How I Met Frank Langella

Frank Langella at the Virginia Film Festival

Frank Langella (right) at the Virginia Film Festival

This November marked my eleventh year serving as a volunteer usher at the Virginia Film Festival. Although I’ve enjoyed my time working for the festival, meeting other volunteers, and seeing some extraordinary films that I wouldn’t had otherwise seen, I had never met one of the festival’s special celebrity guests. This year was different.

My volunteer shift included a screening of Frost/Nixon, which explores the making of the 1977 television interviews between British television host David Frost and President Richard Nixon. In the film, Nixon is played by actor Frank Langella in an Oscar-nominated performance. I had seen Frost/Nixon when it was first released in 2008 and really enjoyed it.

The festival screening of Frost/Nixon would be followed by a question-and-answer session with Frank Langella. My venue manager asked if I would welcome Langella when he arrived and make sure he was comfortable until the Q&A started.

You never know what a famous person will be like when you meet him or her in real life. I had seen many Frank Langella films, for which he’s primarily known for playing villains, and had even read his memoir, Dropped Names, which is fun and kind of catty. So, I didn’t know what to expect from Langella in person.

When he entered the lobby with his friend and a festival driver, he was a tall, imposing figure in very elegant, casual clothes and what I call a “newsy” cap. He immediately approached me and shook my hand. He face took on a concerned look, as he looked me in the eyes, and he began to apologize. He thought he was running late, but that actually wasn’t the case at all.

As he settled in to await the film’s conclusion, he revealed himself to be a kind and gracious person, asking about the audience, the moderator, and the organization sponsoring the film (where I work).

During the Q&A itself, Langella was passionate, funny, and gracious toward the audience’s questions, especially the those of students.

Frank Langella in the 1979 film, Dracula

Frank Langella in the 1979 film, Dracula

About a week later, I caught Dracula, the 1979 film in which Langella plays the title character. Amidst the dated presentation (but cool production design), he brought a certain elegance and humanness to the character and to the movie as a whole.


When Weeds Went Tarantino

I’ve been binge-watching the Showtime series Weeds over the past few years. I’m up to season six of this bizarre yet entertaining show about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning performance), a widow who becomes a drug dealer to keep her family afloat. Spoiler alert: The show’s sixth season finds Nancy, her two teenage sons (Silas and Shane), and her brother-in-law (Andy) on the run after Shane has killed the publicist of Nancy’s drug-kingpin husband, Esteban. This season’s criminal plot element and this particular episode (“A Shoe for a Shoe”) have underscored some interesting (possibly intentional?) connections with director Quentin Tarantino.

In an act of retaliation, Shane has been kidnapped by Esteban’s henchmen. In an effort to find Shane, Nancy shoots one of the henchmen, Cesar, with a crossbow in a skee-ball hall of fame museum. In its size and emptiness, the museum resembles the abandoned warehouse in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In Dogs, criminal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) ties up and tortures a police officer in the warehouse. Elsewhere in the film, criminals Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) hold guns on each other. Keitel is standing up, while Buscemi is lying down; this is the same formation as Nancy (standing with a weapon) and Cesar (lying down but without a weapon).

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

The Weeds director, Michael Trim, also seems to mirror Reservoir Dog’s famous truck shot, in which we see three of the criminals open a car trunk from the point of view of the cop inside the trunk. Tarantino, who proudly and frequently borrows from other films, also uses trunk shots in his work, including in Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds. In the Weeds episode, we see Nancy open her trunk from the point of view of the crossbow she has stored in there. These trunk shot also seem to pay homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and has become pretty standard in other films and television shows, including Breaking Bad’s final season.

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

Much of the episode takes place in a diner, another consistent setting throughout many of Tarantino’s films.

The Weeds episode even has a reference to its fellow Showtime series, Dexter, when Silas talks about becoming “a serial killer who kills serial killers.”


Why I’m Excited About The Judge Even If It Ends Up Being a Mediocre Movie

The-Judge-2014-Movie-Poster-WallpaperSlate staff writer Aisha Harris has written a very perceptive article about Denzel Washington’s career trajectory, which for the last few years, has mostly consisted of bad action flicks. His latest is The Equalizer; not only did Entertainment Weekly give it a “D” grade in its review, but it was the number-one movie at the box office this weekend. In her Slate article, Harris wonders where is the Denzel of Malcolm X, Glory, Training Day, and Flight, all for which he either won or was nominated for an Oscar.

Lately, I’ve been asking the same sorts of questions about one of my favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. His latest film, The Judge, opens next month. In it, Downey plays a variation of his real-life, Tony Stark persona: cocky but through circumstances, gets knocked down a few notches and needs to build himself up again. In The Judge, Downey might be playing another version of Tony Stark yet again, but at least he’s not actually playing Iron Man this time. Granted, he does a wonderful job as Iron Man, breaking the mold of how a superhero should be and who should play him. That role and Sherlock Holmes has led him to a surprising career resurgence, culminating in being named the world’s highest-paying actor. Who could have guessed 10 or 15 years ago that was what his future would be? Who could have guessed that, even when he was at his critical career peak in the 80s and 90s (think Less Than Zero and Chaplin)? Although the early buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival about The Judge is less than great, the film will hopefully resurrect a Downey that isn’t afraid to try different roles. After all, coloring outside the lines is what he does best.

Here’s a recent profile about Robert Downey Jr. in the October 2014 issue of Vanity Fair.


Brief Encounter Part 5

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter is an exploration of the repression of the British middle class. Words that keep coming up in dialogue between Laura and other characters as well as in Laura’s voiceover include “ordinary,” “uncomplicated,” and “sensible,” which emphasizes the normalcy and boredom of Laura’s everyday routine. Director David Lean’s use of actual locations and actress Celia Johnson’s natural appearance and acting style add to the cinematic realism of some of the scenes; scenes, such as in the rowboat, look as if they could be taken straight from a home movie, which also adds a level of nostalgic romanticism. And Laura’s life seems to be mundane until Alec enters the picture and disrupts her routine and repressed emotions.

Albert and Myrtle are the comic, working class foils to Alec and Laura. Albert and Myrtle’s earthier, more overt expressions of affection directly contrast Alec and Laura’s more subtle, repressed romance. In addition to adding humor to an otherwise serious movie, it seems that Lean and Coward are also advocating Albert and Myrtle’s outlook.

Before its official release, Brief Encounter had a bad preview in front of a working class audience; the audience members just couldn’t understand Laura and Alec’s repression, and some shouted at the screen for them to go ahead and kiss. (For more discussion about working class reaction to the film, see Neel14’s astute comment of my previous blog post, “Brief Encounter Part 2”.) Lean took this rejection personally and subsequently considered the film a failure. History has shown us otherwise.


Brief Encounter Part 4

sheet musicBrief Encounter screenwriter Noel Coward chose Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2″ for the film’s soundtrack. The piece experienced a surge in popularity after the film’s release.

The concerto not only provides actual ambient music from the living room radio during Laura’s flashbacks but also punctuates the flashbacks. This was groundbreaking use of classical music in a non-musical setting as a dramatic device. It was also groundbreaking in that the film uses the music as more that just unobtrusive background music; it actually becomes part of the viewer’s primary level of consciousness, signaling (alongside the flashback structure) that what we are seeing is through Laura’s eyes. The music as a window into Laura’s soul is further emphasized by the fact that although the concerto was written by a man and chosen for the film by a man, it is played on the soundtrack by a female pianist named Eileen Joyce.


Brief Encounter Part 3

Laura on trainAlthough made by a male director and a male screenwriter, Brief Encounter includes a groundbreaking use of flashbacks as a way to access a woman’s psyche, a new experience for audiences in 1945. Brief Encounter’s flashbacks don’t distance the viewer as in other films but rather bring the viewer into Laura’s mind completely. This component makes the film especially meaningful for women, although there are some instances where Laura’s narrative reliability could be questioned, especially when she possibly overestimates how much other people, especially authority figures, suspect her.

However, there is one scene in Brief Encounter that is a logical flaw in relation to how flashbacks should work. It’s the scene between Alec and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Lynch, whose flat Alec wants to use to be with Laura. When Stephen arrives unexpectedly, Laura leaves through the service exit and therefore, can’t know what Alec and Stephen say after she leaves. All other scenes up to this point have been in her presence.

Next to be discussed will be Brief Encounter’s music, which is very connected to the use of flashbacks. 


Brief Encounter Part 2

This is the second part of a five-part series on Brief Encounter.

Brief Encounter on set

Celia Johnson, David Lean, and Trevor Howard on the set of Brief Encounter

I’m always been fascinated by the different personalities involved in film projects, and Brief Encounter is no exception.

David Lean, the director of Brief Encounter, started his career as an editor in the first sound films. Brief Encounter, an early work, is where he first uses elements (some of which will be explored in future posts) that would show up in his later, more mature works. As previously mentioned in my most recent post, while Lean’s career was on the way up toward the Hollywood epics for which he would become famous, Brief Encounter playwright and screenwriter Noel Coward’s career was on the way down toward a nightly Vegas act. A 2002 British Film Institute Sight and Sound poll, which asked film directors to rank other directors, named him the ninth greatest film director of all time. Lean was nominated for the Best Director Oscar seven times, including for Brief Encounter, and won for Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Coward created the part of Laura specifically for British film and stage actress Celia Johnson. She had performed in previous Lean films (as well as in other roles on the stage and screen), but “Laura” would become her most famous role. In addition to being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Brief Encounter, she won BAFTAs (the British Oscar) for her work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a TV production of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. She would reunite with her Brief Encounter co-star Trevor Howard for a 1979 television movie.

The unknown Trevor Howard (Alec) was cast in Brief Encounter after Lean saw him in a small role in another film. Howard had a long career, which included The Third Man, co-starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles and directed by Carol Reed. He won a BAFTA for his performance in The Key and was nominated for an Oscar before becoming more well-known as a character actor (Superman, Ghandi).

Brief Encounter marked Stanley Holloway’s first major screen role, although he had smaller roles in previous Lean pictures and was a popular comic stage performer. Portraying the working-class train conductor in this film, Holloway was mostly known for Cockney roles, even though he was born into a middle class family. Movie buffs best know him as Eliza Doolittle’s father (a Tony- and Oscar-nominated role) in the Broadway, West End, and film versions of My Fair Lady.

My next blog post in this series will concentrate on Lean’s use of flashbacks in Brief Encounter.


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