Sunday, November 28, 2010

Arthur Penn & Tony Curtis...

Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis died one day apart - on Tuesday, September 28 and Wednesday, September 29, respectively. But, while they were roughly the same age, they were from entirely different eras in filmmaking as this New York Times article illumines.

New York Times
October 2, 2010
How Arthur Penn Undid Tony Curtis

ON Tuesday, the director Arthur Penn died in New York City, the day after his 88th birthday.

On Wednesday, the actor Tony Curtis died in his home near Las Vegas. He was 85.

By conventional standards, these two important contributors to the American motion picture would be considered members of the same generation. Born in the 1920s, they were both sons of immigrants, and grew up in hardscrabble environments — Mr. Curtis in the Bronx, and Mr. Penn in a peripatetic childhood divided among New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

But in Hollywood terms, they stood on two sides of a great divide, between Old Hollywood and New. Mr. Curtis belonged to the last generation of stars discovered and developed under the studio system. Signed by Universal in 1948, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz and began working his way up from bit roles in small films, allowing the studio to shape his image and manage his appearances in the fan magazines.

Mr. Penn came to movies late and reluctantly, after beginning his career in New York theater and live television. Hollywood remained an alien environment, a factory of empty escapism that he hoped to redeem by introducing Method acting and significant social themes.

For his part, Mr. Curtis was a happy camper, gamely working his way through whatever costume dramas and light comedies the studio assigned to him. In 1957, however, he broke away to make an independent film, “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which his performance as an eager-to-please press agent demonstrated true skill and led to his being cast in “The Defiant Ones,” a social allegory that spoke to the growing civil rights movement and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.

But he was soon back to comedies and light dramas, where his good looks were an asset rather than a distraction.

In the meantime, Mr. Penn was eagerly absorbing the lessons of the European New Wave directors, with their insistence on formal experimentation, sexual frankness and themes of alienation and revolt. Mr. Penn made the highly Europeanized art house movie “Mickey One” with the actor Warren Beatty, and when François Truffaut decided against directing Mr. Beatty’s first project as a producer, the gangster film “Bonnie and Clyde,” Mr. Beatty lured Mr. Penn with promises of autonomy and the rare privilege of the final cut.

Released in the summer of 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” developed into a bona fide success, supported by critics and audiences alike. It was as if Hollywood had given birth to a European art film, and its combination of sex, violence and anomie was thrillingly unlike almost anything American audiences had seen before.

Earlier in 1967, Mr. Curtis reunited with the director of “Sweet Smell of Success,” Alexander Mackendrick, to appear in the gently farcical “Don’t Make Waves.” Mr. Curtis played a New York tourist who wakes up on Malibu Beach to find himself surrounded by surfers, skydivers and diverse representatives of the rapidly emerging counterculture. By the end of 1967, “Don’t Make Waves” seemed like a quaint relic, and Mr. Curtis’s career as a leading man (despite the daring comeback attempt of “The Boston Strangler” in 1968) was effectively over.

Change does not happen overnight, even in an industry as volatile as motion pictures, and for a few more years the two Hollywoods continued to exist side by side. The years 1966 and 1967 also saw the release of Howard Hawks’s last great Western, “El Dorado,” starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and Charles Chaplin’s last film, “A Countess from Hong Kong,” in which the legendary silent comedian unsuccessfully attempted to graft his genius onto Marlon Brando.

“Bonnie and Clyde” did not destroy Tony Curtis, but it did pull the rug from under him: the calculating company man, the eager assimilationist, the striving outsider — all aspects of his screen personality that filmgoers of the ’50s and early ’60s found appealing were suddenly in doubt, subsumed by Clyde Barrow’s nihilistic hedonism and the quivering sensitivity of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.”

Today, even that period seems remote: The paternalistic producers of Old Hollywood have disappeared, but in their place are the marketing executives of the new — probably not what Arthur Penn had in mind when he struck his first blow for cinematic freedom. Even in the dream factory, be careful what you wish for.