September 29, 2010

Tony Curtis obit

Born into a family of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the US, Bernard Schwartz – the boy who became the actor Tony Curtis – could scarcely have dreamed of the wealth, fame and rollercoaster life that awaited him. Curtis, who has died aged 85, starred in several of the best films of the 1950s, including Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and Some Like It Hot (1959). He enjoyed a long career thanks to his toughness and resilience (despite insecurities that demanded years of therapy).

He grew up in the Bronx, New York, the eldest of three sons. As a child, he was ill-treated by his mother, Helen, and spent time in an orphanage. One of his brothers, Robert, was a schizophrenic and the other, Julius, was killed in a traffic accident when Tony was 12. At school he became a member of a gang involved in petty crime, but he escaped into the Scouts. He endured poverty and the Depression and, in 1943, joined the US navy, serving as a signalman in the second world war.

He emerged, aged 20, into a world of opportunities – the first being postwar government funding for GIs to train for a career. He decided on acting (his father, Emanuel, had been an actor before becoming a tailor) and entered the Dramatic Workshop in New York. He took the lead in a Greenwich Village revival of Golden Boy, written by Clifford Odets, and was spotted by a studio talent scout and offered a contract by Universal. He first chose Anthony Adverse as his professional name, inspired by the eponymous hero of a novel by Hervey Allen. A casting director persuaded him otherwise, so he kept "Anthony" and added "Curtis", anglicising a common Hungarian surname.

Like the far grander MGM, or the Rank Organisation's "charm school" in the UK, Universal had a policy of training promising talent. The prerequisites were good looks and ambition. Curtis had both in abundance. He made his uncredited film debut in Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949), as a gigolo who dances with Yvonne de Carlo, watched by the male lead, Burt Lancaster, who later played a significant part in Curtis's career.

After this 30-second screen exposure, he notched up 10 appearances in two years, including the westerns Sierra and Winchester 73 (both 1950). He later said that the performances were "guided by testosterone, not talent". He and the other Universal proteges, including Rock Hudson, were trained in acting, fencing, riding and dancing. By 1951 he was considered ready for the lead in a swashbuckler, The Prince Who Was a Thief, and was married to the starlet Janet Leigh, who later appeared alongside him in films including The Vikings (1958).

Curtis went on to star in a slew of second-grade movies, such as Son of Ali Baba (1952) and Houdini (1953). His big break into A-features came when Lancaster chose him as his co-star in Trapeze (1956). They made a convincing pair of high flyers, and the glossy movie, directed by Carol Reed, was an international hit.

After playing the lead in Blake Edwards's Mister Cory (1957), Curtis joined Lancaster again in Sweet Smell of Success, produced by Lancaster's company. A superb screenplay, co-written by Odets, was the launchpad for Alexander Mackendrick's vividly achieved portrait of obsession and betrayal. Lancaster played the reptilian, all-powerful, New York columnist besotted with his sister. Curtis was Sidney Falco, an unprincipled press agent in thrall to (and fear of) the man who could make him king of the jungle, and willing to sell his pride and soul for the title. It gave Curtis the reviews and credibility for which he had yearned.

Routine movies followed until The Defiant Ones gave him his first and only Oscar nomination, for best actor. This modestly liberal story – an archetypal Stanley Kramer film – proved important for Curtis, who insisted that his black co-star Sidney Poitier share top billing. It was significant as a commercially successful film, making a plea for racial tolerance, directed and acted with force and integrity. Although he did not get the Oscar (which went to David Niven for Separate Tables), Curtis was soon to receive a greater prize – the second great movie of his career, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot.

Appearing alongside Jack Lemmon and – less happily – a difficult Marilyn Monroe, Curtis enjoyed three sublime manifestations in the film. First, as one of two jazz musicians who flee from gangsters after witnessing the St Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago in 1929. Second, in drag as a member of the all-girl band which provides his camouflage. And last as a fake oil millionaire – out to seduce Marilyn – played as a wonderful homage to Cary Grant. "Marilyn was an enigma," he later said. "She was very difficult to read. Marilyn and I were lovers in 1949, 1950, 1951 ... It was an important relationship for me."

After this movie, Curtis's career declined in quality, if not quantity. Edwards capitalised on his two best roles and cast him opposite his hero Grant in the bright and funny Operation Petticoat (1959), where he played a jokey variation of Sidney Falco. The following year he was in heady if duller company in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, playing Antoninus, the handsome slave who flees from the overtures of his master, Laurence Olivier.

He then made two films with the director Robert Mulligan – The Rat Race (1960) and The Great Impostor (1961) – and starred in The Outsider (1961) as Ira Hayes, the Native American hero of the battle of Iwo Jima during the second world war. As Curtis's career progressed, his marriage to Leigh – who had sacrificed her work for him and their children, Jamie Lee and Kelly – began to disintegrate. They divorced in 1962, and the following year he married the actor Christine Kaufmann, with whom he had two daughters, Alexandra and Allegra. He had some success with Jerry Lewis in the comedy Boeing Boeing (1965) and rejoined Edwards on The Great Race (1965), parodying his charismatic persona with a cocky grin and effortless charm.

He had less success with Mackendrick's Don't Make Waves (1967), a slow-burn comedy which suffered from studio interference. He then made a strenuous effort for critical acclaim with his role as the serial killer Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968), flashily directed with use of a split screen. More routine films, and a lucrative two-year stint in the television series The Persuaders (1971-72), kept him busy, as did his increased interest in his painting, art collecting and writing. He married the model Leslie Allen in 1968 (having divorced Kaufmann the year before) and dedicated his frantic, exhausting novel, Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow (1977), to her. He had two sons with Allen, Nicholas and Benjamin.

Occasional meaty parts continued to come his way, including the eponymous gangster in Lepke (1975) and the fading, impotent movie star in the lugubrious The Last Tycoon (1976). He returned to the stage in the 1979 Los Angeles run of Neil Simon's play I Ought to Be in Pictures. His best work on television was in The Scarlett O'Hara War (1980), as the producer David O Selznick, and the series Vega$ (1978-81). But he had lost his comic lightness of touch and decent parts were rare, although he relished his role as the Senator in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance (1985). He was admitted to the Betty Ford clinic for treatment for his alcohol and drug abuse, and his other 80s credits, such as Lobster Man from Mars (1989), revealed his diminishing standing.

Curtis and Allen had divorced in 1982, and he married the lawyer Lisa Deutsch in 1993. They divorced the following year. Curtis talked of quitting show business to open an art gallery in Europe. There were also rumours of a return to the stage opposite Lemmon and of a second novel. In the event, he returned to big and small screens in a desire not to earn money but to keep working. His autobiography was published in 1993, and in the mid-90s he suffered personal trauma as he underwent heart surgery and his son Nicholas died of a heroin overdose.

He married Jill VandenBerg, more than 40 years his junior, in 1998, and said he had never been happier. Curtis relished being remembered for the Mackendrick movies above all, and for his quirky cameos (often uncredited) in numerous films – not least as the "voice" in Rosemary's Baby (1968). But he remained bitter about the lack of official recognition for his best work, convinced that he lost out on an Oscar for The Defiant Ones because of his "pretty boy" image. On the occasions I met him at his London home in Chester Square, Belgravia, he was always interested in showing his work as an artist. His paintings have been exhibited in Europe and the US, at galleries including the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Curtis is survived by Jill, his daughters Jamie Lee, Kelly and Allegra (who all became actors), another daughter, Alexandra, and his son Benjamin.

September 28, 2010

Arthur Penn obit

Arthur Penn, who has died aged 88, was one of the major figures of US television, stage and film in the 1960s and 70s when the three disciplines actively encouraged experimentation, innovation and challenging subject matter. "I think the 1960s generation was a state of mind," he said, "and it's really the one I've been in since I was born." He will be best remembered for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a complex and lyrical study of violent outsiders whose lives became the stuff of myth.

The film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and based on the exploits of the bank-robbing Barrow Gang in the 1930s, became a cause celebre. It was praised and attacked for its distortion, bad taste and glorification of violence in equal measure. Newsweek's critic, Joseph Morgenstern, retracted his initial view of the film's violence, admitting that he had misread explicitness for exploitiveness. The film won two Oscars (best cinematography and best supporting actress) from a total of 10 nominations (including best picture and best director).

Penn was born in Philadelphia into a Russian-Jewish family, the younger of two sons. His brother, Irving, became a noted fashion photographer. His father was a watch repairer and engraver. By the time he was four, Penn's parents had divorced. The boys went first to New York with their mother, a nurse. When he was 14 Arthur went to live with his father in Philadelphia. It was at this time that he became fascinated by the theatre, acting in school productions and on local radio.

During the second world war, he was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to train as a rifleman, and in his spare time he set up a theatre group. It was there that Penn met Fred Coe, who was to play an important role in his professional life. Towards the end of the war, Penn spent time acting in Paris, then returned to the US to study at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He continued to stage theatre productions before heading back to Europe to study literature in Italy.

On his return to the US, he joined the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio. His first professional work, in 1951, was with NBC TV in New York as a floor manager working on The Colgate Comedy Hour. He began to write plays for television, and in 1953 Coe, who was also with NBC in New York, asked him to direct a live experimental drama series called First Person.

During the 1950s Penn also became active in the theatre. His not terribly inspired Broadway debut, The Lovers (1956), ran for only four performances. His next production, however, was a success. Two for the Seesaw (1958), starring Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft, ran for more than 700 performances. He had a Tony award-winning hit with William Gibson's The Miracle Worker (1959), the story of Helen Keller, which he had previously directed for TV. He also found success with Toys in the Attic and All the Way Home (both in 1960).

Coe produced some of Penn's stage work, and it was he who asked him to direct The Left Handed Gun (1958). This was based on Gore Vidal's television play which, rather than dealing with the outlaw Billy the Kid's notorious exploits, centred on him as a confused young man, desperately seeking love and recognition, who wreaks revenge on those who killed his boss, a kind rancher whom Billy has taken as a father figure. The film starred Paul Newman as Billy and was shot in only 23 days on an abandoned set. Warner Bros insisted on editing the film against his wishes and Penn always maintained that the treatment destroyed the rhythms of some of the scenes. Despite his reservations, it was an extraordinary debut by any standards and still resonates today, thanks to Newman's powerfully complex and touching performance.

The Left Handed Gun clearly signposted Penn's continuing preoccupations – family, father figures, the myths of American history and the contradictions they set up with reality. He was particularly interested in disillusioned outsiders in conflict with society and the law (albeit motivated more by emotion than logic), and their ensuing violence and pain, both of which were conveyed in a deeply sensuous way through the powerful performances Penn consistently drew from his actors.

His films can be seen as vividly allegorical, highlighting the traumas and conflicts of the times through which he and the nation were living. Penn openly admired the French new wave (the influence of directors such as Fran├žois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard can be seen in his use of elliptical narratives and episodic structures) and Elia Kazan.

It was not until 1962 that he made another film, with his third interpretation of The Miracle Worker. Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars for their performances and Penn received a nomination for best director. This success was short-lived, however. His Broadway productions of 1962 and 1963 flopped, and only a week or two into shooting The Train, Burt Lancaster, for undisclosed reasons, insisted that he be taken off the film. Penn was always philosophical about this: "From that point they took this $2m film and proceeded to turn it into a $7m fiasco."

In 1965 he made Mickey One, a deeply paranoid noir thriller about a nightclub comedian (Beatty) on the run from mobsters who seems to be seeking punishment for an undefined sin. This was the first film on which Penn had full creative control and, to some extent, this may have proven his downfall. The film, shot in grainy black and white, was a strange mixture of naturalism and existentialism. Penn, who described it as "an allegory of a man's trip through purgatory", also said: "I was really operating on the symbolic and metaphorical level without engagement between audience and screen." The critic Robin Wood observed that the film "gives the impression of reversing Penn's usual method of working. In the other films he starts from the particular and the concrete ... and discovers the universal by a process of exploration. In Mickey One he appears to have started from an abstract conception and tried to impose the concrete on it."

The Chase (1966) was his first film in colour and, despite its problems, was rightly regarded by many as a (near) masterpiece. It perhaps most clearly enunciates Penn's stance on violence: "America is a country where people realise their views in violent ways – we have no tradition of persuasion, idealism or legality." In the film, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) tries to protect an escaped convict, Bubber (Robert Redford), from the mob violence he has stirred up on his return to his home town.

The Chase's portrayal of small-town boredom fostering sexual philandering, racial and class hypocrisy and prejudice and random violence is deeply disturbing and often visually stunning. Penn's ability to give the feel of a wild west town, where the sheriff stands alone against lawlessness (albeit from within the town rather from outside), was impressive. Again, however, the editing was taken out of his control, which resulted in the loss of scenes in which Brando improvised his own dialogue. It has perhaps the most desolate ending of all of his films, none of which end on an optimistic note.

After two films which had been anything but commercially successful, Penn's film career looked bleak, but Beatty rescued it when he persuaded him to direct Bonnie and Clyde. Penn followed that film with Alice's Restaurant (1969), which he also co-wrote, a drama prompted by an Arlo Guthrie song. It was a highly episodic film which, for all its celebration of the protest movement and its rejection of Vietnam, racism and authoritarianism, remained pessimistic.

The Vietnam war clearly informed Penn's next – and greatest – film, Little Big Man (1970). Adapted from Thomas Berger's novel, this wildly comic, profoundly ironic and epic film recounts the memoirs of the 121-year old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who survived the massace of his family and was brought up by a Cheyenne tribe. His story is the vehicle by which the traditional history and myths of white men and Native Americans are completly subverted, along with the conventions of the western genre.

Aside from contributing a section (on pole vaulting) to Visions of Eight, a documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics, Penn took time out until he returned to cinema in 1975 with Night Moves, taking a straight genre script and rewriting it to embody the alienation of contemporary America. This deeply pessimistic film, in which one can almost touch the sense of malaise generated during the Watergate era, is as narratively elusive as any he made.

He had hardly finished Night Moves when he made another film with Brando, The Missouri Breaks (1976), which centres on the violent clashes between ranchers and rustlers in Montana in the 1880s. Brando plays the cold, hired gunman brought in to kill the rustlers; Jack Nicholson is the genial leader of one of the gangs. The film had some wonderful and eccentric moments, but opinion was divided. Penn himself was disappointed with both Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks and he returned to the theatre, directing Sly Fox (1976) and Golda (1977) on Broadway.

From his 1981 movie Four Friends onwards, his film career began to falter. Target (1985), Dead of Winter (1987), and Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989), starring the successful American magicians, suffered from mediocre scripts which clearly failed to ignite Penn's talents. He directed the television film Inside (1998), which dealt with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and in 2000 became an executive producer on Law and Order, some episodes of which his son Matthew directed. In 2002, after a break of some 20 years, he returned to the New York stage to direct Alan Bates in Fortune's Fool, an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's A Poor Gentleman, for which Bates won a Tony.

Penn's unrealised projects included an adaptation of George Orwell's Burmese Days; a film on the Attica prison riot in New York; and The Last Cowboy, dealing with the takeover of the ranges by big business agriculture. In his latter years he maintained relationships with the Actors Studio and the Berkshire theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 2007 he attended the Berlin film festival, which programmed a special tribute to his work.

In 1955 he married the actor Peggy Maurer. She survives him, along with Matthew, a daughter, Molly, and four grandchildren. Irving Penn died in 2009.

September 26, 2010

Gloria Stuart obit

When Gloria Stuart, who has died aged 100, was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar for her spirited performance in James Cameron's Titanic (1997), there were few filmgoers who remembered her earlier acting career in the 1930s. Stuart played the 101-year-old Rose (portrayed in the rest of the film by Kate Winslet), who recalls the time when she was 17 onboard the doomed liner. ("I can still smell the fresh paint," she says.)

Sixty-five years earlier, Stuart stood out as a blonde ingenue in James Whale's comedy-thriller The Old Dark House (1932), in which she wore a tight evening gown and was chased by Boris Karloff as a sinister butler. Stuart recalled how Whale told her: "When Karloff chases you through the halls, I want you to be like a flame or a dancer." She was both.

The following year, again under the direction of Whale, Stuart touchingly played Flora Cranley, the fiancee in The Invisible Man. She overcame the difficulties of acting to an empty space, until the moment when she comforts the titular hero (Claude Rains) who reappears as he dies. In the same year, Stuart was once again in an "old dark house" in Secret of the Blue Room. She was very effective as a mysterious woman who forces her three suitors to prove their bravery by spending a night in a castle where three people were murdered 20 years earlier.

By way of contrast, in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical Roman Scandals (1933), she was a princess for whom Eddie Cantor plays Cupid. One of the writers on the film was Arthur Sheekman, whom Stuart married the following year. Sheekman was a friend of Groucho Marx, and had previously been a gagman on the Marx Brothers comedies Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933). Stuart later claimed to be "one of the very few women that Groucho really liked".

Gloria Frances Stewart was born in Santa Monica, California. She later changed her surname so that its "six letters balanced perfectly on a theatre's marquee with the six letters in 'Gloria'". She was educated at Santa Monica high school and dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley. She embarked on an acting career after her brief marriage, aged 19, to the sculptor Blair Gordon Newell. (They divorced in 1934.) She was discovered at Pasadena Playhouse in a 1932 production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull by scouts from both Paramount and Universal studios. She went with the latter, who offered her more money, a decision she later regretted, because Paramount made "classier" films.

After three years at Universal, where she made the Whale pictures, she moved to 20th Century-Fox, which served her not much better. Between studios, at Warner Bros, Stuart was the juvenile lead in Gold Diggers of 1935 in which she played an heiress, performing two Berkeley numbers, I'm Going Shopping With You, during which she and Dick Powell go through a department store spending her mother's money, and The Words Are in My Heart, during which the couple, dressed in 19th-century costume, suddenly shrink into porcelain figures in a floral arrangement as 56 girls appear seated at 56 pianos. Stuart claimed: "All I got to do in the musical numbers was stand and stare at Dick Powell as he sang to me."

At Fox, Stuart provided the adult romance in two Shirley Temple movies, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), though the casts of both films were upstaged by the curly-haired moppet. Stuart was more satisfied with her portrayal of Peggy Mudd, the wife of the doctor who gave refuge to John Wilkes Booth after he had shot President Abraham Lincoln, in John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). She was a doctor's wife once more in The Crime of Dr Forbes (1936), which dealt quite bravely with the subject of mercy killing. However, these were exceptions to the rule that continually cast her as a pretty ingenue in empty-headed movies.

"I was disappointed," she remarked. "There was no chance to do what I would have called real acting. I had much higher ambitions than when I started. I loved to act but it wasn't worth the crying every day in the dressing room over these stupid, cliched parts." So when her contract with Fox was up in 1946, Stuart decided to retire and enjoy herself. She took up painting, calling herself "a self-taught primitive", and had her work exhibited. She also continued to be active in the Screen Actors Guild, having been one of the first members in the 30s.

In 1975, Stuart decided to return to acting, this time on television, appearing in small roles in TV movies. Sheekman died in 1978. A few years later, Stuart renewed acquaintance with an old friend from her college years, Ward Ritchie, a printer. They lived together until his death in 1996, after which she devoted much of her time to designing handmade, letter-press artists' books in limited editions.

Meanwhile, Stuart occasionally returned to the big screen, appearing in a cameo role dancing with Peter O'Toole in a nightclub in My Favourite Year (1984). After Titanic, she was given rather more substantial parts, such as the grandmother of Kate Capshaw's character in The Love Letter (1999). She was also an iconic presence in two Wim Wenders films: The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) and Land of Plenty (2004), her last film.

Stuart is survived by her daughter, Sylvia, from her second marriage, and by four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

September 01, 2010

Actress who played Bonnie Blue Butler in 'GWTW' dies at 76

Former child actress Cammie King Conlon used to joke "that I peaked at age 5."

But what a peak.

Conlon was four years old when she portrayed the ill-fated Bonnie Blue Butler in the 1939 blockbuster film "Gone With the Wind." Three years later, she voiced the part of the doe Faline in "Bambi."

After that, she departed show business and eventually had a family and a new career. As she grew older, Conlon was a gracious link between the film and its millions of fans.

Those fans are mourning the passing of Conlon, who died of lung cancer Wednesday in Fort Bragg, California, where she lived for about 30 years, said friend and family spokesman Bruce Lewis. Conlon was 76.

Conlon, credited in the movie cast as Cammie King, was picked to play the daughter of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 adaptation of the classic novel by Margaret Mitchell.

"I'm a very lucky person," Conlon told the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, last year. "[The film] has added dimension to my life. Of all the little girls, they picked me."

She earned $1,000 for her few scenes, she told the newspaper.

In the movie, Bonnie Blue Butler was her daddy's little girl, winning comfort from him when she was afraid of the dark.

Bonnie's death while riding a pony was a blow from which the tumultuous couple could not recover.

As an adult, Conlon had a family and eventually moved to Fort Bragg on California's north coast, where she was a publicist, promoted filmmaking in the area and served as a museum executive director, Lewis said.

"She made her mark. She used her fame to give back to the community" through fundraisers, Lewis said.

Conlon once talked to a school class about the Civil War and would have a "Tea With Bonnie Blue" every year.

She made many appearances around the country and was popular with "GWTW" fans, known as "Windies." Conlon, who published a memoir in 2009, recalled little from the movie but had a recollection of Gable, Lewis said.

The family is planning up to three memorial services, including one at the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta, Georgia.

Connie Sutherland, the museum's director, said Conlon came to the museum several times for events.

"She was a warm person," said Sutherland, adding their friendship was not based on Conlon's celebrity. "She was very giving and patient with fans."

The blue dress worn by Conlon in "GWTW" survives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, says memorabilia collector Herb Bridges, who has many items on display at the Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro, Georgia.

Bridges, who years ago sold much of his collection for $350,000 at Christie's, told CNN that Conlon was a relative latecomer to the "GWTW" shows circuit. "She was a delightful person."

Conlon, who was widowed and divorced, is survived by two children and three grandchildren.

Few key members of the "Gone With the Wind" cast are still alive.

Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie, is 94 and lives in France. Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett's sister, Carreen, is 89.