Thursday, December 28, 2017

George Bailey, The Everyman's Holiday Hero

Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a yearly holiday tradition for me; I faithfully watch it every Christmas Eve. As someone who often suffers from melancholy and sadness during this supposedly joyful time of the year—and I know I am not alone—I look forward to this film as an annual year-end experience of personal catharsis and healing.

The hero’s journey taken by protagonist George Bailey, played with such natural grace by the great James Stewart, has a lot in common with the odyssey each and every one of us takes year after year in real life, with its fears and shadows as well as magical little moments of love and joy.

Life is hard and filled with challenges for everyone, rich and poor alike. How Stewart’s George Bailey handles the slings and arrows is real, imperfect, heartbreaking, but ultimately an enlightening and redemptive experience.

James Stewart as George Bailey

Nominated for five Academy Awards and cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, with beautifully written script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Diary of Anne Frank, Father of the Bride) and directed by the great Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), It’s a Wonderful Life is about as far from a lighthearted holiday romp as you can get. It is a very dark and disturbing tale of suicide and bankruptcy and broken dreams. Indeed, it was a box office failure when it first premiered during the 1946 holiday season.

But at the film’s climax, the darkness and cynicism give way to light and hope—director Capra gives his audiences a heartwarming conclusion that has the power to rekindle even a long burnt-out faith. Often accused of over-the-top sentimentalism, Frank Capra’s steadfast idealism is as relevant and practical today as it was in post-WWII America. Little things like kindness and gentleness don’t just mean a lot, they are everything.  And we need happy endings.

The story is iconic. On Christmas Eve, a discouraged and desperate small town man is at the end of his rope. A miraculous series of events changes his life and attitude forever.  At the apex of the story is the character of George Bailey, played by James Stewart.

Bobby Anderson as Young George

Lionel Barrymore as Potter

Stewart was 38 years old when he made It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, but believably plays the character of George over a span of nearly 20 years. He had already been a top Hollywood star for more than a decade, having won an Academy Award for his role as the sardonic yet bighearted Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

Beloved by movie audiences as an everyman, (indeed, he had already proven himself the ideal Capra leading man in the title role of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Stewart was the perfect actor to bring to life the flawed character of small town denizen George Bailey, acting as a stand-in for every audience member who ever felt trapped in his or her own life, cheated of dreams that did not come true despite their best efforts. 

Stewart’s Oscar-worthy performance was recognized by the Academy, and he deservedly received one of his five Best Actor nominations for the role of George Bailey. It was the actor’s most mature and intense work to date, and served as a gateway to more serious mature roles to come, including four Hitchcock classics culminating in Vertigo.

Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody (AS2)
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey

As the wise director did in all his great films, Capra surrounds his leading man with a brilliant ensemble of skilled character actors who bring the story to vivid life with their unforgettable performances. Lionel Barrymore (Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel), eldest of the famed acting dynasty, brother to John and Ethel and great uncle to Drew, is evil personified as the cruel and miserly Mr. Potter; Henry Travers (The Bells of St. Mary's) has a scene stealing turn as Clarence the angel, adding a bit of humorous leavening to the proceedings; Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, Pocketful of Miracles) is dotty Uncle Billy, and Beulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow, Tammy and the Doctor) is George’s sweet mother. Lovely Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), is, of course, perfect as George's faithful wife.

I’m not usually fan of young actors portraying the star in flashback, but the device works well here in the prologue, where Young George played by Robert J. Anderson (The Bishop's Wife) is responsible for my first flood of tears, when his ears are boxed by a drunken, grieving H.B. Warner (King of Kings).

Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey

All the great actors’ fine moments in this film are too numerous to mention, but Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Sheldon Leonard, Lillian Randolph, Frank Faylen and Todd Karnes each contribute to the iconic moments that tug at the heart and make us smile.

At the center, though, is James Stewart’s intense and complex performance as the conflicted George Bailey. Despite George’s heart of gold, his easy charm, sense of humor, kindness and generosity, the odds seem stacked against him and his gradual descent into bitterness and despair takes the audience on a journey into their own souls, their own gallery of deep disappointments and unrequited desires.

"Merry Christmas!"

The moment near the end of the picture where George bows his head and prays, sobbing “I want to live again” triggers the same reaction in me year after year; I am choked up and awash with tears, every time, never fails. Perhaps it’s my way of letting go of the frustrations and disappointments and pain of the previous year and facing the new one with some hope and optimism, grateful to have friends, family, a roof over my head, etc.

For me and millions of others, It’s a Wonderful Life provides an annual ritual of release, a good cry that leaves us feeling happy, refreshed and ready to face the world anew as the New Year dawns. That’s more than enough to make James Stewart, Frank Capra and company inspiring heroes in my book.

This blog is part of the Inspiring Heroes Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a joyous new year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Funny, Talented, Beautiful Girl

Last December, I finally got to see Barbra Streisand perform live, after a lifetime of loving and idolizing her. La Streisand was truly divine, in full command of her voice and her talents, and transported us through a half century of her greatest hits, including a few of the famous Christmas songs she had not sung for decades. It was magical. (That concert tour, "The Music, The Mem'ries, The Magic" is now available on Netflix and iTunes.) Every Christmas season, I listen to that classic Christmas album, and also find time to watch the delightful movie Funny Girl (1968), which I first saw during a long-ago holiday season.

Barbra Streisand was launched as an international superstar in her film debut, the big-screen version of her 1964 Broadway triumph. The songstress was already a best-selling recording artist and a Broadway star, with several CBS television specials under her belt, but movies are an entirely different animal. The Jule Styne and Bob Merrill musical is a rags-to-riches tale of Tin Pan Alley-era entertainer Fanny Brice, whose trajectory from Henry Street in Brooklyn to the Ziegfeld Follies and international stardom failed to bring her personal happiness and fulfillment.

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice as Barbra Streisand...building a character and her own legend

The leap from stage to television to screen was helped by the fact that the Broadways musical’s songs were already hits by the time the film was released, thanks to Barbra’s rerecordings of “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on her already spectacularly successful record albums. Barbra herself had been introduced to TV audiences, first through guest shots on variety hours including a notable appearance on The Judy Garland Show, then through the series of CBS specials she headlined herself starting in 1965.

Directed by the great William Wyler (The Little Foxes, The Heiress), with musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross (The Turning Point, Steel Magnolias), Funny Girl gave Streisand an auspicious and audacious film debut. Barbra gets the full star treatment in this old-fashioned backstage musical romance, costumed by Oscar-winning designer Irene Sharaff and cast opposite Egypt-born heartthrob Omar Sharif, who had made international 1960s audiences swoon with his handsome presence in the epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago.

Photographed by veteran cameraman Harry Stradling, a favorite among actresses because he always painstakingly lit each of his leading ladies to look their very best, the Stradling treatment sets Streisand’s unusual features aglow, unveiling to the world her unique beauty in widescreen splendor.

A beautiful reflection: Director of photography Harry Stradling highlighted Streisand's unusual, unique features

In a movie year that included innovative fare including the groundbreaking sci-fi alleghory Planet of the Apes and the startling study of contemporary evil Rosemary’s Baby, Funny Girl is a throwback to showbiz biopics made 10 to 20 years earlier, including Words and Music and Love Me or Leave Me. But it works because it is a vehicle for a timeless, contemporary, new breed of star, an exciting new personality who is clearly headed for a bright future; Streisand is timeless, at home in front of the camera, and also a solid actor with remarkable comic timing, real romantic chemistry with costar Sharif and a vulnerability that registered perfectly on the movie screen if not in real life. (Tales of Streisand being a  difficult diva—willful, narcissistic, exacting and perfectionistic and tough—begin right here on this picture.)

Good-looking Arab boy meets nice Jewish girl: Sharif and Streisand

The movie itself is solid and entertaining, and also contains one of Omar Sharif’s finest performances as well, as the ne’er do well Nick Arnstein (though the pairing of Jewish Barbra and the Arab Omar caused some controversy in the Middle East). Kay Medford and Walter Pidgeon lend memorable support as Mama Brice and Flo Ziegfeld, but Funny Girl is clearly, unmistakably Streisand’s picture. There’s little room for anyone or anything else. (Beautiful actress Anne Francis’s role as Fanny’s sardonic showgirl confidante was all but cut out of the film, for example, to make more room for Barbra’s singing and emoting.

Duelling divas: Streisand and Garland harmonize

And it is indeed a rich, satisfying and startling film performance. Not since Judy Garland had there been a musical star so vibrant, so versatile, so in command in front of the camera. Garland had been galvanized, inspired and challenged by the youngster’s talents during that memorable 1963 guest appearance. Judy herself had been considered an unconventional Hollywood beauty as well, feeling like an ugly duckling next to costars like Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr at MGM.

"I'm the Greatest Star" —and she wasn't kidding
Streisand won the coveted Academy Award that year for her performance as Fanny Brice. Though she shared the award in a tie with Katharine Hepburn (Kate’s third of an eventual FOUR Best Actress statuettes), the film veteran didn’t show up at the ceremonies, leaving Barbra the spotlight on Oscar night. She accepted her Academy Award in a chic see-through miniskirt creation designed by Arnold Scaasi.

Winning an acting Oscar for your film debut is unusual; for a musical performance, even more rarified. Three years earlier, Julie Andrews had won Best Actress for her film debut in the musical Mary Poppins, and 20 years later Jennifer Hudson would win a Supporting Oscar for her first film, the movie version of Dreamgirls.

Golden-voiced singer, Academy Award-winning Best Actress

Streisand would win a second Academy Award in 1976 as composer of the Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” (this time sharing the honor with Paul Williams) from her film A Star Is Born, but the only other time she would be nominated for her acting (so far!) would be for The Way We Were in 1973.

In the inimitable Hollywood way of attempting to cash in on itself, Streisand’s next two films would also be in the old-school musical vein. Barbra was rushed into two more musicals back to back, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and Hello, Dolly, with not-always stellar results, proving that the epic  movie musical was approaching its death throes...but Barbra’s triumphant career was only just beginning. She jumped into the 1970s with a series of fine performance in more contemporary fare including The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc. Years later, Streisand very reluctantly reprised her role of Fanny Brice in the inferior sequel Funny Lady to fulfill a contract obligation with Ray Stark, the producer who had paved her road to stardom with Funny Girl (and happened to be married to Fanny Brice’s daughter Fran).

Her tour de force film debut took Hollywood and the world by storm, and the indefatigable Barbra has remained an A-List superstar ever since.