Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week
One Manhattan night in 1969, Orson Welles and I had dinner at Frankie and Johnnie’s Restaurant with Norman Mailer, whom Welles had just met on a talk show, and as soon as we sat down, Mr. Mailer asked about a particularly memorable shot in Orson’s famous and infamous first film, that still-amazing 1941 explosion of genius, Citizen Kane [Wednesday, May 6, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 8 P.M.] . Welles groaned slightly, saying, “Oh, Norman, not Citizen Kane …” Mailer looked surprised for a moment and then, with a tiny smile of recognition, connected this to his own first novel, “Mmm, yeah-it’s like me and The Naked and the Dead .” Welles nodded, laughing loudly: two American artists acknowledging the terrible stigmatic burden of early success and how it had often been used against them.
The celebrated Broadway entrepreneur Billy Rose had immediately recognized this with Welles; right after seeing Kane he had told Orson, who had been an unbelievable 25 when he directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in the movie: “Quit, kid-you’ll never top it.” Indeed, throughout the rest of his life, Welles would read or hear that tired line of attack: “What did he ever do after Citizen Kane ?” The painful irony here is that although Kane initially received nearly unanimous critical praise, the film was blacklisted by the Hearst Corporation newspaper chain because it was partially based on press lord William Randolph Hearst’s life. The movie received poor distribution therefore and was by no means a financial winner. It really wasn’t until the late 50’s and early 60’s that the picture began to gather the kind of immortal legend of priceless quality it now carries, internationally acknowledged as either the best film ever made, or certainly high among the 10 best of all time.
Generally, the work was used as a truncheon to beat up Welles, even after many simultaneous attempts to take as much credit as possible away from him: Photographic marvel Gregg Toland really did all those striking compositions, old-time screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz really wrote it, and numerous other mistaken, envious efforts to reduce the monumental weight of Welles’ achievement. All right then, who acted the title role? Perhaps this was all some trick of mirrors, too, and it isn’t really Welles giving one of the most astoundingly complex and layered performances-from youth to old age-ever captured on film. An awful aspect of human nature: how true greatness seems to humiliate and threaten the vast mediocrity of most work in any medium.
Of course, the most subversive aspect of Citizen Kane , in 1941 and now-because it is still relevant thematically and still devastating in its implications-is the dark light it throws on fame, success, wealth and the heritage of plutocracy. Imagine how its negativity seemed to an American establishment about to enter World War II; its uncompromising picture of loneliness at the top is absolutely without any feature of redemption or spiritual survival. Impossible to think of an American film as essentially bleak in outlook, and yet the exhilarating freshness of its pace, wit, construction and directorial style create a kind of optimistic counterpoint, as if to say that only through the poetry of art can we hope to survive.
What Welles did to the monied privileged class in Citizen Kane , he took to a more emotional level with the upper-middle-class Midwestern family of his second film, the equally audacious 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons [Wednesday, May 6, TCM, 82, 10:30 P.M.] . This picture, however, coming on the heels of Kane ‘s financial failure, was savagely truncated by RKO Radio Pictures, with almost the entire ending dumped and reshot by others. That it manages still to survive as a damaged but deeply disturbing and beautiful work, often also listed internationally as among the 10 finest films ever made, only increases the terrible sense of loss one feels that the original can never be seen. The first hour-plus of Ambersons , with certain omissions that are not crippling, shows the unique fluidity of the picture’s portrait of an America now gone forever, destroyed essentially by the coming of the automobile, but the final 20 minutes is barely a ghost of what Welles had made. Nevertheless, I just saw it again recently and was overwhelmed by the profound impact the movie supplies to a sensitive viewing.
On May 6, Orson Welles would have been 83-he died in 1985 at age 70-and Turner Classic Movies is to be hugely commended for celebrating his filmmaking career on this day by showing four of his pictures, the two masterpieces above, as well as his brilliantly nightmarish 1963 adaptation (highly recommended here last week) of Franz Kafka’s The Trial [Wednesday, May 6, TCM, 82, 2:30 A.M.] . Plus the one movie Welles directed in Hollywood that was a financial success, his 1946 thriller-the first movie he was allowed to make after Kane and Ambersons -starring Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson and himself as a former Nazi hiding out in a small New England town, The Stranger [Wednesday, May 6, TCM, 82,12:30 A.M.] . It is also the least of all of his directorial efforts, but still pretty damn good, if only as an example of the kind of work he could have continued to do within the system if he had not been the restlessly iconoclastic and innovative artist he was, who, however sullied his acting career became, remained true behind the camera to his tragic, darkly poetic vision of life.
Wednesday, May 6
On the air for over a year, Hardball With Chris Matthews is the second-highest-rated show on CNBC, gaining on Geraldo . Today, Mr. Matthews takes on Bill Clinton in a town hall meeting from the University of Arkansas Law School in Little Rock. “I think it’s pretty good TV,” said Mr. Matthews. “You can see grandly the people who are so local in their loyalty that it’s gotten to be all fight and no cause … This is about the President of the United States. If Nixon got caught, The Times would have said he’s sick. He’d have been taken away in a straitjacket. You’ve got three approaches: the Frank Rich and Charles Grodin approach- I don’t know, but who cares ; the Sid Blumenthal cloud nine approach- I don’t know nothin’ ; and the third group who believe what their eyes show them, that he’s never told anyone that it didn’t happen. But I think he really does, in some incredibly torturous way, try to tell the truth in a constant effort to avoid having to lie. It’s like he knows there’s one of those A.T.M. machine cameras running.”…
Like Mr. Blumenthal and David Gergen, Mr. Matthews is one of these guys who has split his career between politics and journalism, having served as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, a spokesman for Tip O’Neill and the Washington bureau chief for The San Francisco Examiner .…
He thinks pretty highly of his TV show: “You don’t need to slow everything down to the Sesame Street level, with blown-up New York Times letters. Capra proved this when he realized you can speak quickly in movies, and people will hear everything they need to hear … I think my show is the future, I think it’s Frank Capra-he was right. McLaughlin’s great strength was his speed-people really do have a very short attention span. I can’t watch shows like Face the Nation .”…
Tonight, Mr. Matthews talks to old roommates, friends, supporters and detractors of Mr. Clinton, including Robert Reich, Doug Eakeley and Michael Medved. [CNBC, 15, 8 P.M.]
Thursday, May 7
In this penultimate episode, Seinfeld rips off a plot line from an early episode one last time: Jerry and the gang all get stuck in traffic. Kinda like the 1992 show in which Jerry and the gang all ended up having different adventures on the subway-only this time, they’re in cars. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Friday, May 8
At the end of Tad Low’s and Woody Thompson’s VH1 cash cow, Pop-Up Video , a phone number flashes on screen for the Pop Line (212-846-2POP). If you dial it, a machine picks up and a voice asks for “juicy behind-the-scene stories about stars or videos.” It is the job of Pop-Up interns to listen to the hours of taped messages and follow up on possible leads. This used to be Starlee Kine’s job, but she has since been promoted to research assistant. Ms. Kine told NYTV that the roughly 30 calls Pop-Up receives a day (mostly from people outside New York City) fit into a few general categories: people who want jobs, people who are crazy and people who love Hanson. Like? “A guy who called and sang the entire Backstreet Boys album, he was 15 … A woman who wanted us to come and pick her up so she could meet Mariah Carey … A porn star from California who said she taped the Fiona Apple video and watches it over and over and is feeling depressed … A man calls drunk like once a day and yells at us that he wants people to shave their arms and stuff in the videos. It’s really depressing, actually,” said Ms. Kine. “The little girls are more level-headed. They just want us to know that they love Hanson. In one video you can see Taylor’s boxer shorts, and they all call up and say, ‘You can see his boxer shorts!’ Tons of people call for jobs. They’ll give a fact and then stick in a job pitch-‘I have an empty brain full of nonsense-I’m full of useless information!’ A physician called to say Fiona Apple came to him at Lilith Fair with a foot fungus. He said, ‘If you notice, she does have bunions. I saw her at the music awards in bare feet, so I’m speculating …'” See 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant, the Go-Go’s and more get popped. [VH1, 19, 4:30 P.M.]
Saturday, May 9
Bobby Van Ry has been the stage manager at Saturday Night Live for the last 23 years. He’s done his job, making sure the sets are moved and put up in the right place, for 433 out of 445 shows. He says there have been no major disasters in over two decades except “a few times people will sneak onto the sets after we’ve cued the action.” …
Mr. Van Ry’s job includes working with the host and cueing the scenes, but he says he doesn’t get nervous. He said the only time he got nervous was the time he had a chance to yell, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night ,” and was cut out of the show just before air time. “I was a wreck for two days at home, wondering if my voice would crack or something,” said Mr. Van Ry. In the 23 years Mr. Van Ry has worked on the show, he’s only been to one wrap party.…
Tonight, it’s the season finale, with David Duchovny, Puff Daddy, Jimmy Page and lots more Viagra jokes. P.S. A note to the writers: If you air one more sketch that’s a parody of a talk show, we’re going to have to put the hurt on you. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]
Sunday, May 10
Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin meet cute and fall in love very convincingly over the very nice first 45 minutes of Prelude to a Kiss (1992). Then Meg Ryan kisses an old geezer and she and the old geezer switch souls , and the movie kind of goes downhill, but it’s not a bad thing to watch on TV in the middle of the night if you’re feeling incredibly depressed. Best scene: in the fern bar, when Alec Baldwin looks at the old geezer and realizes Meg Ryan is trapped inside. [TNT, 3, midnight.]
Monday, May 11
“Jerry Seinfeld: Master of His Domain” on tonight’s edition of Biography . His thrilling upbringing in Massapequa, L.I. His college days. His hard times as a light bulb salesman. His budding stand-up career. His appearances on Benson . His own show. Don’t worry-they’ll find a way to fill the hour. [A&E, 14, 8 P.M.]
Tuesday, May 12
Fourteen-year-old high school freshman Taran Smith has grown up in front of the camera playing Mark, Tim Allen’s youngest son on Home Improvement . For the show’s seventh season, the writers have begun to unearth Mark’s angry adolescent side. In two weeks, Mark’s even going to shave his head, causing Tim Allen to cancel his trip to outer space. Young Mr. Smith says he loves being a child actor, but what he really wants to do is, you got it, direct. “At first it was fun because I was playing something different,” he said, “but over a while it got tired and old and the fans weren’t really liking it. I think it was time to change the character a little bit, but it doesn’t last that long. I mean, I went through a two- or three-month phase in my life when I started wearing only black, but it didn’t last …”…
He started acting at six months and did commercials until he was 7. “It’s always been my decision,” he said. “My mom has always given me the option of getting out and going back to being a regular kid, but I really do love it.” He said he’s going to stop acting after the show ends next season, finish high school and go to New York University. Seen any good movies lately? “The only movie I’ve seen lately is Titanic . I saw it twice and missed it both times.” What? “Well, I was with my girlfriend …” Hey, hey, now we getcha. [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]