'Make no mistake: She's a dancer.'

September 2nd, 2013

John Lahr profiles Claire Danes in The New Yorker.

Lahr's profile touches on many of the highs and lows of her career, with particular attention paid to Homeland for obvious reasons, but for me the highlight is – and probably always will be, no matter what she's cast in for the rest of her career – the role that made her famous, that of Angela Chase. Picture the scene, with My So-Called Life's producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and the show's writer Winnie Holzman auditioning two actresses for the role:

[Alicia] Silverstone auditioned first. Zwick, impressed, told Herskovitz, "It's done. Just cast her." But Herskovitz thought she was too pretty for Holzman's messy high-school universe, which included subplots about drug addiction, bullying, binge drinking, promiscuity, and homosexuality. "Alicia is so beautiful that that would have affected her experience of the world. People would have been telling her she was beautiful since she was six years old. You can't put that face in what's been written for this girl," he argued. Linda Lowy, the casting director, suggested that they see Danes before deciding. "From the minute she walked in the room, Claire was chilling, astounding, and silent," Lowy said. "There was so much power coming out of her without her doing much." One of the scenes that Danes read – which involved a nervy bathroom breakup with Angela's best friend, Sharon – required her to cry. "Tell me what I did, Angela. I mean, I would really like to know," Sharon says. "We get to that line and Claire's face turns entirely red," Herskovitz said. "Her body starts to vibrate and tears come into her eyes. You realize that she's having a physical experience that is beyond acting." Even then, Danes's defining quality as an actress – a combination of thoughtfulness and impulsiveness – was on display. "She seemed to have been born fully grown, you know, out of a seashell," Herskovitz said. Zwick claimed that Danes was his first sighting of a "wise child," a rare species that show business occasionally tosses up. As he put it later, "What she knows cannot be taught." Danes also satisfied another quality that Holzman's script called for: her face could transform in an instant from beautiful to ordinary.

Holzman's pilot for "My So-Called Life" (then titled "Someone Like Me") was meant to trap "a naked quality, not a person but a feeling of freedom and bondage, shyness and fearlessness," she said. Holzman found herself staring at this protean paradox in the flesh. Danes "was sexy and not sexy, free and bound up, open and closed, funny and frighteningly serious," Holzman recalled. Her performance freed Holzman's imagination. "We gave birth to each other," she said. "I was looking at someone who literally could do anything, and so I could, too." The novelist and television writer Richard Kramer, who worked on "My So-Called Life," places Holzman's writing for the show on a continuum of original television voices that leads from her to Mike White, Larry David, and Lena Dunham. "Winnie wouldn't be Winnie without Claire," he said. "And Claire wouldn't be Claire without Winnie. There was something mythological about their meeting."

After Danes left the audition room, Lowy recalled, "no one could really speak." In the excitement of the moment, the production team found themselves faced with a conundrum. Silverstone was sixteen and "emancipated," meaning, in Hollywood's piquant terminology, that she could work very long days. Danes was thirteen and, by law, had to go to school. If they cast Silverstone, they could move ahead with the show they'd written; if they opted for Danes, they'd have to adapt later scripts to accommodate her schedule. "We turned to Winnie," Herskovitz recalled. "Winnie said, 'Let's change the nature of the show.' " He added, "In that moment, we decided to include the lives of the parents more."

A fortunate day for everyone except Alicia Silverstone.1

[Via Longform]

  1. But then, had she been contracted to a TV show in 1994/5 and waiting to see if it would be renewed Silverstone might not have been free to play Cher Horowitz. Which would also have been a shame.

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For sick people

October 28th, 2011

Anne Helen Petersen's post describing the making of Marilyn Monroe includes a nice anecdote illustrating how Monroe defused a potential scandal, capping her explanation with a nice line in self-deprecating wit:

Monroe had posed for art photographer Tom Kelley all the way back in 1948, and the photos had been reprinted in numerous calendars, of which "Golden Dreams" was the most famous. […]

When Monroe's star rose in the early '50s, she was identified as the model in the photos. But her response to the revelation became as fundamental to her image as the photos themselves. Instead of attempting to avoid or deny the rumors, Monroe answered them head-on: She had been "hungry," was "three weeks behind with rent," and had insisted that Kelley's wife be present. "I'm not ashamed of it," she averred. "I've done nothing wrong."

Once the potential for scandal had dissipated, she promised "I'm saving a copy of that calendar for my grandchildren," admitting "I've only autographed a few copies of it, mostly for sick people. On one I wrote 'This may not be my best angle.'"

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Profundity in incongruity

February 6th, 2011

GQ's Tom Carson on the long, strange career of Nicolas Cage:

[On Cage's career since his Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas…] Instead, over the past decade or so, he's become a somehow appropriately weird combination of ubiquitous – he averages two or three movies a year – and marginal. Not only does his undiminished talent get no respect, but a whole category of plum parts is denied the benefit of his imagination as a result. Speaking of fusions of fable and pathology, what I'd give for eccentric, manic-depressive Cage and not classy Daniel Day-Lewis to be playing the lead in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln should make my wife relieved we don't have a firstborn to surrender. But Unka Steven is hardly the kind of filmmaker to appreciate the profundity in incongruity.

[Via The Browser]

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"Ang, that was great, but it was three hankies and two bladders. My goal is four hankies and one bladder."

November 26th, 2010

A profile of James Schamus, writer/producer of various Ang Lee films, CEO of Focus Features and part-time film academic:

There really isn't anyone else like Schamus. There's no precedent for a real academic – he's a professor of professional practice in Columbia's School of the Arts, a teacher and scholar who has served on the editorial board of Cinema Journal – to have a first-rate career as a writer, a producer and an executive in the film industry. As Tim Gray put it: "There have been a couple of film scholars who wrote scripts, but he's the only person in the business I've ever seen who said, 'I can't go to Cannes because I've got to work on my doctorate.' I liked his book about Dreyer, but I understood about a third of it." The book, based on Schamus's dissertation, is a study of the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Gertrud," a film that Schamus has described as "the single-most obscure Scandinavian formalist failure."

[Via Long Form]

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Hardbats

October 18th, 2010

Howard Jacobson profiles a legend on the comeback trail:

The big question for those of us jaded with the modern game of ping-pong – the oof-plock, oof-plock of devious sponge, no rally lasting longer than the cramped spin serve, the dabbed return, and the silent kill – was whether the great Marty Reisman, just one grey hair short of 70 but still refusing the rest owing to old age, was far enough advanced on his comeback trail to lift another U.S. Open Hardbat title.

Hardbat? The antiquated three or five ply wooden paddle covered with rubber pimples. Elegant and audible. Kerplock-plock.

The smart money was saying no. […]

[Via The Morning News]

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The Id of the internet

August 25th, 2010

Julian Dibbell has produced a readable, insightful profile of 4chan's founder:

Christopher Poole is 22 years old, and as is often true for men his age, his mental life has been punctuated by a series of passing enthusiasms: video games, online chat rooms, Japanese animation. Currently he seems to be going through a Robert Moses phase. On the nightstand in his New York City apartment is a copy of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a 1,300-page biography of the mid-20th-century urban planner who, in pursuing his vision of a modernized New York, destroyed one neighborhood after another. […] On a recent Thursday afternoon, as he walked to work past Washington Square Park and observed the sweeping renovations under way there – a controversial relandscaping imposed by current city planners in the face of heavy local opposition – he saw parallels with the old autocrat's imperious approach to such projects. "Robert Moses is probably smiling," he said. "Like, 'Fuck the people – what do they know!'?"

Like many people, Poole thinks there are better ways than Moses's to manage the tangled social, cultural, and infrastructural needs of a community of millions. But unlike most people – let alone most 22-year-olds – he actually has some experience doing just that. Seven years ago, Poole created the website 4chan […]

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The National

April 25th, 2010

The New York Times has a rather good profile of The National, focusing on the internal dynamics of a five-piece band containing two pairs of siblings with a lead singer/lyricist bolted on the side:

Over the years, [lead singer/lyricist Matt Berninger] has accumulated a flock of snide nicknames from his band mates, including the Dark Lord, the Naysayer, Mumbleberry Pie, Mr. Knee Jerk, Mr. Sony Headphones and the Echo Chamber – the last for the coterie of musically astute persons whom Matt frequently invokes supporting his opinion of whatever song they are arguing about. Since the only one of these gifted listeners Matt has ever introduced to the others is his wife, Carin Besser, who until recently edited short stories at The New Yorker, it is Aaron and Bryce's belief that Matt is not the only fiction expert in the marriage. Matt's assessment of the situation is: "Everybody thinks everybody else has secret ulterior motives because we all do. We purposefully set up decoys and red herrings to attack a song. That we're all playing mind games is sort of funny, but it's also frustrating."

And yet somehow it works: their last two albums would both make a list of my ten favourites of the last decade.

Thursday's Guardian also featured a profile of the band:

Because Berninger sounds like a polite Nick Cave and suffers like a literate Chris Martin, the National's music is often described as elegiac, when in truth, it's more uplifting than that. The rhythms are much too urgent to be called stately. The juxtaposition between the singer's mournful baritone and the joyous guitar lines and vocal harmonies is a defining characteristic of their sound. "You have to trust a voice like that," says friend and neighbour Sufjan Stevens. "He sings like an older brother with a dark side. He'll protect you on the playground, but he's not afraid to tell it like it is, and he'll kick you in the face if he has to."

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"It's all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls."

October 20th, 2009

The New Yorker profiles James Cameron as he works on Avatar. Not a lot of new information, unless you were unaware of Cameron's perfectionist streak. Consider his instructions to his sound engineers as they prepare an excerpt of Avatar to whet fanboy appetites at ComiCon:

"If we had to ship this thing in, like, two hours I'd send the fucking temp," Cameron hissed. "It was built with a real opinion. And that opinion is not gonna change, 'cause I personally cut it myself. My advice to you: Listen to it, study it, match what's there. Your principle, like a surgeon with the Hippocratic Oath, should be, Do no harm."

I'm hugely sceptical about the current push towards 3D films, but if there's one director who could persuade me to don the goggles it's James Cameron.

Part of me wishes Cameron had spent the last twelve years turning out three or four pretty decent feature films instead of messing around producing Dark Angel and Solaris and pottering around in submersibles but there's no denying that the man has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants to.

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Kevin Costner

September 16th, 2008

Ed Caesar interviews Kevin Costner:

In Los Angeles, Costner is, like Bernard in Death of a Salesman, "liked, but not well liked". He was, says the bellboy at my hotel, "famous, like, 20 years ago", but that's unfair. He was hot 20 years ago. Indeed, Costner's gilded period between 1987 and 1992 – when The Untouchables, Dances with Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK and The Bodyguard drew huge worldwide audiences – made him, briefly, untouchable. But nobody remembers the good times. When people mention Costner now, it's the turkeys they talk about: Waterworld, The Postman, Wyatt Earp. They do so because it has become an accepted Hollywood narrative that Costner has fallen from grace.

I saw Silverado on TV the other day; it's difficult to get my head round the notion that that cocky young guy is now in his mid-50s and commonly regarded as washed up.

If you look at his filmography alone and ignore his personal life, Costner's career doesn't seem that different to that of other stars of his generation like Mel Gibson or Jodie Foster: a few pretty good films, a few flops, the odd film where they were behind the camera to varying degrees of acclaim. I'm not a huge fan of Costner's westerns, nor of his attachment to the idea that a film isn't worth watching unless its running time is somewhere around the three hour mark, but as an actor when he's good – especially in sporting roles, like Tin Cup or Bull Durham – he's well worth watching.

[Via 3quarksdaily]

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"I do feel I'm entering that Clinton phase"

September 2nd, 2008

The New Yorker profiles Alec Baldwin:

"Forever Lulu," Baldwin's first film, in 1987, was bad. But within a couple of years he had played six memorable supporting roles in six better-than-average movies – "She's Having a Baby," "Beetlejuice," "Married to the Mob," "Working Girl," "Talk Radio," and "Great Balls of Fire!" – with some beguiling note of severity, even cruelty, in each. Baldwin had a precise, self-contained style: his performances suggested that although he might accept an audience's attention, he cared little for its approval. Even in "Beetlejuice," some inner killjoy seemed to pull against the innocent, newlywed scampering required of Baldwin's character. This was the last time a director asked Baldwin to play a blameless square – a Darrin Stephens – and one can survey Baldwin's twenty-odd-year film career without finding a fully persuasive rendering of happiness. One has to be satisfied with flared nostrils and a dangerous flash of teeth.

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