Tag Archives: William Goldman

The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


RELATED

Advertisements

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens with a sepia-toned silent film newsreel. It’s exposition, but also contrast. The silent images of a daring train robbery distract from reading the film’s accompanying opening titles. When the film itself starts, it’s just as sepia-toned. Only it’s Conrad Hall and he’s able to suggest the lush, denied colors. Director Hill isn’t just making a Western, he’s making a comment on the genre itself. Not just him, of course, writer William Goldman’s asking some of the same questions about how the genre works. Butch Cassidy forces the audience to question the setting, not embrace it. It’s a hostile place, even when it can appear gentle, even when it can be funny. The first hour of the film, features Paul Newman and Robert Redford in something very close to constant sequence. Each scene comes soon after the other. And then it turns into a chase. A long chase. It’s exhausting. And great. Because Hall has got the color in. Once the characters are established, the color returns. But then it goes away again.

I don’t want to think too much about where the act breaks are in Butch Cassidy, but there’s definitely a big chance once it becomes clear no matter how much charm Newman and Redford have, it’s not going to end well. One of the supporting players even comments on it. The film has a very strange, very distinct approach to the supporting players. The supporting players should feel episodically placed but they don’t. They’re sprinkled throughout the film, but Goldman and Hill use them for very specific tasks. One reveals one thing, one comments on another. Goldman’s script is phenomenal.

Then the film changes. And the color goes away. Newman, Redford and Ross go to New York. It’s like 1906 or 1907 and it’s all silent, all in still picture montage. Most of Butch Cassidy doesn’t have music. Burt Bacharach’s score alternates between effervescent and melancholy. Most of the film is sound effects. The sound design is gorgeous, just as gorgeous as Hall’s photography, just as gorgeous as John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer’s editing. Hill’s got a great crew and he gets great work from them. The montage sequence furthers the story, furthers the relationships of the characters. It’s a great device and completely out of place with everything before it in the film. Then the sepia reminds of the opening titles and it’s Hill pulling the audience back a little bit, redirecting their attention. The rest of the film, once Newman, Redford and Ross get to Bolivia, has to be watched differently; it’s certainly written differently, paced differently, even acted differently.

Redford and Newman. Goldman very carefully introduces their friendship, getting the audience invested in it. The performances are great too–ambitious but playful; Redford and Newman’s banter never gets overpowering. It never overwhelms the film or the actors. Hill’s real careful about how he directs them and how they’re edited. Newman and Redford are very close, in frame and physicality, until Ross is around all the time. Only then does Hill open up and show the characters from one another’s perspective. Until that point–over halfway through the film–they’re a unit.

Those singularly placed supporting players–Jeff Corey, George Furth, Kenneth Mars, Strother Martin among a couple others–are all fantastic. Especially Corey and Martin. And Furth and Mars. Oh, and Timothy Scott.

There’s so much to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s so well-made, anything could become a tangent. Hill starts out directing this fantastic Western only to change it up with this montage and then the Bolivia scenes. It’s awesome work from Hill. You just want to talk about it. You just want to show it to people so you can talk about it more, think about it more, appreciate it more. It’s that special kind of awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; written by William Goldman; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer; music by Burt Bacharach; produced by John Foreman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Kenneth Mars (Marshal) and George Furth (Woodcock).


RELATED

Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)

So back in 1990, ignorant, bigoted book burning fundamentalist Christian psychopath women were screen villains on par with Norman Bates (by some accounts). Now they’re presidential candidates.

Misery actually owes quite a bit, in its third act, to Psycho. Reiner is no Hitchcock and he doesn’t try to be. His success, directing the film, has more to do with actors than with mood. William Goldman’s script does all the thriller stuff itself, which isn’t to say Reiner doesn’t do a fine job… he just isn’t the one responsible for it being so creepy.

See, for all the praise Kathy Bates gets… James Caan holds the movie together. She’s just playing the psycho–a far less sympathetic one than Norman Bates–whereas Caan is playing the victim. Sonny Corleone is scared of her, the audience will be too.

In fact, Caan’s got Misery‘s only sublime moment (and one of Reiner’s best as a director), sort of saving the film at the very end. Or at least making it something special.

Speaking of Psycho… I almost forgot the music. Marc Shaiman’s score owes quite a bit to Herrmann; it’s definitely the most obviously influenced feature.

Misery is pretty unique–remove the context and you’ve basically got Caan graphically beating some woman to death. With the Meathead directing.

Nice cameo from Lauren Bacall, but it’s all about Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen’s bickering, aged Nick and Nora. There was definite spin-off potential for those two.

Far more impressive than I was expecting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Robert Leighton; music by Marc Shaiman; production designer, Norman Garwood; produced by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Virginia) and Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell).


RELATED

Year of the Comet (1992, Peter Yates)

As far as I know, Year of the Comet completes the Louis Jordan as a mad scientist in search of eternal youth (continuing from his two Swamp Thing movies). There’s something so perfect about Jordan pursuing eternal youth, it’s not even questioned. William Goldman uses the device to complicate things in Year of the Comet, sort of to get the ball rolling.

Goldman’s plot for Comet is real simple–run the two protagonists, Penelope Ann Miller and Tim Daly, through Scotland and then France (in the most scenic locations), give them complications and let them be charming together. Daly shows off his mischievous charm here (big shock Comet went as unappreciated as the next time he showed it off–on the great show “Eyes”) and Miller does her charismatic leading comedic actress thing here and both work great. Yates really knows how to direct Miller here too, for great effect, and it doesn’t hurt Goldman’s screenplay seems catered to her.

Most of the scenes not concerned with being scenic (Scotland looks fantastic) have a lot of witty banter going and Goldman writes fine banter for charismatic leads. He gives Jordan’s character some fantastic lines too and Jordan, more than usual, really works together with Miller. They only have a couple scenes together, maybe three, but all of them are memorable.

The film runs less than ninety minutes–IMDb trivia suggests something happened between the start of principal photography and post–but Yates wisely casts very distinctive actors for smaller roles. In the biggest, Ian Richardson as Miller’s father, Shane Rimmer (in three scenes) as Daly’s friend and Art Malik as a suave bad guy (Malik’s the wine to Daly’s Budweiser). Malik’s only got three scenes, but his first one–with a great monologue for Miller–is fantastic. Yates knows how to make the comedy play here. So much so, it’s a surprise how well he turns around and does the other stuff.

There are a lot of distinct sequences in the film, but I’m only going to mention a couple. First is a fight on Loch Ness, totally fogged over, between Daly and Miller on one boat and scary-looking Nick Brimble on another. Yates mixes comedy, action and suspense–lots of suspense–and it’s a fantastic scene. (The film’s got excellent sound design). Oddly, that boat sequence is the one I want to see OAR the most (Comet is only available in pan and scan, the UK DVD apparently from the 1992 VHS master), just because Yates implies having such fantastic composition for it.

The second scene is the helicopter chase. It shouldn’t work, a helicopter chase through Scotland, but it really does. Yates has the right timing, Goldman’s script sets it up and closes it, and the music (by Hummie Mann) is perfect.

Year of the Comet is a lean–could have been longer in the beginning, I’m not sure with what, but with more–comedy throwback. I just wish someone would put it out uncropped.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; written by William Goldman; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by Hummie Mann; production designer, Anthony Pratt; produced by Yates and Nigel Wooll; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penelope Ann Miller (Margaret Harwood), Tim Daly (Oliver Plexico), Louis Jourdan (Philippe), Art Malik (Nico), Ian Richardson (Sir Mason Harwood), Ian McNeice (Ian), Tim Bentinck (Richard Harwood), Nick Brimble (Jamie) and Shane Rimmer (T.T. Kelleher).


RELATED