Thursday, November 28, 2019

Moore and Moore Tears

’Tis the season to be bright and merry and joyful—or to fake it till you make it. That’s how many feel about the hustle and bustle and forced frivolity of this particular time of year. For the gimlet-eyed film lover who may be feeling just a wee bit of anti-holiday sentiment, I recommend the following antidote to those inane Lifetime holiday romances and even the stalwart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Here's a holiday movie that was excoriated by critics and flopped at the box office, likely due to its relentlessly downbeat subject matter. Have you ever seen the one about the last wish of a dying girl with just a very short time to live (see movie title for exact prognosis)? This is Six Weeks (1982).

Surprisingly, it’s far from a total disaster. Directed with sensitivity by Tony Bill (My Bodyguard), the handsome actor who squired Goldie Hawn to that wild party in Shampoo and won an Oscar for coproducing The Sting, this film has grown on me over the years. Its heart is in the right place, and time has been kind to it.

True, Six Weeks is a curiosity in many ways. A film starring Moore and Moore—no relation, of course, but the pre-film publicity made much of it. Mary and Dudley. Two comic geniuses playing against type in a tragic melodrama—released on December 16, 1982, just in time for a good Christmas cry.

Mary Tyler Moore as Charlotte Dreyfus

Mary Tyler Moore is cosmetics tycoon and doting mother Charlotte Dreyfus, who is determined to give her ailing daughter a life of purpose and meaning, no matter what it costs. 

Channeling the brittle, edgy and high-strung vibe she had recently perfected in Ordinary People (earning her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nod), Mary is a little bit scary here. The high humor of her salad days in the sitcom universe has all but evaporated, and we are left with a chic, glamorous but very serious and unhappy woman. But we understand why.

MTM’s onscreen persona changed dramatically as she matured—there are three distinct phases: Sweet and emotional Kennedy era wife Laura Petrie gave way to smilingly determined career girl Mary Richards, then moved on to tense and very complicated women such as Beth in Ordinary People and real-life criminal matriarch Sante Kimes in Like Mother, Like Son. But who was the real Mary? Probably all of the above, but we’ll never know.

British comedian and musician Dudley Moore was well known to UK TV audiences for his frequent partnership with satirist Peter Cook, but gained international fame flying solo in the U.S. comedy classics Foul Play and Blake Edwards’s 10. 

Dudley Moore as Patrick Dalton

Here, as Patrick Dalton, a naturalized U.S. citizen running for Congress, we see flashes of the Dudley Moore charm and humor that made him a box office favorite in all those zany 1980s comedies. But his exuberance too, of course, is sobered by the sadness of the film’s grave situation, as he befriends the adoring young girl who joins his campaign and then discovers her tragic secret.

Tyler Moore and Moore make an awkward Mutt and Jeff couple and were criticized as having zero chemistry. Indeed, tall Mary towers over diminutive Dudley and there is little va va voom in their coupling, but this is not meant to be a hot and heavy romance. It’s a love story of three soulmates who have a very short time together, a brief moment of joy before the tragedy that pulls them apart.

Katherine Healy, a real-life Olympic skating champion (who ironically pretends awkwardness on the ice in a scene at Rockefeller Center) and fledgling ballerina, plays the role of young Nicole Dreyfus. To date, this was her first and last film role, which is unfortunate, because she is effective here. 

Katherine Healy as Nicole Dreyfus

Though she, the film and her costars were savaged by the critics at the time, Healy is completely believable as the self-possessed and mature-beyond-her-years thirteen year old who has a lot of living to do before leukemia and the fates spirit her away. Today, Healy continues to teach dance, as she has done for many years.

Veteran supporting actress Shannon Wilcox has one of her best roles as Moore’s long suffering wife, who is obviously used to playing second fiddle to her politician husband’s demanding life and frequent business trip absences (and briefly mentioned previous extramarital affair). 

Granted, the film is somewhat maudlin and overly sentimental, but what tearjerker isn’t? It’s also filled with implausibilities that make it difficult to suspend disbelief—in what universe does even a poor little rich girl get the chance to dance in a New York City ballet and preside over the mock wedding of her mother to her new idol and hero?

"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss...the child."

Admittedly, MTM’s angry, sobbing meltdown as she reveals that her daughter is dying of leukemia, and the harrowing scene in the subway where the girl collapses (after her triumphant performance in The Nutcracker) do go over the top. (But why are those my favorite parts?)

The scene where mother and daughter dance together is lovely and memorable.Though no prima ballerina herself, Mary performs with grace and skill, using the dance as the opportunity to shower unrepressed affection upon her daughter during this shared moment of joy. MTM fans will recall that she started her showbiz career as Happy Hotpoint, the dancing elf of appliance commercials, as well as her musical moments with TV hubby DIck Van Dyke and tap dancing in the elevator with Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Healy and Moore

Coincidentally, some of the tragic elements of the story—debilitating illnesses and the loss of a child—resonate with the personal lives of the principals. Mary had just recently suffered the loss of her only son, Richie, in a 1980 handgun accident. She was a lifelong insulin-dependent diabetic who also braved a decades-long bout with alcoholism. But she endured and continued to work on and off until her death at the age of 80 in 2017.

More than a decade after Dudley Moore made Six Weeks, he would be plagued by a series of serious health issues, including heart disease and Parkinson’s, sidelining him from show business until director Barbra Streisand took a chance and offered him a small supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Sadly, Streisand reluctantly fired him when it became clear he was not up to the task, and he was replaced by Austin Pendleton. He died in 2002. 

Two great stars—who could ask for anything Moore?

The earnest performances make this movie watchable, and are accompanied by a moving original piano score (composed by Dudley Moore himself) designed for eliciting tears. So if you are in the mood for good cry (and a few rolls of the eye)—as many of us are during the holidays!—you may actually enjoy Six Weeks as much as I do.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Another Comeback for Judy—and Renée

In reviewing Judy Garland’s 1967 Palace concert engagement, Vincent Canby called her a “sequin-sprinkled female Lazarus,” referring to the mercurial superstar’s uncanny ability to resurrect her career and revive her legend again and again. Judy Garland is back; another triumph for the comeback queen, the tabloid headlines would scream throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

Fifty years after the star’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills, the Judy Garland mythos lives on. The new biopic Judy (2019) introduces the iconic entertainer to a whole new generation of moviegoers. And in the title role, another talented star, Renée Zellweger, reinvents herself. 

She has dazzled us before, but it’s been quite a while. Who can forget her sparkling turn as Roxy Hart in Chicago, her unconditionally loving support of Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, or sporting that absolutely perfect British accent as Bridget Jones? She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a feisty southern Civil War spitfire in Cold Mountain. 

But by around 2010 Zellweger’s career had fallen on hard times, and her attempts to age gracefully (almost impossible under Hollywood’s merciless glare) with some cosmetic procedures and Botox were met with well-publicized ridicule and scorn. She fell off the A-List and seemed destined to fade away, no longer a bright new star but a cinema footnote. (Even her recent foray into Netflix as the deliciously glamorous and ruthless soap opera villainess of What/If? failed to gain her much good buzz.)

Miss Zellweger in What/If? (2019)

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland? Quite a stretch, I thought, when I first read that the she was going to essay the part.  But I was wrong. She had me at hello.

Zellweger’s remarkable performance is something to see, as the actress crafts an astonishingly detailed characterization of a lonely, troubled lady who’s down on her luck and at the end of that fabled rainbow, forced to sing for her supper and to support her family despite a serious addiction to prescription drugs.

Desperately ill, still possessing a definite but no longer reliable talent (a tracheotomy has damaged her vocal chords), Zellweger’s Judy struggles to succeed in summoning the old magic for her London audiences at the Talk of the Town supper club in December 1968. 

Zellweger is simply sensational in the role, acting and singing up a storm in a tour de force that allows an operatic range of triumph and tragedy as Judy’s rollercoaster ride of a life reaches its final downward spiral.

An uncanny transformation

In the 2001 miniseries Me and My Shadows, Judy Davis (who won an Emmy Award) had lip-synched to Garland’s own voice, expertly mimicking the singer’s trademark gesticulations, but Zellweger takes the homage to the next level. Yes, she does her own singing, but that’s just the beginning. Like a skilled Method actor, the actress inhabits and embodies each song, organically finding the emotional truth of each gesture and musical phrase with an intensity that evokes the Garland magic without imitating it, finding and tuning in to the frequency of Garland like a spiritual channeler. The musical performances are nothing less than supernatural, and match the intensity of the dramatic scenes.

Thanks to Judy, I truly believe Renée Zellweger will have to make some room on her mantelpiece next to that Cold Mountain Oscar. She certainly deserves it.

As Garland’s fifth husband, the ambitious Mickey Deans, Finn Wittrock lends strong support and displays great chemistry with his costar as he tries to hustle a business deal for the fading superstar. Rufus Sewell is perfect as ex-husband Sid Luft, achieving dramatic sparks in a couple of heated exchanges with Zellweger.

Painstaking detail is paid to Garland’s makeup and costumes, including the glittering Travilla pantsuit she appropriated from the set after being fired from Valley of the Dolls as well as the Ray Aghayan gowns (cocreated by his business and life partner Bob Mackie) from The Judy Garland Show. In Judy’s clothes, Zellweger is even inspired to subtly reference Garland’s famously sloped-shoulder stance, a result of scoliosis—hence Louis B. Mayer’s cruel nickname for her—“My little hunchback.”

With Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans

The film itself is not perfect, nor is it historically accurate. Supposedly based on Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow, the screenplay veers pretty far from its source material to begin with, and then plays a bit fast and loose with the facts for dramatic effect. Only Garland scholars like me will quibble at the artistic license taken here. Examples: Joey and Lorna are far younger in the film at this point; they were actually both teenagers by 1968. Mickey Deans and Judy never split; he took care of her for the rest of her life—she died a few short months after the Talk of the Town engagement, in June 1969. (Deans wrote a memoir, Weep No More My Lady, chronicling their relationship and Judy’s final year.)

The relationships with her young London assistant and musical director are composite characters (well played by Jessie Buckley and Royce Pierreson) of many who had to endure Garland’s out-of-control drug addiction and fits of temperament—most vividly recounted in the 2015 memoir Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me by Stevie Phillips. 

The male couple who welcome a lonely Judy into their home for dinner is another fanciful creation, perhaps based on the fact that Judy and Mickey Deans were indeed befriended by a gay couple who lived next door to them in their tiny mews cottage outside London. (After the Talk of the Town engagement, Deans and Garland made England their home base as they continued a mini tour of concerts in Europe to keep the wolf from the door.)

Garland was not fired from her Talk of the Town job by manager Bernard Delfont (played flawlessly by Michael Gambon)—though she did come close. But the truth of the Talk of the Town performances and key events are well dramatized here, including Judy’s often slurring performances, one of which did indeed result in the an appalling incident of having food thrown at her, the old vaudevillian cliché come true. 

The dreamy flashback sequences of MGM, tyrranical Louis B. Mayer, stage mother Ethel (whom Judy always called the “real life Wicked Witch of the West”) and the filming of Wizard of Oz are not meant to be literal but seen through the veil of memory, and their themes ring true—Judy as commodity, the self-esteem crushing studio servitude to MGM—but couldn’t the producers have found a more exciting actress to play the young Judy? (By contrast, Tammy Blanchard had been stunning as the young Frances Gumm in the Judy Davis miniseries, winning the Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award.)

A faithful reproduction of a Judy Garland Show gown by Ray Aghayan

All criticism aside, the apex of the film is Zellweger, and she carries it with powerful aplomb and raw courage, owning a role that most performers would shy away from attempting—a woman believed by many to be the greatest entertainer who ever lived. Thanks to Renée, Judy lives on in yet another triumphant comeback tale, and both actresses’ stars are once again on the rise.

“Comeback? What comeback?” Judy once remarked wryly. “I’ve never been away!” And Renée can say the same thing as critics now proclaim, “Renée is back, in a big way!” 

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

A Dramatic Rendering of A Remarkable Diary

Holocaust survivor Otto Frank said, “There are no walls, no bolts, no locks that anyone can put on your mind.” Despite the efforts of others to dehumanize fellow human beings and rob them of their lives and dignity, the spirit of freedom persists, through art, through imagination, through self-expression.

The story of Anne Frank is now legendary. As Hitler’s armies marched into the Netherlands in 1942, Jews were forcibly taken from their homes, their possessions and property confiscated, and put on trains to death camps, where millions perished. Anne Frank’s family and a group of neighbors were given the opportunity to hide in a secret annex and wait out the war.

Through the courage of Kraler and Miep, dear friends who risked their own lives to help, the group were given just a few precious months in a small attic apartment atop the factory that had been Otto Frank’s place of business. It is through the journal of Otto’s youngest daughter that the world was told this now iconic story. (All the residents but Otto Frank himself died in concentration camps.)

The diary had been a bestseller since it was discovered and published after the war, and adapted into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1955 by veteran screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, best known for their tender, seriocomic family films It’s a Wonderful Life and Father of the Bride and the musical classic Easter Parade. The Hacketts adapted the stage play for the screen, to be directed by George Stevens (Giant, The Greatest Story Ever Told).

Schildkraut, Huber, Jacobi, Perkins, Winters, Beymer and Baker

Director Stevens, who during WWII had filmed the ravages of war including the horrors of Nazi concentration camps where millions of Jews were exterminated, was moved by the story of the little girl whose family had been forced to flee and hide, and brought the hit play to the screen in 1959.

Stevens assembled a brilliant cast to play the roles of the terrified Dutch Jews forced to go underground and hide themselves from their Nazi persecutors in a hidden attic room.

In a way, director Stevens was a chief mentor to legendary actress Shelley Winters, helping her develop into the skilled actor she would become under his direction in two key film roles. Winters had worked with Stevens on A Place in the Sun in 1951, the film that evolved her image from that of B movie glamour gal to respected A-list character actress. Her role as the doomed, plain factory worker Alice Tripp, who falls in love and becomes pregnant by Montgomery Clift, won her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Shelley Winters as Petra Van Daan

In A Place in the Sun, she had completely changed her physical appearance, and the buxom, brassy blond became the mousy, timid Alice. For Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens called upon Winters to transform her appearance once again, to become the zoftig middle aged Petra Van Daan, wife of a well-to-do Jewish businessman and mother of a teenage son. (Winters later complained that by gaining weight for the role, she destroyed her metabolism and indeed suffered from a serious weight problem for the rest of her life.)

Shelley won her first Oscar for the role of Mrs. Van Daan, which she donated to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, where the real-life drama had actually taken place. (In addition to Best Supporting Actress Shelley Winters, the film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction, and was nominated for best picture, costume design and supporting actor Ed Wynn.)

Ed Wynn in his Oscar-nominated role of Mr. Dussel

Wynn, best remembered as the tipsy levitating floating uncle of Mary Poppins who sang “I Love To Laugh,” gives one of his most complicated performances as the eccentric, bewildered old dentist who never considered himself a Jew and now finds himself in an uncomfortable position.

Of course, the most difficult role to cast would be Anne Frank herself. Far from a saintly martyr, the Anne of both the book and the play is cruel to her mother and talks back to her elders, wild, willful, playful and imaginative.

On Broadway, Susan Strasberg had triumphed in the role of Anne. Daughter of legendary Actors Studio founder and teacher of the Stanislavsky Method (Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris and Jane Fonda were among Strasberg’s most famous students), Susan Strasberg had already proven her cinema worth with an impressive performance in the film version of Picnic.

Susan Strasberg onstage in the play, with Schildkraut and Huber

But George Stevens chose not to cast Strasberg after seeing her play the role on stage, though he did  cast Joseph Schildkraut (who had won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for Life of Emile Zola in 1937) Oscar and Austrian actress Gusti Huber from the Broadway production to play Anne’s parents.

Millie Perkins in the title role
Instead Stevens chose lovely and photogenic newcomer Millie Perkins to play the complicated title role, the willful, imaginative, fun-loving soul whose exuberance and restlessness pose a risk to the denizens of the hiding place. Among the ensemble of powerhouse actors, Perkins holds her own, although she received mixed reviews for her portrayal at the time.

She would go on to a relatively undistinguished acting career—the other highlight of her filmography is Wild in the Country opposite Elvis Presley—basically disappearing from the screen by the mid 1960s, later to reemerge in character roles, usually as someone’s mother.

Another tense moment in the hiding place

As Anne’s older sister Margot, Diane Baker is warm and wise, the image of her mother (while Anne is passionate and curious, like her father). 1959 was an important year for Baker, who also shined in the all-star Technicolor soap opera The Best of Everything with Joan Crawford, Hope Lange and Suzy Parker. Baker would enjoy a long, fruitful career as an actor in films and television, and years later would memorably play the senator mother of one of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s intended victims in Silence of the Lambs.

Handsome Richard Beymer, who would go on to star opposite Natalie Wood in the big budget screen adaptation of West Side Story (both were beautiful; neither could really sing), plays the role of shy Peter, son of the constantly bickering Van Daans. Embarrassed by his parents’ sturm and drang, Peter retreats to a quiet corner with his orange tabby cat Mouschi before being befriended by Anne and Margot. (When Beymer’s brief stint as male ingenue was finished in Hollywood, he continued to find regular work in television, notably on the quirky cult series Twin Peaks.)

Petra (Winters) and Peter (Beymer)

Margot (Baker) and Anne (Perkins)

Veteran character actor Lou Jacobi (Irma La Douce) lends strong support as the tense and high-strung Mr. Van Daan, whose appetites for chain smoking and overeating cause tension in the attic household of strangers. Douglas Spencer and Dody Heath, as Kraler and Miep, are properly stalwart as the brave accomplices who stash them in the annex and share their guilty secret, bringing food and news, and hope.

Fans of fine acting and stories based upon real-life events will enjoy both the epic sweep and intimate storytelling of Diary of Anne Frank. Filmed in moody black and white, and eliciting both tears and laughter, this timeless story continues to provoke thought about the complexity of the human condition and whether peace and understanding can ever really be achieved. “In spite of everything,” wrote young Anne, “I still believe people are good at heart.”

Thanks so much to the lovely Realweegiemidget Reviews and Poppity Talks Classic Film for hosting the Shelley Winters Blogathon. I look forward to reading all the posts on one of our greatest classic stars!

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Very Gay Aussie Adventure

Now that homosexuality, gender fluidity and the art of drag are ubiquitous in mainstream entertainment and popular culture—witness the success of TV phenomena from RuPaul’s Drag Race to Pose— it’s hard to believe that just a short time ago, you could only find queer stories in arthouse indie films and maybe the shelves of the more adventurous Blockbuster franchises.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) is a rollickingly funny yet touching gay-themed road movie. It tells the story of three Sydney drag performers as they undertake a bumpy journey of epic proportions, from their urban coastal home through the hinterlands of the desert outback. When a voice from the past sets him on a cross-country odyssey with two friends (who can’t stand each other), a lonely drag queen named Mitzi begins a vision quest of self discovery. The trio pile into a broken down bus named Priscilla loaded with sets and costumes and set off for Alice Springs via parts unknown.

Hugo Weaving as Mitzi

Hugo Weaving (beloved to sci-fi and adventure film fans through his elegantly skilled performances in V for Vendetta, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix) is superb here, conveying complexity, humor and heart as the deeply conflicted Mitzi (aka Tick) whose surprising secret will change the course of his life.

Terence Stamp, the British-born international sex symbol of the 1960s who played opposite superstars Julie Christie (Far from the Madding Crowd) and Jane Fonda (Spirits of the Dead) nearly steals the whole film with a subtly sardonic performance as Bernadette (aka Ralph), a recently widowed transsexual. (Fans of 1980’s Superman II may or may not recognize Bernadette as the evil Zod of Krypton: “Kneel before Zod!”)

Terence Stamp as Bernadette

Bernadette’s nemesis Felicia (aka Adam) is beautifully played by Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Mildred Pierce) in a memorable breakout performance. Pearce’s Felicia manages to be hyperactive, obnoxious, flamboyantly queeny and adorable at the same time. Stripped to the waist and showing his lean musculature in several of his non-drag scenes, Pearce also provides a generous helping of eye candy.

Along the way they meet Bob the mechanic (wonderfully played by the down-to-earth Bill Hunter) and his mail order bride (a hilarious turn by Julia Cortez), and a host of other unique characters, including two important people from Mitzi’s former life.

Guy Pearce as Felicia

A balls-out, no-holds-barred celebration of outrageousness in every respect, Priscilla boldly goes where no mainstream movie of the era could. In addition to its glitzy, over-the-top fabulous protagonists, it features wonderful supporting performances by a diverse bevy of Aussie character actors. Irreverence is the order of the day here—amid the many touching moments are countless scenes of indescribable outrageousness. (Don’t even ask me to describe the significance of three ping pong balls or the souvenir excrement of a famous rock star!)

Stunning cinematography spotlights the quirky originality of Australia in this universal story of love, connection and self-acceptance. Once you’ve seen Priscilla, you’ll really feel as if you’ve been Down Under. The Australian outback setting affords viewers a glimpse of the remote and sparsely populated inland areas off the beaten path, peopled by the indigenous tribes of Aboriginal natives and what can only be described as Aussie rednecks.

A dreamy Guy Pearce out of drag—I couldn't resist!

The eclectic and wide-ranging soundtrack spans almost every imaginable genre, from Italian opera to classic standards, ’60s pop to ’70s disco, and Abba to “Hava Nagilah,”  and includes memorably lip-synced renditions of the campy “I’ve Never Been To Me” and “I Will Survive” (accompanied by a native Aborigine didgeridoo!).

There are sober moments as well that underline the prejudice and discrimination that gay people faced in 1994 (and still do in many places), including a violent gay bashing sequence and the beloved bus vandalized with the ugly message  AIDS F***KERS GO HOME (later painted over in fabulous lavender).
No camping while driving, Hugo!

Written and directed by Stephan Elliott, with Oscar-winning costumes by Lizzy Gardner and Tim Chappel, the film was transformed into a West End musical that made it to Broadway in 2011, produced by Bette Midler.

If you love Australia and are interested in a road movie with more than a twist, climb aboard and take this unforgettable journey.

Many thanks to my friend Quiggy for inviting me to join the Blizzard of Oz blogathon party—the perfect opportunity for me to celebrate Pride Month and the splendors of Australia at the same time!

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Force is Still With Us

I was 11 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977, and I found myself going back week after week to see it again and again…I think a total of 14 times that summer and fall. (Remember, this was before the advent of home video…when a movie left the theaters, it was possibly gone forever, unless it appeared on television many years later, interrupted by commercials and viewed on the very small screens of the ’70s.)

Star Wars was more than just a movie, or a trilogy, or a film series. It became part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, where it remains to this day. For kids of the 1970s and the ’80s, the first three films (Episodes IV, V and VI) of the series are especially dear.

It was the brainchild of an ambitious young filmmaker. George Lucas (American Graffiti) was close friends with Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola—some of the masters of 1970s cinema—and there was a definite rivalry and competition among them about who would “make it” and get ahead first. (Coppola hit it big first with The Godfather.) 

Archetypal: The Hero's Journey and epic struggle between Good & Evil

Star Wars would solidify Lucas as a Force to be reckoned with. For his magnum opus, Lucas was working on a modern version of the old 1930s-40s B-movie sci-fi serials like the popular Flash Gordon programmers that starred handsome Buster Crabbe in a sequin-studded space suit.

So much more than an entertaining space opera, Star Wars created a worldwide, generation-spanning phenomenon. Lucas’s vision spawned not only beloved unforgettable characters but an entire imaginary universe, an entire human-extraterrestrial history and cosmology, and a philosophy that is literally practiced as a religion by a small percentage of earth’s population. 

With Star Wars, George Lucas continued the establishment of a sci-fi multiverse envisioned by 20th century sci-fi writers and futurists including writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and producer Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek).

The Star Wars saga touches upon and recalls so many elements of philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell’s work on the The Power of Myth, exemplifying his Hero’s Journey narrative and archetypes—the storytelling elements that create “universal appeal”

Indeed, when first released, Star Wars was likened to a futuristic Wizard of Oz—on some of the 1977 movie posters you can even find find homages to a a space-age Dorothy, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. 

Multidimensional aspects of the storytelling point to a time-bending multiverse by associating sci-fi themes with the traditional “once upon a time” fairy tale preamble: “A long, long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Artoo and Threepio: As emotional and flawed as their human counterparts

Technology and robotics figure prominently in the George Lucas galactic weltenschaung.  What makes the treatment different here are that the robots—called ’droids in Lucas’s world— are even more emotional than the humans….C3P0 in particular frets and worries and bemoans the fate of their unending servitude and the vicissitudes of life in general. “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life,” he wails, even as he and R2 faithfully and loyally serve their human masters.  The fiercely loyal, cagey and versatile R2D2 (who plugs into any system) has a one-track mind to fulfill whatever mission he is programmed with, but he does have a total devotion to his masters, particularly Luke Skywalker. 

The ‘droids also serve an important role in the unfolding of the saga, serving as a Greek chorus by commentating on the action as well as giving background exposition when necessary. 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Despite their endless scientific and empirical knowledge and AI, Lucas’s ’droids prove statistics are not the keys to peace and serenity. Indeed, these robot characters display fears, issues and imperfect personality traits as pronounced as those of the humanoid heroes. 

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Of course, in addition to the pyrotechnics, pioneering special effects that heralded the birth of CGI (Lucas also fathered Industrial Light & Magic), were iconic performances by an ensemble of actors whose characterizations brought those old archetypes to life in a new and unique way. (And of course, we may forget, even the robots and space creatures are enacted by talented humans as well.)

Mark Hamill (Corvette Summer, The Last Jedi) is Luke Skywalker, the young protagonist with whom we embark on this epic hero’s journey. Lovers of the original trilogy will notice that Hamill’s physical appearance changes markedly after the first film. A serious car accident between filming of the first and second films required extensive reconstructive surgery. So, for Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wrote in an attack from a wampa (that looked much like the abominable snowman in the Rankin-Bass claymation Christmas classics) in which Luke was uncharacteristically bloodied. 

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford is the laconic mercenary Han Solo, desperately trying to hide his sensitivity and heart of gold under a layer of machismo. Throughout the 1980s, Harrison Ford played a number of heroic characters, most notably the title role in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Later in the decade, director Mike Nichols would bring out Ford’s vulnerable and romantic and human sides as the actor gave unforgettable performances in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry. But Ford’s bread-and-butter roles would always be as action hero. 

Darth Vader, portrayed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones

Carrie Fisher (Shampoo, Hannah and Her Sisters) is the fearless and canny Princess Leia, one of the architects of the rebel alliance against the evil Empire.  Not content to rest on her laurels as an iconic sex symbol and action figure, Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was a true artistic renaissance woman—a brilliant novelist and Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, who parlayed her unusual upbringing (a Hollywood soap opera in itself) into acerbic comic gold in the book and film of her autobiographical roman a clef Postcards from the Edge. Fisher’s untimely death at age 60 cut short her later missions as General Leia in the continuation of the saga, though of course she did appear in both The Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness (Bridge on the River Kwai, Murder By Death) lends acting gravitasse as the wise old Jedi Master Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi. Peter Mayhew, without a single line of dialogue but an expressive and emotive animal-instinct style of communication, is the brave, skilled and loving wookie Chewbacca. 

Peter Cushing (Dracula AD 1972, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), American International horror star of the 1960s beside cohort Christopher Lee (who would join the Star Wars franchise in the 1990s-2000s with parts I, II and III), is the deliciously diabolical Grand Moff Tarkin with his clipped posh British delivery (so powerful that newcomer Fisher found herself falling into a faux British accent herself in her scenes with Cushing, which she ruefully and humorously admits on the video commentary.)  

James Earl Jones (Sounder, The Great White Hope) provides the sonorous voice that gave life to one of the cinema’s most elegant villains (as well as the tagline of global cable news network CNN!), the dark Jedi Knight Darth Vader— a wounded human bolstered by AI and robotics, the labored breath of the human still heard within his bionic, computer-aided mobility…the mind of a Jedi Master in sinister service to the Dark Side.

Peter Mayhew as Chewy

Frank Oz gives life to Yoda
A golden, electronic version of  the Tin Man of Oz, Anthony Daniels frets and worries as the neurotic Cyborg Relations ’droid—with adventures ranging from having his golden casings blown to bits by storm troopers and put back together by Chewbacca, to being worshipped by the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, by virtue of his shiny gold visage, bright flashing eyes and ability to communicate in their language.

Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer behind Muppet superstars Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, brings to life the character of the wise, deep and wizened Jedi teacher Yoda, who speaks in with Socratic solemnity in a cute purring baby-voice. 

The costume that ignited many an adolescent hormone

Empire introduced the debonair Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, Lady Sings the Blues) in the character of Lando Calrissian (played by Donald Glover in the recent prequel Solo), who joins the existing ensemble, continuing through Return of the Jedi.

In 1977 the original Star Wars film broke all attendance records and became the highest grossing film of all time. Today, it is #2 on’s list of Top 100 All-Time Films (domestic gross, adjusted for inflation, as of January 2019) between Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music. (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also made the Top 20, along with 1999’s Phantom Menace and 2015’s Force Awakens.)

The rousing score by John Williams (The Poseidon Adventure, Schindler’s List), with a theme even more recognizable than the ones for The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, adds immeasurably to the Star Wars iconography. 

Luke, Ben, R2D2 and C3P0
In the 1990s, as the home video market boomed and Lucas planned the next three chapters of the story to unfold on the big screen, (actually the prequel to parts IV, V and VI), he revamped and remastered and reworked entire sequences to the original trilogy of films, adding CGI effects as well as actors and characters and creatures from the upcoming parts I, II and III, in order to tie the series together and create continuity. Most millennial viewers are unaware of the renovation of these first three films, and indeed, copies of those original cuts are exceedingly rare. 

It is quite an amazing feat to give birth to a new version of reality...a story to which practically everyone on the planet can relate. For me, the original Star Wars trilogy is epic storytelling at its creative zenith. May the Force continue to be with us!

This is an entry in the Robots in Film Blogathon hosted by The Midnight Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. I look forward to reading the other entries and exploring new blog worlds and galaxies!