Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A leading man worth following

Note: the author is a twenty-year Hollywood veteran actor, writer, film maker. He earned these insights.

By Lars Beckerman

While most of the country focuses on the mortgage foreclosure crisis, I’ve decided to look at a Hollywood crisis that is equally troubling and may actually be the root of the problem. A leading man shortage. Even the federal government can’t fix this; and it is not as simple as merely anointing George Clooney “The Last Great Movie Star.” Talk about sub prime.

After years of defending Tom Cruise, the embarrassingly preachy Lions for Lambs combined with his tabloid life have finally driven me away; and while I am seriously impressed by the career trajectory of Will Smith, I still maintain the discipline to wait until his titles hit the DVD shelf (rent The Pursuit of Happyness!).

Denzel Washington is excellent, but he rarely challenges himself and he is a bit too prolific for me.

So my box office dollars have been relegated to two leading men that I will pay to see: Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis. Crowe should probably stay away from romantic comedies (A Good Year) but he is the real deal out in front when the rubber hits the road. Day-Lewis is in a league of his own when it comes to character exploration and theatricality, but he is the opposite of prolific, choosing projects so selectively that he may as well be in the witness protection program.

But there is another leading man that you are all undoubtedly familiar with but have more than likely come to take for granted. I know I had.

A few months ago my mother turned me on to a wonderful series of films starring Tom Selleck. Selleck plays Jesse Stone, an exiled Los Angeles cop transplanted in the small New England town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Recently divorced and struggling with his sobriety, Sheriff Stone must now come to grips with the mundane routine of small town policing. And of course, a convenient string of murders and corruption to squash. The films are adapted from Robert B. Parker’s novels and the writing, casting, direction (Robert Harmon) and musical scoring are top notch. Not to mention not one but two loveable dogs.

The level of humanity and wisdom, calmness and compassion that Selleck brings to this role is sublime. I can’t think of another actor who could embody this character as effectively. Selleck was beloved as Thomas Magnum in Magnum P.I. over two decades ago and had a nice box office run with the Three Men and a Baby films. Funny though, because with so few leading men able to sustain box office clout in today’s fickle YouTube saturated climate, it’s curious to me why a genuine article like Selleck would fall off of the mainstream radar. Perhaps by design? Perhaps a man of integrity and class like Selleck gets more satisfaction out of making smaller films for the small screen and avoiding the youth obsessed, backstabbing headache of dealing with Hollywood’s power set. Their loss.

Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section featured a piece written by Patrick Goldstein titled “How the Mighty Have Fallen” which chastises Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for taking cash grab roles over the past decade. Roles that not only have not challenged these two once-great actors, but are actually caricaturing their personas. I agree entirely with Goldstein who also singles out Jack Nicholson for escaping this train wreck and choosing material perfectly suited for his geriatric arrival. Selleck has not only escaped the train wreck, he is right on track with this character and these films.

The first in this series is titled Night Passage, but to the writers’ credit, each film stands on its own and could easily be enjoyed independently or out of sequence. But do yourself a favor and watch them all in a row: Night Passage, Stone Cold, Death in Paradise, and Sea Change – and coming soon, the fifth installment, titled Thin Ice.

I find myself putting them on late at night when my domestic worries keep me awake counting coyotes. Selleck’s character soothes me and reminds me of the human condition and how universal all of our woes and obstacles are. I think back to my teen years, after my parents’ divorce, and the films that helped me through adolescence. John Travolta’s dopey coming of age performance in Saturday Night Fever, Richard Gere’s brooding struggle to achieve discipline and focus in An Officer and a Gentleman, and the graceful Sidney Poitier’s high road decency in To Sir With Love. Now I’m a grown man, complete with mortgage, a beautiful wife and three wonderful children and Tom Selleck’s portrayal of the ultra-ethical Jesse Stone is helping me find virtue and solace in just being a good person. Warts and all.

Now for that top 20 (+5) list of all-time favorite films I promised. I glanced over AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time list and found a number of films I admire and enjoyed, but the criteria for my list focuses on films that inspired me and compelled me to watch them over and over again. So here ya go, guilty pleasures and all:

1 On the Waterfront
2 A Streetcar Named Desire
3 Magnolia
4 An Officer and a Gentleman
5 Fargo
6 Running on Empty
7 True Romance
8 Goodfellas
9 Memento
10 The Godfather
11 Ordinary People
12 Mulholland Drive
13 To Sir With Love
14 Moulin Rouge
15 Barton Fink
16 Cinema Paradiso
17 The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
18 The Usual Suspects
19 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
20 Citizen Kane
21 Angel Heart
22 Reds
23 Diner
24 Miller’s Crossing
25 Gangs of New York

Two films from this past year are going to get better with age. No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are both so dense and layered that it may be years before their grapes are ripe. My gut tells me both will end up in my top twenty - eventually. Outstanding craftsmanship on display for certain.

One final note. My mother-in-law lives with my family and I make a practice of bringing her films to enjoy on her flat screen. She spends most of her time in her upstairs room, overlooking our cul de sac. I know her tastes so my goal is always to bring her uplifting, gentle films that make her day. Yesterday she returned a film to me with a post-it note reading: “Thank you, Lars, for giving me a world to experience outside of my room.”

It’s the little things, isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

I caught this problem years ago, although I would disagree slightly. In addition to some of George Clooney's films (e.g., "Good Night, Good Luck"), I find most of Dennis Quaid's films good. And you shouldn't miss a Kevin Costner western or baseball film. "13 Days" was excellent too. But then who am I talk. I stopped reading the movie section months ago & haven't been to a movie in the theater since "Casino Royale." Way too much violence or stupidity for my tastes." BTY - Tom Selleck's portrayal of Eisenhower was terrific!

Among the best films of all time - "The Godfather" series, "Witness," and John Wayne's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (your mother-in-law might like that one if she's a John Wayne fan) and can't remember the name but it was the true life story of the elderly man who drove his lawn mower to see his elderly brother (because he no longer could get a driver's license)...Sharon

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Tom Sellick in Quigley Down Under? Check it out if you haven't seen it.


Anonymous said...

Heavy...and of course To Kill A Mockingbird next to Bull Durham...two legendary pictures. Bill

Anonymous said...

And, pray tell, why "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is absent from a list of great films? Lock Martin's nuanced, sensitive portrayal of Gort certainly matches the range and depth of Selleck. "Gort! Klattu burada nicto!"

Ken Martin said...

Good piece and highly interesting to a movie junkie like me (my wife says we're cinema aficionados, not movie junkies). Maybe the dearth of leading men of substance is why movies have been on such a box-office death roll of late. We *love* going to the movies and yet week after week, despite the large number of theaters in Austin, we don't find anything worth seeing. On rare occasions we hold our noses and go, keeping expectations really low so as not to be disappointed, and even those low expectations are not met, as in Al Pacino's latest, 88 Minutes. What a stinker!

Also, in a tip of the hat to the fairer sex, what about leading women? Even Jodie Foster's sunk to the level of Charles Bronson, with her 2007 flick The Brave One being nothing more than a knockoff of Bronson's Death Wish.

You're right on about No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, of course. I've watched No Country several times and finally found the smallest flaw in it: In the scene where Javier Bardem breaks into the trailer, he opens the door and picks up mail off the floor just inside the doorway. But, there is no mail slot in the door. The postal delivery person didn't break down the door to put the mail there, so...a blooper. But a helluva film and I'm not complaining, as most movies are so full of holes you could fly an airplane through them (as in 88 Minutes, mentioned above).

Lars said...

Have not seen Selleck in the Eisenhower film, will rent it immediately. Did see Quigley years ago and probably should revisit it now with my newfound appreciation for his ability.

My favorite Costner films are Dances With Wolves and Bull Durham (The Natural still my favorite baseball film!)- Upside of Anger was actually watchable as well. Never really sold on his mettle as a leading man. To each his own as they say. Did not care for Casino Royale at all - only wish I had not shared it with my kids. Not a good turn for the Bond franchise, but I do like Daniel Craig (rent Layercake).

The lawnmower film is titled The Straight Story starring the late Richard Farnsworth and directed (surprisingly) by David Lynch. Very sweet story and a well-crafted film. I enjoyed it very much. Rented a few Wayne films recently (True Grit, Three Godfathers, The Searchers) and although he may very well be the first movie star I mimmicked and even admired, his acting now seems a bit campy. Definitely a sturdy screen presence and a solid leading man, but he's no Brando. But then who is.

Thank you all so much for your feedback and suggestions. I am enjoying the banter. Look for a piece on Hollywood's leading ladies to follow. There are a few real good ones at present, and the roles seem to be worthy of their talents. A film that probably should have made my list of favorites with two outstanding female performances is All About Eve. A classic for sure.


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