Monday, May 03, 2010

SAD PASSAGES: LYNN REDGRAVE (1943-2010) and SCREENWRITER FURIO SCARPELLI (1919-2010)



I heard of the passing of Lynn Redgrave this morning literally at the same moment that I was looking at her face. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 version of Peter Pan was up on my computer monitor and I was enjoying her exquisitely amusing introduction as Wendy Darling’s slightly stuffy yet bemused Aunt Millicent when the Internet news alert of her death at age 67 trailed across my screen. The actress is survived by a son, Ben, and daughters Pema and Annabel. No cause of death has yet been given, though the actress’s family issued the following brief statement:

“Our beloved mother Lynn Rachel passed away peacefully after a seven-year journey with breast cancer. She lived, loved and worked harder than ever before. The endless memories she created as a mother, grandmother, writer, actor and friend will sustain us for the rest of our lives. Our entire family asks for privacy through this difficult time.”

Redgrave, the daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and sister of Vanessa Redgrave, had recently performed her autobiographical one-woman show “Nightingale” in Manhattan and had explained to The New York Times last year that the piece evolved from the thought processes she went through while undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2003. In that same article Redgrave related that while preparing for Nightingale she had undergone further treatment and that her cancer was Stage IV, meaning that it had spread to other organs.

Redgrave made her debut in films in the hit Tom Jones (1963) and quickly segued to her signature role, that of an ugly duckling pursued by sophisticate James Mason in Georgy Girl (1965). She showed off her dry comedy chops for Woody Allen as the queen locked away in the world’s most impenetrable chastity belt in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *(But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) and made another splash on the exploitation circuit as Xaviera Hollander in the unlikely hit biography fashioned from Hollander’s book The Happy Hooker (1975). Redgrave spent the ‘80s largely on stage and the TV screen, reinterpreting Glenda Jackson’s role as a stern buy sexy hospital administrator in the situation comedy version of House Calls (1979-1981), and she appeared in such TV movies as Antony and Cleopatra (1983), The Bad Seed (1985), and in yet another remake derived from an early ‘60s gothic nightmare, she filled Bette Davis’ formidable high heels as Jane Hudson, opposite her own sister Vanessa, in a redo of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1991). It was after appearing with Best Actor winner Geoffrey Rush in the Oscar-nominated Shine in 1996 that Redgrave experienced a bit of a revival of her film career. She immediately followed her small role in Shine with an Oscar nomination of her own for her brilliant performance opposite Ian McKellen as James Whale’s sympathetic housekeeper in Gods and Monsters (1998). She would also appear in Spider (2002) for David Cronenberg as well in Peter Pan, but her life’s work after the century’s turn was largely devoted to the stage and her own battle with the disease that has apparently taken her life at a relatively early age. (For an excellent appraisal of Redgrave’s stage career, click here.)

In addition to the statement quoted above, the family has said that a private funeral will be held later this week. To lose someone like Lynn Redgrave so young is never easy. Her family will have their precious memories of an undoubtedly strong and brave woman, and we will all have her body of work to remind us of those qualities. But we should also feel honored to be able to see in her performances the insecurities and passions and ambitions and misguided emotion which may also have had roots in her life, as they do for us all, but were also the triumphant hallmarks of some of her most memorable character work.

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One of the great treats of the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival this past week was seeing The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with a packed house at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, probably the spiffiest, most grandiose presentation of this great, grandiose western I have ever enjoyed. It was extremely gratifying to experience the degree to which the audience was in tune with the sweeping cutthroat comedy of Sergio Leone’s thrillingly cinematic vision and the perfectly pitched performances of stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. I came away thinking I’d never seen a screening of the movie in which its scabrous spirit seemed so potent, so funny.

So when news came this past Thursday that screenwriter Furio Scarpelli, who crafted the movie’s screenplay along with his longtime writing partner Agenore (Age) Incrocci-- who died in 2005-- and the originators of the story, Luchino Vincenzoni and Leone, it was a bittersweet reminder that even in a movie so renowned for its visual iconography, so much of what we remember vividly from Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) can be traced to the words which laid the foundation for the imagery with which Leone and his stars fashioned this memorable movie. From those words sprang the dusty mile-wide streets; the exhilarating absurdity of an old West con game built around collecting the reward and then extracting a wanted man from his fate by severing the hangman’s rope with an impossibly precise rifle shot; the mystery of Arch Stanton’s grave; and, of course, the dialogue that would seed the memorable characterizations of Eastwood’s Blondie (The Man with No Name), Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and, of course, Eli Wallach’s smelly, dastardly and indefatigable Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (or whatever other aliases he might have).


According to his son Matteo, Scarpelli had long suffered with heart ailments before his death Wednesday in his house in Rome at the age of 90. But before his passing he enjoyed a diverse and healthy career and lent his hand to over 140 films as a writer, crafting some of the best and most popular Italian comedies of the post-war period, many of them written during a decades-long partnership with Incrocci. Some major films bearing Scarpelli's signature include Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Mafioso (1962; Alberto Lattuada), We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974) and The Dinner (1998), both directed by Ettore Scola, Nudo di donna (1981; Nino Manfredi) and Il Postino (The Postman) (1994; Michael Radford), for which he received his third Oscar nomination, following screenplay nominations for Casanova ‘70 (1965) and I compagni (1963), both of which he shared with Incrocci. It was the comedies they created together that defined Scarpelli and Incrocci as unforgiving satirists of the Italian spirit, eviscerating with love and energy the vices, sentiment and excesses of their countrymen with vivid dialogue and breathlessly inventive imagination, providing some of the most memorable comedic roles in the careers of actors such as Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi.

But for most viewers on these shores Furio Scarpelli’s voice (if not his name) is most familiar heard ringing through the characters in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And with the movie so fresh on my mind (be assured, it never drifts far from it), I felt that one of the best tributes to the talent of this prolific, influential screenwriter would be to remember some of the lines that went furthest to bring down the house this past Sunday morning. It’s impossible to say just who can be credited with what lines of dialogue (only Sir Christopher Frayling may know for sure), but given Scarpelli and Incrocci’s history with Italian comedy it’s a good bet they had a hand or two in crafting some of these favorites.

After Blondie has saved Tuco from the noose near the beginning of the film, the two split up the reward money and Blondie suggests renegotiating their deal. Tuco suggests that since its neck at the end of the rope, he deserves a bigger percentage. “You never had a rope around your neck. Well, I'm going to tell you something. When that rope starts to pull tight, you can feel the devil bite your ass.” To which Blondie replies, “You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage—(Offers Tuco a smoke) Uh, cigar?—and that’s liable to interfere with my aim.” Undeterred, Tuco comes back with the spirit of an angry dog with his back up: “But if you miss you had better miss very well. Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing!” Eli Wallach spends his entire performance living up to the suggestion of fierce relentlessness that characterizes Tuco in that brief exchange.

Later, Tuco, perhaps the most pungent man to ever grace a screen without the help of Odorama, takes time out for a bubble bath and is, of course, taken unaware by the desperado who he gunned down and left for dead at the beginning of the film. (This desperado is the first face we see once the movie begins.) The man, who lost an arm when he last met up with Tuco, lords it over his prey, seemingly helpless in a tub overflowing with bubbles. “I've been looking for you for eight months,” he drawls. “Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I've had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.” But before the desperado can draw a bead on his victim, Tuco fires his pistol, hidden in the mass of bubbles, and finishes the job he started earlier. As he gets out of the tub and dries himself over the corpse, Tuco offers a sage bit of advice: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk.”

And finally, after Blondie betrays Tuco and leaves him to ostensibly die in the desert, Tuco curses Blondie out and vows his revenge. Blondie turns to him, with only the slightest hint of a sardonic grin, and says, “Such ingratitude after all the times I saved your life.”

Without Scarpelli, it is no stretch to imagine that we would be remembering a much different film, not to mention a much different history of Italian cinema than we are able to remember today, and for history as it stands we should all be thankful. After all the times he made us smile, such gratitude is entirely appropriate. Scarpelli is survived by his wife and two sons.

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