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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: February 2011

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Jane Russell, an outlaw in more ways than one, dies at 89

February 28, 2011 |  8:24 pm

Among the many striking facts about Jane Russell, the mid-20th century screen siren who died Monday, is that soldiers named pieces of geography after her: Russell was "a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II. Troops in Korea named two embattled hills in her honor," The Times' obituary of Russell notes.

Russel Of course that's far from the most striking thing about her. Russell -- who died at 89 in Santa Maria, Calif., after a battle with a respiratory illness -- was the actress who changed much about movie marketing when her role in, and publicity photo for, the Howard Hughes western "The Outlaw" drew the ire of production-code censors.

The 1943 movie, which highlighted Russell's full figure, was eventually released without code approval and made millions, prompting directors such as Otto Preminger to follow suit and setting the stage for much of what is now a given in contemporary moviedom, which cleverly (and sometimes not-so-cleverly) uses sex to sell new releases.

Anyone who grew up during and after World War II knew her, and modern actresses -- not to mention movie marketers, who've borrowed often from the controversy-as-selling-point playbook -- owe plenty to her.

Despite more than three decades on stage and on screen, with roles in films such as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" -- where she often played a character amusedly aware of her own vixenish qualities -- Russell never evolved into an A-list actress. "Except for comedy, I went nowhere in the acting department," she acknowledged in her 1985 memoir. "I was definitely a victim of Hollywood typecasting."

And despite her legacy as someone who challenged a repressive status quo, there was this fact: Russell was actually a deeply religious political conservative.

More on a colorful career here.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A publicity photo from "The Outlaw." Credit: Reuters



Oscars: What's next for the winners?

February 28, 2011 |  5:00 pm

Yourhighness They might have stood on the most prestigious stage in Hollywood on Sunday night. But this year’s Academy Award winners won’t necessarily be in Oscar mode when they next pop up on a movie screen.

Because they took jobs before the awards angel landed on their shoulders — or because they simply want to perform in  diverse roles — many of the winners will star in more commercial films than the ones that netted them their statuettes.

In April, Natalie Portman will appear in the (not exactly Oscar-like) stoner comedy “Your Highness" (and opposite Oscar co-host James Franco). Just a month later, she’ll star as a scientist in a Marvel superhero movie, "Thor," the new take on the Norse god. (She'll also appear in a supporting role in the independent drama “Hesher,” which is expected to get a limited release.)

After that? It could be a while before we see the pregnant actress on screen again; Portman said backstage at the Oscars on Sunday that she had no idea how impending motherhood would affect the roles she takes. “One of the exciting things about becoming pregnant is that I’m expecting a complete unknown,” she said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Candid quotes from the red carpet and beyond

Melissa Leo, the “Fighter” costar who provided the, er, most colorful moment of the Oscars during her acceptance speech for supporting actress, will next make more niche appearances on the big screen. She’ll play a gun-toting member of a homophobic cult in Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” which the filmmaker is self-distributing in October, and she’ll star in an independent golf dramedy titled “Seven Days in Utopia,” which does not yet have a theatrical distributor. (She also has a recurring role on HBO’s post-Katrina New Orleans-set series “Treme.”)

After years of romantic comedy roles leading up to his turn as George VI in “The King’s Speech,” lead actor winner Colin Firth is skewing a little bit more commercial than the film that landed him his statuette — but only a little bit.

The English actor will next be seen in the adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a film he was shooting while promoting “The King’s Speech” this season. He plays a British intelligence officer (code name Tailor) suspected of being a Russian mole. The espionage drama, whose rights have just been acquired by Universal Pictures, does not yet have a release date.

 Firth this summer also aims to shoot Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker,” a mystery drama that will put him in a film with another 2011 award-season personality, Nicole Kidman.

PHOTO GALLERY: Behind the scenes of the 2011 Academy Awards

And Christian Bale? He's spent the last part of his Oscar campaign in an artistically rigorous place: in China shooting a part as a heroic priest in the Asian period piece “The 13 Women of Nanjing." But blockbusters aren’t too far from the actor’s mind; Bale will reprise his superhero role in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is scheduled for the summer of 2012.

“When I finish the movie in China,” he told reporters Sunday, “it’s straight to Batman. Much more Batman.”

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, center, and James Franco in "Your Highness." Credit: Universal


Oscar speeches: navel-gazing or proper thanks?

February 28, 2011 |  2:08 pm

Every year, Oscar nominees are admonished: If you win, make your acceptance speech memorable. Few, though, seem to be listening.

At the luncheon for Academy Award nominees held annually a few weeks before the show, the broadcast’s producers deliver the message. You’re facing a global audience of millions, they advise, so think very carefully about what you want to say. Don’t recite a list of people no one outside of Hollywood has heard of.

"Reading a long list of names only shows us your bald spot," Tom Hanks said in a video filled with bad speeches shown at this year’s luncheon. Oscar producer Don Mischer even cautioned that whenever a winner unfurls a piece of paper, hundreds of thousands of viewers tune out of the show.

PHOTO GALLERY: Candid quotes from the red carpet and beyond

Colleen Atwood, who won the costume design Oscar for “Alice in Wonderland,” was at the luncheon, but didn’t seem to heed the warning Sunday night, pulling out a long roster of people to thank.

A number of winners acknowledged parents, children and significant others. But the 2011 broadcast was also notable for how many people thanked their agents, managers and publicists — who of course are paid richly to promote their clients’ careers. 

PHOTO GALLERY: Best and Worst of the 2011 Academy Awards

Some may blame hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway for the show’s ratings, which according to early projections were off 7% from a year ago. But perhaps there’s another reason: No one in America knows — or cares — who an actor’s agent is.

Some excerpts of the inside-Hollywood thank-yous from Sunday’s winners:

Natalie Portman, lead actress for “Black Swan”: “…I want to thank my team who works with me every day. Aleen Keshishian, my manager, for 18 years and my agents Kevin Huvane and everyone at CAA. Bryna and Tamar at ID, my friends who are everything to me no matter what's going on in my career.”

Aaron Sorkin, adapted screenplay for “The Social Network”: “There are a lot of people who've worked hard in my corner for a long time, it seems like the right moment to thank them. My assistant Lauren Lohman, my researcher, Ian Reichbach, my long suffering press rep, Joy Fehily, and all the women of Prime, Rich Heller, Bill Tanner, Andy Forshay, my agents Ari Emanuel and Jason Spitz who never blow my cover and reveal that I would happily do this for free….”

Christian Bale, supporting actor for “The Fighter”: “…My team, led by Patrick and Boomer and Carlos and Jen and Anna and Julie, thank you so much for everything that you do.”

--John Horn

Photo of Natalie Portman at the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times


The British are coming? Decoding the 'King's Speech' win

February 28, 2011 |  7:10 am


If you were watching the Oscars on Sunday night, the narrative of "The King's Speech" beating "The Social Network" played out on several levels. The Tom Hooper film won in four major categories -- best picture, director and actor, as well as in one of the two screenplay categories -- the first time since "American Beauty" 11 years ago that a single movie walked away with that quartet of prizes.

If you were a follower of Hollywood politics, that kind of haul had a David-toppling-Goliath feel. This was a small film with a director whose lone previous feature grossed less than $1 million, and that starred the second lead from "Bridget Jones's Diary," triumphing over a movie made by a major studio, directed by the filmmaker behind "Seven" and penned by the creator of "The West Wing."

But it was also hard to avoid a more cultural subplot in Sunday's events: the British-ness of Oscar's biggest prize.

The motion picture academy is sometimes perceived as favoring movies with a British tilt. But it doesn't, in fact, show them that much love. Productions from across the pond can win at the Oscars, but despite a history of paying them respect, it hasn't happened much in recent decades. Before "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009, you actually have to go back to 1987 ("The Last Emperor") to find a best picture winner with mainly Britain-based producers. (One of the three "King's Speech" producers is Australian-born but is based in London.)

"The King's Speech" was also the first best picture winner in more than a decade to be set in England. ("Shakespeare in Love" last did it in 1999.)

And the "King's Speech" win on Sunday night marked the first time the academy chose for its best picture a movie that also won best British film at the BAFTAs (essentially the British Oscars) in the modern history of that organization.

But maybe more important than any of these statistical landmarks were the themes of "The King's Speech." Though universal subjects such as loyalty and responsibility ran through the film, there was also an unmistakable British hue to the movie, what with its exploration of an evolving monarchy and its view of an British empire as the best bulwark against Nazism. (The point was highlighted backstage when an English journalist asked the producers if they were in fact monarchists; the question elicited an elaborate answer whose nuances were lost on many of the American journos in the room, this one included.)

This was, in the end, a season when movies with a distinctly American tone shone brightly for audiences. "The Fighter" and "Black Swan" took place in highly particular stateside settings and explored quintessentially American themes (the role of the underdog and the price of over-achievement). And that epitome of American stories, the redemption Western, was one of the season's biggest hits. ("True Grit" tallied nearly $170 million in box office.) Yet the combined Oscar count for those movies was exactly three.

On top of that, of course, came "The Social Network" losing out in its bid for best picture, a category in which a period movie about kings and prime ministers bested a story of Silicon Valley ambition.

There's been much made in recent months about the rise of British actors in blockbusters, with performers from across the pond, such as Andrew Garfield and Henry Cavill, being cast as American superheroes. True, Sunday night was mainly about one film. But when it comes to heralding the arrival of things British, the academy is back to riding that horse.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

Photo: From left, 'King's Speech' producers Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin and Iain Canning. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images

Oscars: Colin Firth doesn't like new 'King's Speech' cut

February 27, 2011 | 10:24 pm


The new PG-13 cut of "The King's Speech" is meant to open the film to a wider audience. But the star of the film sees little noble about studio Weinstein Co.'s decision to tweak the best picture winner.
Saying he'd yet to see the new cut of the film -- which mutes out the f-word in a key scene uttered by Firth's Duke of York to Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue -- Firth nonetheless said he was irked by the decision.

"I don’t support it," he said. "I think the film has its integrity as it stands. I think that scene belongs where it is. I think it serves a purpose."

Speaking to reporters backstage after he won the statuette for lead actor at the Oscars, Firth went on to explain that he's normally very careful about the use of obscenity, citing his parental sensitivity to profanity. "I’m not somebody who takes that kind of language casually. I take my kids to soccer games. I hate hearing that language around them."

But he added that the scene served an artistic purpose. "The language in the film is about a man trying to free himself through the use of forbidden words," said the British actor. "And he’s so coy about it. I haven’t met a person who has been offended by it."

Firth echoed the sentiments of director Tom Hooper, who similarly opposed the cut. The f-word became an unlikely subject of interest at the Oscars, when Melissa Leo let one slip while accepting the prize for supporting actress. She later apologized backstage.

-- Steven Zeitchik



Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

Photo: Colin Firth in "The King's Speech." Credit: Weinstein Co.

Oscars: Natalie Portman on pregnancy, baby names and life changes (and her movie)

February 27, 2011 |  9:52 pm

Natalie Natalie Portman may have just won her first Oscar, but most reporters who had the chance to interview her had one subject on their minds: her pregnancy.

Journalists lobbed numerous questions at the "Black Swan" actress about said life change when she came backstage after her lead actress win.

One reporter started out by asking if she and fiance Benjamin Millipied would name their baby Oscar. "That's probably — definitely — out of the question," Portman responded.

Then, to "what was the baby doing during the show?" the actress said, "The baby was definitely kicking during the song portion of the show. A little dancer."

And on how her imminent motherhood might change the roles she'd take, Portman said, "I have no idea. One of the exciting things about becoming pregnant is that I'm expecting a complete unknown, a complete miracle."

Portman did make the rare move of interpreting her film, particularly its (spoiler alert) ambiguous ending, in which Portman's Nina Sayers appears to kill herself.

"I don't necessarily see it as a death at the end as many people do," she said. "I really see it as this young woman's coming of age that she becomes a woman. She starts out a girl and becomes a woman by killing the child version of herself."

— Steven Zeitchik



Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

Photo: Natalie Portman. Credit: Associated Press.

Oscars: The competition stiff, the winning sweet

February 27, 2011 |  8:57 pm

And then there was one....

"The King's Speech" turned out to be the kingmaker. Who could argue with that? Not I. Lots of British producers at the podium, all seemed happy. Who could blame them?

But then it was a very good year, and the competition in the best picture category was stiff. That makes the winning even sweeter when the fight is against such worthy competitors. A case could be made for each one, so I guess when you hear, "Everyone's a winner, it's enough to be nominated," it's true after all.

So, congrats to all of you. Kings or not, you were all royalty. You gave us a great year at the movies. Luv ya, mean it, xoxo  

P.S. The kids were all right... Anne and James, Hathaway and Franco, did good. And anytime they didn't, well, they're kids, no one will blame them.

So, next year? Again? Shall we? Plan on it.

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosting the show. Credit: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press 

Oscars: Natalie Portman and Colin Firth win top acting awards

February 27, 2011 |  8:46 pm

Natalieosc Yeah Natalie; Ye-ye-yeah Colin!!!

I guess the surprise would have been if Natalie Portman hadn't won for her soul-destroyed ballerina in "Black Swan." It may be the defining performance in her career, so visceral it was, so true did it feel. It was one of my favorites of the year the moment I saw it. She came into the night on a tsunami of support -- Indie Spirit award, Golden Globe, SAG, she even got the British vote from BAFTA. That girl can fly.

How wonderful is Colin Firth? He had racked up a whole bunch of gold too -- Globes, SAG, BAFTA too. Stepping onstage to accept his trophy, he came with the threat of dance moves, as only the still stiff upper-lipped Brit so winningly, wryly could. What can you say about the performance? So moving, so much dignity. Onscreen or off, in character or not, he is such a class act.

Though considering the performance this year, maybe next year the academy should consider ties....


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Natalie Portman and fiancee Benjamin Millepied arrive at the Academy Awards. Credit: Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT 


Oscars: Let's all thank Tom Hooper's mom

February 27, 2011 |  8:22 pm

We had a hint that Tom Hooper might win the directing Oscar for "The King's Speech" after the Directors Guild honored him. It came after an early wave of awards seemed to suggest that David Fincher would take it home for "The Social Network."

Hooper was a delight in telling a story of his mum and the play reading she attended years ago called "The King's Speech." He said the lesson was, "listen to your Mom."

And once again, the whole "man-love" thing surfaced. The film's star, Colin Firth, started it in trying to explain the amazing relationship that took shape on the set as the collaboration between he, Hooper and actor Geoffrey Rush (who was nominated in the supporting category) took shape. It's a good trend, guys trying to find ways to talk about their feelings. They like each other, they do, they really, really do. (Sally Field, 1985, "Places in the Heart")


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

-- Betsy Sharkey

 Photo: Director Tom Hooper arrives with his mother, author Meredith Hooper. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

Oscars: Aaron Sorkin says after Egypt, he's come around on Facebook

February 27, 2011 |  8:19 pm

Sorkintimber Maybe Facebook is useful after all. That was the message at the Oscars from "The Social Network" scribe Aaron Sorkin, who this season was quoted numerous times as saying he doesn't use Facebook and doesn't know much about it, despite writing a film about its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

"I've been cranky about the Internet," Sorkin told reporters backstage at the Academy Awards after winning the prize for adapted screenplay. "Somewhere along the way I've turned into my grandfather. And I've got some good reasons. But when you see what happened in Cairo and other examples of social-network tools mobilizing people for great causes, you want to thank the Mark Zuckerbergs that are out there for doing that." (Facebook was used by some key organizers of the Egyptian uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.)

Sorkin has in the past compared Facebook to a carburetor -- he has said he knows it's in there but "wouldn't know the first thing about finding it."

But Sorkin also says that writing a movie like this has upped the ante for him personally. "I'll be very candid with you. Since the movie came out and got the cultural and critical reaction, I've been hyper-aware the thing I write next is the movie I write after 'The Social Network.' "

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Aaron Sorkin, left, embraces "Social Network" actor Justin Timberlake as they arrive for the Academy Awards. Credit: Andrew Gombert/EPA


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