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New York Newsday
March 26, 2006 SUNDAY All Editions
FAST CHAT: Q & A: Liza Minnelli
By Frank Lovece
Special to Newsday
In terms of entertainment icons, interviewing Liza Minnelli is like interviewing Frank Sinatra, only without the risk of getting punched. The singer-dancer-actress is one of the very few people to have won the grand slam of the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards. Even Seabiscuit only had to win a Triple Crown.
With her landmark 1972 TV concert, "Liza With a Z," resurrected and restored for a Showtime run, starting Saturday at 8 p.m., and for DVD three days later, Minnelli sits in an Upper East Side hotel being so down to earth she might as well be chatting in the bleachers at a softball game. Dressed for comfort, telling stories animatedly, chain-smoking unabashedly and having herself a grand ol' time, Minnelli, 60 daughter of legendary performer Judy Garland and director-producer Vincente Minnelli seems like the most charming buddy you could have. Granted, you couldn't hang out over drinks, given the addiction problems she's spoken about candidly, including on "Larry King Live" later the same day, but hey, she's cool with it, so how can you not be?
"Liza With a Z" was a collaboration of producer-director Bob Fosse, producer-lyricist Fred Ebb, composer John Kander and, early in their careers, young fashion designer Halston, young "music coordinator" Marvin Hamlisch, and young future music-producer-star Phil Ramone, credited for "audio design." Shot documentary-style on 16mm film at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre on May 31, 1972, it premiered on NBC the following Sept. 10 and won multiple Emmys.
In 2000, Minnelli, who owns the rights to the show, had restoration expert Michael M. Arick begin the long process of sprucing it up and remastering its original mono audio for stereo and Surround Sound. She spoke about it seemingly in stereo and Surround Sound herself with freelance writer Frank Lovece.
So the NBC censor didn't want you to wear that red micro-minidress that night?
Oh, it wasn't only that! It was the opening [outfit[, which is cut down to here! [Points to her waist.] They were objecting to the fact that there was not a bra within 40 miles of me! ... The day of the show, a lady from Standards & Practices ... comes in, sees my outfit and says, "Wait a minute. She can't wear these costumes. This is impossible, you cannot wear..." And I'm standing here stunned, like "Wha, wha, whatamIgonnawear?" Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and Halston said to this lady, "Come with us," and they went into a room. ... And finally this lady comes out, and she looked different. Her shoulders were lowered, she just looked different. And I said, "Ma'am, am I gonna be able to wear my costumes?" And she didn't look at me. But she said [speaks just above a whisper], "Yes. [Long pause.] It's fashion." [Laughs] They buffaloed her! They got her! I don't know how they did it, but they talked her into it! And I went on.
It's funny that the sponsor was the sewing-machine company Singer, and there's the opening title: "Singer presents" a singer!
[Laughs uproariously.] No! I never thought of that! But I will now! But y'know something else? I sew. And one of the neatest things was, I said [meek little voice], "Can I have the new sewing machine you have?" And they went, "Yeah, sure." And I got it! And that was huge to me!
Your mom taught you to sew?
My mom?! Uh-uh! I don't think so! No, I learned by myself.
It's hard to sing and dance at same time, since you have to breathe differently with each. In the dance numbers, where you don't hold a microphone, I imagine you had to go back afterward and lay in new vocals for those songs?
No, I had a body mic on.
You had a wireless body mic in 1972?
Yes. Yeah. Phil Ramone was brilliant, and he did the sound. A radio mic has a microphone and a cable and a small box, right? And that was hidden in [the small of] my back [indicates], and Phil somehow figured out how to make it not so big. What was hard was to hide it in that red dress.
That little red dress was very tight on you.
Tell me about it! It was in my stockings, in the back. I had it on through the whole show, but it was only turned on for the first dance set. And they turned it off when I sang live. I mean, y'know, I was always singing live, but when I had the [handheld] mic it was a different thing.
Is life really a cabaret, old chum? Couldn't it be, say, a food court?
[Laughs heartily] That's great! That's great! [Thinks about it.] So how is life a cabaret? [Pause] It's unexpected. Sometimes you go to a cabaret and you don't know what you're gonna get. Sometimes you see wonderful things and sometimes you see awful. You know? Just a drag act. I don't mean dressed drag. [Laughs.] I mean just a draggy act. I dunno. I think the key to all this is to stay curious.
April 27, 2006 THURSDAY All Editions
SECTION: PART II/"Road trip with Robin"
Williams travels a different route in the comedy 'RV' by playing a cinematic dad.
By Frank Lovece
Special to Newsday
He is the über-comic, the one other comedians fear and respect. On the raw frontier of comedy, he's the gunslinger of giggles, a dead shot who, when it comes to audiences, always kills. And now, like a shaggy dog, Robin Williams has followed the likable likes of Tim Allen and Steve Martin as a Hollywood-regulation, movie-comedy, straight-man dad.
It's not a bad thing. And he's sort of played a movie dad before, in drag, as the titular Mrs. Doubtfire. Or magically, as an older and domesticated Peter Pan in "Hook." Yet now, playing a put-upon pop in the family-vacation comedy "RV," opening tomorrow, it seems a rare instance of the tornado being tamed.
Not that his co-stars noticed anything different on the set.
Jeff Daniels, for one, says he knew going in that Williams is "always gonna go off" on his famed improvisational riffs. "Then it's just a matter of going with him." Which did, Daniels admits, require survival techniques. Sometimes on a take, Daniels' hale and hearty character "would slap [Williams] real hard on the shoulder, and then I'd get to that point in take two and I wouldn't do it so I'd keep Robin off-balance a bit. It was my only prayer," Daniels jokes. "But I had a good time with him. He's a good listener."
Likewise off the set, according to Tony Award-winning singer Kristin Chenoweth, who plays Daniels' spunky wife. "Robin and I could probably talk for three hours nonstop," she says cheerfully. And not just talk. "People try to sing in front of me and they get nervous," says the formidable Broadway belter. "Except for Robin. He'll sing a full aria. In another language we've never heard of."
Making it up
That fearlessness served Williams well in his transition from street performer to screen performer in 1977. He found his niche riskily going off-script the following year to improvise many of his own lines on a network TV series, "Mork & Mindy." A sudden star, he could have burnt out as a comedy supernova. Instead he stretched to become an Academy Award-winning dramatic actor ("Good Will Hunting") and additional three-time nominee (for the dramas "The Fisher King" and "Dead Poets Society" and the seriocomedy "Good Morning, Vietnam"), while also continuing to do comedy.
Such as "RV," in which Williams plays Bob Munro, a Willy Loman-esque executive in a soda corporation. Forced to choose between his job or a long-promised and postponed Hawaiian vacation with his family - wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines) and spoiled kids Carl (Josh Hutcherson), 12, and Cassie (singer Joanna "JoJo" Levesque), 16 he attempts a third alternative. He rents an RV for a family road trip on which he will secretly take along work that will ultimately deliver him to the Colorado company his own company is acquiring and where Bob is expected to appear by a certain date.
"I never imagined being anyplace different," he says contemplatively in his Manhattan hotel room, interviewed privately during a press junket for "RV."
"There's no, 'This is where I vant to be,'" he says, affecting a sinister tone in the first of many voices he'll trot out for the conversation. "It's where I am. It's not like I envisioned being more or less." He pauses, as if, improbably, thinking about it for the first time. "It's been good. It's been a good one."
A comedy of family
While there are physical, gross-out gags, the core of the movie is its family dynamics. It opens with Cassie's childhood, when Dad's her hero and she's a sweet little girl he's tucking into bed. Flash-forward to now, and she's an obnoxious, iPodding teenager you just want to slap.
Williams' own daughter, Zelda, is 16. "It's kind of interesting to see this phase, because she's a bit like JoJo's character, very intense, very much like, 'You're so embarrassing,'" he says, launching into her voice. "'You really bother me, Robin.'" She and her brother Cody, 14, call him by his first name, he says, "when they're going to be kinda businesslike. They call you 'Robin' and then you realize, 'We're having a meeting, aren't we?' 'Cody and I, as partners in this family, have developed what we like to call profit-sharing ideas ...'" Williams also has an NYU-graduate son, Zack, with first wife Valerie Velardi, in addition to his two children with Marsha Garces Williams, whom he married in 1989.
He became famous almost overnight for improvising wildly and amazingly on his hit '70s sitcom "Mork & Mindy." After a while, the show's writers would simply leave space in the script with words to the effect of "Robin does funny stuff here."
That tradition has continued into "RV."
"We would do two, three, four takes as scripted," says director Barry Sonnenfeld, "and then I would say, 'You got anything, Robin?' And he would say, 'No, boss, I'm fine,' or, 'Yeah, let me try some stuff.'"
One scene, says Sonnenfeld, "literally was scripted as an improv ... the Robin Rap," in which Bob rescues his son from some would-be white gangstas at an RV park. "The script says, 'Robin arrives and says funny stuff to the white boys.'... We have a totally other version of that scene where Robin plays a sort of kung-fu Zen master. ... We screened it that way on Long Island, the first recruited-audience screening we had, and it was phenomenal, it was, like, hilarious, and I said, 'Well, OK, next screening we'll do the rap version.' And the rapper tested even bigger than the Zen master, and also I preferred it.'"
"Sometimes you just go for the element of surprise," Williams says of doing improvs with more structured actors, "and if it makes them angry, then you don't do it again. Some people are very much about, 'Well, when do I come in?' But when you have people like Cheryl Hines, she'll go anywhere with it; she's used to that." With "RV," Sonnenfeld says, "Robin and I instantly knew that I would give him enough rope to ad lib and he would he give me the ability to control the movie and do takes the way I wanted to."
Unabashed about playing character bits and cameos, Williams is currently in and out of New York filming a role in the ensemble fable "August Rush" and another in the Ben Stiller comedy "Night at the Museum."
Slated for summer release is the radio-host thriller "The Night Listener," based on the Armisted Maupin novel, which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January. And he stars in writer-director Barry Levinson's political satire "Man of the Year," which is scheduled for 2006 release.
As for the reported sequel "Mrs. Doubtfire 2": "No, not happening. The script they had just didn't work."
After all that, he'll need a vacation himself though not in an RV.
"I've never driven an RV except for this movie, but I have a Land Rover," which he uses for family road trips. And as with Bob and his brood, "All of a sudden you do have these moments where you're back just as a family, having a great time and so mellow again that you realize, 'Oh. This is why we're together.' It takes a while to do that."
New York Newsday
July 16, 2006 SUNDAY All Editions
SECTION: FANFARE/"He Sees Wet People"
Director M. Night Shyamalan brings his vision to 'Lady in the Water,' his latest plunge into the supernatural
By Frank Lovece
Special to Newsday
Hollywood's dark Night of the soul steps into a dark, faded little conference room at the Waldorf-Astoria, where sad, chipped tables, crumpled linen and a half-empty, stemmed water glass could have come out of one of his films. For writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan, the room fits the mood.
Shyamalan made the somber, slow-moving but big-money movies "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable" and "Signs," plus the not-so-successful "The Village," for Disney. He's switched studios, after the very public breakup of what he describes as a "parent-child" relationship. Now, Warner Bros. is releasing his Philadelphia phantasmagoria about a water nymph, "Lady in the Water," opening Friday.
"I hadn't really cracked it yet," Shyamalan, settling in, concedes of the "Lady in the Water" script he showed Disney executives. They were left unimpressed and, per the just-released biography "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale" by Michael Bamberger, weren't showing him the deference he felt he deserved. After one bad meeting, the book says, he broke down in tears.
"It was getting there," he says now of the script. "I was excited by the ideas of it and was, like, wanting to show them, y'know? And they didn't really get it. They were willing to make it," Shyamalan goes on. "They offered me the money to make it. And I just said to myself, 'I'm not gonna be able to pull this off. I won't be able to make a good movie if I know they don't believe in it.' My movies are gonna succeed or not based on my ability to have a clean point of view and inspire others. And so if the people around me are corrupting it, I'll never reach it. I'll always be wounded. It'll always be unfinished."
Shyamalan's movies are a matter for his believers. "I want them to own the movies," he says — not in a DVD way, not at first. "I want them to defend me. I don't need to defend me. The fans go and defend the movies. They need to go defend and argue them, and do battle over them, on the Internet. It's theirs to own."
That's good, because the way the admittedly emotional Shyamalan defends himself is to have Bob Balaban, in "Lady," play a film and book critic who suffers, surprisingly, a petty and vindictive fate in a movie the filmmaker says is about eternal themes.
Shyamalan's movies aren't always reviewed well. Despite his box-office successes (the $40-million "The Sixth Sense" grossed $293.5 million domestically and $379.3 million abroad), Shyamalan sees himself, paradoxically, as an outsider, a cult moviemaker for the masses.
"I looooove the cult feeling!" he says. The critically savaged "The Village," he says, "had a cult feeling to it. So did 'Unbreakable,' and to some extent 'Lady' [does] as well."
Perhaps. "Lady in the Water" stars Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, the superintendent of a classic movie apartment house, where everybody knows everybody. Haunted and dispirited — metaphorically, that is; he doesn't see dead people — Heep discovers an ageless, ethereal young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in a space beneath the pool. A space filled with water. Amphibious and English-speaking, she is a "narf," a Shyamalan-concocted form of water nymph, whose name is Story.
The movie has story aplenty, starting with a long voice-over explaining how the worlds of water-women and land-men separated eons ago, and men made war, and forgot to listen to nature, but every so often a narf comes back to deliver an important message. And that's all before the title credits. Shyamalan later offers reams of back story and made-up folklore about narfs, scrunts and tartutics.
Heep must discover the community's Healer and Guild and whatnot in order for Story to deliver her message and avoid the wolf-like scrunts trying to keep her from returning to her "Blue World."
"He's an eccentric," Giamatti says of Shyamalan. "He's making eccentric movies. I mean, they're commercial movies. But they're eccentric. They're very strange. I thought this was a very weird idea," he says of "Lady," "and if you could pull it off, it would be amazing. I didn't know if he could. I think he does."
Man with a Vision
And whether he does or not, the movie is decidedly Shyamalan's own vision. "At the beginning of the process," co-star Howard says, "I came in like, 'Oh, I'm gonna be a good little actor and do all this research about fairy tales, and have all these opinions, and present them to him in a way that's like diplomatic and wonderful.' And, of course, he was listening and collaborating, but as I started then listening to him and not trying to be impressive, I went, 'Oh. I just kinda gotta show up.' ... . What I wanted to be for him was just someone that was going to allow that vision to manifest."
Shyamalan''s visions began in childhood, when the son of two émigré South Indian physicians was given a Super8 movie camera. Entranced, he made more than 40 scripted home movies, then attended New York University''s star-studded film school. With money from family and friends, he shot his first movie, "Praying With Anger" (1992), while still a student. It played the Toronto Film Festival and one week in a theater.
Shyamalan followed with the semi-autobiographical "Wide Awake," about a Catholic schoolboy seeking God. Shyamalan isn't Catholic, but his parents sent him to Philadelphia's Waldron Academy, where the movie was shot, and the Episcopal Academy high school, because of its stiff academics. Filmed in 1995 but only released three years later by Miramax, "Wide Awake" tanked. Yet Shyamalan staged a bidding war for his next spec script, "The Sixth Sense," and insisted on directing.
That twist-ending ghost story, starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, became a worldwide phenom, raked in best picture, best director and best original screenplay Oscar nominations and made Shyamalan a hard-to-pronounce household name.
Success didn't necessarily change him; the filmmaker, who's married to psychologist Bhavna Vaswani and has two daughters, has always been a confident pontificator. As editor of his 1988 high-school yearbook, he gave himself a full-page mock-up of a "Time" magazine cover headlined "Best director. NYU grad takes Hollywood by storm."
Sure, it's all storytelling, right? And "Lady in the Water," he says, is about just that. "It is a very irrationally personal movie to me," the storyteller says. "There's something irrationally pure about it that's really who I am."
SIDEBAR: Fish out of water
Nymphs, mermaids, naiads ... whatever you call them, they have a history in the movies. Some examples:
"The Fisherman's Nightmare"
Some of the first filmic water nymphs weren't so nice — they condemn a poor fisherman to be, ironically, burned alive in this 1910 silent horror short.
Australian Kellerman, a championship swimmer and aquatic performer known as "The Diving Venus," starred in a raft of silent shorts, playing the "Siren of the Sea" (1911), "Neptune's Daughter" (1914) and Anitia, "A Daughter of the Gods" (1916), which contains what many call the movies' first nude scene by a major star. Esther Williams (see below) played her in the 1952 biopic "Million Dollar Mermaid."
Hedy Lamarr in "Ecstasy"
Still known by her given name, Hedwig Kiesler, future MGM star Lamarr wasn't supernatural in the Czech film "Extase" (1933), but she was super au naturel. Her nude woodland swim and nymph-like run through the underbrush made this the most scandalous film of its time.
"America's Mermaid" and International Swimming Hall of Famer Williams measured a babelicious 38-27-34 when filming "Million Dollar Mermaid." No wonder she popularized the "aqua musical," an MGM specialty that included her "Bathing Beauty" (1944) and "Neptune's Daughter" (1949).
"Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid"
MGM starlet Ann Blyth played Lenore the Mermaid in this lighthearted 1948 fantasy classic starring the great William Powell as a man who returns from vacation with a fishy tale for his therapist.
A mermaid named Madison comes to New York, meets Tom Hanks and goes shopping at Bloomie's in one of the first Touchstone pictures — the PG-rated brand that helped keep the Disney studio relevant as times changed. Directed by Ron Howard — Bryce Dallas Howard's dad — the 1984 film was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar.
"The Little Mermaid"
The 1989 animated feature that saved Disney's animated features. It was also a blockbuster that launched an underwater kingdom for the Magic Kingdom.
Girls just wanna have fins in this 2006 20th Century Fox adaptation of the Alice Hoffman novel about two 12-year-olds and a watery waif with attitude.
New York Newsday
March 12, 2006 SUNDAY All Editions
SECTION: FANFARE/"It's a New Old Breed"
With its remake of "The Shaggy Dog" Disney keeps up a tradition of never having too much of a good thing.
By Frank Lovece
Special to Newsday
When The Shaggy Dog
ambled into theaters Friday, it represented more than just a showcase for reg'lar-guy comic Tim Allen as he played at being a dog.
It was also the ninth of a new breed of movies from Walt Disney Pictures: Like the animated feature moviegoers can expect once a year, there's now a Disney live-action remake of a "classic," back-in-the-day flick to go with it. Shaggy dogs, darn cats, flying rubber, freaky Fridays all that Disney dementia of our and probably our parents' childhoods just won't go away.
Once, they helped fill the long-running Sunday-night time slot of TV's "The Wonderful World of Disney"; later, they served as fodder for TV-movie remakes. But then, with the 1993 theatrical remake of the lost-animal movie "The Incredible Journey" (1963), Disney began methodically pumping out new big-screen, live-action versions of animated ("The Jungle Book," "One Hundred and One Dalmatians") and live-action films ("The Absent-Minded Professor," "Freaky Friday," "The Love Bug").
It's not a failure of imagination it's a strategy. Disney is simply doing what it does with TV, DVD, theme parks, Supreme Court copyright decisions and more recycling, repurposing and rehashing its library. This is the company, after all, that made movies out of its Pirates of the Caribbean and Country Bear Jamboree Disneyland attractions.
A built-in audience
"We live in an age when movies are so expensive to make and to promote, that this gives you immediate audience recognition," says Jim Hill, 47, a journalist whose Web site, JimHillMedia.com, runs Disneyana articles by himself and others. "It's the same reason that the big movies this summer are two sequels, 'Mission: Impossible III' and 'Spider-Man 3.' You say 'The Shaggy Dog' and people say, 'Yeah, I know what that is, I know the original, I'll take my kids.'"
"Parents are always looking for something to take kids to see," agrees Leonard Maltin, the "Entertainment Tonight" correspondent and author of "The Disney Films," in addition to his namesake annual "Movie Guide." "When you push the nostalgia button for the parents and promise good clean fun for the kids, people will go."
That darn remake
Or not. Most Disney remakes, do only moderately respectable business in theaters, grossing in the $40 million-$65 million range. The 1997 remake of 1965's "That Darn Cat!" proved prescient in removing the title's exclamation point: The new version grossed just $18.2 million. The success of 2003's "Freaky Friday" was an aberration. That well-reviewed comedy starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Disney actress-on-call Lindsay Lohan (she's done three remakes so far) grossed more than $110 million. The only other remake to break $100 million was "101 Dalmatians" (1996).
So why have remakes become so established? Because aside from the name-recognition that makes marketing easier, they continue to earn their keep in the aftermarket of video, the Disney Channel and such intangibles as refreshing theme parks and merchandising with new franchise characters.
And a lot there are: Starting with Disney's first feature, the animated "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), and counting up through 1983 the year before Disney's Touchstone division was created to release films more with-it than "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again" or "Unidentified Flying Oddball" the studio produced 155 full-length films. That's a lot of talking mice, intelligent cars and Kurt Russell, who was sort of the Lindsay Lohan of his day. It's also a vast mine in which to prospect for cinematic gold.
What the live-action films have in common is a factory formula with children's-book appeal. "Disney was good at a blend of magic and humor," Hill says. Indeed, movies such as "The Ugly Dachshund," "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" and "Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar" have their fans to this day including grown-ups too young to have seen them even in re-release.
"It could be live-action or animated, but you know it's a Disney movie," says 24-year-old Rebecca Blumenfeld, a North Hollywood, Calif., secretary who responded to a reporter's questions on a Disney fan forum. "You could be 4 years old or 110 years old," she says in a telephone interview, "and you're always gonna love a Disney movie."
"It's not 1957 anymore"
Still, filmmakers who have to update those originals for modern-day audiences find it as challenging as making an interesting sandwich with white bread.
"You have to respect the Disney brand, but it's not 1957 anymore," says "Shaggy Dog" director Brian Robbins, a onetime actor ("Head of the Class") who's evolved into a successful film and TV producer whose credits include Nickelodeon's variety show "All That." "It's a fine line, but as a father of two young boys ... I know which buttons to push and which buttons I don't wanna push."
For this new film, Robbins watched the 1959 original and its 1976 sequel, "The Shaggy D.A.," "and I realized that, OK, we're buying a really smart, high-concept idea, a man turning into a dog, and we're buying a great title, and that's about it. Now we need to set off like the original was never made, like someone just pitched a new film about a man turning into a dog." Getting the right modern-day tone while keeping the film true to the Disney brand, with its Holiday Inn/McDonald's reliability, is the tricky part. "I like the remake of 'Freaky Friday' a lot," he says, "and it was sort of a template for us" in terms of tone.
The remakes, Maltin says, "really are modern in their attitude and outlook, as they would have to be. But I think they try to draw on at least some of the appeal of the originals at the same time. If you believe in what you're doing," he points out of the filmmakers involved, "it won't be corny. If you approach it from a cynical point of view, it's not gonna work for anybody."
"You have to recognize the originals for what they are," says Hill. "Cheese but really good cheese. They had great special effects for their time. And it's always fun to see a young Tim Conway, Don Knotts or Dean Jones. You have these amazing performances because an actor really has to fill the gap when his partner is a Siamese cat or a living car. For that alone," he says with a chuckle, "Dean Jones deserves an Oscar."