Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: MARTY FELDMAN, THE BIOGRAPHY OF A COMEDY LEGEND



Feldman Biography is Best showbiz Bio of the Year by Don Stradley


If your only memory of Marty Feldman is his hilarious turn in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, his life and career are illuminated in Robert Ross' Marty Feldman, The Biography of a Comedy Legend. Ross' book, a product of painstaking research, is as good as any showbiz biography you will ever read.

Before Feldman’s bulging eyes and wild hair became part of the American consciousness, he was well-known in England as one of the top television comedy writers of the 1960s. After years of writing scripts, he was finally coaxed into performing. Although he preferred working behind the scenes, Feldman’s acting style was a revelation. By mixing the deadpan humor of Buster Keaton with a bit of “Swinging ‘60s London,”  Feldman not only connected with British TV audiences, but provided a link between post war British humor and the 1970's style of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In fact, many members of the Python crew worked with Feldman and considered him a comedy sage.

Feldman’s humor may have been developed to deal with a problematic early life. Constantly punished at school for misbehaving, he left home at 15 to pursue a career as a jazz trumpeter.   Even though he scratched out a living, Feldman was often destitute, scrambling around in the company of drug dealers, third-rate musicians, and gangsters.  He was even homeless for a time, “sleeping rough” as the British say, before he began selling jokes to music hall comedians.  

Once he’d found success in England, Feldman craved recognition in America.  A syndicated British series called The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine began appearing on American networks, which lead to Feldman performing on such U.S. staples as The Tonight Show, and Hollywood Squares. At age 40 he struck gold as Igor in Young Frankenstein.  But soon after Feldman's world conquering year of 1974, his fortunes changed.  A chain smoker and drug user, Feldman worked himself to a nub until a lonely death in a hotel room in 1982. Ross’ description of the dying Feldman trying to reach his beloved wife on the phone for a last goodbye is heartbreaking.

As Ross tells it, two things prevented Feldman from capitalizing on his Young Frankenstein success. One was America's tendency to marginalize British actors; the other was Feldman's own disenchantment with fame.  At the time of his death he was planning a return to England, where he hoped to get back on British TV.

The book also explores Feldman's Jewish upbringing. Growing up in London’s East End as the son of Russian Jews, Feldman described himself as an outcast, although he said in a 1980 interview that he admired all things Hasidic, and had been quite devout as a young boy.  He also believed his love of the performing arts was probably linked to his respect for Jewish storytellers.

Ross presents Feldman as a brilliant but unhappy fellow.   It was as if the trauma of sleeping under bridges and being penniless haunted him, even as he walked where very few British comedians had ever walked before.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS * * *

Starting with the opening pastiche of Parisian sights (obviously recalling the opening of Manhattan), it’s as if Woody Allen has finally delivered a Woody Allen movie. Gil Pender (Luke Wilson) is a frumpy modern Hollywood screenwriter stuck in Paris with his wife and in-laws. Just when it seems he can take no more of the pompous crowd, he finds himself in a Twilight Zone world where such Jazz Age icons as Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are still dancing the night away. When Pender begins flirting with Pablo Picasso’s young mistress, well, you can probably guess where Allen goes with the material.

Lacking Allen’s acid tongue and paranoia, Wilson gives Pender a kind of cottony-soft humanity. He's smart to avoid doing an Allen impression, as many others have done in Allen movies. The result is that Wilson becomes one of the most likeable characters in the Woody Allen canon, a baggy everyman trying to stay afloat in a world of very big ideas. You root for him as he mingles with his heroes, and you believe him when he says something is missing in contemporary life. Add some Cole Porter songs, and Midnight in Paris feels as if we, too, are visiting the past. I don’t mean the 1920s, but the 1980s, when Allen might have released this as a follow-up to such warm, smart comedies as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

STRAW DOGS *


Sam Peckinpah’s violent 1971 study of pacifists finding their survival instinct is given a teeth whitening treatment in this remake by writer/director Rod Lurie. The action has been moved from England to Louisiana, the couple under siege is recast as a vapid Hollywood pair, and the bad guys are now belly-scratching hicks. James Marsden, in the role once played by Dustin Hoffman, is too self-assured to earn our sympathy. Hoffman was better, scampering like a cockroach to protect his home from invaders. The original also benefited from social tensions created by the Viet Nam war, when academics were standing up to war mongers. Lurie’s early scenes of lonely swampland, and James Woods’ stirring performance as the town drunk, suggest a film that could’ve been made about the way isolation breeds ignorance. Unfortunately, Lurie resorts to clich├ęs about Hollywood versus the Deep South. He tries, but he can’t get this potboiler to boil.




Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bernstein show - Ordinary Book, Extraordinary Music




Cambridge MA: Samuel J. Bernstein is a gentlemanly 73-year-old professor of English at Northeastern University, but lurking inside him is a feisty soul that likes to knock theatrical tradition on the head.

“That’s a fair thing to say,” Bernstein said after a workshop performance of his latest show, The Untitled Musical Revue: A Strangely Structured Musical Revue. The piece concerned four actors in a nameless revue who sing their way through various romantic troubles. It wasn't as bold as some of his other efforts, such as the play he co-authored that featured an African-American actress as Adolph Hitler, or Bernstein's musical version of The Hairy Ape, but it was offbeat enough to confirm Bernstein’s reputation as a non-traditionalist. "In the arts," said Bernstein, "there is always room for experimentation."

Nonetheless, as the characters in “Untitled” offered bromides about the mystery of love, it was the music that stood out above the Pirandello plot. Thanks particularly to the neat piano work of musical director Stephanie Tham, the jazzy flourishes made one think Bernstein is, at heart, a misplaced Tin Pan Alley figure. One hears a bit of everything in Bernstein’s music, from torch song angst, to standard Broadway panache. Bernstein’s melodic touch may be inborn: his father was a mandolin virtuoso, his mother a pianist.

Stepping away from a cast party at the Cambridge Center for the Performing Arts, Bernstein explained the music of his childhood, and how "music was part of my life, every single day." 

Bernstein’s father was a member of the Mandolin Orchestra of New York and was known for playing a variety of styles. It wasn't unusual for young Bernstein to hear his father playing classical, show tunes, or ethnic music, all in the space of an evening.

"Those notes,” Bernstein said, “made their way into my consciousness more powerfully than words.”

Singer Lisa Yves included nine songs from Bernstein’s oeuvre in a recent concert performance at The Bickford Theater in Morristown, New Jersey. Her set was called “Love & Dreams,” and also featured songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. The startling power of the Yves/Bernstein collaboration can be heard on a YouTube clip of Yves singing Bernstein’s “Hand in Hand.” 

“Sam's songs have a classic flavor to them,” Yves said via email, describing Bernstein’s music as “reminiscent of an earlier era.”

Although Bernstein felt a strong kinship with Yves, he admitted he was a bit anxious at having his songs interpreted along with such heavyweights as Gershwin and Porter.

“I was concerned,” he said, “ although I noticed in rehearsals she made my songs sound better than they've ever sounded. She’s good enough, in my opinion, to go into New York and become a star. Still, I was somewhat intimidated, because those are two major figures in American music. But the audience was very kind, and seemed to like what she did. It was a memorable experience for me.

“It is my profound hope that Lisa will honor me by continuing to perform my songs, because I consider us a kind of artistic team. We are meant for each other.”

Working with Yves was just one of a series of career highs Bernstein has enjoyed lately. Many of his plays are being produced or given staged readings, including one epic that producers have told him would cost around $14-million to mount in New York. He doubts the current economy could support such a production, but he remains exhilarated by all that is happening for him. He has more plays in development and is beginning his 52nd year as a teacher.

“I’m able to do all of this because of my wife. We've been married 46 years. To have someone so dedicated to my welfare, to have someone so intelligent and so perceptive as part of my life, is the key to everything I do,” Bernstein said.

When told of her husband’s tribute to her, Arlene Bernstein shrugged.

“That’s nice,” she said. “But I told him he has to stop for a while.”

Bernstein didn't hear her. He was back in the lobby serving cake to the cast.


- Don Stradley

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nazi Trial Film Finally Shown in America

 
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, a 1948 documentary,  was once deemed by Universal Studios as “too gruesome” for the American public. Now, thanks to the director's daughter, this remarkable film is finally being shown in American theaters.

Originally commissioned by the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division, Nuremberg was directed by Stuart Schulberg, younger brother of Budd Schulberg. The brothers were part of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. Budd, who would later author such Hollywood classics as On The Waterfront, supervised two film compilations to be used by the U.S. prosecution team. Stuart artfully weaved sections from those films into the courtroom footage, creating Nuremberg.

The film played in Germany before being shelved for various political reasons, including a fear that it might permanently ruin Germany’s image in America. A decision by the Truman administration further quashed efforts to show it in this country.
 
In 2003, Stuart Schulberg’s daughter Sandra and partner Josh Waletzky undertook a five year mission to restore the 78-minute film. With a painstakingly reconstructed soundtrack using original sound from the trial, a new recording of the original music score, and narration by Liev Schreiber (the voice of most HBO documentaries), the restored film is stunning.

Nuremberg shows how the international prosecutors built their case by using the Nazis’ own films and records. The familiar images of mass graves are even more startling here, with the victims seemingly stacked liked kindling, along with mountainous piles of shoes, gold teeth, and personal items taken from death camp victims. A shot of confiscated shaving brushes seems especially poignant, as if the Nazi’s first step in destroying a person’s humanity was to take their vanity.

As critic Roger Ebert said of Shoah, the nine-hour documentary which also has resurfaced in recent months, films like this are important in that they allow one generation to tell the next what it has learned.

Nuremberg also shows, as the defendants deny culpability, what evil looks like when it's backed into a corner.
 
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today has been well received since its New York premiere in September 2009, much to the relief of Sandra Schulberg.

“I had wondered how much of this was going to be new,” Schulberg said. “Some of the images have been recycled countless times, but to my enormous surprise and relief, many of the experts who screened it were very impressed; some of the footage has never been seen before, and even the footage that is familiar has a new impact when it is viewed within the context of the trial.”

A two disc DVD edition of Nuremburg is being planned for next year, which will include the two films supervised by Budd Schulberg: The Nazi Plan, which consists of the German Reich’s own films, and Nazi Concentration Camps, which used footage shot by Allied forces. The DVD will also include interviews with Nuremberg prosecutors, Budd Schulberg, and the restoration team.

Stuart Schulberg died years ago, but Budd died in 2009. He was aware of his niece’s efforts.

“He was thrilled,” said Schulberg, acknowledging that the film’s release is bittersweet without her uncle being here to see it.

Schulberg plans to make Nuremberg available to human rights groups and secondary schools. A Spanish language version of Nuremberg had great impact recently in Guatemala, where human rights issues have surfaced since the Guatemalan Civil War. It’s a sign, perhaps, that the film's life will extend beyond its current theatrical run.

“Personally,” said Schulberg, “I hope it lasts another 60 years, to make up for the 60 years it was buried.”

- Don L. Stradley

 

Here Comes Howie! by Don Stradley

 
Fans who know Howie Mandel only from Deal or No Deal or America's Got Talent might be in for a surprise when he comes to the Lynn Auditorium on May 20.

You see, Mandel may be notoriously afraid of germs, but he doesn't mind if the jokes are a little dirty.

"There is some adult fare," Mandel has said of his act, which involves a lot of back-and-forth chatter with the audience. "I wouldn't suggest bringing the kids."

It's no surprise that Mandel's stage work is not quite family friendly. After all, his stand-up comedy career extends back to the drug-fueled  1970s, just as American comedians were taking a turn for the weird.

Perhaps inspired by the end of the Vietnam War, or fallout from the 1960s underground culture, the comedians of the late '70s were moving away from political monologues and towards silly new extremes. Gallagher was smashing watermelons with hammers; Andy Kaufman was inviting women onstage to wrestle; and Bruce Baum, a contemporary of Mandel's, appeared onstage wearing a diaper.

Mandel waded into the business like a feisty little brother determined to prove he belonged. Spastic, manic, and infantile, his favorite gag in those days was to place a latex glove over his head and inflate it with his nose. A 1979 performance at the infamous Comedy Store in Los Angeles landed Mandel his first big break, a job on the syndicated game show, Make Me Laugh.

Despite successes that include NBC's St. Elsewhere, the animated series Bobby's World, and  Deal or No Deal,  Mandel has never abandoned his stand-up roots. Along with yearly comedy tours, he's a regular attraction at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  Don't look for the latex glove, though. Sinus problems put an end to that particular stunt.

While Mandel won't temper his act for his new audience, he appreciates the ongoing interest in him. His hot streak continues with his latest show, Mobbed, which drew 10-million viewers for its March debut and was picked up by FOX for eight additional episodes. 

Mandel, 55, told Canadian news site CANOE, "At this point in my career, specifically this time in my life, I have some perspective on what this means, and how lucky this is.”

Comedy fans in Lynn are also lucky, for Mandel is making a rare area appearance.

Just don't bring the kids.


Howie Mandel appears at the Lynn Auditorium on May 20. For ticket information call 781-598-4000.


Fun Facts About Howie Mandel….

- He was the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins and Gremlins II.

- Before he was a comedian, Mandel worked in a Toronto suburb as a carpet salesman.

- Mandel has been married since 1980 and has three children.

- In 1990 Mandel was considered to replace Howard Hesseman as the lead in ABC's Head of The Class. The role eventually went to Scottish comic Billy Connolly. (Mandel ended up on Good Grief, a FOX comedy about a wisecracking mortician. The show bombed.)

- Mandel was ranked #82 on Comedy Central's 2004 list of the 100 greatest comics of all time.

- While fellow America’s Got Talent  judge Piers Morgan tries to nap in his trailer, Mandel likes to stand outside with a bullhorn, shouting at passersby, "Quiet, please. Mr. Morgan is trying to sleep!"