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Knight at the Movies: Hitchcock; Inventing David Geffen; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-11-21

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Two master manipulators—the legendary director of suspense Alfred Hitchcock and David Geffen, the media mogul with the Midas touch—are front and center at the movies this week. The first (in theaters) is director Sacha Gervasi's feature, Hitchcock, and the second is director Susan Lacy's documentary Inventing David Geffen (on PBS all month as part of its "American Masters" series).

Both portray men with enormous creative power at their disposal with the ability to make—and break careers—and the conviction to turn their creative inspirations into realities that continue to influence the cultural landscape. Not surprisingly, the darker aspects of the personalities of these two extraordinarily driven and complicated men are explored.

Hitchcock is based on gay author Stephen Rebello's 1990 bestseller Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. After Black Swan scribe John J. McLaughlin took a stab at the screenplay, Rebello returned for subsequent drafts. The creation of Hitchcock's legendary film—the first real slasher picture—is the framing device for a love story (between Hitch and his spouse and closest collaborator, Alma Reville); part psychological study of the portly and emotionally stilted director as he enters the winter of his career; and part overview of Hollywood in transition, moving from old to new.

For movie buffs, the dramatic backstory of filming Psycho is potentially juicy stuff. In 1959, Hitchcock had just had a massive hit with the elegant spy thriller North By Northwest and was looking to prove that he could hold his own with the new crop dogging his heels. He instinctively felt that a lurid novel based on the true life story of mass murderer Ed Gein was the ticket. Yet Hitch's determination to make the film was greeted with derision and, perhaps most importantly, with cool skepticism from Alma.

Anthony Hopkins, as Sir Alfred (who settles on an approximation of Hitchcock's well-known voice and mannerisms as he did for Richard Nixon, with varying success depending on the scene), throws caution to the wind. He mortgages the house to get the financing and proceeds, with the cautious support of Alma, who suggests Janet Leigh for the part of the luckless Marion Crane who's stabbed in the shower at the 30-minute mark and Anthony Perkins to play the cross-dressing, mother-fixated Norman Bates. Scarlett Johansson is the chipper Leigh, who ignores muted warnings about Hitch's strange fixation on his blonde leading ladies by actress Vera Miles (played by Jessica Biel), while James D'Arcy plays the twitchy Perkins, who was closeted and worried that "playing Norman might cut too close to home."

The filming, done with the crew from Hitch's TV show, goes smoothly enough at first but there's trouble brewing at home: Alma, restless and love-starved, is working on a new script with an old collaborator (played with oily finesse by Danny Huston), driving Hitchcock's jealousy into overdrive. Daily on the set, as he directs Psycho's famous set pieces—Marion driving in the rainstorm, Norman carrying "mother" down the stairs and, most vividly, Marion's fateful shower—he is distracted and egged on by his imaginary "friend" Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) to do something about his suspicions (a device that is really off-putting). Hitch's escalating paranoia morphs into panic until the ever-loyal, no-nonsense Alma takes charge. Here, the warm glow of an old-fashioned love story takes over—which is distinctly at odds with the creepy sequences that have preceded it. All these disparate parts of Hitchcock don't really mesh and the tone of the picture is often off-kilter throughout, but the subject matter and the performance of Helen Mirren as Alma go a long way toward forgiving the movie's strange anomalies.

Much better, tonally, is Susan Lacy's Inventing David Geffen. From the get-go, Geffen—who narrates his own rags-to-riches story on camera—is as firmly in control of the film as he has been famously from the outset of his fascinating career. Starting in the mail room of the William Morris Agency barely out of his teens in the mid-'60s, Geffen quickly developed his knack for spotting talent, developing it and making lots and lots of money in the process.

Geffen began by wooing singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. Nyro, perhaps contemporary music's most striking talent, was also a bohemian spirit par deluxe. But Geffen's passion for her abilities convinced her to place her burgeoning career in his hands. As her agent and manager, he quickly got her signed to Columbia Records and from there moved on to greater and great heights—with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Joni Mitchell; Jackson Browne; the Eagles; and many others benefitting from Geffen's chutzpah and fearlessness. Here was the shark that ate the other sharks in the tank—without looking back.

The climb eventually included forays into Broadway and movies, as a force in the political arena as a power broker and in the gay community as one of its most prominent philanthropists. Everything Geffen touched seemed to turn to gold, but left little time for a personal life. After a famously odd relationship with Cher faltered, Geffen came to terms with his gay sexuality in private, eventually coming out in public as the scourge of AIDS took scores of his friends. Geffen's illustrious story is commented on by many of those he made famous and rich—former enemies and friends alike (often one and the same)—illustrated by a vault full of fascinating archival footage.

Many of the seamier aspects of Geffen's dealings—detailed in Tom King's riveting biography The Operator—are omitted, glossed over or relayed strictly from his viewpoint. (The famous rift with Nyro that happened in 1971 is the documentary's most egregious example of this.) Even though Lacy clearly didn't have a free hand in exchange for access to her no-doubt intimidating subject, Inventing David Geffen is nevertheless an intriguing look at a man who, in his climb to the top of Mt. Billionaire ($5.5 and counting), has managed to exorcise most of his demons. And an epilogue is very telling: As we glimpse the marbled interiors and perfectly landscaped grounds of Geffen's stunning renovation of the Jack Warner vast estate he is there by himself, posed in the impossibly lavish place—alone.

Of related interest: Director Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard—a bitter, acrid and deeply cynical look at the price of big-time success in Hollywood—arrives on Blu-ray in a stunning new transfer, complete with tons of bonus features. Gloria Swanson stars as one-time silent star Norma Desmond, who's planning her "return" behind the walls of her own decaying, Jack Warner-sized estate when hunky young Joe Gillis (William Holden) inadvertently crashes into her life and becomes her kept boy toy. Eric von Stroheim is equally effective as Max, Desmond's butler and former husband.

Film note:

—Get out your nun habits and Nazi uniforms: The annual Thanksgiving screenings of Sing-A-Long Sound of Music return to the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., for multiple showings Nov. 23-25. Once again, audience participation is strongly encouraged at this annual showing of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical classic, the 1965 Best Picture Oscar winner that stars Julie Andrews as the klutzy nun-turned-stepmother/vocal coach of the endless Von Trapp brood and stern-but-kindly father Christopher Plummer (last year's Oscar winner for Beginners), as they are forced to flee the Nazi regime. The fun starts with an audience vocal warm-up, pre-show costume parade and goodie bags. www.musicboxtheatre.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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