Icon. Pioneer. Betty White remains a golden beacon of life, love, and laughter for the world. I’ll never forget escorting her down the international press line for “Lake Placid” in 1999 while working as a publicist for 20th Century Fox.
Playing raucously against type in the David E. Kelley-penned comedy/horror film proved revealing in many ways. Ms. White was no Rose Nylund or thirsty mantrap Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She was ALL those people and more in her inimitable way.
After speaking for a few minutes upon our introduction, Ms. White took my arm as if we were good friends as we made our way to the gathered media. Watching and listening to her is a memory I will cherish forever.
Her legacy of work on streaming now is why many of us got through these pandemic times. What an actor of power and humanity. What a life well-lived of philanthropy and goodness. I firmly believe her life lesson is to thank our friends more and offer fewer “F-You’s” to the world. RIP Ms. White, forever our golden soul.
Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club, mi gente!
I’m sure a lot of life has happened to you all since the Club’s last gathering. Perhaps a little too much of 2020 bled into the start of 2021, but it is vital to keep looking at the optimistic side of a pessimistic reality. Sooner or later, we will catch up to our changed lives and turn this cosmic Titanic around. Until then, I thought I’d kick off this year’s edition of the Carreón Cinema Club with “The 3 Films and Series That Give Us Life.”
AUNTIE MAME (1958)
Directed by Morton DaCosta
Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
(Adapted from the novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis; and the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Peggy Cass, and Jan Handzlik
Streaming: TCM (Check listings), Amazon Prime (Rent), Apple TV+ (Rent)
Rosalind Russell was already a comedic force of nature before she scored her most iconic role as everyone’s dream relative in Auntie Mame. During the early 1950s, Russell turned to the Broadway stage when starring film roles became less plentiful. After scoring a whopping success with the musical Wonderful Town in 1953, she hit it big again with the play Auntie Mame. Based on famed eccentric Patrick Dennis’s madcap best seller, it was adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, becoming a box office smash for two years running. After the play closed, Russell returned to the big screen as Mame Dennis in the film version released in 1958. Directed by Morton DaCosta, Russell’s towering performance again entranced audiences, with the film still a beloved classic.
Watching Auntie Mame is almost a rite of passage for some. Turner Classic Movies often broadcasts the film today, particularly around the holidays. However, it was on the now-rebranded American Movie Classics channel that my family and I first saw the film several decades ago. Russell’s incandescent performance as a wealthy, stylish bohemian is one for the ages. Her transition from a woman of leisure to becoming the mother figure to her orphaned nephew Patrick is a beautiful and hysterical arc to follow. It’s hard not to want to be part of Mame’s riotous crew if it means meeting people like Vera Charles. Who wouldn’t want to hang with the first lady of the American stage, a salty broad who loves a drink as much as her stage entrances, maybe more?
The wonderful thing about Mame Dennis as a character is that she does evolve as much as she influences the people closest to her. Whether it’s her pregnant, possibly unmarried, secretary, the mousy Agnes Gooch, or her exuberant oil baron husband Beauregard Pickett Burnside, especially her little love, Patrick, combined, they redefine the concept of family. The same applies to the ensemble that surrounds Russell is as charged up as she, with Coral Browne, Forrest Tucker, Peggy Cass, and young Jan Handzlik, all giving as good as Russell.
In the end, Mame proves victorious over those who dare mess with her family, culminating in an outrageous “reunion” finale that makes the whole journey worth the ticket. Author Patrick Dennis’s real-life story is worth a film of its own, one that shares many of the same colors as Mame Dennis. The original novel’s success led to a sequel book and a smash hit Broadway musical with Angela Lansbury. Alas, Mame’s fortunes dimmed quite a bit when a misguided Lucille Ball brought the musical version of Mame to the screen, resulting in a box office bomb that damaged her reputation. Yet, word is Mame may rise again in the 21st century thanks to writer Annie Mumolo of “Bridesmaids” fame and the fearless Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as the fabulous Ms. Dennis. We shall see. Otherwise, to quote Mame, “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” In this era of too little happiness and endless complaint, you would do well to take in the meal offered by joining Rosalind Russell as Mame and company.
MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Mercedes Ruehl, and Alec Baldwin
Written by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns
Streaming: Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ (Rent)
It’s hard not to picture Michelle Pfeiffer as forever being an A-list star, yet, believe it or not, her ascension did take a while. After making her leading lady debut in 1982 with the infamous musical sequel Grease 2, she made sure no one would use that cult classic against her thanks to early memorable roles in Scarface and The Witches of Eastwick. 1988 would prove a watershed year for her with the release of the awards season hit Dangerous Liaisons and the mafia comedy Married to the Mob.
What made Married to the Mob significant for Pfeiffer was that the film allowed her to show off a sublime sense of humor as an actor. Director Jonathan Demme made an inspired and bold choice to cast her as beleaguered mafia wife, Angela DeMarco. She nails not just the “fuggedaboutit” accent and wears Colleen Atwood’s divinely OTT costumes with confident style; Pfeiffer brings luminous humanity to a woman who aspires to a better life.
Once hubby “Cucumber” Frank DeMarco is iced, played to the coolest hilt by Alec Baldwin, the widow DeMarco finds the power to leave the mob rule and find a new home for her and her young son. Unfortunately, Alpha Male don, Tony “the Tiger” Russo, portrayed by Oscar nominee Dean Stockwell, can’t think about anyone else but her. Neither can the FBI, led by Matthew Modine, whose investigation into Frank’s murder turns complicated when he pieces together Angela’s true agenda. Yet, hell hath no fury like Tony’s wife, Connie Russo, played by a scene-stealing Mercedes Ruehl. As the one person Tony fears, Connie is not about to let someone take her man.
Pfeiffer staked her claim as a leading actor of her generation the following year in The Fabulous Baker Boys, a star turn that brought her a first Best Actress Oscar nomination. Married to the Mob put her on the path, though, and in honor of the late Jonathan Demme’s recent birthday, it merits a visit as a film that will give you life.
COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1992)
Like Water for Chocolate
Directed by Alfonso Arau
Screenplay by Laura Esquivel, adapted from her novel
Starring: Lumi Cavazos, Marco Leonardi, Ada Carrasco, and Regina Torné
Streaming: Hulu, HBOMax, Amazon Prime
Food on film has a long history of making audiences hungry for more. With such classic films as Tom Jones to Tampopo and Babette’s Feast, cuisine’s cinematic power will forever tantalize all of our senses. The arrival of author Laura Esquivel’s romantic fable Como Agua Para Chocolate (or Like Water for Chocolate) added a layer of magical realism and romance to the recipe. Here the food not only dictates the fate of its protagonist, Tita, it also manifests itself in the emotions of those who consume her meticulously prepared dishes.
Released in 1992, director Alfonso Arau realized Esquivel’s book and screenplay as an amber-hued period piece, particularly in the recipes captured on screen. However, the innocent beauty of Lumi Cavazos as Tita is the main reason the movie works so well. Her devotion to the culinary arts pales in comparison to her love for Pedro, her older sister’s husband. Being the youngest daughter, though, she’s trapped by tradition to forever care for her iron-hearted mother, Mamá Elena. Regardless, Tita finds her power by cooking for those she loves, an extension of her heart that affects them all in surprising ways. In the end, love does triumph, but she must endure several tragedies to reach that destination.
A novela aspect does exist in the film thanks to the steely presence of Regina Torné as Mamá Elena. Also, Arau’s visual ambition does overreach a bit in terms of its magical realism. Still, Cavazos pulls the film through in every scene, a relatable heroine for any generation, as illustrated in this scene from the film (presented in its original Spanish).
I think what I love most about Como Agua Para Chocolate is its blend of nostalgia and culture. It remains a seminal film of the 1990s, reigning as one of the most popular international movies of its time. More, it brought Mexico back into the fold of world cinema for a new generation. After years of exporting broad comedies about female truck drivers and narco life, film enthusiasts of Mexican cinema no longer made do with just a steady trickle of what was considered the “art film.” This genial, romantic period piece broke that cycle with great success, giving way to a powerful group of Latino cineastes that continue to influence cinema today.
Created by Jac Schaeffer
Directed by Matt Shakman
Based on Scarlet Witch by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and Vision by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, and Kathryn Hahn
I’ll be honest in saying I watch very little in terms of today’s television series. I’ve spent one too many months re-watching The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and that 80s relic It’s a Living, an admission that will probably prompt an intervention. I don’t read recaps, and I feel the leading streaming platforms only care about a young audience. Then, I saw the teaser for Disney+’s WandaVision, which led me to the first episode, exploding this old geezer’s brain.
Led by the dynamic duo of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as Wanda Maximoff and Vision, this glorious extension of Marvel’s Avengers universe is not just for the supers crowd. Oh no, far from it. It does help to have a little knowledge of these characters going in, but it is so well crafted, I honestly don’t think it will matter. The premise is that solid and affecting. Imagine loving someone so much; you find the power to remix the physical world to bring him back from the dead.
Now entering the home stretch on Disney+, what makes these final episodes compelling is discovering the true depth of Wanda’s pain and the power it has unleashed. The loss of her great love, Vision, continues to overwhelm her, something she refers to as a wave that keeps taking her down whenever she finds the strength to stand again. Emotional poetry exists beyond the clever homage to the classic situation comedy tropes that frame most of WandaVision. Each lushly produced episode looks and feels like a motion picture, action-packed and large in scale. The devil is in the details, with a nostalgic aesthetic expertly woven in and out of our present time with breathless pacing that does not overshadow its emotional impact.
Thanks to a winning ensemble, especially the comic brilliance of Kathryn Hahn, the show within a show format feels ordinarily human and extraordinary at the same time. With one episode left ahead, how WandaVision decides to conclude this mesmerizing season is anyone’s guess. For those new to the party, the chance to see it all unfold in a marathon sitting is on par with being in a move theater again. Rest assured, this isn’t hyperbole from a fanboy. You’re in for one of the year’s most engaging series on television today.
It is hard to believe we’re heading into the first anniversary of our collective pandemic lives. To be honest, it feels great to share a little something with the Club again. I look forward to sharing more Club entries as the year continues. By the way, I’ve moved on from The Golden Girls to enjoy watching all seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’m on season 4, and I have to say, it is way better than taking Lexapro. Let’s turn the world with a smile! Hasta pronto, mi gente.
We can spend a whole lifetime debating why some films connect with an audience while others remain left out in the cold. Yet, many titles endure as favorites, good or bad, and often for surprisingly personal reasons. That’s the focus of this edition of the Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!”
When I started mulling over this episode’s topic, it was hard not to focus on just flops with cult followings. Every movie fan has a list of guilty pleasures, including box office monsters or monster flops. I’m notorious for not being able to differentiate between either. My good may be your bad, and vice versa. Besides, anyone who’s been on a set knows that it takes the same amount of effort to make a good film as it does a bad one. What kickstarted my engines to hit overdrive was a simple question: What is it about certain movies that straddle both lines of success and failure, the ones you wonder, “Was that the best they could do?” Those are the films that make you go Hmm. Depending on your tastes, any list can be chock full of surprises, but I’m only going to offer up three titles for now. Ready? Here we go!
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — Directed by Adrian Lyne
I will never forget the eager audience at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, CA, the night Fatal Attraction opened in 1987. You could feel the anticipation growing as the lights went down, and the trailers started playing. Blood was in the air. We wanted to see a crazy Glenn Close in action. What makes this significant is that the group excitement was driven only by TV spots and word of mouth. Before reality shows, recap culture, and the vast network of trash-talking platforms overtook all media coverage. The audience took pleasure that night in ’87, gaping at director Adrian Lyne’s ability to present a chic, upper West Side veneer of gloss and privilege sullied by curly haired madness and one, crowd-pleasing gunshot at the bitter end. It was like the opera diva hit a high note; the applause was deafening.
Fatal Attraction was a zeitgeist hit, its vision of infidelity gone wrong, becoming the topic of opinion pieces and talk shows for weeks. Audiences couldn’t get enough, turning the film into a major hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide. The title itself became synonymous with unhinged exes. It even earned six Academy Awards nominations , including Best Picture. But was it that good? More, does it hold up in the post-lions and Christians era of social media, reality TV, and the MeToo era? Not even close. Ha.
Watching Fatal Attraction today is to be turned off by its carefully designed vision of white male privilege and entitlement. Nothing happens to Michael Douglas, the lawyer husband who cheats on his gorgeous and wholesome wife with a rather intense book editor played by Glenn Close. His so-called punishments effect his pride and ego. Okay, she boils the family’s rabbit, destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter from elementary school to ride a roller coaster, and sends him a cassette of a profane rant. He got laid twice and freaks over why the woman in question can’t take no for an answer for his being a selfish asshole. No, the dirty is done by and to the women, a showdown between the perfectly wavy-haired Madonna and the frizzy permed whore. Instead of nuance, they represent extremes, trading looks of betrayal or outrage. It was hailed as visionary to have wifey Anne Archer shoot Glenn Close in the final, come-back-from-the-dead-moment. But it wasn’t. It was just slasher film lite nonsense.
Movie writers made much ado about the famed original ending, where Glenn Close commits suicide to the celebrated aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The knife she used was one held by Douglas to threaten her in a previous scene. With his fingerprints still on the weapon, the police arrive at his home to arrest him, giving Close what appears to be the final word. Mama Archer is stupefied, with Douglas yells at her to call a lawyer. She runs into the house, goes into his artfully decorated man cave to make the call, only to stumble upon the cassette sent by Close. Archer plays it, rewinds one passage, hearing Close would just have to cut herself deeper, killing herself. With evidence of the suicide, not murder in hand, Archer bolts out of the room. We hear her saying to her daughter as she runs out, “Come on honey, we’re going to get Daddy.” Test audiences hated that Douglas was even punished a little, leading to a new ending, further underscoring the perils of a group vote in Hollywood. It did make a difference, though. Instead of earning a possible $15 million at the US box office, the film cashed out with nearly $160 million instead.
Fatal Attraction does hold a special place in history for being one of the trashiest films ever to be validated by Oscar nominations. It makes you go “Hmm” as to why so many people venerated the movie in its time. Close is a complex actor of incredible skill and depth, and you have to admire what she tries to do with the character. The idea of someone turning the tables on an unfaithful, arrogant partner is a good one. With violence perpetrated against women a major problem worldwide, seeing it done for entertainment purposes with a false ending of so-called female empowerment diminishes and trivializes what could have been a fascinating study of an age-old question. Why do people cheat? Instead, we get a passionate male fantasy dressed in white jersey and black leather, set in some gorgeous looking spaces in New York City. It’s fatal, alright.
Ah, what to say about Cats. The musical’s tag line was “Now and Forever.” The film version bears the legend, “What the Fuck Was That?” One of the most successful musicals ever produced, studios circled it for several decades. Besides its being a plotless show based on poems by T. S. Eliot, the underlying problem was how do you present it in a filmed medium. At one point, it looked like Cats would roam as an animated feature, which in hindsight, wouldn’t have been so terrible.
With musical films still doing surprisingly well at the box office, fans cheered when Universal announced that Cats the movie would be helmed by Tom Hooper. The man who shepherded the Oscar-winning hit adaptation of Les Misérables would now herd the kitties for the big screen. Its glittering cast led by James Corden, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Hudson, who’d sing the legendary “Memory” on screen, felt like this years-in-the-making version of Cats was on the right track. Then we saw the first trailer. Oooof. Derided and dissed, hated and hissed, Cats looked like a dog.
Once you saw it, design-wise, Eve Stewart’s Cats is a dream to look at on-screen, filling it in a way John Napier’s original stage production set could not. The choreography earned comparisons, too. Fans found themselves divided over Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, a landmark blend of acrobatics and modern dance enhanced by feline movement, versus Hamilton‘s Andy Blankenbuehler’s edgier take. Yet, even with such glittering trappings, most audiences either stayed away or failed to enjoy the experience if they did go.
Whatever committee agreed to employ motion capture effects, projecting the cast’s faces onto feline bodies, doomed the film from the start. You can accept it in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but the sight of La Dench doing a leg extension stretch like a cat was too much to handle. That was a “Hmm” moment for the ages. Of course, it did trigger cheers from the “It’s so bad it’s good” crowd, who turned Cats into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century. Leave it to some folks to pull the one thread from this ball of wool to play with good fun.
Some magic does exist in Hooper’s super-sized production. The appearance of Taylor Swift, late as it is, is welcome. Her natural gifts as a performer found the right space. The same applies to Jennifer Hudson, whose delivery of the classic “Memory” is one to remember. Francesca Hayward and Robert Fairchild also make good on delivering the dance elements with grace and excitement. But it ends there, at least for me.
In the end, Cats is for the curious only. However, I will never forget the sight of one little girl watching the film that Christmas week at a theater in Mexico City, where I saw the movie with my family. My siblings slept, but as I walked out to see why my mother hadn’t come back to her seat, I saw this child looking at the screen with a smile; you can see it was one of absolute wonder and joy. She loved the film. As for my mom, she was reading a magazine in the lobby.
The unexpected success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for special effects-driven narratives that could transport audiences further than ever before. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie had droves of moviegoers believing a man could fly. And in 1979, Disney unveiled the dark space mysteries of The Black Hole.
Young listeners, believe it or not, a time existed where Disney was floundering in leading the cinematic charge. Even its fabled animation division was struggling for relevancy. Tastes were changing, and audiences no longer sought the family films that were the studio’s hallmark. Disney had been developing a space-themed adventure for the better part of the 1970s, which eventually became The Black Hole. Instead of delving into the heart of darkness in space, the studio opted to rehash its famed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wildly uneven results.
What makes you go “Hmm” over this film is when you ponder what could have been.
The famed imaginations of Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and their visual effects team dreamed up visceral images of the black hole phenomenon in space. Their matte paintings also added plenty of fire to some of the widescreen sequences. The entire enterprise should have broadened Disney’s reach outside of kid-centric fare to keep the brand alive. Instead, the film was an awkward blend of its former self and its future goals, with neither coming out ahead. For all its visual wonder in places, you could see how the marketing team wanted to commodify its leading robotic players. The tie-ins were plentiful, the robots were cute and menacing, but the film’s failure meant no one wanted The Black Hole merch for Christmas 1978.
None of its accomplished ensemble cast led by Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine could do anything with the by-the-numbers script. And its lofty desire to visualize the descent into the Heaven and Hell of the black hole was laughable, along with some other less than effective sequences. What could have helped was having a director with vision, not Gary Nelson, the man who brought forth Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers for the studio, as well as episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Patty Duke Show.
Science dictates that nothing can escape the pull of a black hole in space. Trust me. People avoided its force on Earth that Christmas season, bringing Disney a sizeable lump of coal. Despite its failure, Disney did not give up on creating more mature fare, as exemplified by the original Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the notorious Watcher in the Woods in the early 80s. Still, a cult following has developed for The Black Hole, one that continues to grow. So much so, Disney is looking to revive the movie again. Given the studio’s revamped fortunes courtesy of Lucasfilm and Marvel, a black hole may be swirling our way sooner than later. In the meantime, witness the humble origins of a powerhouse genre.
We could go on for a while longer discussing the films that make you go Hmm, but rest assured it will be back to ponder again. David Lynch’s baroque take on Frank Herbert’s Dune and the hateful, franchise killing sequel to Sex and the City both come to mind. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy out there, mi gente.
If you’re like me, this Election Day is all about comfort food and comfort movies. If you need to break away from the pundits & prognosticators, here are the Carreón Cinema Club’s Top Five Election Day Movies to help steady, or jangle, your nerves as we await the results of a lifetime.
TED (2012) – Feeling the need to bust a gut, look no further than Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar-nominated hit, TED. One of my favorite R comedies ever, the image of a trash-mouthed, alcoholic teddy bear is perfect for tonight. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, prepare for a case of the moist fuzzies thanks to MacFarlane’s pitch-perfect voice performance as Ted. It’s for anyone who needs a thunder buddy tonight.
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) – One of my favorite films ever, George Cukor’s 1940 classic THE PHILADELPHIA, is as perfect a comedy as you’ll ever see. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in his only Oscar-winning performance, this is a film to treasure thanks to a screenplay that is practically music to your ears. Classy, legendary, and funny in its depiction of class, media, and marriage, you will swoon away the anxiety in no time.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988) –Tap into the pop kitsch of Spanish iconoclast Pedro Almódovar’s first mainstream hit, WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. This Spanish-language comedy from 1988 reveals how far an anxious woman will go to get a call back from a straying lover. A hilarious look at relationships and gender, you’ll be ignoring your telephone as election updates start coming in.
NETWORK (1976) – If you need something a little more substantive, why not Paddy Chayefsky’s brutally funny but accurate look at media with NETWORK. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this prophetic movie details how a last-place network taps into the era’s popular rage with outrageous and tragic results. Featuring William Holden and Robert Duvall, it is the Oscar-winning trio of Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch, along with Chayefsky’s script that makes this film a classic for any media age.
Z (1969) – For the nihilists just looking for a cathartic release, may I suggest Costa-Gavras’ Z, a dark and chilling account of Greek politics following the assassination of a Greek political leader. Inspired by real events, Z’s representation of the event’s aftermath, including a mass cover-up and a coup d’etat, is sobering and all-too timely. One of the first films to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Film Oscars, winning for the latter. Unforgettable.
Hang in there, mi gente. We have each other for whatever happens next. See you on the other side of history.
Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club. Get ready for a double feature of failing marriages and the importance of communication. But seriously, both films are remarkable for their emotional frankness and the artistry of the great Ingrid Bergman.
It is not a coincidence that I am focusing on another glamorous Swede after debuting the Club with Greta Garbo. The luminous Ingrid Bergman, a three-time Oscar winner, couldn’t avoid becoming a Hollywood legend thanks to such films as Notorious, Gaslight, and, of course, Casablanca. However, the discovery of her later works on the Kanopy and Prime Video channels revealed to me how she was one artist who didn’t shy from taking a chance on difficult material, especially at a time where public perception was actually against her.
After representing the perfect leading lady image in the 1940s, Bergman’s popularity took a severe hit in the early 1950s thanks to her relationship with Italian director Robert Rossellini. They had met while working on Stromboli in 1949, kindling a passionate affair. Both were married to other people. More, Bergman was also pregnant with her first child with the famed director. Deemed “scandalosa,” the actress stayed exiled in Europe for several years. Yet, that didn’t stop the duo from working together. Bergman’s collaborations with Rossellini were often compelling and nothing like her films that garnered her much success.
According to daughter, actress Isabella Rossellini said in a recent interview with Reuters, “She showed that women are independent, that women want to tell their own story, want to take the initiative, but sometimes they can’t because sometimes our social culture doesn’t allow women to break away from certain rules.”
Watching JOURNEY TO ITALY on Kanopy only reaffirms her daughter’s sentiments. Coupled with Rossellini’s stature as one of the most prominent members of the neo-realist movement in world cinema, Bergman flourished with portraying complex women who break the rules attached to traditional gender roles.
Much like Nicole Kidman today, Bergman had no problem stripping down the veneers of poise and gentility to reveal her truest self. Her emotional vulnerability resulted in a fascinating showcase in THE HUMAN VOICE, a one-hour televised adaptation of the famed and influential Jean Cocteau monologue. Speaking to an audience of one via telephone, Bergman captures all that can dismantle us when communication with a loved one becomes difficult and unbearable.
I love films that deal with unfiltered relationships and offer real psychology as to why we put ourselves through such trials, even when we face an absolute end. It makes for incredibly beautiful catharsis on film. That’s why Bergman leads this second entry of the Carreón Cinema Club. First up, JOURNEY TO ITALY.
Journey to Italy (1954)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders
In JOURNEY TO ITALY, Bergman co-stars with George Sanders of All About Eve and Rebecca fame. As the film opens, the signs are evident that the moneyed duo of Kathryn and Alex Joyce may be facing the end of their marriage. Heading by car to Naples to unload an inherited villa, their trip starts as a vacation, a chance to reconnect. Instead, they find their conversations taxed by Alex’s sarcasm and Kathryn’s hair-trigger sentimentality. At constant odds for most of the trip, misunderstandings and jealousy sully the waters further, prompting Kathryn to ask for a divorce on impulse. Where the film takes a stunning turn, however, is when they visit the almost lunar landscape ruins of Pompeii. Seeing the discovered bodies of former lovers encased for eternity in ashes rattles Kathryn to the point that she begs Alex for them to leave. The impact is profound, one that delivers a final scene that is both powerful and unforgettable.
JOURNEY TO ITALY is no travelogue, although Rossellini’s composition of black and white shots is often beautiful and striking. No, the territory covered is all heart and mind. It is a fascinating journey to watch, even though not a lot happens for most of the film until the final act. The non-linear trajectory of the narrative, however, is what gives the story its forward motion. What captured my attention most was how urgent the emotions played throughout. Director Rossellini would tell the actors their dialogue before cameras started rolling, which sounds like a risky endeavor. Yet, Sanders, and especially Bergman, deliver such raw and unfiltered performances, you can only imagine how it felt like working without a net. The possibility erases any chance for overembellishment, never robbing the characters of their truth. They are living it out loud at that moment. That is why JOURNEY TO ITALY is such a wonderful experience to watch, one I hope you enjoy as well. It continues to be available on Kanopy. Take the journey. It is so worth it.
The Human Voice (1967)
Based on the play by Jean Cocteau
Adapted by Carl Wildman
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: Ingrid Bergman
Jean Cocteau’s famed one-act play, has returned to court public attention this year thanks to Spain’s Oscar-winning auteur Pedro Almódovar. The toast of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, Almódovar took a giant creative leap with his adaptation, a short film no less, and in English! For the first time. Ay la leche! Starring the equally fearless Tilda Swinton, the threads of his passion for Cocteau’s have finally flourished. You can see how the story of a woman’s desperate phone call proved influential for his iconic 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As we await the US release of his adaptation of THE HUMAN VOICE, what a pleasant surprise to know we have access to Ingrid Bergman’s interpretation of the role to offer a study of contrasts.
Now streaming on Prime Video as part of its Broadway HD channel, THE HUMAN VOICE finished the one-season run of the ABC anthology series, ABC Stage 67. Bergman stars as an unnamed woman dealing with the emotional wreckage after her husband leaves her for another woman. We are allowed to hear what is probably be the last conversation between this couple, but only her voice. Representing her husband is the cold instrument known as a telephone, her literal lifeline as she makes a desperate attempt to stay connected in more ways than the unpredictable wire. We never hear from him, only seeing clues of his torn picture and a magazine feature image of his new love.
The premise is unadorned, offering an actor a bravura role that lasts just under an hour. Bergman takes full advantage. Chainsmoking and unable to keep her voice was quavering, she turns herself into a human rollercoaster of emotions, rising and falling throughout the often-painful conversation. Forget the part of her being famous; it is hard not to feel uncomfortable for eavesdropping before the famed actress hits specific notes that feel both personal and relatable as the conversation reaches its peak. The audio effects of a clock ticking, dial tones and silences on the other line are often intrusive and heartbreaking, punctuating the reality she’s not going to turn this situation around in her favor.
The look is all 60s television, abstract and theatrical. The camera work is not subtle, and the pauses for commercial breaks are annoying as transitions. Bergman feels a bit mannered at the start. Yet, it is a beautifully calibrated star turn by the end, offering a persona that is real and honest. Amazing what the human voice can do to us when we know it is close to being removed from our spheres of living.
You can see what several artists have taken on Cocteau’s play. Interestingly, Roberto Rossellini directed THE HUMAN VOICE in 1948 as part of a two-part Italian film titled L’Amore with Anna Magnani and Federico Fellini. It is now showing on HBO Max, which I will make a point to watch.
Thanks for reading this second installment of the Carreón Cinema Club, home of films with big feelings! Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel, as well as follow me on Instagram: @CarreonCinemaClub and Twitter: @CarreonClub. Lots more to share ahead. Keep on reading. Thanks for your attention, mi gente.
It was essential to start the broadcast reviews from the Carreón Cinema Club with a comedy because we need a laugh.
I also wanted to showcase a film from the past that continues to inspire and engage audiences today. I ran through my favorite film eras, and the minute I thought, “1939,” I knew what I had to do.
What was so special about 1939, you ask? Not much, just that it was the year audiences witnessed future classics galore, including one of my favorite films ever, George Cukor’s “The Women.” And how about “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and, of course, the legendary and still controversial “Gone with the Wind?” Yes, it was a monumental year.
I knew a museum piece would make your eyes glaze over. Nor did I want to pick a title that would encourage “cancel culture” discourse. The chosen film was one I saw, finally, for the first time thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Ergo, 1939’s leading romantic comedy, NINOTCHKA, kicks off the Carreón Cinema Club.
Starring the legendary Greta Garbo in her first real American comedy, NINOTCHKA remains a classic film thanks to its famed star, a winning ensemble cast, its peerless writing, and the deft directorial “touch” of Ernst Lubitsch.
Let’s take a look.
Written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and the soon to be legend himself Billy Wilder, NINOTCHKA is an elegantly rendered satire of clashing ideologies, including gender, sex, capitalism, and communism.
Garbo stars as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushov, an incredibly severe Russian envoy, itself a send-up of her previous dramatic personas on screen. Sent to Paris to retrieve the jewels of a deposed countess in exile, Ninotchka instead finds herself questioning her commitment to the Soviet cause thanks to the city’s charms and, mostly, the persuasive romantic attentions of the playboy Count Léon, portrayed by Melvyn Douglas.
I’d wanted to see this film for years but never got around to it until this summer. The lively banter between Garbo and Douglas, the absurd situations experienced with glee by a trio of other failed agents, and the biting visual commentary of life in the Soviet Union in that era is all spun into this delicious confection with substance.
What truly made me fall in love with this film was its famed scene between Ninotchka and the count in a Parisian blue-collar diner. Determined to make her crack a smile, Count Léon tells Ninotchka a slew of jokes, all of which land with a resounding thud. Her analytical mind keeps taking the piss out of his stories, frustrating him to the point of giving up. Then, it happens.
As the count beats a hasty retreat to his table, he trips on a chair and goes crashing down. The whole place erupts in laughter, including his steely Russian paramour. To witness the stunning Garbo bust a gut with delight is a huge turning point for the character. More, her glee is infectious for the viewer, too. I couldn’t stop laughing, rewinding the scene several times because it made me laugh out loud. To be frank, it just felt good. It’s ridiculous and human, all at the same time.
NINOTCHKA goes beyond the time capsule because it’s a perfect mix of all that we want in romance and comedy, with something for the brain, too. The film’s commentary on the Soviet Union takes up much of the final act, which speaks volumes for what Americans thought of the “Red Menace” before entering World War II. It’s not a pretty picture of communist life, dry and drab, but strangely warm at the same time. It is striking when watched through the prism of 2020, given how much anger American society felt for years. While Russia is still a hot button today, it has evolved into something more dangerous and polarizing. Nevertheless, you will gain an appreciation for how the film juggles spoof with sophisticated humor. Lubitsch was a master for a reason and worth investigating further once you’ve enjoyed NINOTCHKA.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo’s 4th bid), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay, NINOTCHKA would be shut out by the “Gone with the Wind” juggernaut. (Believe it or not, director Ernst Lubitsch didn’t warrant a nomination at all. And for all her cinematic might and acclaim, Garbo never won an Oscar ever.)
The glamourous fizz of NINOTCHKA reached further potency thanks to MGM’s legendary promotions and publicity team. Best slogan? “Garbo Laughs!” spotlighting her switch from drama to comedy. Runner up? “Don’t Pronounce It – See It!”
In the end, it was a bittersweet achievement for Garbo as the film was her penultimate effort. While she had worked with Douglas before in 1932, MGM was quick to pair them up again for another comedy, George Cukor’s 1941 effort “Two-Faced Woman.” Unfairly roasted by critics, Garbo found herself labeled “box office poison.” She would not return to the screen again. Instead, one of the cinema’s most enduring faces chose to stop acting at the age of 36, hiding from public view for the rest of her life.
The legacy of NINOTCHKA endures, however. Famed composer Cole Porter would set the story to music with the 1955 Broadway musical “Silk Stockings,” itself made into a film in 1957 by MGM with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse playing the leads. Still, the original remains the finest interpretation, one meant to be rediscovered and appreciated.
While the film is not streaming for free now, keep an eye out for it on TCM as it frequently appears on the channel. You can also rent the movie on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu for a nominal price. Better yet, check out the DVD collections at your local public library or visit the wonderfully eclectic collections at Vidiots in Los Angeles or Vidéothèque in South Pasadena.
Thanks for watching this first edition of the Carreón Cinema Club! Subscribe! Follow me on Instagram (@CarreonCinemaClub) and Twitter (@CarreonClub) for more content!
After you’ve taught the world how to be a Latin lover, what do you do for a follow up? If you’re an international comedy star, you offer the world an unexpected new twist on one of the most beloved romantic comedies of the 1980s and go… “Overboard.”
Since his groundbreaking American film debut in 2013 with “Instructions Not Included,” Mexican actor and filmmaker Eugenio Derbez broadened his audience further with the 2017 box office hit “How to Be a Latin Lover.” Seeking a new challenge, Derbez and production partner Benjamin Odell knew they set the right course in taking on the famed 1987 romantic comedy “Overboard.”
Several industry heavy hitters had already tried to find the right combination that would take the film from being a mere remake to a filmed entertainment that spoke to a generation that, incredibly, may not be familiar with the original. Recasting the roles played by powerhouse duo Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell would not be enough. The basic premise of sweet, vengeful justice that happened to blossom into an unexpected romance also would need an update.
After much planning and discussion, this bold, new “Overboard” was ultimately set forth on a journey that would reflect the diversifying image of mainstream American cinema. Genders would be reversed, giving Derbez and blonde comic dynamo Anna Faris a chance to put their mark on the characters essayed by Hawn and Russell. More, the identity of the film would take on a multi-cultural one, mirroring the audience that continues to impact more than box office revenue. The end result can only create a splash of its own. Find out how this “Overboard” set sail in the following Q&A with stars Eugenio Derbez, Anna Faris, and Eva Longoria.
“Overboard” opens citywide on Friday, May 4th.
JORGE CARREÓN: What is it about the original that makes people smile, even today?
EUGENIO DERBEZ: Goldie Hawn. I love her. She’s amazing. She’s adorable. She’s charming. She’s funny. She’s everything. And the story is interesting, you know? This clash of cultures is funny when you see the rich against the poor and then they switch, and they torture her.
ANNA FARIS: I love the original so much. I grew up watching “Overboard.” It was my sick day movie! It feels like I watched it every day. It was the movie that my friends and I could all quote.
EVA LONGORIA: It is such a classic film! I love the original. I love Goldie Hawn. I love their love story!
CARREÓN: What makes this take on “Overboard” special to you?
DERBEZ: Flipping the genders was fresh because we wanted to break stereotypes. The normal thing to do is I would play the carpenter and Anna (Faris) would play the billionaire in the yacht. But it’s a different world. When you want to do a remake, you do it because you love the movie. If you start changing too much it becomes another movie. We were careful in not losing the core of the original story.
FARIS: I’m thrilled to be a part of it. it’s also terrifying because When I was approached with the project, I was incredibly flattered but I also felt like these were huge shoes to fill. But, I couldn’t resist it, so we’ve reimagined it. The Kurt Russell character is played by my me and Goldie Hawn’s character is played by Eugenio. I think we’ve updated it and I hope that it satisfies fans of the original.
LONGORIA: There are movies that you go, “You cannot touch that!” I thought this was one of them. When I first read the script, I wanted to not like it. [LAUGHTER] It’s a reinvention more than a remake. The role reversal makes more sense now if you think back to the original. This role reversal is a little more accepting because it’s the guy who is going to do hard labor in the house. He should. [LAUGHTER]
CARREÓN: The gender reversal of roles is just one layer of this new imagining of “Overboard.” Eugenio, what did it mean for you to take on the role played by Goldie Hawn?
DERBEZ: It’s typical that in Hollywood you always see the Mexicans playing the gardener, the immigrant. But there are other kinds of Mexicans. Many Americans don’t know that one of the richest men in the world is Carlos Slim. That’s why I decided to play this Mexican billionaire as if he were a Carlos Slim type. What I loved the most is I got to play two Leonardos. The Leonardo who’s rich and the Leonardo who’s poor later. But, it was a real challenge playing the billionaire. When I watched the original movie, one of the things that I really loved from Goldie Hawn was that even though she portraying a mean and terrible human being, she was always charming. And I was like, “God, I need to find the way to do the same thing!”
I wanted this guy to be, even though he’s a jerk and he’s always mistreating people, I wanted him to be charming and lovable. That was the challenge. Although, I did love being the billionaire more than the other Leo because it had more room to play.
CARREÓN: How about you, Anna? How did you want to make your role as Kate resonate in this new context? Is she an extension of your real self?
FARIS: I think that every character that I play of course has a degree of me in it because I think that’s how you sort of attempt to embody a character. I love Kate because I could recognize her sort of desperation. She wanted to be able to do the right thing. And yet, there’s this temptation. She succumbs to it and takes Eugenio’s character out the local hospital when he’s suffering from amnesia and convinces him that he’s her husband and that he also has three jobs and must now support her family. [LAUGHTER] That sounds pretty horrendous! But, I like that Kate was very real to me. She’s funny and gritty and she’s working her ass off to raise these kids and to try to make ends meet. It makes me feel like a lot of the people that I grew up with. Hopefully, it’s honoring the idea of how just hard it is for working single women and people.
CARREÓN: It is important to be able to trade comedic dialogue with an actor who’s also adept at bringing the funny. How was it creating a bond as Leo and Kate?
DERBEZ: Anna and I clicked from the moment we met. There’s nothing better than having chemistry with your co-star. Anna was exactly as I imagined. She’s funny, she’s amazing, she’s full of energy, she’s always making jokes. It was easy to work with her because she’s always feeding you with funny stuff. During takes, I’d be enjoying her performance as if I was watching a film! I’m like, Sorry I wasn’t reacting! I was watching Anna!”[LAUGHTER] Besides it is a little bit freaky because she looks like Goldie Hawn. You can’t imagine how similar she is. There were a lot of takes where I was watching her and thinking, “Oh my God, it’s exactly like Goldie Hawn!” I loved that.
FARIS: I couldn’t adore Eugenio Derbez more. He’s got these big eyes. He’s innately charming. He’s hysterical. Our first day of shooting we were stuck in a car on a trailer together. And we hadn’t spent that much time together except for a couple of rehearsals and a couple of meetings before. And I was just like chatting his ear off. And I remember him looking over at me with like sort of this look of confusion. I’d like to think also he was charmed by my chatty Cathy business I was doing. [LAUGHTER] We both come from this comedic background. We both have though dramatic undercurrents in ourselves. We talked a lot about acting throughout the course of the movie. I admire him so much.
CARREÓN: One of the revelations from these interviews is that Eugenio admitted he and Anna are both insecure when it comes to performing. Why?
DERBEZ: Well, she’s so humble. Anna is one of the funniest comedians in Hollywood. English is not my first language. It’s hard for me to perform in English. I was always curious about whether I could be funny in English? People say I’m funny in Spanish, but I’m not so sure I’m going to be able to crossover in English. Every day I would ask Anna, “Was I funny?” She would say, “What are you talking about? You were really funny!” Then she’d be the opposite, “I think I wasn’t funny.” And then I’d say, “What are you talking about? You’re really funny! You’re Anna Faris!” I think all actors in the world are insecure, but probably more so if they’re comedians. [LAUGHTER]
FARIS: I don’t know how Eugenio does it. We were just talking about that just a sec ago. Like, I was like how do you do this. How do you, how do you, it’s just incredible to be able to speak and act in a language that’s not your first!
CARREÓN: Do you think a cross-cultural romance experienced by Leo and Kate is a risky move for a mainstream film today?
DERBEZ: Yes and no at the same time. We’re going through rough, tough times. But it’s time to make a statement. I think America is a great country and it’s built by many groups of people, not just one. I’m Latino and Latinos have been doing great things here in the U.S. In a certain way, we’re telling people that anything can happen. This is America. That’s life in America.
FARIS: I loved the idea. I hope that this movie can touch different cultures, different generations. It feels progressive in that way. I love it that we have these incredible Mexican actors in our movie. I love it that we speak Spanish. It feels like next generation as well and I feel to be a part of that. I think that is something that makes this movie stand out.
CARREÓN: The new “Overboard” also has a secret weapon that wasn’t part of the original film, which is the scene-stealing Eva Longoria as Kate’s best friend, Theresa.
FARIS: The first day Eva came to set she ran up to me, and mind you, I had never met her before. She gives me this massive bear hug and she’s just like, “You and I are going to be best friends.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh! You are a dream!” I loved acting with her. She’s just an incredible person and an amazing actress. I think that there can be a sense of competitiveness sometimes, which many of us have experienced in the past. It’s wonderful to be at a place in life where no one is bringing any of that to the table. I just love her so much. We should definitely play buddy cops or something in another movie! [LAUGHTER]
LONGORIA: It is just so fun being able to play off Anna. I’ve been such a huge fan of hers my entire life, from “The House Bunny” to the “Scary Movie” franchise to “Mom.” She’s just such a talented comedian. She has this natural instinct for comedy. She’s really great with physical comedy, so doing scenes with her has been a lot of fun. And to play her confidant and to be able to play off each other has been a dream for me.
CARREÓN: How important was it to have all roles not depict a cultural or gender stereotype?
FARIS: There’s been this wonderful sort of awakening, where we have brilliant writers and our directors and screenwriters creating material that’s multi-dimensional and doesn’t fall into a particular category. I love that Kate, my character, had dialogue could have easily been played by a guy. It feels great to have anything that sort of fits into a box that’s conforming in any way. Hopefully, we’ll see more roles played by all different kinds of people.
LONGORIA: We’re taking steps forward in the right direction with diversity in film. We have to do more and it starts behind the camera. Eugenio’s directing and producing. I’m directing and producing. When you have the viewpoint of a diverse person, what’s in front of the camera is bound to be diverse. We are taking small strides, day by day. The landscape of America is changing, and changing in a Latin way, I think that will eventually be reflected in television and film.
CARREÓN: What’s been the most compelling aspect of having creative control over a film project? A great example with “Overboard” is its diverse ensemble, particularly with the talents of such acclaimed Mexican actors as Cecilia Suárez, Mariana Treviño, and the great Fernando Luján as Leo’s family.
DERBEZ: I’m basically hiring myself for every project. And I like that because I have a voice. It’s important to have a voice nowadays. I wanted to introduce some of our great Mexican actors to a new audience. They’re amazing! I loved doing that. And if I can be a bridge for all this great talent we have in Mexico, then I’m happy.
LONGORIA: I applaud what Eugenio’s been doing with his films in Hollywood as a Mexican actor. What’s been so wonderful to see is that he brings his culture with him. He brings the actors from Mexico with him. He’s never turned his back on his origins. He’s doing these bi-cultural films really well. They’re funny. They have general themes. Universal themes that a general market can enjoy and I think that’s the key. That’s why “Desperate Housewives” was so successful worldwide because you deal with universal themes that everybody can relate to. If you do movies about love and romance and divorce and heartache and jobs and child raising and death. I mean, those are things everybody can relate to. And then you make it a comedy? [LAUGHTER] It’s enjoyable to watch. I’ve had these moments where I look around the set and I get chills because there are so many talented actors on the set, but there are also so many diverse talented actors on set. It’s very rare that you go onto a movie set and you see actors from Mexico City doing an American film. And that’s really what I applaud Eugenio for.
CARREÓN: Expectations versus reality. Which did you all enjoy more? The scenes on the yacht or the ones on land?
DERBEZ: We were all so happy the day they told us were going out into the open sea on a luxurious yacht. Then we had to reduce the crew because we all couldn’t go onboard for weight purposes. In the end, we couldn’t wait to finish shooting on the yacht. [LAUGHTER] It was so hard! The interiors of the yacht were covered in plastic to protect the walls, the furniture. We were standing up most of the time. We’re sitting on the floor. It was packed. You couldn’t walk around. You couldn’t bring food inside or drinks. All of us had to have lunch outside. It’s Vancouver. It’s Canada. It was freezing. It was so windy! The scenes on the jet with the beautiful women in bikinis? We were all shouting and yelling and laughing. When I came back to the yacht, and the crew said, “You all looked like you were having a lot of fun!” I said, “No! We were freezing. The water was cold! Those were shouts, not laughs!”
FARIS: I loved making “Overboard.” Just the thrill of getting to be a part of it is amazing to me, one I could never have imagined as a child. I also loved that our directors and Eugenio gave me a sense of freedom. There was a lot of improvisation, plus the idea that we’re telling a romantic journey in an unconventional way.
LONGORIA: We had a funny scene, Eugenio and I with the condoms. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m going to say is Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, and condoms. Watch the movie. [LAUGHTER] I loved anything with Anna. I loved my screen husband Mel Rodriguez [who portrays Bobby]. You have no idea. Mel and I have known each other for 18 years. Every time we had a scene together, the director was like, “More of that!” Now we have to go do a show together. We’re that good together. It feels like we’ve been married 20 years. We’ve all had a lot of fun, but the water scenes were rough. It was raining, it was freezing. It’s probably some of the funniest stuff we’ve shot, the end of the movie, the little boat chasing the big boat. I think people are really going to enjoy it.
CARREÓN: What do you hope audiences take away from watching “Overboard?”
FARIS: It ultimately becomes a love story. What Kate and Leo bring out in each other is eventually the best in each other. Leo becomes a version of himself that he didn’t know he had in him. And I think Kate’s walls get broken down. There’s something really interesting in the idea that this man who has everything that the world could offer and he somehow finds reward in having a family and a simpler life. It’s the idea of what money can’t buy.
LONGORIA: People can expect a lot of fun out of this movie. They’re going to want to go on this journey with these characters, between Kate and Leo and their families. I feel like there’s a desire for a movie like this right now, especially in the world we’re living in. We want to escape into a beautiful place, a happy place. You want to experience someone else’s journey and not think about your own problems. [LAUGHTER] This movie’s going to do that for you.
DERBEZ: It was a challenge and a great responsibility to do a remake of this great film. When we hired writers Rob Greenberg and Bob Fisher and we read the final script, we were thrilled. We first talked to MGM about flipping roles and they were like, “No! This is an iconic movie. We don’t want to go that far!” They read the script, and they were like, “Oh my God. We love it!” We have a great movie. I think we have an amazing movie. Funny, interesting, and with a lot of heart. It has everything and it’s a roller coaster. It’s a family movie, too, which is a plus. I like doing movies for everyone.
**The interviews with Eugenio Derbez and Eva Longoria were completed on location in Vancouver during production in June 2018. The Anna Faris interview was completed in Los Angeles in January 2018. The transcripts have been edited for this piece.
The “Overboard” English and Spanish featurettes were produced by Jorge Carreón at Monkey Deux, Inc. for Pantelion Films.
Edited by Kate Ryan (English) and Steve Schmidt (Spanish), the featurettes are included courtesy of Pantelion Films.
I spent quite a bit of time on the set of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s poignant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best selling novel, “The Secret Life of Boys.” Given the task to produce the behind the scenes footage and content for this high profile project was both enviable and fulfilling. Impeccably cast with such luminaries as Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning, I sat down with all of these formidable talents on set on some cold and rainy days in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007, later following up with them at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
I’ll never forget that beautifully designed pink house, the centerpiece of Monk Kidd’s historical novel chronicling the life of a young white girl on the cusp of womanhood and the effect her housekeeper, and especially, a family of three beekeeping sisters have on her life. Projected against the canvas of the Civil Rights era in the Amercian South, the layers on which the narrative is told still resonate today, perhaps even more so.
The interviews with the cast had to encompass a dialogue on racial and gender equality, a conversation that has lost none of its power or importance today. At the time of principal photography, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were both seeking the Democratic Nomination for president. It was a time of great hope and wonder, at seeing history happen before our very eyes. It was an inspiring force, particularly for the cast who were essaying roles set in an era of great pain and suffering in a war for societal change.
Grammy winner Alicia Keys was at the peak of her popularity when she signed on to star in “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2007. Still a vocal activist and philanthropist today, I chose this interview as the second installment of “Generic” as a means to bridge our conversation in 2008 with today’s dialogue on fighting to protect and promote gender and racial equality. Keys has not given up the fight in 2017, as heard through her artistry and public appearances. Neither should any of you.
The Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto
September 8, 2008
Few recording artists today have the incredible staying – and selling — power like that of Alicia Keys.
Instantly setting herself apart from her rump-shaking contemporaries upon her 2001 debut, Keys’ smooth blend of old school soul and rhythm & blues continues to court global favor. With 11 Grammy awards on her shelf, as well as more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the musical life of Ms. Keys is without compare. So, why the eagerness to extend her artistic reach into acting where so many others have been met with deaf ears? The answers were direct and simple.
Performance for Keys comes from the same place and she is more than up for the challenge of voicing new words without music. However, what matters for this artistic hyphenate – which continues to extend with new titles – is that what she is saying is something of worth. And in 2008, Keys proved she had quite a bit to say through several mediums, beginning with her most challenging motion picture effort to date, an acclaimed role in the hit screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Citing the novel as one of her favorite books, Keys was eager to portray “June Boatwright,” the strong protector of a trio of beekeeping sisters living in 1960s era rural American south. What drew Keys to the project was that the character of “June” more than understands the racial strife of the outside world and its threat to the idyllic Eden of her family home. It is no coincidence that the character’s ability to express a softer emotion is through playing the cello, something Keys, already trained musician in her own right, sought to learn to give realism to the role. It is a scene-stealing performance, in spite of formidable work from co-stars Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Hudson. Yet, it was the experience of making her third film, in advance of the most historic moment in African-American history that offered Keys the most gratifying and educational experience of her career.
In discussing this latest chapter in her life, the 27-year-old native New Yorker proved as passionate and focused as she sounds in such hits as “No One” and “Fallin’.” Those smoky tones are no studio-enhanced trick, something I commented to her during our chat at the Toronto Film Festival for “The Secret Life of Bees” earlier in September. Shamelessly, I said it was a “drop-drawers” kind of voice. I got a flash of that amazing smile and a husky laugh.
It is encouraging to know that film will continue a role in her life, whether on screen or by contributing music. In addition to “Doncha Know (Sky is Blue), the end credits song from “The Secret Life of Bees,” Keys can also be heard with Jack White (of The White Stripes) tearing through “Another Way to Die,” the theme to the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Even with just being nominated for a few more Grammy Awards for several tracks off her recent “As I Am” album, art will have to share space with her most serious endeavor, working tirelessly as a global ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides life-saving AIDS medicines directly to children and families living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, this Julliard-trained hyphenate knows no bounds this year, one of the 2008’s most important personalities.
Without further delay, a confession that is truly in the key of Alicia.
JORGE CARREON: It can be said that each of the woman in “The Secret Life of Bees” represents a different facet of what it is to be a woman. Would you agree with that?
ALICIA KEYS: I would. I really do see the many variations of beautiful women in this film. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes, colors and all types of pasts; things that we’re recovering from and going through and embracing. So I do agree.
CARREON: Regardless of the film’s time frame and issues, is it really hard to be a woman?
KEYS: I think it is. It’s the most beautiful thing to be on the planet, so that’s first. But secondly, it is difficult to be a woman because we carry a lot on our shoulders and we are very, very strong. Sometimes we make it look really easy, but it’s not always easy. I think another thing we do as women is we hold things inside of us because we have to keep on pushing and keep going. Keep going for our family, our kids, for the ones that we love, you know? Sometimes that does weigh heavily on us. But I think that we are the most resilient and we are definitely just beautiful creatures. I love being a woman. I love it very much.
CARREON: Do you think such gender driven a story like “The Secret Life of Bees” has a place in contemporary entertainment that extends beyond a female audience?
KEYS: There are so many wonderful women in the world and we have to be represented properly. So, yes! It is time to tell more interesting stories about the many variations of women.
CARREON: Men are thinking, “How does this relate to me?”
KEYS: I think ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is something that will relate to a lot of men. In fact, all the men that I spoke to were like, “I’ll tell you what. I thought it was a ‘chick flick,’ but I really loved it.” They can see in the women their mothers, their sisters, lovers they know. They can see all the women that they know and they can see their own experience being a young person displaced and trying to find their way through it all. It’s not really about color and it’s not about gender. It’s about the experience of finding your place in this world and I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s a story about the human condition. We can all relate to love, family, defeat, and fear. And, we can all relate inspiration, hope, and faith. These are all the themes that are inside the movie.
CARREON As you continue to evolve as an artist, what made this filmmaking experience important to you?
KEYS: This experience is what I expected it to be and more! I learned that it’s just incredible to be around such fascinating women. I learned that it’s amazing to be directed by a woman like Gina (Prince-Bythewood), who was the screenwriter as well. I learned that when you put a whole lot of great women in one space, it’s a wonderful outcome.
CARREON: Faith continues to be a buzzword in the media of late. It seems entertainment is not shying away from addressing such themes, either. Why do you think faith and family have to go hand in hand?
KEYS: Faith brings the family together. And through all of the things that families go through, it’s the faith that we keep that allows us to know that we’ll make it through everything. You can’t do it on your own, even if it’s just one person; you need someone that has that faith with you.
CARREON: Do you find yourself thinking about your life’s journey after being part of a project like a film as opposed to music?
KEYS: Very much so. Always. Especially now, I am definitely searching for my place, my stability, what I’d like for myself. It’s a good journey because sometimes I just dig and find and figure it out. That’s what I think they’ve all done in “The Secret Life of Bees” and I’m doing it, too.
CARREON: Is there any coincidence that three of the film’s leads are actually musicians in their own right?
ALICIA KEYS: No! (Laughs)
CARREON: As your career continues to evolve, do you feel different about music and acting in a movie? Is it exercising the same muscle or is it nice to switch it up a little bit?
KEYS: Well, for me, acting and music do come from the same muscle in regards to tapping into something that’s honest and pure. You’re expressing it with abandonment, and in that way, it’s very much the same. The difference is, obviously, you are in a film. You’re becoming a different person from yourself, so you’re expressing another person’s story. With music, I’m expressing my story but it’s so similar because you’re empathetic, you understand it and you can connect. What I find about “June,” I can connect with every part of her. I understand her from a woman’s perspective, from a transitional perspective, from growing from one kind of part of your self into the next. There’s so much of me in her.
CARREON: “Bees” director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood gave the cast an amazing amount of resources to feel connected to the period of the film. Why is it important then, Alicia, to continue to look back to honor the struggles of one time and how they parallel to our own contemporary experience?
KEYS: That’s something that we discussed a lot. Gina has been phenomenal in providing us with a multitude of ways to dig out who our characters are and where they sit amongst society and what’s happening in the society at this time. The NAACP and SNCC and all of these organizations that were coming up were really fighting powerfully for a major change with the opportunity for Black people to be able to vote. It’s an incredible history. Sometimes we go on in life and don’t realize the amount of struggle that it took to just get to the point of where we are. You know how many people say, “Oh, I’m not voting, it’s rigged anyway.” How many people struggled, fought and died for that and you take it for granted as if it’s not important to utilize your voice when that’s all we wanted? To have a voice? It’s important to remember and understand things like that. To understand where we have come from and to realize that we, honestly, haven’t even come that far, which is the sad part. You know what I mean? Because you think about the state of the world today and I think about where we are in this film, and it’s almost parallel. Major change, radical change, much struggle and fighting needed to just demand something different.
CARREON: The film offers your first of two new songs bearing your voice this year. What was the inspiration for the song featured in “The Secret Life of Bees?”
KEYS: I love the song in the film and it really represents it perfectly. Just the fact that sometimes you might feel down, you might feel like the world is on your shoulders, but have a little faith in you because the sky is blue.
** My interview with Alicia Keys was conducted on September 8, 2008, at the Toronto Film Festival for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.
In my first conversation with President Trump on Inauguration Day, I thanked him for the positive things he had said about the Dreamers. He looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t worry. We are going to take care of those kids.”
Despite many of the terrible immigration policies this Administration has put forward, I have always held out the hope that President Trump would keep his word and “take care” of the Dreamers. After all, the President told America, “we love the Dreamers.”
But today’s announcement from Attorney General Sessions was cold, harsh, threatening, and showed little respect, let alone love, for these Dreamers.
Starting this countdown clock will require Congress to act fast to stop rolling mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of young people—students, teachers, doctors, engineers, first responders, servicemembers, and more. Families will be torn apart and America will lose many of our best and brightest unless Republicans join with Democrats to right this wrong immediately. I first introduced the Dream Act sixteen years ago to ensure these young people could stay here, in the only country they’ve ever known. Now Congress must act on this bipartisan bill, and act now. These families cannot wait.
— A statement from U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.
The intent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy signed by President Barach Obama in June 2012 was to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. As of 2017, an estimated 800,000 young people, also referred to as “Dreamers” (after the failed DREAM Act), enrolled into the program. As for September 5, 2017, DACA is no more. Now, they face an uncertain future, whether they enrolled into the program or are no longer eligible for its protection.
Living in fear as an undocumented individual is just one of the many realities faced by millions of people living in the United States today. Historically speaking, to be an immigrant is to be responsible for all the societal ills and woes of a nation. We’ve seen what humanity can do when it vilifies and turns against “The Other,” that group of people who become the target of genocides and “final solutions.” How anyone can venerate such monsters, as witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia last August is beyond the pale. Yet, we have only begun to see the ramifications of a president who has inspired those living with white privilege to exact a sense of revenge, of taking back a country they feel has gone to the dogs. That’s what many of us are to certain sectors of America, animals unworthy of being deemed human.
Since Trump took office, he’s made an art of playing to the cheap seats, that coterie of angry trolls sporting those damn red caps with the legend “Make America Great Again.” His propagandist rhetoric continues to target journalists, Women, the Muslim community, Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, the Latino Community, anyone who just isn’t white. He targets anyone with a brain able to deduce just how dangerous his screaming brat mentality really is for us all.
Trump wants to be worshipped, not challenged, even by those he chooses to marginalize. He demands your respect, although he’s done nothing to earn it. To challenge him is to stir his pitchfork mob of fans while most the members of his political party of choice opt to stick its head in the sand or stay silent. All fear to lose their moment of power, even if it means sacrificing the greater good of the nation. I often wonder who will stand up for anyone if most of the nation is excluded from the bullshit Trump country club our president and his acolytes have chosen as its manifest destiny for our nation.
Our most treasured national icon, the Statue of Liberty, is an ageless beacon, offering shelter from the storms of inhumanity elsewhere. Trump has turned our borders into the frontline of class and racial warfare, its motto is “Keep Out. You Don’t Belong Here.” If we are now known for turning people away, mercilessly deporting the rest, how will that not stop the war on terror? How will it not inspire new groups to target this great nation with their own brand of wrath? We cannot keep punishing the many for the sins of the few who refuse to honor decency and peace.
This entire nation owes its very identity and soul to the millions of other immigrants who have risked life and limb for decades to secure a better life for themselves and their families. To believe otherwise is absolutely un-American. Perhaps if those who fear “The Other” understood that not everyone who dares to call America their new home is a criminal run amok. Perhaps they need to be reminded of the ones who come here for a specific reason, to find their version of the American Dream. Like my parents. Like many of my friends’ parents and families. Who knows what immigrants can offer this nation in terms of innovation, inspiration, and beneficial to us all lucky enough to be citizens of the United States. Perhaps they need to know that not everyone who comes here is looking for a handout or abusing the social welfare system. I offer one reminder for your consideration.
In 2005, writer Joshua Davis penned an extraordinary article for Wired Magazine chronicling the lives of four undocumented teen boys from Arizona. What made them unique? They bested universities such as MIT and Harvard to win a robotics prize at UC Santa Barbara. Titled “La Vida Robot,” Davis’ meticulously written story of Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vazquez’s journey to victory was truly the stuff of Hollywood films. A decade later, that film, rechristened “Spare Parts,” was produced.
Directed by Sean McNamara and starring George Lopez, “Spare Parts” benefited from the momentum of the early DREAM Act (DACA) era, when the Latino voice had never been more urgent in terms of our national narrative. While the film relied on the “feel good” tropes of the underdog story, it did not shy away from the fact that these “illegals” are not the enemy in this ugly, paranoid era of fear mongering and reactionary politics.
I had the privilege of meeting journalist Joshua Davis and the real boys of Carl Hayden High, interviewing them and their cinematic counterparts for Pantelion Films. Along with producer and star George Lopez, they first expressed the importance of the Latino imprint in terms of mainstream films. However, their ultimate goal was to not only provide quality entertainment, it was to also illuminate an essential community still undervalued or unfairly marginalized by some Americans.
“Spare Parts” opened in January 2015, renewing attention on the lives of Vasquez, Arcega, Santillan, and Aranda. Over the course of a decade, the group from Carl Hayden High School inspired countless newspaper and magazine pieces. Writer Davis followed up his “La Vida Robot” article with a book, also titled “Spare Parts,” catching up on the lives of the boys. Director Mary Mazzio was inspired by the Hayden students to create the documentary “Underwater Dreams.” The quartet was also included in “Dream Big,” an IMAX feature-length documentary about engineering achievements. Even the team’s famed robot Stinky had its moment when it was put on display at the film’s premiere at the Smithsonian.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Yet, with all the attention and praise for their underdog story, life after high school for Vasquez and several of his classmates has not been without its complications. As of 2014, Vasquez was able to secure his American citizenship after a challenging decade that saw him return to Mexico at one point. His return to his homeland meant a 10-year ban of re-entry to the U.S. It was or the assistance of Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped overturn the ban, allowing Vasquez return to the States with a visa. Enlisting in the U.S. Army, Vasquez saw combat in Afghanistan before returning and finishing his college education. Now a U.S. citizen, he and wife Karla moved to Texas with their family, where he works in an engineering-related job with BNSF Railroad.
Aranda was already a citizen when the team won the robotics contest. Arcega and Santillan both attempted college careers but ultimately were forced to drop out due to the changes in Arizona state law that required all students without legal status to pay out-of-state tuition fees. Today, Santillan runs a catering company with former classmate Aranda, appropriately called Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla. Translation? “Neither from Here Nor from There.”
“The Making of ‘Spare Parts'” featurette produced by Jorge Carreon @ Monkey Deux, Inc., edited by Steve Schmidt and Drew Friedman for Pantelion Films.
The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens. —
From U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions statement on the Trump Administration’s rescinding of DACA, September 5, 2017,
As of September 2017, the more than 800,000 undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents are awaiting the other chancla to drop now that “President” Donald J. Trump has announced the end of DACA. Its effect will be catastrophic, breaking families apart and ending opportunities, like finishing an education or gainful employment, that have been hard won. What we stand to lose as a nation, however, is on par with a lobotomy.
The hope generated in 2012 when President Barack Obama signed this bold piece of legislation into effect was designed to protect them from a growing sense of paranoia and fear stoked by members of the GOP, and especially, Trump. They don’t know who are the Dreamers affected, nor do they care. Trump’s campaign engaged classic fear-mongering tactics, stoking the fires of intolerance with his supporters. It didn’t matter if the facts were true or not. The lack of employment, our border safety, our homes, our lives, we were all under attack by this scourge of evil from Latin America or elsewhere. We smirked that Trump could never be elected on such a brazenly racist and xenophobic platform. No one was laughing as the election proved otherwise. Now we have the sound of fear and it is palpable. (That American-born Latinos even voted for him because they deemed “her” unpresidential and untrustworthy is a testament to self-loathing that deserves its own essay. I say to them now, “Look what you’ve done to your brothers and sisters in blood. Shame on you.”)
As the child of immigrant parents, I am beyond angry. As an American citizen, I am ashamed. I wasn’t raised to hate people. I was raised to believe in the innate good of humanity, because good can flourish, even in the direst of times. Yet, to be told that I’m not good enough to be an American because of my Latino heritage or my sexuality is enough to make me want to take up arms. This is not the America that raised me and I’ll be damned if I let it harm anyone else out of fear and intolerance. What Trump offers is not the American Way. It is HIS way. That’s not good enough, not for this beautifully diverse nation.
Immigrants are not here to eradicate white history or white privilege. Nor are they here to tear this country asunder. That is a total lie to keep the status quo of xenophobia. We excuse the horrors of white terrorism, but movements like Black Lives Matter are deemed dangerous, inspiring legislation to declare such movements as being illegal.
American history was never just white. It is every color and creed and orientation, no matter how hard people try to obfuscate it. We are at a crossroads that will have consequences for generations to still to come. What we lose by excluding the many undocumented individuals now forced to live in the shadows again won’t be felt immediately, but it will be felt. Nothing stirs up a public more than paying for the poor decisions of our leaders. And we will pay for the loss of DACA is many ways, socially, morally and economically.
We are deporting the wrong groups of people. To be silent is to be complicit in this cruelly interminable series of unjust and un-American traitorous political acts. If we continue down this path of eradicating those deemed unworthy of citizenship, we will cease to be the United States of America. We will become the Dishonorable States of Trump, a soulless and rudderless nation offering nothing but a smirk, hatred, and violence to the world that once looked to us for guidance, protection, and inspiration.
**Now that the DACA program has been shut down, here is a breakdown of the Trump decision and what people should know:
Some DACA recipients won’t lose their DACA on March 5, 2018: People who have DACA now and whose DACA doesn’t expire until after March 5, 2018, will continue to have DACA and the work permit that comes with it until the expiration date of their DACA.
It’s too late to apply for DACA: The president ended the program so from Wednesday (September 6) on no more applications for DACA are being accepted.
A deadline that shouldn’t be missed: People whose DACA expired Tuesday, September 5 or will expire Wednesday, September 6 through March 5, 2018, can renew their DACA, but they must apply by October 5.
The ball is in Congress’ court – or Trump’s?: Between now and March 5, 2018, Congress can draft legislation to revive DACA, come up with a substitute or even do away with what the administration has put in place. Some opponents of DACA disagreed with the program being authorized by the president but may support a congressionally created program. Late Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he may “revisit” the DACA issue if Congress doesn’t act.
Legal challenges could play a role: There’s always a possibility of a court case. President Donald Trump came up with the DACA phase out plan under threat of legal action by a group of state officials. A young immigrant and immigration group filed a lawsuit in New York Tuesday challenging Trump’s action. There could also be discrimination lawsuits as a result.
Fun fact: Since 1999, I’ve been hailed around Hollywood as “The Generic Guy.”
Now, in entertainment industry parlance, that means I’m the one studios call to handle their “generic interviews.” These were either fashioned into featurettes or similar “behind the scenes” programming, as well as feature stories planted in specifically chosen print or digital sites. Such a job did have an enviable quality as I would usually get a lot more time than most journalists, as well as travel wherever the talent was best available. Junkets, film festivals, film sets, these interviews were never boring and the best part? It was always an adventure.
This is no longer the case in 2017 since my focus is strictly placed on creating original content for broadcast, home entertainment and, mostly, online platforms. But those early, palmier years had me interviewing more celebrities than Barbara Walters at her peak. It was like having the jet setting talk show of my dreams, without an audience knowing who the hell was asking the questions.
Being a producer in this capacity fulfilled my biggest dream of becoming a journalist, despite its also being an extension of my career as a publicist. That I was firmly embedded with the International film publicity teams was just one of the many blessings. They were fantastic colleagues and collaborators, all of whom treated me with great respect, care and trusted my ability to do the best job for their films and tv series. Why I was able to last as long as a “generic interviewer” was because I aimed to avoid asking generic or gossipy questions.
I believed then and now in the power of conversation, even in a junket setting, which was can be as in depth as speed dating. The rewards are so much greater when you just relate to the person in front of you. It takes about 30 seconds for most people to either be engaged or write you off. We all get a few talent who prefer to be in lock down mode or rip the mic right off, or just sit there taking up oxygen. Fear of libel prevents me from naming names. I’d rather focus on the positive anyway.
A lot of candid and entertaining chatter has happened over the years and I’ve often thought about collecting the best interview transcripts into a book. I even have a title: Generic. Envision a brown paper cover on the outside, a Hollywood life chronicled on the inside.
So, why not test run a chapter?
Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded of an August afternoon in 2008 when I went face to face with Vin Diesel. He was promoting the infamous futuristic thriller “Babylon A.D.” What makes this interview interesting was knowing he was about to return to “The Fast and the Furious” after a run of flops that slowed down his momentum as a box office draw. The swagger that was hallmark was tempered a bit, most likely from his also being a new father at that time. Regardless, the ensuing conversation was one I won’t forget as it was referred as a “fireside chat” by the studio’s publicist. Adding, “All that’s missing are the brandy snifters and the velvet smoking jackets.”
Yet, we did talk about the fear of building walls at our borders, a key theme in “Babylon, A.D.” Funny what can happen in nine years. Here’s more of what happened that August afternoon at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City
No matter the generation, when a film star is launched, audiences can’t wait for a second helping of what sated their hunger in the first place. But, pop culture is notoriously fickle, and people will move on to their next craving without mercy. It is a wonder why anyone wants to be an actor in the first place, but yet, the temptation is too great for some to ignore. And — which one of us can’t resist a delicious fantasy to post on our walls, computer screen – or beam down on us from a big screen at the multiplex?
Enter Vin Diesel.
Since hitting the box office lotto with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Diesel has become the ultimate representation of not only macho cool, but the face of a multi-cultural generation finally seeing itself on screen.
Born in 1967 as Mark Sinclair Vincent, Diesel was a product of the Love Generation. Raised in an artist commune in New York, Diesel was determined from a young age to express himself through the arts. Acting since he was 7 years old, he would encounter adult rejection because of his mixed heritage. Deemed either too black or too white or sometimes not enough of either, it was his supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that would prove to be more than a lucky break.
As a counterpoint to his sensitive voice performance as the robot in THE IRON GIANT, it was Diesel’s brash confidence that proved the “Nos” to fuel such films as PITCH BLACK and XXX. With the box office returns to prove it, Diesel was being hailed as the arrival of a new kind of action hero.
And then the banquet became something less enticing.
For Hollywood pundits, his refusal to return for the FAST AND FURIOUS and XXX sequels was on par with career suicide. Then, the head scratching decision to star anew as PITCH BLACK’S Riddick in the epic CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK with mild success. Perhaps in a bid to stave off further disappointments, Diesel went the route of The Rock in playing rock hard and cuddly with THE PACIFIER. While a surprise hit, Diesel seemed to be enduring an identity crisis on screen.
Seeking real challenges and opportunities to add new ingredients to his own screen recipe, Diesel showed great dramatic prowess as real-life mobster Jack DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY. Despite receiving acclaim for his performance, the film offered disappointing returns – and an uncertain future for Diesel himself.
I sat down with the actor for a one-on-one interview during a press tour for his latest film effort — French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s wildly controversial BABYLON A.D. A bold take on the dystopian future personified by such films as BLADE RUNNER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Diesel anchors the film as a soulless mercenary for hire named Toorop. Engaged by a crime lord to escort a mysterious young woman to New York, their danger-filled journey reveals the girl actually harbors the power to save a desperate world from itself.
After serving as executive producer on last year’s HITMAN, it appears Diesel enjoyed the chance to engage in the aesthetics of another French auteur. To hear him discuss BABYLON A.D., however, it comes as no surprise that Diesel is a real Showman, as brash and confident as the anti-heroes he’s played over the last decade.
However, I was surprised to find that Diesel is less concerned about trying to replicate any kind of prefab formula. He just doesn’t give a shit as to any labels the industry/media have, as he is content with his life:
He’s a new father.
He’s got a new film that sated both his comfort zones in action and drama.
He knows success and failure and he’s fine if either strike at any time.
I often wonder why every comic wants to be a serious actor, and why action stars want to be more than just brute muscle. I also don’t know why audiences can’t seem to want to see their favorite star recipes tampered with. What I enjoyed in our conversation was that Diesel is determined to give people what they want, but on his terms.
He’s a man of action for a reason.
You seem to be content with following your own path, despite people wanting to keep you locked into a certain type. Why return to this particular genre now?
I was talking to my father last night, who was in the screening. I always act like I don’t know what movie he’s talking about when he talks about a movie, ‘cause I want to get as much as I can. I said, “So it was packed with action?’ and he said, “Yes, it was.” I said, “So, Dad, so this other studio wants to move forward on this action film. Would it be too soon? Should I go back to the dramatic thing right now, and then do an action after?” He said, “Vin, your action film audience can’t get enough. “ There’s something about the action film genre. When you’re a fan of action films, you can’t get enough. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And he then went on to tell me a story about the guard that lived in our building. And he said, “Yeah, Vin’s got another movie coming out.” This is a guy that knew me as a child. And he goes, “Is it action?” And my father said, “Yeah,” he said “GOOD! And I’m there!” I probably never considered it as much as I did just last night talking to my father, how loyal and almost fanatic we are about action movies. We need to have them and expect to see them and make an event out of them. When I go to see an action movie, I get that charge, you know? I was raised to study the craft intensely from a very young age. You’d almost think well action movies are action movies. First of all, “action movie” is a new term, okay? Films like THE WILD ONE, GONE WITH THE WIND could be called “action movies” since they were made with the best effects that technology could provide at that time. It wasn’t until the Arnold generation that this title of action movies even came about. So every movie that I approach, every character I approach, I approach with the same conviction and the same attention to the craft, whether it’s a dramatic piece by Sidney Lumet or whether it’s an action piece.
What’s your take on Mathieu Kassovitz’s vision of the future in BABYLON A.D.?
The thought of this was taking something that had the action component and then string it together if you will all these sequences with this real French auteur style, you know? That’s what the fun of doing this film was and the challenge of doing this film and what was attractive about doing it. I had just come off this incredible experience with working with Sidney Lumet. I was hungry for different kinds of directors. The fact that it was an action piece was a comfort zone. That was the easy part, so to speak. And I was going to go. What was attractive was having a visceral take on an action movie.
Do you have faith? Do you have faith in humanity?
Yes, I do have faith in humanity. And I will guard that faith against any cynicism to my dying day. But, I’m the son of an idealist. I’m the son of artists. I am an artist! I think by being an artist, you have to have some kind of faith in humanity otherwise you wouldn’t be an artist. You wouldn’t expect anyone to get what you are saying in your art.
Do you have a spiritual faith, or a faith in yourself?
I have a spiritual faith.
That’s interesting in the context of the film because you are a man of blank morality.
You are so right, you are so right. Fascinating and interesting about playing that role, but the real me? Very strong on the spiritual faith. It’s interesting because part of the subtlety of the Michelle Yeoh character was that representation of that kind of spiritual faith.
Mélanie (Thierry, Diesel’s co-star in the film) was saying, in her mind we are not too far away from the world that is presented in BABYLON A.D. Do you share the same belief?
I don’t know. I know that when we were making this movie, we were making this movie about a character having to export somebody through borders around Russia. I would pick up the New York Times and you’ve got borders increasing around Russia. Specifically Russia and Georgia and all that. And you see the seeds of something that is scary.
I guess we’re not too far after all, Vin you’re scaring the shit out of me!
No, I’m just saying in the general sense. I have my own philosophy about how the border thing is working and how it’s…
And how it’s not.
And how it’s not and where we’re going to be in a few years with borders. But everyone might think I’m crazy.
We’ll have to look at this ten years from now and see if you’re right. I hope not.
It’s a tricky thing because the borders will be increased and strengthened in a way no one will recognize. No one will ever see them being built. The walls of China, so to speak, that are going to divide our world are going to be constructed while we’re not paying attention. What we’ll be focused on is the virtual world where there are no borders. So the physical world is going to build its borders while we indulge further into the Internet, into a world where there are no borders. When you are locked in front of that screen you’ll never see the wall being built.
And they’ll be surprised.
And they’re going to be surprised.
Which did you find more challenging, the physical or the emotional aspects your role in BABYLON A.D.?
Both are challenging in different ways. I become the character. As crazy as that sounds, live in that character and I don’t think of anything as being more challenging than the other. Might not be the smartest thing because when I’m in character I jump off the roof, I jump off the roof. It’s less of a specific thing that’s more challenging. The more you delve deep into a character, the more exhausting it is on you, right? You know, you hear all the time about actors that go and do these really deep performances and than need a year to try and detox and cleanse. Because, if it is done right and done with integrity, becoming a character is a heavy deal.
It ain’t easy.
It ain’t easy. You live in that space. That’s if you are striving to do something significant in your craft. You end up living in a space and that space ain’t always a comfortable space.
Why do you think the multi-cultural face enhances this move?
For me, any film that has a multi-cultural face is enhanced, personally. But I think it plays to this movie in a really good way. You know, Michelle Yeoh was originally written in the book as an old French kind of typical nun. And I think by casting Michelle Yeoh in that role, as opposed to the traditional, she was able to bring an unspoken spirituality. A spirituality that you didn’t have to really talk about too much, but she brought it to the screen, she brought it to the role and it helped the overall picture.
And Mélanie is interesting as well.
So exciting! She’s one of our big finds in the movie. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mélanie.
You have a huge vested interest in this. Why?
I’ve done enough movies now. You reach a place where you realize dreams which is surreal. It’s a surreal experience. I want my work to be significant. I take great pride in the art. I come from artist housing. It was government subsidized in New York, which were basically projects for artists that made less than ten thousand dollars a year. That’s the environment in which I was raised. That’s kind of affected me in Hollywood because sometimes I don’t take the big Hollywood picture payday thing and that causes a ripple because the studio needs that thing and I’m too idealistic. And the script isn’t good! And no one really gives a shit whether I think the script is good or not, but they care when they know I care, that I’m invested in a movie. I’ve had my challenges with that because sometimes I can be too precious and too involved, but I stand by the work that I do and I stand by the films that I do. And my philosophy about making movies is that everybody included in that process of making a movie should feel that way. I feel like the third wardrobe assistant should feel just as accountable for the movie as the director. That’s my own thing.
** This interview with Vin Diesel was conducted on August 20, 2008, at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.