Much is made of computer animation and other technology in movies and TV, but I think one of the best special effects goes on top of an actor’s head. It shapes our whole attitude about a character, without so much as a transposed pixel. Here, without commentary, are some of my favorites.
HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES
CHARLIE CHAPLIN AS THE LITTLE TRAMP
THE LADIES OF “DOWNTON ABBEY”
CLINT EASTWOOD AS THE MAN WITH NO NAME
SALLY FIELD AS “THE FLYING NUN”
JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER
THE CAT IN THE HAT
JIMMIE WALKER AS J.J. EVANS
ALAN HALE JR. AS THE SKIPPER
MARY TYLER MOORE AS MARY RICHARDS
BASIL RATHBONE AS SHERLOCK HOLMES
MIKE NESMITH IN “THE MONKEES”
FESS PARKER AS DANIEL BOONE
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN
THE SORTING HAT FROM “HARRY POTTER”
ART CARNEY AS ED NORTON
B.D. IN “DOONESBURY”
LARRY HAGMAN AS J.R. EWING
JOHNNY DEPP AS THE MAD HATTER
BUDDY EBSEN AS JED CLAMPETT
ARETHA FRANKLIN AT THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION
LIDSVILLE TV SERIES
GENE HACKMAN AS POPEYE DOYLE
ERROL FLYNN AS ROBIN HOOD
HUMPHREY BOGART AS SAM SPADE
MARGARET HAMILTON AS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST
That’s a LOT of hats! But even so, feel free to suggest a few more!
Lip syncing gets a bad rap, but it’s not always deserved. Over the years, many directors, actors and comedians have used it as a device that amplifies the emotion of a particular character or scene. There’s no logical reason for it to work – but it does. Consider these examples of good (and bad) lip syncing, and see if you don’t agree.
ASHLEY SIMPSON ON “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”
We’ll start with an infamous example from 2004. Simpson was the musical guest on SNL one night, and at the beginning of her second performance a vocal track of the previous song began to play loudly. Clearly flustered, Simpson did an odd little dance for a few seconds, then she fled the stage. She later said she used a vocal “guide” track to help her sing because she had severe acid reflux. That’s why I take Pepcid.
DEAN STOCKWELL IN “BLUE VELVET”
Everything you need to know about “Blue Velvet” is right here in this scene, in which Dean Stockwell, cigarette holder and all, mouths the words to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” It’s weird, mesmerizing, frightening and inviting.
JEAN HAGEN IN “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”
Who can forget the climax of “Singin’ in the Rain,” where evil Lina Lamont (Hagen) forces Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to sing for her from behind a curtain at the premiere of her new movie? It’s one of the great moments in movie history – especially when Lina gets caught.
THE CAST OF “THE COSBY SHOW”
Everyone knows this scene and for good reason. It has an enduring sweetness that speaks volumes about those moments when family life is transcendent. The entire Huxtable clan gets together on a lip sync version of “Night Time is the Right Time,” by Ray Charles. Each person gets his or her moment in the spotlight and each one is happy to be part of the whole. And then, of course, you get Bill Cosby’s perfectly timed facial contortions. Well done!
MATTHEW BRODERICK IN “FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF”
There is no better expression of self-aware, youthful cool, than this scene in which Ferris takes over a parade in downtown Chicago. Of course, a huge amount of credit also goes to the juxtaposition of the two songs, “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout.”
BEYONCE AT THE INAUGURATION
Let me just say I’m a big admirer of Beyonce as a performing artist. However, I’m also something of a purist when it comes to the presidential inauguration. I’d rather have heard a sour note or two of the national anthem in a live performance than a lip sync rendition. But that’s me.
ANDY KAUFMAN ON “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”
Kaufman was sort of the King of Comedic Absurdity in the 1970s and 1980s. A key, early example was his lip syncing take on the theme to “Mighty Mouse.” It was too strange for words, but it was funny, as well. Definitely one of the best moments of the early years of SNL.
JON CRYER IN “PRETTY IN PINK”
You have to give the young Jon Cryer a lot of credit for absolutely putting it all out there in “Pretty in Pink.” His character, Duckie, is just trying to be noticed – leading him to a heartfelt, over-the-top rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness.” Lip synced, of course.
ALLISON JANNEY IN “THE WEST WING”
If you’re not familiar with Janney’s lip sync version of “The Jackal,” then I suggest you click over to Netflix and toggle down to Season One of “The West Wing.” It comes out of left field, but anyone who spends a lot of time with co-workers understands that it’s just the sort of nutty thing that people do when they unwind.
Any more lip syncing highlights? Add them to The List!
There’s no better way to add some zing to a TV show or movie than to have a character suddenly turn and talk to the audience. Sure, it’s cheating. But if the character happens to have some charisma, it’s also fun. Here’s a toast to the best instances of breaking down that fourth wall.
IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW
In his innovative 1980s comedy series, Garry Shandling made breaking the fourth wall the centerpiece of the whole show. He’d ask the audience questions and solicit their advice. The other characters on the show also were in on the trick. Garry treated the sitcom as the artificial absurdity that it is, but always with his trademark light touch. Even his theme song, “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” acknowledged the audience.
This was one of John Cusack’s best roles, and it worked precisely because of his interaction with viewers. Every eye roll, aside and bit of rage revealed that this guy wasn’t just a sarcastic slacker. He had depth.
THE BERNIE MAC SHOW
Bernie Mac didn’t just talk to his sitcom viewers, whom he simply called, “America.” He cajoled them. He persuaded them. It allowed him to be as gruff as he wanted to be in the rest of his scenes. We still knew he was a pushover.
GROUCHO MARX, IN EVERYTHING
Quite possibly the most devastating comedian who ever lived. Groucho was a verbal master, slicing up his conversational victims with glee. He had so many great lines, there were always extras to be tossed right at the camera. Here’s one from “Animal Crackers”: “This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.”
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
“Ferris Bueller” is a cultural touchstone of the 1980s – something it owes to both Matthew Broderick and the way he made his case directly to moviegoers. It was like having lunch at the cool kids’ table, all day long.
HOUSE OF CARDS
The current king of this category is Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,” hands-down. He absolutely commands the TV screen, spinning his intricate web of politics and power. When he turns to the camera, you know you’re about to hear something hideous AND hilarious.
In “Annie Hall,” you have Woody Allen at the top of his game. At various points, chosen very shrewdly, he tells the audience what he thinks about relationships, therapy and the work of Marshall McLuhan.
“Moonlighting,” the popular TV romantic comedy of the 1980s, spent almost as much time beyond the fourth wall as it did in its own world. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were naturals at it. I loved when they took a few moments to answer their viewer mail.
Tina Fey and Co. broke the fourth wall a bunch of times, but one particular instance was sublime. It’s from the Season Four premiere, when the show aired just before Jay Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. variety show. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are watching a crass promo for “Tennis Night in America,” when Donaghy says, “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want.” Then he stares into the camera and purrs, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno.”
SLEEPWALK WITH ME
Mike Birbiglia perfectly blends his comic persona with the needs of a feature film by personally narrating key portions of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which is based on his own life. One of his best quips is, “I know! I’m in the future also!”
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE
Young Malcolm, the genius child in a family of nutjobs, constantly sought comfort by talking with his TV fans. It was a way of saying, “Is it just me, or are these people crazy?”
This example is brief, but powerful. It comes at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner’s prosecutor character tries to make a jury believe there was a hidden conspiracy at work in the Kennedy assassination. With one final move of the camera, the audience suddenly becomes Costner’s jury.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Perhaps this isn’t appropriate, since I’m not including other TV hosts on the List. Oh, hell. I simply have to mention the great Rod Serling. He wasn’t just a host – he was our guide, giving us fair warning about the weird stuff heading our way.
For me, there’s never been a better fourth wall breakdown than Michael Caine in “Alfie.” With his cold stare and heavy eyelids, Caine is a predator in search of sexual conquest. His confessions to the camera show us his cruelty, his self-delusions and his failure as a human being. It’s brilliant.
Of course, this is a mere sampling of great examples. You also have “Airplane,” “Animal House” and so many others. What are your favorites?
Newspaper reporters make great bad guys. They’re nosy, they’re impertinent and they often dress lousy. Here are my picks for the worst of the lot.
KATE MARA IN “HOUSE OF CARDS”
TV audiences are getting a real treat with Mara’s performance on the Netflix original series, “House of Cards.” She’s a talented, twisted scribe who has no ethical boundaries in her pursuit of personal fame. She’s scary good.
BURT LANCASTER IN “SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS”
Lancaster is pure evil as columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “Sweet Smell of Success.” He makes and breaks reputations, reveling in the tremendous power he wields. That’s not a good thing if you’re trying to marry J.J.’s beloved sister. Burt is like a coiled snake.
BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES”
This is not one of Bruce’s better films, for a variety of reasons. However, his tabloid reporter character here is highly memorable. He opportunistically pounces on a scandal involving race, class and politics and holds on for dear life.
MIRANDA RICHARDSON IN “HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE”
I love her name: Rita Skeeter. She’s the snarky reporter in the Harry Potter series, and she definitely puts a spin on her stories – complete with questionable quotes and outright lies. She can’t even get poor Harry’s age right.
BRODERICK CRAWFORD IN “SCANDAL SHEET”
Crawford, who plays the gruff editor of a tawdry “scandal sheet,” has a bit of a situation on his ink-stained hands. The wife he used to beat up and then abandoned has threatened to expose him. He deals with her in the way film noir characters usually do, but then he has to assign one of his reporters to cover the story and hope he doesn’t get caught. Get me rewrite!
HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN IN “SHATTERED GLASS”
This is perhaps the most frightening item on The List, because it’s a true story. “Shattered Glass” is the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated parts of dozens of stories in The New Republic magazine. It’s one of those movies that slowly, painfully reveals the depths of the villain’s deception. Peter Sarsgaard is very good as the editor who gets to the truth.
ROBERT DUVALL IN “THE NATURAL”
Sports reporters can be sleazy, too. In the great baseball movie, “The Natural,” Duvall is clearly more interested in a juicy yarn than in the game. He’s just as corrupt, in his own way, as a greedy owner or a player on the take.
BARBARA STANWYCK IN “MEET JOHN DOE”
Because this ends up being a comedy-drama with social overtones, you tend to forget that Stanwyck’s character did something pretty bad. She’s being laid off from her gig as a newspaper columnist, and she decides to print a letter from a made-up person threatening to kill himself on Christmas Eve because the world is unfair to the downtrodden. It gets even worse when the paper hires Gary Cooper to be the fictional “John Doe.”
ORSON WELLES IN “CITIZEN KANE”
I had to include good, old Charles Foster Kane, although he’s more of an executive than a lowly reporter. Apart from the film’s overall greatness, it is also a testament to the notion that information is power. You can even start a war with it.
AUBREY PLAZA IN “SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED”
Even interns need to follow this rule: Don’t get emotionally involved with your source. That’s especially true if he claims to be a time traveler.
SALLY FIELD IN “ABSENCE OF MALICE”
This is a tough one, because Sally Field’s reporter character isn’t intentionally trying to do harm. But that’s the point. By being so easily manipulated (thanks Bob Balaban!) she indeed does great harm to Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon. It’s an excellent film.
KIRK DOUGLAS IN “ACE IN THE HOLE”
My man Kirk is magnificently malevolent in this picture, directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder. Kirk is a former New York City reporter, now working in New Mexico, who stumbles across a gripping story of a man trapped in a cave. Not only does he delay the rescue operation in order to string out the story an extra day or two – he seduces the wife of the guy in the cave! That’s just wrong. “Ace in the Hole” is a smart, snappy tale of sensationalism gone wild.
We’re all subject to the occasional daydream, but some of our most indelible pop culture characters take it to the extreme. And thank goodness they do. Their little fantasies are hilarious, illuminating and endearing.
Some may prefer his Joe Cool persona, but I was always a sucker for Snoopy’s exploits as the adversary of World War I flying ace the Red Baron. It’s amazing how effective those “Peanuts” cartoon strips were. Just a beagle in a scarf and aviator goggles, sitting atop his doghouse, mixing it up in the skies over France.
Played devilishly by Tom Courtenay, Billy Fisher is the title character from the 1963 film, “Billy Liar.” He’s a lowly clerk in England who fuels his juvenile behavior with wild fantasies about heroic deeds and power. Naturally, his situation spins spectacularly out of control.
MARY KATHERINE GALLAGHER
Mary Katherine Gallagher is one of the many brilliant characters to come out of “Saturday Night Live.” Intense, misunderstood and stubbornly independent, Mary Katherine is a Catholic school girl who lives almost entirely in her daydreams – which consist mainly of after school TV specials and coming-of-age movies. The reason it works is because comic actress Molly Shannon surrenders herself completely to Mary Katherine’s single mindedness.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” started out as a short story published in The New Yorker in 1939. Written by the great James Thurber, it had to do with a mousy, henpecked husband who escaped his mundane world via reveries of being a fighter pilot and a surgeon. In 1947, a film version of the story starred Danny Kaye. He was a great Mitty. A 21st century Walter Mitty is set to debut later this year, in a new movie starring Ben Stiller.
As long as we’re talking about Thurber, let’s say a word about the 1969-70 sitcom, “My World and Welcome to It.” It used many of Thurber’s drawings and starred William Windom as John Monroe, a guy with a lot of similarities to Mr. Thurber. Windom was excellent, separating the character from Walter Mitty by making him crusty and somewhat sarcastic. But the daydreams were still there, front and center.
Paging Spaceman Spiff! This is a case of personal fantasy as sheer joy. Little Calvin, the human half of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” loved nothing more than to place himself smack in the middle of a made-up adventure. My favorite was his intergalactic imp, Spaceman Spiff.
Those who are unfamiliar with the 2004 comedy, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” are missing out on one of pop culture’s most engaging dreamers. Pirate Steve, played by Alan Tudyk, is a dude who finds meaning by dressing and talking like a pirate, 24-7. That’s living the dream.
BARON VON MUNCHAUSEN
Fantasy doesn’t get any more epic than old Baron von Munchausen (John Neville), who may or may not have have been to the Moon, the Underworld and back with an odd band of superhuman characters.
Here was animation brilliance, circa the 1960s. In cartoons that didn’t run beyond two minutes, you had a retired British military man, McBragg, relating some crazy adventure halfway around the world. It had all the elements I loved: an absurd British accent, an exotic setting and a series of bad puns. Jolly good.
And finally, inevitably, there is Don Quixote. One of the greatest characters in all of literature, he has been thrust into any number of movies, stage productions and TV shows. It’s remarkable, considering the guy dates back to Spanish novels of the early 1600s! Don Quixote is an ordinary man so taken with his favorite heroic books that he envisions himself as a knight, riding into the horizon and fighting for all that is good and true. So what if that angry giant over yonder is actually a windmill? This brings us to why we put up with the beautiful dreamers of the world in the first place. Who is to say that their delusions of grandeur are any less valid than the positive images and reinforcements we all use to inspire and motivate ourselves? Dream on, I say.
If you have a few more dreamers to add, I’m all ears.
Roses are red, violets are blue. Great poetry scenes? Here are a few.
BULL DURHAM (1988)
Adding to the richness and fun of this bawdy baseball classic are some nice flourishes of poetry. My favorite is when Susan Sarandon tosses a William Blake line from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” at Kevin Costner and he replies, “William Blake?!” Beautiful.
MAGIC TOWN (1947)
At the time, this satire about a pollster who found a town with perfect demographics was considered somewhat edgy. Today it’s decidedly on the hokey side. But there’s one scene that I love, where Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman are flirting with each other and give an impromptu, dual poetry recitation.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Kirsten Dunst is a side character in this terrific movie about memories, love and pain, but she gets a nice poetry moment thanks to Alexander Pope’s “Elisa to Abelard.”
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
In the excellent Clint Eastwood film “Million Dollar Baby,” old Clint uses lines from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W.B. Yeats, to convey a deep well of love and a sense of comfort to his tragic young boxing protegee, Hilary Swank.
THE OUTSIDERS (1983)
Actor C. Thomas Howell, as Ponyboy, does right by Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Totally appropriate for a bittersweet story of youth and the yearning to find your place in the world.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
Painful and perfect use of poetry here, as married man Michael Caine attempts to woo his sister-in-law, Barbara Hershey, with the e.e. cummings poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.”
EL DORADO (1966)
Yes, even westerns can have poetry. James Caan made fine use of Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” in this one. Of course, John Wayne thought he was nuts.
BACK TO SCHOOL (1986)
I doubt very much that Dylan Thomas, when he wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” envisioned a day when it would be recited by comedian Rodney Dangerfield in the slob comedy, “Back to School.” Having said that, Rodney rocks.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Like the rest of his performance in “Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando’s reading of “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, is haunting, ominous and captivating.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)
The liberating, soul-nourishing nature of poetry is part of the theme of “Dead Poets Society.” Robin Williams is an English teacher at a rigid Vermont boarding school who shows his students that poetry and literature help you see the world from a different perspective. If you read poetry while standing on your desk – Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain,” for instance – it’s even better.
THE GATHERING (1977)
Ed Asner belts out a fine rendition of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse,” in this old TV movie about a dying father trying to bring his family back together for one last holiday.
Here we have poetry being used to add gravitas to the proceedings. Judy Dench, in “Skyfall,” deals with some government bureaucrats in a hearing by reciting part of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It didn’t help her situation, let me say.
SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
At the end of the almost unbearably sad “Sophie’s Choice,” Stingo lets some words from Emily Dickinson try to make sense of the world’s senselessness. That sort of grace is a much appreciated counterpoint to the sudden, harsh choice that haunts the story.
JIMMY STEWART ON “THE TONIGHT SHOW” (1981)
One night on Johnny Carson’s old “Tonight Show,” Jimmy Stewart pulled out a couple of pieces of paper and read a poem he’d composed about his late, beloved dog, Beau. It was sweet, incredibly corny and amazingly moving.
The private eye is an evergreen character for a very good reason. No matter what era or locale you choose for your story, there’s going to be greed and there’s going to be the occasional crime of passion. And the only way to sort it all out is to find an intrepid sleuth-for-hire. Here are the ones I prefer.
HUMPHREY BOGART IN “THE MALTESE FALCON”
For a good many people, Bogey is the gumshoe gold standard. His whole vibe told you that he expected the worst from people, but hoped for the best. In “The Maltese Falcon,” a true classic, he gets to rub elbows with such stellar character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
JACK NICHOLSON IN “CHINATOWN”
Nicholson channeled more than a little bit of Bogart in “Chinatown,” one of the best movies of the 1970s. He was feisty and dogged in his search for answers in a case that reached operatic heights (and depths) of corruption and depravity. Yet Jack also managed to be a real smartass. That’s saying something, considering what happens to his nose.
RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN “SHAFT”
The most excellent “Shaft” song gets so much attention, you tend to forget how cool Richard Roundtree was in the title role. Unlike a lot of private eyes, he looked damn good while was chasing down leads and busting heads.
DAVID JANSSEN IN “HARRY O”
“Harry O” wasn’t on TV for all that long, and it wasn’t a hit, but it featured a rich, nuanced role for David Janssen. His Harry Orwell was complicated, compassionate and filled with deep reservoirs of unspoken feeling. And get this – he didn’t have his own car! He would actually ride the bus around San Diego to work on his cases.
WILLIAM POWELL AND MYRNA LOY IN “THE THIN MAN”
Powell and Loy were terrific as a team of married sleuths in “The Thin Man” and its sequels. More often than not, Powell’s Nick Charles was nursing a bad hangover, which wife Nora loved to point out. Loy and Powell’s dialogue just sparkled, no matter what sort of situation presented itself. Few movie duos since have matched their obvious chemistry.
HARRISON FORD IN “BLADE RUNNER”
The juxtaposition of old-time, private eye tropes and futuristic gizmos served “Blade Runner” very well. Ford was a grim investigator trying to track down a bunch of violent, artificial life forms trying to blend in with the general populace. He discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how it is with private eyes. They always see the shades of gray.
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “OUT OF THE PAST”
Quite simply, it’s one of the best film noir performances ever put on film. Mitchum personifies fatalistic stoicism as a smitten gumshoe who falls under the spell of a dangerous, mysterious dame. When the bad guy shows up, it’s – holy crap – Kirk Douglas!
JAMES GARNER IN “THE ROCKFORD FILES”
Garner was smooth as silk as Jim Rockford, an LA private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach. Like most of the folks on this List, he was a jaded guy who still managed to be a soft touch when someone was in trouble. Garner gave the character easy humor, natural charm and a hard-earned intelligence.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN “BORED TO DEATH”
The private eye as a Brooklyn hipster/struggling writer. It’s a brilliant twist on the genre, with Schwartzman perfectly cast as the self-involved, yet surprisingly effective, investigator. The supporting cast is great, too, headed up by Ted Danson.
ROBERT URICH IN “SPENSER: FOR HIRE”
Urich’s likability, combined with the literary pedigree of Robert B. Parker’s source material, made “Spenser: For Hire” a pleasing way to spend an hour. I also liked that the show was set in Boston, that Spenser drove a Mustang and that he had the best side character on TV. That would be Avery Brooks as Hawk.
MIKE CONNORS IN “MANNIX”
Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite part of “Mannix” was the theme song. Connors did a fine job – but that theme song was dynamite.
JIMMY STEWART IN “VERTIGO”
In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart’s character isn’t so much trying to solve a case as he is surrendering to a personal obsession. He becomes unhinged by Kim Novak’s death and goes completely off the deep end when he encounters a woman who looks exactly like her. As always director Alfred Hitchcock pounces on the dark side of human personality.
DONALD SUTHERLAND IN “KLUTE”
This is such an underrated performance, mainly because it’s Jane Fonda’s character who dominates the film. But Sutherland is masterful as the quiet, conservative investigator who watches everything with a piercing gaze. As the plot plays out, his strength and resolve radiate wonderfully.
KRISTEN BELL IN “VERONICA MARS”
“Veronica Mars” took the private eye story to a scary place: high school. These weren’t soft mysteries. Young Veronica, played with plucky toughness by Kristen Bell, had to deal with murders, sexual assaults and spurned lovers, as well as a gaggle of mean girls who hated her.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”
Here we have a wonderful blend of politics, a search for a missing woman, hidden motives and a dash of racism in 1940s Los Angeles. Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a guy who loses his job and tries to pay his mortgage as a private investigator. Luckily for him, he’s got crazy Don Cheadle helping him out of a few jams.
ELLIOT GOULD IN “THE LONG GOODBYE”
For the life of me, I don’t know why this version of Philip Marlowe works so well. It’s set in ’70s California, with lots of drugs, free love and groovy people – not exactly the usual surroundings. Gould is the key. He’s still a dour, relentless seeker of truth, like this brethren of other eras.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN “SHERLOCK”
I thought long and hard about whether Sherlock Holmes belonged anywhere on this List. Ultimately, I decided he did, and for me the very best Sherlock is the one on British TV, played by Cumberbatch. He’s set in the current day, but he retains the razor-sharp mind and massive quirks that make the character iconic.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HARPER”
Here’s the one I put at the head of the table: Paul Newman as Lew Harper, based on novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series of books. Everything about this performance is excellent. He’s able to seem smart and dumb, honorable and sleezy, energetic and exhausted – all without breaking character. Newman would return as Harper years later in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool.”
Feel free to add your own favorites. And may all your herrings be red ones. Also, here’s a little treat for you:
Valentine’s Day is drawing near, and that means an awful lot of people are feeling the pressure to put together a magical, romantic date night that will fan the flames of love. Or at least get them to second base. But not to worry. No matter what happens, it’s not likely to be anywhere near as painful as these classic movie scenes of dates gone awry.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest have a hilarious train wreck of a first date in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” one of Allen’s best films. She’s interested in punk rock and drugs, while he’s all about jazz piano and The Great American Songbook. He ends the date by telling her: “I had a great evening. It was like the Nuremberg trials.”
THE GRADUATE (1967)
This one is a tragically bad date – because Dustin Hoffman is intentionally trying to show Katharine Ross a horrible time, at the request of her mother. He ignores her, belittles her and finally takes her to a strip club, forcing her to sit near the stage. The thing is, he really likes her, and that fact makes her slow transition from excitement to humiliation all the more heartbreaking.
BLIND DATE (1987)
You’d think a blind date with Kim Basinger would be a good thing, right? Well, not when you have an ex-boyfriend stalking you and you discover your demure date becomes a wild woman after a few drinks. Poor Bruce Willis.
BABY MAMA (2008)
The great Tina Fey nails it in her bad date scene in “Baby Mama.” Here she is at a nice restaurant with a guy, and rather than ease her way into getting to know him better, she jumps right to the heart of the matter. Marriage may or may not happen some day, she says, but “I’m 37. I want a baby NOW.” The guy’s reaction – excusing himself so he can hail a cab – is perfect.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)
Before Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) get together, they try to set each other up with their best friends (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher). Naturally, it doesn’t go as planned. My favorite part is when the only conversation Crystal and Fisher can muster has to do with the fact they both grew up in New Jersey.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997)
Although Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are an incredibly unlikely couple in this film, their attempt at a traditional date is highly entertaining. Despite all odds (and a clothing emergency), things are going pretty well until Jack reveals something that he should have kept to himself. Check, please!
LITTLE CHILDREN (2006)
Similarly, the first date between Jane Adams and Jackie Earle Haley is doomed in the drama “Little Children.” This one is not for the squeamish. Haley’s character is recently out of prison for exposing himself to a minor, and Adams is a lonely woman looking for a shred of kindness and companionship. It doesn’t go well.
BYE BYE LOVE (1995)
This one is my favorite. It’s by far the best thing in a truly mediocre movie about divorce and parenting, starring Paul Reiser. About midway through the movie, single dad Randy Quaid finds himself on a date from hell with Janeane Garofalo, who has some … issues. The two are great together, especially Garofalo, as they launch barbs at each other at an Italian restaurant. I’d almost forgotten how good Quaid was before he went nutjob.
But here I am again, monopolizing the conversation. What are YOUR favorite bad date scenes?
As someone who well remembers what it was like to compose and express thoughts using a typewriter, seeing an old Royal or Corona pop up in a movie is always fun. These are some of my favorite film typewriter moments. Clickety-clack!
Thank goodness we had the typewriter scene early in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Getting across the trippy, time-hopping aspect of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel would have been rough without it. These days, it probably would have been done with a narrator, which isn’t nearly as effective as reading over Billy Pilgrim’s shoulder that he was “unstuck in time.”
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
This great newspaper story is made all the more real because of the constant clatter of words being typed. You see Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman feverishly converting their intricate reporting into sentences and the movie culminates in a series of paragraphs typed across the screen.
RUBY SPARKS (2012)
How about a magical typewriter? That’s what Paul Dano has in “Ruby Sparks.” He types up a soul mate for himself – and she comes to life.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
Ben Kingsley says it exquisitely in “Schindler’s List.” “This list … is an absolute good. This list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” Indeed, the power and urgency of names typed on sheets of paper has never seemed so real.
NAKED LUNCH (1991)
Now for something unreal. In “Naked Lunch,” a typewriter isn’t just a collection of metal parts daring you to write; it’s a feisty bug with an attitude. What writer hasn’t felt this way on occasion?
Talk about deadline pressure. James Caan is an injured novelist forced to work under the watchful eye of a deranged fan, played memorably by Kathy Bates. There’s plenty of physical pain in “Misery,” and I’m not just talking about how tough a Royal typewriter can be on the pinky fingers.
WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? (1963)
For delightful silliness, there’s nothing better than watching Jerry Lewis type on an imaginary typewriter. Complete with typing sounds and music, Jerry is a total keystroke maestro.
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (2007)
In this beautiful little character study from a few years ago, Frank Langella is an aging fiction writer coming to grips with family, mortality, loneliness and a novel that just isn’t right. His typewriter is a sacred object, to be treated with respect and reverence. The rest of his life isn’t quite so tidy.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
Anyone who bemoans the hassle of lugging around a laptop would do well to see Rosalind Russell putting a typewriter through its paces in “His Girl Friday.” She writes just as fast as she talks – which is pretty damned fast – and her faithful machine appears to weigh as much as a block of cement.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
“Saving Private Ryan” has a couple of compelling typewriter moments. One is when Tom Hanks recruits a kid for a dangerous mission, and the young man attempts to bring his typewriter with him. It’s movie shorthand for saying that there are some jobs that can’t be accomplished with words. But in another scene, we see rows of women typing condolence letters to families who have lost a loved one to the war. That’s movie shorthand for saying sometimes words are the only comfort we have.
BARTON FINK (1991)
It would take a much smarter individual than me to piece together all of the symbolism and meanings of “Barton Fink.” It’s a moody mix of creative angst, murder, sex, religion and the value of artistic integrity. Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright lured out to Hollywood to write movie scripts in the 1940s. For much of the film, he painfully sits in his hotel room, unable to writer. Another character calls him a “tourist with a typewriter.”
YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)
In a much lighter vein, you have Greg Kinnear’s nostalgic love of typewriters in “You’ve Got Mail.” His character is something of a pompous windbag, too enamored with his own observations, but he does have a point when it comes to the sweet sound of typing.
THE SHINING (1980)
Only Stanley Kubrick could make a stack of typed pages this scary. Poor Shelley Duvall knows that her husband (Jack Nicholson) has been acting crazy, but she doesn’t truly understand the severity of the situation until she goes into the room where he writes. She finds hundreds of sheets repeating the same phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Yikes!
Frankly, I don’t see why there can’t be a typewriter tossed into every movie. It definitely would have helped “John Carter.”
One of the riskiest things a film can do is offer a vision of the hereafter. There’s no rulebook, no old photos or video footage to guide the director or set designer. All you can hope for is to create the proper mood for that particular story. These films did a much better job than most.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946)
Stunning visuals mark this story of a British airman (David Niven) fighting to return to Earth from the afterlife. There is a wonderful, extended court sequence involving historical figures and a great turn by Raymond Massey as an American prosecutor who has a grudge against the British because of the Revolutionary War. The film also plays around with color and black and white to great effect. And just look at that staircase!
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)
This one shines every time we encounter the Devil, played by a cagey and charismatic Walter Huston. As things progress, he presides over a trial in which legendary orator Daniel Webster tries to free a man who sold his immortal soul for a few years of prosperity. Despite its age, this film has several moments of biting commentary about American history.
How can you not love a movie that casts limbo as the craziest, slowest waiting room ever? Even witch doctors and people who have been sawed in half can’t keep it interesting, which is hilarious.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)
This movie actually revels in its rich, expansive visions of both heaven and hell. The overly sentimental plot has Robin Williams opting to give up his pastel painting heaven in order to retrieve his beloved wife from hell. The journey is breathtaking. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)
Like so much of Albert Brooks’ work, “Defending Your Life” is a real gem. So clever and adroit. Brooks envisions the afterlife as an American resort city, not unlike Las Vegas. The deceased prepare legal arguments to prove they’re ready to move on to the next sphere of existence. Everyone wears white robes, eats delicious food without gaining weight and takes in a couple of shows. Nice. Also, excellent work by the great Meryl Streep and Rip Torn, who set the tone here for his “Larry Sanders” and “Men in Black” roles.
HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943)
Don’t be fooled by the title. “Heaven Can Wait” actually starts in hell, which apparently looks like a swanky gentlemen’s club. An old man (Don Ameche) has come to explain to the Devil why his worthless life merits admittance. From here, we flash back to the story of this man’s years as a rich playboy and philandering husband. Check it out and see if you come to the same conclusion as the Master of Hades.
HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)
Warren Beatty had a big hit with this smart, nostalgic, beautifully filmed romantic comedy. Beatty plays a pro quarterback who finds himself taken from Earth up to heaven by mistake, due to a clerical error by a guardian angel (co-director Buck Henry). It is left to the angel’s supervisor, Mr. Jordan (a perfectly cast James Mason), to find a new body for Beatty to inhabit and resume his life. Heaven is pictured as a vast expanse of fluffy clouds. Or fog. Your call. The movie is filled with excellent supporting performances, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie and the great Jack Warden. This plot doesn’t sound much like 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait,” does it? That’s because it’s not. In reality, it’s a remake of …
HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941)
You know the drill. Only this time, it’s Robert Montgomery in the starring role, and he’s a boxer looking for a new body with which to win a title bout. Claude Rains is very good as Mr. Jordan, and the film has a nice, breezy vibe. Like Beatty’s version, this one has a fluffy, limitless heaven. But because it’s in black and white with some interesting lighting choices, it looks particularly otherworldly.
“Constantine” goes all-out in its depiction of a frantic hell full of demons and devourers. Keanu Reeves plays a chain smoking detective who has been to hell and back already. It’s quite jarring when the movie shifts to hell, but I guess that was the intention.
Here is a long forgotten film that modern audiences have been able to see only thanks to video and DVD. It’s in French and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. The subject matter is bracing and complex. A violent man with a criminal past (Charles Boyer) kills himself rather than go to jail. He is taken to Judgement in heaven, which is amazingly similar to a police precinct house. He spends the next 16 years in limbo, then gets the chance to visit his daughter back on Earth, who now is a teenager. His actions during the visit will determine whether he goes to heaven or hell. The special effects are glorious for their era, and the ending is more complicated than you’d think.
DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)
Woody Allen goes for a standard issue hell in “Deconstructing Harry” – fire, brimstone, darkness. What makes it funny is that the Devil is the guy who stole Woody’s girl. Billy Crystal plays him in a very casual, cocktail party sort of way. It’s a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t get a lot of love, but should.
OUR TOWN (1940)
“Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s stage play about rural life in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is an American masterpiece. It has been filmed several times, including a 1940 version with William Holden and Martha Scott. In “Our Town,” the hereafter isn’t a place; it’s a perspective. It’s the idea that none of us has the capacity to fully understand our own mortality and hold in our heads the heartbreaking, transient nature of the world around us.
That makes a dozen, which is probably enough heaven and hell for one sitting. But by all means, feel free to add your own favorites.