Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

Retro movie review: ‘The Darjeeling Limited’

“The Darjeeling Limited,” from 2007, is minor Wes Anderson but, as always, colorful and interesting, frantic and funny. I bring it up because of Anderson’s new “Isle of Dogs.” Wildly stylized, a bit melancholy, “Darjeeling” holds up better than many think. My review upon its release:

From “Rushmore” to “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson inserts us into lush and artificial places, heady imaginary worlds slathered in sizzling primary colors and soundtracked to infectious ’60s rock that courts a light-headed buzz. His ornate sets and surgical compositions are like dioramas made of gumdrops and lollipops. Be sure: They will cause toothaches.

Anderson is a showman — a show-off — with a dandy’s sensibility for design and décor, a little bit of Pedro Almódovar swished with Richard Lester, lovely but spasmodic. That aesthetic hit its mark in “Rushmore,” one of Anderson’s comic masterstrokes (the other is “Bottle Rocket”), but got out of hand in the cloying “Royal Tenenbaums” and the meandering “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” cutesy confections that strained to delight the Anderson cult with rampant quirks.

Anderson’s a hipster nebbish, the self-conscious artist as a youngish man still locating a workable balance of personal voice and cinematic immortality.

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Perhaps chastened by the pallid response to “Life Aquatic,” Anderson pulls back in “Darjeeling” for something sweetly inviting. Co-written by Roman Coppola and one of the film’s stars, Jason Schwartzman — both of whom trace bloodlines to the Coppola dynasty — this yeasty picaresque about three troubled brothers on a bumbling train journey across India shows Anderson in fair control of his material. Excess gives way to highly stylized understatement, grounded by an unmistakable thrum of melancholy.

In fact, the affair is so mild that Anderson’s ideas about reconciliation and healing amid a dysfunctional family (abiding themes in all his movies) don’t quite jell. When the rural Indian dust settles, it’s not clear what the characters actually accomplished in their distinctly un-mythic quest.

Still, it’s a fun ride. Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody make an amusing trio whose passive-aggressive deadpan is relieved by fits of brotherly scrapping. Yet we never get caught up in their professed spiritual journey or the small adventures into which they shamble.

Anderson tames the dirty, dizzying India of reality and other India-set films. He brightens it up with that free-flowing electric pallete and organizes the chaos to fit his fussy sensibilities. From all reports, he even gets the smell of the country wrong. (“I love the way this country smells,” Brody’s character says. “It’s kind of spicy.”)

Anderson has no interest in the heaving Indian miasma. He fails even to contrast our goofy heroes’ monied, white upper-middle classness with the local penury. Everything is beautiful: Their titular train is all luxury coaches, and when they enter a far-flung village, the light falls perfectly, the colors mesh and flowers abound.

That village sequence, by the way, centers around a sudden tragedy midway through the 90-minute film. It’s a thing of sadness, but Anderson mishandles its impact on the story. The incident not only shuts down and sobers up the boys, who have been clownish entertainers until now, it throws a pall over the rest of the show.

A blowzy charmer, Wilson mostly reprises his Dignan character from “Bottle Rocket,” playing the bossy, control-freak brother with an iron plan. He’s brought a travel assistant with a PC and printer to be cumbersomely schlepped around.

Eerie to some, par for the celebrity course to others, Wilson’s character sports a mummy’s worth of facial bandages through the film, thanks to a failed suicide attempt, which recalls the actor’s recent real-life suicide attempt.

All three brothers bear wounds. Schwartzman, who mysteriously goes barefoot the entire trip, looking like Paul McCartney on the “Abbey Road” album, is nursing a broken heart, and Brody’s stuck in a moribund marriage. The trip, ring-led by Wilson, is also a way to bring the brothers together after a year of silence following their father’s death.

Slight as it is, “The Darjeeling Limited” is of a piece in the Anderson oeuvre. Ferrying between poles of enchantment — happy levity to wistful sorrow — it tenderly limns shattered family dynamics, and does so with panache. Anderson’s visual tics are in full flower: the swift, information-packed pans; long horizontal tracking shots; lyrical slow-motion. (And, hey, there’s Bill Murray!)

Some will call this mellow picture minor Wes Anderson, which would be reductive. I call it growth.

The 10 best movies of the year, so far — Part II

In July I scared up a list of the 10 best movies of 2017 up to that point. (That list is here.) Since then, the Oscar-bait season has commenced and the year is almost a wrap. I’ve caught up with some of the movies I missed earlier and saw many of the new batch, though I have yet to see raved-about titles like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lemon,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

For now, here’s the second installment of the best movies of the year, so far:

1. “Lady Bird” — By turns a sweeping and intimate coming-of-age dramedy of devastating charm, heart and honesty, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut stars a phenomenally nuanced, preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior grappling with the usual: budding hormones, blossoming opinions, bristling anti-authoritarianism and a mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) with whom she’s at crippling odds. It’s familiar ground, but Gerwig and Ronan whip it into a consistently fascinating, funny and profoundly felt journey that’s not easily shaken. Indeed, it’s intoxicating.

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2. “The Florida Project” — Ugly yet beautiful, soaked in blazing Day-Glo Floridian hues and druggy homeless miseries, Sean Baker’s affecting follow-up to his 2015 stunner “Tangerine” celebrates the anarchy of childhood as told through the impish eyes of a little girl named Moonee (jaw-dropping newcomer Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a long-stay motel with her bedraggled (and be-drugged) mom (the superb Bria Vinaite, a kind of Courtney Love doppelgänger at her mascara-running worst), where she forms a pack of fellow summer-break youngsters who raise hell to the perpetual consternation of motel manager Willem DeFoe, who’s at his fuming best. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s illuminating and something of a tour de force, with a miraculous denouement that swells the heart with hope.

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3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — A teenage girl is raped and killed and months later the case is still not cracked. The girl’s fed-up mother (a ball-busting Frances McDormand, who will get an Oscar nod) rents three blood-red billboards that accuse the local police of ineptitude in handling the case. No one is happy about it, especially the police chief (the reliably riveting Woody Harrelson) and his loose-cannon underling (crackpot genius Sam Rockwell). As Tarantino once was, writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) is a master at balancing dark humor and bloody crime kicks, seamlessly blending violence and whorling emotional textures. The film is streaked with a Coen-esque unpredictability that’s whiplashing and totally winning.

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4. “Good Time” — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dirty, dangerous two-bit criminal, who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The lo-fi film, by the gifted Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”), pulls you on a thrilling run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it exhilarates as it harrows. Co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie’s performance as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother will cleave your heart.

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5. “Jane” — There’s heartache, too, in this absorbing documentary about famed chimpanzee expert/primatologist Jane Goodall, which is composed of hitherto unseen film from her decades in the African jungle, as well as family home movies. Goodall comes off as a winsome Mother Teresa, trying to preserve her hairy pals and the planet to boot, and the footage often grazes the breathtaking (and heartbreaking). Caveat: Along with primates dying of terrible diseases, there’s a nauseating burst of internecine chimpicide on display. It’s brief, but brutal.

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6. “Wind River” — Taylor Sheridan, writer of the gritty near-masterpieces “Sicario” and  “Hell or High Water,” tackles another noirish crime drama for his fine directorial debut, which starts at a chug but gathers velocity for an uncommonly intelligent thriller about people and place. After a brutal rape and murder on a remote Native American reservation in snow-socked Wyoming, a green FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to take the case. She’s joined by a compassionate local wildlife officer (a soulful Jeremy Renner) and soon they are deeply, and dangerously, entangled in the crime’s harrowing complexities. Sheridan’s a superior writer — the dialogue is terse and crackly — and his instinct for mood is unerring. Somber, but bracing.

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7. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” — This bizarro documentary peek at the extreme idiosyncrasies of an overly committed artist — in this case the mercurial Jim Carrey — is as squirm-inducing as it is enthralling. In the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Carrey portrayed daredevil comedian/performance artist Kaufman, but he pulled a full Method stunt, refusing to step out of character after “Cut!” was yelled. Kaufman was the apotheosis of strange — inscrutable, volatile, scarily unpredictable — so Carrey’s on-set behavior as “Andy,” seen here in rare footage, rattled, roiled and enraged crew and co-stars. Director Chris Smith interviews Carrey today, and the actor explains his reckless impulses. Or at least he tries. (On Netflix)

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8. “Baby Driver” — As an expert getaway driver for a group of high-stakes bank robbers, Baby, as he’s called (a solemn but beat-happy Ansel Elgort), drives like a demon, churning smoke and pulling 50 mph pirouettes to the groovin’ pulse of tunes blasting in his ear buds. Director Edgar Wright has a clever concept — boy wonder drives the likes of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx to turned-to-11 classic rock, funk and soul — but it doesn’t quite take off for a full-bodied narrative. Still, the music’s a kick and you get the best car-chase porn this side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

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9. “Obit.” — “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life,” says New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox in Vanessa Gould’s tonic and info-rich documentary about the technical, curatorial and artistic aspects of writing compelling narratives about those who’ve passed. Zooming in on the august obit desk at the Times and its stable of crack stylists, the movie traces the creative evolution of the form — today obits can be “just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects” — shows the persnickety process of winnowing worthy subjects from lesser ones and unveils the muses behind the writers’ elegant, punchy, even humorous essays. “Maybe it’s macabre, maybe it’s a little morbid,” one writer notes about his craft. This film shows that that is simply not the case.

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10. “Mudbound” — A sharp cast and lavish period detail invigorate this evocative and lushly filmed snapshot of a racially turbulent postwar Mississippi. Director/co-writer Dee Rees describes the relationship between a white family and a black family, which is uneasy at best, thanks to the harsh indignities of Jim Crow rule. Sometimes savage, sometimes soapy, the film aspires to an epic scope, but its made-for-TV feel, a conventional, predictable sheen, thwarts its loftier ambitions. (On Netflix)

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The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

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First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a blog at HoustonPress.com, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo.

We spoke to Courtney because we had to. We had to know if she was real or just a cartoon character. If she was at all like the effervescent Flo. If she really wore that much make-up and, hey, who does your hair?

Courtney has been playing Flo for several years. Which makes her the face and voice of Progressive, a peer of the Geico gecko (do they ever hang out, compare rates?) and the old Verizon guy. She follows in a heady tradition of corporate mascots, from Palmolive’s Madge to Tony the Tiger.

It’s been quite a ride for Courtney, a senior member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. It began with a simple audition for a commercial. She showed up in a polo shirt and ponytail. She did some improvisation.

“They wanted someone with a lot of personality,” Courtney says by phone from her Los Angeles home.

They liked her and signed her.

Then, the look. That look.

They cut her hair, gave her bangs. They subjected her to two hours of hair and make-up.

“They tease my hair, spray it and stick the headband in it,” Courtney explains.

“And the makeup is like painting a portrait on my face,” she says, laughing. “It’s insane. It totally changes things on my face. It’s like having a mask on.”

One of Flo’s best-known lines is: “Wow! I say it louder.” (You had to be there.)

Courtney has popped up in the movies “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Blades of Glory,” and was one of four leads in the smart adult comedy “Melvin Goes to Dinner,” which won the audience award at South by Southwest in 2003. She also had a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show “Mad Men.” And you may have seen her doing yoga in a Glade commercial.

The job pays well, Courtney hints. She doesn’t have to worry anymore about pesky things like rent.

How much is Courtney like flamboyant Flo?

“It’s me at my silliest,” she says. “You start off with a script, but at the end they usually let me put a little zinger in there. We put a little mustard on it. That’s when it gets fun.

“Flo could be one of my improv characters, always on and sort of cracked in a weird way.”

But who is Flo? What is she? People wonder …

Like this blogger: “Is it her fabulous comic timing, her over-the-top facial expressions, her cute-as-a-button retro flip? Or is it the slight hint of a bad girl that lies just under the surface? The promise of a tattoo under that checkout girl uniform? The possibility of a motorcycle parked out back?”

Her character has been compared to a vintage Vargas pin-up girl, ’50s burlesque dancer Betty Page and, adds Courtney, a “fetish chick.”

“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “The way I play her, she’s pretty much the most asexual thing on TV right now. I think the Geico lizard puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does. But I do think the cavemen are totally crushable.”

Though Courtney is married to a sixth-grade teacher, Flo appears alluringly single. So pine away, in the same brunette-crush way you did with Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” and Velma on “Scooby-Doo.”

Because things couldn’t get much stranger than they already are for Courtney. Top this: People are dressing up as Flo for Halloween.

“That makes me so happy. But I do have to warn them that it takes two hours in hair and make-up,” she says. “I wish them luck.”

A brief encounter with the late, mighty, forever-old Harry Dean Stanton

A slight, gaunt man, with a mummy’s sunken eyes, Harry Dean Stanton seemed eternally haggard and, in his later days, alarmingly cadaverous. He finally gave way to his looks: Stanton, a reticent, lived-in character actor with a gentle heart beating beneath a leather exterior, died yesterday. He was 91.

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Stanton’s best-known work includes “Paris, Texas,” “Wise Blood,” “Repo Man,” “The Rose,” “Pretty in Pink” and HBO’s “Big Love.” I don’t have much to say about his passing, except that it’s sad and that I have potent memories of his performances, especially his role as doomed Brett in 1979’s unshakable “Alien.” Even then he had a Keith Richards mien going on.

I met Stanton briefly in 2003 at a club concert in Austin, Texas, that Stanton, in town shooting a film, reluctantly attended. This is what I blogged then about the special, if tentative, encounter:

One night at Antone’s nightclub, actress Gina Gershon was rocking and Harry Dean Stanton was frowning. “It’s loud, strident and violent,” Stanton said of the three-chord crunch Gershon and her backup group Girls Against Boys were discharging like the solid bar band they were pretending to be. “It’s an assault on the senses.” (It’s rock ‘n’ roll, Harry.)

Hanging out alone at the end of the bar next to the candy machines, Stanton appeared slightly forlorn during the show, nursing what looked like a whisky sour but might have been ginger ale, skittishly glancing around, producing sweet but wavering smiles when approached by pretty women who would wrap an arm around the black blazer that hung on his slight frame with a vaudevillian droop.

Gershon was on a short club tour, living out her long-held musician’s fantasy, putting down the air-guitar for a Gibson SG. She drew about 400 people to Antone’s, about half appearing to be guest-list rubber-neckers. Including Stanton.

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Stanton, 77, has 100 films to his credit, some of the best being “Cool Hand Luke,” “Paris, Texas” and “Alien.” He was in Austin shooting the Luke Wilson-directed “Wendell Baker Story” and has been spotted at unlikely places like Club Deville, where friends tell me Luke and Owen Wilson enjoy tearing it up. Not sure why Stanton was here, but his “Baker” co-star Seymour Cassel dropped in late during the show, said something to Stanton and waded into the crowd of mostly thirtysomethings.

As the show wound down with a tight cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” my girlfriend offered Stanton some Reese’s Pieces bought for a quarter from one of the candy machines. He looked into her open palm and asked, “What are those — M&M’s?” He puzzled over the morsels as if studying Martian soil. Then a trio of pretty girls enfolded him in their attentions, and he was gone.

The 20 most alluring actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age

We love our movie stars, and I love my actresses, especially those indelible bright lights, those sirens, sex pots and sophisticates, from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly the 1920s through the early ’60s.

Audiences cultivate complex relationships with the actors on screen. They crush, lust, idolize, envy and hero-worship. They take these visions personally. Sometimes they want to take them home.

With today’s top actresses and starlets, tabloid tastemakers gravitate to the Jolies, J. Los and J-Laws, brassy self-promoters with wicked powers of manipulation.

But the actresses who seize my attention, the ones who have the elusive It factor, an intelligence mingled with integrity, include Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. They recall the stars of Hollywood past, several of whom I celebrate here.

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Marion Cotillard

Despite their physical allure — not to fetishize appearances — I appreciate actresses with hauteur, poise and self-possession. They’re sassy and sophisticated, loopy and urbane, glamorous, flirtatious, demure and dangerous. They’re partiers, victims, fatales and floozies. Beautiful, blazing, but armed with multifaceted talent.

You might be shocked by the actresses I shut out, as much as I adamantly adore them: Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn. Not even stone-cold goddess Marilyn Monroe makes the cut.

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Ann Blyth

And, with the key exception of Martha Vickers as the narcotized nymphet in “The Big Sleep,” I’ve reluctantly excluded the countless supporting performers who’ve goosed so many screwballs, soaps and noirs, like Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” and Dorothy Malone, who plays the bespectacled bookstore owner in “The Big Sleep.”

Here’s a 20-strong parade of my favorite Golden Age screen sirens, my old-timey It girls. They are presented in no particular order, neither by chronology, talent or pulchritude. (Please add your two cents if you’d like.)

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Hedy Lamarr: “Ecstasy” (1933), “Samson and Delilah” (1946)
louise brooks
Louise Brooks“Pandora’s Box” (1929), “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929)
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Martha Vickers: “The Big Sleep” (1946)
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Veronica Lake“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “This Gun for Hire” (1942)
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Ava Gardner“The Killers” (1946), “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954)
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Jean Simmons“Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Elmer Gantry” (1960)
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Grace Kelly“High Noon” (1952), “Rear Window” (1954)
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Gene Tierney“Laura” (1944), “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945)
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Ingrid Bergman“Casablanca” (1942), “Notorious” (1946)
joan bennett
Joan Bennett“The Woman in the Window” (1944), “Scarlet Street” (1945)
paulette godard
Paulette Goddard: “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940)
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Carole Lombard“My Man Godfrey” (1936), “Nothing Sacred” (1937)
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Myrna Loy“The Thin Man” (1934), “Libeled Lady” (1936)
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Olivia de Havilland“Gone with the Wind” (1939), “The Heiress” (1949)
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Natalie Wood“Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “West Side Story” (1961)
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Vivien Leigh“Gone With the Wind” (1939), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
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Elizabeth Taylor“A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
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Rita Hayworth“Gilda” (1946), “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)
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Audrey Hepburn“Roman Holiday” (1953), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
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Lana Turner“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), “Peyton Place” (1957)

 

An easy, breezy interview with the late Sam Shepard

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Sam Shepard, who died last week of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 73, was a consummate actor, all crinkled deep-West cool, and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning playwright. He was also hell of a good sport during my interview with him in Austin, Texas, in 2006. He laughed off my blind spots, stuck with me, and seemed to have a good time. But who knows? Shepard was also something of a mystery man, solo, soulful, if often smiling.

In a small tribute to the artist, here is our interview:

Sam Shepard laughs more than you’d think he would, considering the actor-playwright’s sun-crisped cowboy persona, which dons the dusty, romantic despair of a desert loner.

Namely, Shepard laughs at me. He has a great dry chuckle that heh-heh-hehs whenever I demonstrate my sweeping ignorance of things cow, horse, rope and ranch. This happens often.

Best remembered as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Shepard was in Austin to screen his film “Don’t Come Knocking” during South by Southwest. He was disappointed that the movie wasn’t playing at the grand Paramount Theatre.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” he says in a soft drawl. “That beautiful big theater.

“Instead,” he laughs, “it’s in some stockyard theater.” (It screened at the Alamo South.)

Shepard co-wrote “Don’t Come Knocking” with director Wim Wenders, their second collaboration since “Paris, Texas” in 1984. Shepard stars in the film with longtime partner Jessica Lange.

Tall, lean, with striking blue eyes, Shepard, 62, cuts a suave figure in a black leather blazer, blue jeans and fancy cowboy boots. He sits down in the Four Seasons hotel bar and orders iced tea. He has written dozens of plays, including “Fool for Love” and “True West,” and acted in more than 40 films.

One of those films is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Shepard was having dinner with Malick and Wenders that night. I ask if I can come. He just laughs.

Q: Yesterday I interviewed John C. Reilly. He says hi. Do you have any words about him?

SS: He’s here? I didn’t see him. He’s a remarkable actor. We had a lot of good fun doing “True West” together (in 2000 on Broadway, with Philip Seymour Hoffman). It was unique in that he and Philip would switch roles every two nights. The transformations were amazing. Philip just won the Academy Award, bless his heart.

Q: How does “Don’t Come Knocking” fit into your body of work? It’s set in a familiar world of yours with a familiar character, but it’s steeped in valediction and redemption much like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

SS: I really don’t think about any of my work like that. I don’t know how to categorize it. I just go instinctively with certain ideas and allow those ideas to play themselves out. Because I’m the same person, obviously there’s going to be similarities with what’s done before. But if anything, Wim and I were trying to avoid similarities to “Paris, Texas.”

Q: Yet there are thematic similarities between the two films.

SS: Of course there are. The main characters share the same sort of alienation and strandedness and remoteness.

Q: Is that where the wide-open settings come into play, as metaphors for the characters’ predicament?

SS: Yes. It’s interesting to set characters like that against an overwhelming landscape, almost like he’s lost in the ocean.

Q: What kind of boots are those?

SS: Leddy.

Q: Leddy? Is that a famous brand?

SS: Yeah, man! Where you from? (Laughs) These are made in Fort Worth. They’re belly ostrich.

Q: That’s ostrich? I notice your belt buckle’s kind of elaborate, too.

SS: I have cutting horses. I won this.

Q: You won that? It’s like a trophy?

SS: Yeah. WHERE are you from?

Q: Can you tell me what cutting is?

SS: It’s an activity with quarter horses where you go in and separate cattle and keep the calf from getting back into the herd. It’s an old art form.

Q: You do that?

SS: Yes.

Q: The buckle says you won it in 2003. Is it gold, some valuable item?

SS: It’s Montana silver.

Q: What’s next for you?

SS: I’m in the middle of a play right now.

Q: One of yours that’s currently being staged or a new one you’re writing?

SS: I’m writing a play. I’m a playwright.

Q: I know. (He laughs.) Your (Pulitzer-winning) play “Buried Child” is being staged right now.

SS: It’s a workshop production that I didn’t even know about. And someone’s doing “The Late Henry Moss.” And I’m acting in a new film in Shreveport. You follow horse racing at all? Probably not. There was a famous filly called Ruffian in the ’70s, an extraordinary horse. Every time she ran she broke a track record. She died in a match race against a colt, snapped her leg. I’m playing her trainer.

Q: Sounds perfect for you. Who’s directing?

SS: A guy from Quebec. I don’t really know his name. (Laughs) A French guy.