girlfriend to finish gender reassignment surgery, earning him more sympathy points. Realizing the whole fiasco is a bust, Sonny just wants to get him and his partner, Sal (John Cazale) out safely. The negotiators oblige, but Sonny and Sal end up getting a bad deal in the process.

Year: 1976
Rating: R
Length: 121 minutes / 2.02 hours

Right from the start, Sidney Lumet’s skill at directing was easily recognizable. His first film, 12 Angry Men (1957) is considered by many to be the epitome of the courtroom drama, even if the courtroom is rarely seen at all. Earning three nominations, this film garnered Lumet his first nod for Best Director. 25 years later, he would bookend with another courtroom drama and earn his fourth and final Best Director nomination for The Verdict (1982). His most-nominated film, however, was Network (1976), which racked up an impressive 10 nominations. Lumet was nominated for Best Director, but it was the Original Screenplay and the acting talents of Peter Finch (Best Actor), Faye Dunaway (Best Actress) and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress) that brought home the gold that year.

Anger is front and center on Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) Evening News segment after he learns he will be fired due to poor ratings. As luck would have it, his un-anchor-like actions push the ratings of his show through the roof. Meanwhile, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) realizes the potential to morph the “mad as hell” anchor into an entertainment show instead of a news-oriented one. Now that Beale has a new-found power as a prophet of the airways, he decides to take on the Saudi Arabian conglomerate who is poised to buy out his studio. This gains the attention of the head of the Communications Corporation of America, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who takes Beale aside and shows him the financial sense of the world. As a result, Beale is told to tone it down, and this leads to a slide in the ratings for The Howard Beale Show. Only one option remains for the network, and it’s a win-win situation for them.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous Sidney Lumet movies

Bacon #: 2 (The Manchurian Candidate (2004) / Robert W. Castle -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#153. Angry Bunches

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

was the rallying call of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) from the 1976 film, Network. What started out as a single man shouting into a television camera soon became a mass of the populous who shared in his anger. If one person is angry, people usually think they’re having a bad day. If a bunch of people are mad, you’re liable to have a revolution on your hands. Whether it’s a bunch of angry outlaws who form a gang, or a group of down-and-out people trying to survive in a harsh world, if enough of them gather together and focus their anger, they will most certainly try to solve their problems in the only way they know how. This week’s two films examine a few bunches of people who were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.

The Wild BunchThe Wild Bunch
Year: 1969
Rating: R
Length: 145 minutes / 2.42 hours

If there was one thing that drove the old west, it was luck. Success or failure to survive often hinged on the most random chances. For those who had good luck, they would strike it rich with gold or oil. However, very few people had this luck. With all the dangers and unknown elements in the old west, most people seemed to have bad luck thrust upon them. To combat individual bad luck, many would gather together, sometimes in gangs of outlaws, to perhaps survive any bad luck that would come upon them. But what if the whole bunch had bad luck? After a few instances of surprisingly bad luck, I’m sure they’d be angry about their situation. Of course, one would wonder if the karma of the universe was having its say, especially considering the less-than-admirable professions of western outlaws.

Unlike the western films up to this time, which had somewhat censored violence, this film brought realistic gun violence to the screen in an unflinching manner. As the old west reaches its sunset years, suddenly being quick with a gun is not good enough. Cars and machine guns herald the arrival of the new century and hint at the warfare of the gangsters to come. A bunch of aging outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are ambushed by bounty hunters in a botched robbery in Texas. To add insult to injury, the ambush was accomplished by a former member of the outlaws, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Even though they get away with some bags of money, many of the gang are killed. Unfortunately, the bags are just full of metal slugs and aren’t worth a thing. Now in Mexico, the group tries their hand at weapons dealing, leading to more unfortunate events.

The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath
Year: 1940
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

It can be difficult to not have a sense of sour grapes when it comes to poverty. Sure, you want to have a better life, but life seems to keep pushing you down, no matter what you do. The most famous historical event that caused many sour grapes would be the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Happening right after the Great Depression, many were unemployed and looking for work, with the most readily available work being a migrant worker on already struggling farms. As such, there would be a sense of wrath amongst those who are just trying to survive but have no opportunities to do so. When tensions are high, anger is prevalent. This can cause people to do stupid things, acting out of their anger. Based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) focuses on the hardships of poverty and the responses of those affected by it.

The Joads have found that their Oklahoma sharecropped farm is no longer sustainable due to the drought of the Dust Bowl and the greed of land companies. When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns home after a stint in prison, he finds his family already packed up and ready to head to California. Right out of the gate, Grandpa Joad (Charley Grapewin) dies, but the family has no time to grieve as they continue across Route 66 toward some possible migrant worker jobs. That is, if any are there, as there have been rumors there is no work available in California. In crossing the desert, Grandma Joad (Zeffie Tilbury) dies, and the family once again has to move on. When they arrive in California, they find the rumors true, which causes Tom to eventually find work as a strikebreaker. With tensions high, Tom kills a deputy and now must leave his family as his mother urges everyone to carry on.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 malcontent mobs

#039. William Holden

Much like Humphrey Bogart of the 1940s, William Holden tended to play the cool and collected characters (which is ironic, because Holden has been quoted saying, “I hated that bastard,” about Bogart). A cigarette in one hand and a hard drink in the other, William Holden even went so far as to make this persona part of his normal life. Those who are familiar with the AMC series, Mad Men, would tend to think that all men in the 1960s (or at least all the “cool” ones) seemed to base their vices off of William Holden. After all, he was most famous around the cusp of the beginning of that decade, perhaps as a trendsetter for what we think the 1960s was like in the professional world. Unfortunately, this lifestyle does eventually catch up with you, and William Holden was not immune. In fact, his death was immortalized in song with the lyrics, “[he] had died while he was drinking.” Despite all this, William Holden was a great actor, and this week we’ll cover two of his more well-known performances.

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Year: 1957
Rating: PG
Length: 161 minutes / 2.68 hours

In a film about British prisoners of war, William Holden played the lone American. This fact alone is an interesting choice because his character (Shears) is pretty much the epitome of an American, even by today’s standards. Even though all the POWs are being held together, Shears only thinks about himself. He will do what he can to make sure he escapes. There’s never an understanding of the intricate inner workings of a situation in Shears’ world. He sees things from a big picture perspective and drives full force toward accomplishing goals despite any unintended consequences he might bring upon others. Again, if you want to use this film as a representative sample, little has changed in American perspective since the late ’50s.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a prime examination of interactions between different nationalities. Not only does the American, Shears (William Holden), think differently than British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), but they both think differently than their Japanese captors. Shears is dead-set on escaping the POW camp, while Col. Nicholson is considering the long-term morale of his men. When Shears miraculously escapes, Col. Nicholson is already well on his way to proving to the Japanese that, not only can the British build the bridge they’re being forced to construct, but they can do it better than the Japanese ever could. Of course, Shears isn’t out of the picture quite yet, as he gets assigned to an elite mission to destroy the bridge that has become the pride of Col. Nicholson. Will Shears succeed, or will the Japanese have an excellently-crafted bridge to bolster their war efforts?

Sunset Blvd.
Year: 1950
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

There is a bit of irony in the fact that William Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 in 1954. Mainly because he plays a prisoner of war, who is quite content on staying in the camp, as compared to his escape-crazed counterpart in The Bridge on the River Kwai (which could be why he wasn’t nominated for the latter). At any rate, Holden was nominated for the award two other times during his career. His last nomination came with 1976’s Network, while his first came with 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. The famous opening scene of Sunset Boulevard features Holden’s character (Joe Gillis) floating face down in a pool. The drama only escalates from there.

Much like the starlets who couldn’t make the transition to the talking pictures (see: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)), Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) used to be a goddess of the silver screen. Through a chance encounter, semi- to un-successful screenwriter, Joe Gillis just happens to show up at Desmond’s house. As the plot unfolds, we find that Desmond has faded into obscurity despite to her insistence that she has remained great and “it’s the ‘pictures’ that got small.” Amidst a love triangle, Joe is somewhat forced to write a screenplay for Desmond to use in order to get her back in the spotlight. After all, she’s “ready for [her] closeup.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 performances to Holden to

Bacon #: 2 (Network / Tim Robbins -> Mystic River / Kevin Bacon)