#319. Shirley MacLaine

While there are plenty of comediennes in Hollywood today, this wasn’t always the case. Most of the women who appeared in comedies were either cast as serious characters to offset the hilarity of their male counterparts (as was done in The Marx Brothers’ films) or were used only as naïve damsels who would eventually fall in love with the male main character. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when women started to have roles that could showcase their comedic talent. Shirley MacLaine was one of these women, and she has continued to support comedies to this day. With such a long and diverse career, MacLaine has managed to maintain her poise and dignity in a genre that often resorts to slapstick and lowbrow jokes to get their laughs. This week’s two films highlights some of Shirley MacLaine’s best roles.

Terms of EndearmentTerms of Endearment
Year: 1983
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

When it comes to awards, comedies are often at a disadvantage when compared to dramas. It is disappointing to have such a bias toward dramatic stories and roles when there are plenty of excellent comedic films. This bias is also present for the actors who play these comedic roles. Because of this challenge, the comedic actors and actresses who manage to be nominated for their work have overcome much to earn that honor. Shirley MacLaine has received nominations for Best Actress five times during her career. For three decades, she received nominations for Some Came Running (1958), The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), and The Turning Point (1976). Finally, in 1983’s Terms of Endearment, a film that also took home Best Picture, she took home that coveted statuette for her role as Aurora Greenway.

Despite being alone, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) readily confides in her adult daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). Both of them are practically in the same life stage: searching for love wherever it may reside. Unfortunately, as Emma finds love with Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora’s disapproval puts a wedge between them both. Meanwhile, Aurora gets to know her neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) and falls in love with the retired astronaut. Through some difficult times in Emma’s marriage and journey through motherhood, Aurora is always there for her. Unfortunately, there is little Aurora can do once Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A mother never wants to bury their child, even if said child has had a meaningful and love-filled life up until that point.

The ApartmentThe Apartment
Year: 1960
Rating: Approved
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

From her very first role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), MacLaine soon found herself in many Best Picture winners. Only a year later did she have a role in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the Best Picture for that year. Four years after that, she would appear in The Apartment (1960), also a Best Picture winner. Along with the aforementioned Terms of Endearment, MacLaine certainly has a knack for appearing in fantastic movies. Of course, when I go back and watch The Apartment, I realize how young she really was. Today, she has aged gracefully into other roles in such movies as Steel Magnolias (1989), Guarding Tess (1994), Bernie (2011), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), and The Last Word (2017). Still, one of her most iconic roles for me was as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment.

Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is an elevator operator in an insurance office. While her job has its ups and downs, the least of which is repeated sexual harassment from some of the men, she eventually runs into Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon). Bud asks Fran out on a date to go see The Music Man at the theater that night. Fran accepts but never shows up since she first has to meet up with her lover, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Coincidentally, Sheldrake takes Fran back to Bud’s apartment. Bud had been loaning his conveniently located apartment out to his co-workers so they could have their extramarital affairs in exchange for a recommendations to get him promoted. When Bud finally comes home, he finds Fran in his bed, having attempted suicide by a sleeping pill overdose. Over the next few weeks, he helps her get back on her feet, and they both fall in love in the process.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent Shirley MacLaine roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty / Joey Slotnick -> Hollow Man / Kevin Bacon)


#318. James L. Brooks

Some people have the ability to bring out the greatness in others. Or, at least, they have the capacity to see the greatness in others and guide it into the spotlight. I would like to think that a producer has this ability, mostly due to the success of James L. Brooks. As the winner of several Emmy Awards, he clearly knows how to produce a television show, many of which have become a part of the popular culture fabric of our society (The Simpsons, for one). Regarding his films, he has only directed six of them, but they have been a little more hit-or-miss. When the right elements come together, his films are certainly successful, both critically and financially. Perhaps this is due to his ability to get to the humanity of a story and its characters. This week’s two films examine the successful directing of James L. Brooks.

Broadcast NewsBroadcast News
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

With as much television experience as Brooks has, it is no wonder that he eventually decided to direct a film about it. The behind-the-scenes of the newsroom could only come from an intimate knowledge of the industry, of which James L. Brooks certainly has. Broadcast News (1987) was only one of a handful of Best Picture Oscar nominees he directed. Each time he made an Oscar-worthy film, it is interesting to note that he also obtained nominations for Best Writing as well. As Good as It Gets (1997) earned this distinction alongside Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment (1984). Of course, as a producer of films, he was also in the running for a Best Picture Oscar with Jerry Maguire (1996), a film he did not direct or write, but did produce. Unfortunately, most of these films left him without any Oscars for his effort.

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) has boundless ambition when it comes to her job as a television producer. Her best friend, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), secretly has a crush on her but is unable to confess his feelings. Meanwhile, a promotion moved Tom Grunick (William Hurt) from sports to the main anchor chair, despite his only skill being a photogenic personality. Jane learns Tom is also attracted to her, but Aaron tries to warn her about him while at the same time finally confessing his own feelings. It turns out Tom has broken a few ethical rules during a heartfelt interview that he obtained from a woman who was sexually assaulted. In the end, all three of them have to disband and live their lives elsewhere when the network goes under. While each of them found their own individual success, they still managed to maintain their friendship through it all.

Terms of EndearmentTerms of Endearment
Year: 1983
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

Brooks’ breakout film was none other than the aforementioned Terms of Endearment. I’d hate to draw correlations to his work and the work of M. Night Shyamalan, but he seemed to peak with his first two films. Terms of Endearment won Brooks his only three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director, the latter of which was also his only nomination in that category. Lately, his films have not been quite successful at all. I’ll Do Anything (1994), Spanglish (2004), and How Do You Know? (2010) are all largely considered much weaker than his Best Picture-nominated work. Since he only seems to direct two films every decade, we probably can’t expect anything from him soon, but when he does return to the director’s chair, I certainly hope he can earn another Oscar for his work.

The mother-daughter relationship is perhaps one of the tightest relationships any two people can ever have. Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, Emma Greenway-Horton (Debra Winger), have both wanted to find love in their lives. When Emma is married to Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora’s mothering nature fails to show how much she cares about Emma and instead strains their relationship. As Emma starts her own journey into motherhood, Aurora finds love with her next-door neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), a retired astronaut. While Emma’s marriage is threatened by an affair held between Flap and one of his students, a cancer diagnosis for Emma forces the family together. Flap and Aurora do their best to put their differences behind them to support Emma in her final months.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 of the best by James L. Brooks

Bacon #: 2 (Modern Romance / Jane Hallaren -> Hero at Large / Kevin Bacon)


#166. Romantic Comedies

Let’s just be honest here: dating is awkward. Not only are there innumerable opportunities to miscommunicate, but when you’re getting to know someone, one wrong word might trigger an embarrassing situation. It’s these embarrassing and awkward situations which are often used in Romantic Comedies. Even if this genre is formulaic, occasionally a few films fit into the category, but don’t end quite the way you’d expect. Most guys can’t stand Romantic Comedies, but at least they’re a little more tolerable than just a straight Romance film because of the humor involved. After all, they still have to be a comedy if they’re to be considered a Romantic Comedy. Besides, men and women are so different, the comedy practically writes itself. This week’s two films are some excellent examples of Romantic Comedies.

Annie HallAnnie Hall
Year: 1977
Rating: PG
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Woody Allen has been a staple name in the realm of comedies that it’s no wonder that he’d be associated with one of the best romantic comedies of all time. In terms of awards, the quality of the film speaks for itself. Not only did it win four Oscars in 1978, which included Best Actress for Diane Keaton, Best Director and Best Writing for Woody Allen and the Best Picture Oscar, but it has placed at #35 on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 100 films of all time (#31 originally). Since most of the films Woody Allen directed were nominated for Original Screenplay Oscars, the key to a successful Romantic Comedy seems to be in the writing. If you can’t rely on action or explosions to entertain, you really need to make sure the script is solid if you want to get any laughs out of the awkward situations involved with dating.

Annie Hall is about finding love in New York City (where most of Woody Allen’s films are placed), and is perhaps Allen’s best film. Allen portrays writer Alvy Singer, who just can’t get over the relationship he had with aspiring actress, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Through some useful techniques, like breaking the fourth wall, the audience gets to see inside the heads of the characters. Even though they attempt to reconcile a few times, the relationship just doesn’t seem to be working. While most Romantic Comedies end with the couple getting back together, getting together in the first place, or getting married, Annie Hall doesn’t end quite in this way. Similarly, a few of the films by James L. Brooks (e.g. Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987)) had similar, non-traditional endings for the Romantic Comedies that they are.

Bringing Up BabyBringing Up Baby
Year: 1938
Rating: G
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

Have you ever wondered if you’re marrying the wrong person? One of the most common themes found in Romantic Comedies is the introduction of another person into mix of a romance between two people. The “love triangle” is often formed when some driving force brings the third party into the equation, at which point the original relationship is now in jeopardy. While it can be very cliché, most of the initial relationships in these situations are never solid to begin with. Whether it’s a cold and heartless woman, or a neglectful and distant man, the audience is practically screaming at the main character that they shouldn’t go through with the wedding and should instead marry the new, third person. Because this “love triangle” theme is so common, it’s no wonder that it is often seen in some of the earliest Romantic Comedies.

The driving force in Bringing up Baby is the titular “Baby”: a Brazilian leopard. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is set to be married to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), but just so happens to run across Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) on the eve of his wedding. Because of a miscommunication, Susan gets David to come to her country home in Connecticut to bring up Baby, mistakenly taking him for a zoologist, instead of his actual profession of paleontology. Of course, the mistaken identities continue as another leopard escapes from the circus, thus allowing Susan and David to think that this new leopard is Baby, when in fact it is a very dangerous animal. Hilarity ensues, but Alice now doesn’t want anything to do with David because of his interactions with Susan. Fortunately, Susan has a few connections that David needs to finish his paleontology project. Oh, and they love each other too.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 comedic couplings