American Lives

The Great Gatsby: adapted by Francis Ford Coppola from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald; directed by Jack Clayton; starring Robert Redford (Jay Gatsby), Sam Waterston (Nick Carraway), Mia Farrow (Daisy Buchanan), Bruce Dern (Tom Buchanan), Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker), Scott Wilson (George Wilson), Karen Black (Myrtle Wilson), and Roberts Blossom (Mr. Gatz) (1974): Faithful, somewhat plodding adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece. Mia Farrow makes for a somewhat weak Daisy, but Redford as Gatsby and especially Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway are pretty much pitch perfect, as is Bruce Dern as the almost Mr. Hydesque brute from old money, Tom Buchanan. Coppola parachuted in to save a hated, unfinished Truman Capote adaptation in about three weeks. It’s too bad they couldn’t have had him direct the film as well — I’d imagine it would have had a lot more bounce and zest than what it got from the workmanlike Jack Clayton. Recommended.

The Last Picture Show: adapted by Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry from the novel by Larry McMurtry; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; starring Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Sam Bottoms (Billy), and Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow) (1971): Often found on 100 Best Movie Lists either All-Time or All-American, The Last Picture Show is a gritty, minutely observed look at life in a small Texas town in the early 1950’s.

Naturalistic and episodic though carefully structured, starkly black-and-white, beautifully acted by newcomers like Cybill Shepherd and old-timers like Ben Johnson, who would win a posthumous Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Sam the Lion. Cloris Leachman would also win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the haunted, lonely wife of the town’s high school’s coach and phys. ed. teacher. A young Timothy Bottoms is the protagonist, while a young Jeff Bridges plays his best friend, Duane. Well deserves its place in the upper reaches of the pantheon of American movies. Highly recommended.

Malcolm X: adapted by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl from the book by Malcolm X and Alex Haley; directed by Spike Lee; starring Denzel Washington (Malcolm Little/X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Kate Vernon (Sophia), and Theresa Randle (Laura) (1992): Spike Lee’s epic biopic towers over most movies of the 1990’s, and should at the very least have earned Best Picture and Best Actor (for Denzel Washington as Malcolm X) Oscars. But Hollywood really loved Al Pacino chewing the scenery in Scent of a Woman that year. So it goes.

The movie takes surprisingly few liberties with the facts of the story, primarily in creating compound characters to streamline the narrative. As Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little), Denzel Washington gets to travel from hustler and hood to questing intellect over the 3+ hours of the movie, and all of it convincing. The rest of the cast is superb, with stand-outs including Angela Bassett as Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, and Al Freeman Jr. as the manipulative, charismatic Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam.

Lee’s direction conveys gravitas, lightness of tone, and impending disaster with equal surety. One can see the energetic, bombastic director of previous films that include Do the Right Thing, but that director can now give the viewer a moving, often very formal biopic in which the didactic moments are dramatically satisfying. Lee also plays with film stock and other factors to simulate period-specific ‘real’ footage from the time in as deft a manner as anything Oliver Stone had managed in JFK the previous year (and Malcolm X actually uses footage from JFK for the Kennedy assassination in this film, as Stone was one of many who helped Lee get the long-delayed Malcolm X made).

Washington, Lee, and the screenwriters credited and uncredited make Malcolm X into a sympathetic figure on an almost unbelievably rich and complex journey of spiritual growth. One misses him when he’s gone from the film, while the film brilliantly shifts from its depiction of events to actual footage of the real Malcolm. The two-part conclusion to the film, with Ossie Davis’s 1965 funeral oration followed by contemporary footage shot for the film, is a stunner. So too the movie. Highly recommended.

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