Monday, June 27, 2011

shortcut to movie limbo (or scenic route to movie oblivion?)

"I'd be a great film critic," Alec Baldwin says in the June 24-26 edition of USA Weekend, as part of a two-question interview (pace yourself, you hardworking Sunday supplement!) promoting his role as host of the Turner Classic Movies series The Essentials. "Most film critics make a huge mistake. The movie business is a director's medium. The actors actually have the least amount of responsibility for the film. It's really incumbent on critics to understand who is responsible for what's on screen."

It's true that film actors are generally at the mercy of their directors, not to mention the editors who shape performances in postproduction and sometimes discard them entirely on the cutting-room floor. But it sounds like Baldwin may still be irked that his career as a leading man went south in the '90s along with critics' opinions of box-office failures like The Marrying Man (1991), The Shadow (1994), and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).

Baldwin started to gain weight around the time of 1997's The Edge, meaning he quickly transitioned from money-losing leading man to the more financially secure status of "character actor" (the talented Russell Crowe, whose metabolism seemed to give up on him after 2008's Body of Lies, appears to be entering this career phase himself, having been cast in a supporting role as Marlon Brando—I mean, Superman's biological dad—in the upcoming Man of Steel). It suits him well—Baldwin had great comic timing even before he entered John Belushi's weight class, having hosted Saturday Night Live 15 times since 1990, but it's certainly helped him pay the bills the past five years—and win a couple Emmys—as Tina Fey's boss on 30 Rock. He's the best thing about that show.

(The actor discussed his time near the top of the Hollywood food chain in a New Yorker profile three years ago. "In Hollywood, the success of [1990's 'The Hunt for Red October'] earned him 'an all-access pass that lasts for five years,' Baldwin recently said. 'You have to capitalize. And, if the movies you make don’t make money in that period, your pass expires.'" I'd never seen a former A-list leading man be that honest about his career before. It made me respect Baldwin even more.)

In 2001, after his big-ticket starring roles had dried up, Baldwin put his money where his mouth is and directed a film based on an old perennial of high school English classes, Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster." It starred Anthony Hopkins as Webster, who defends Baldwin's protagonist in supernatural court against the Devil (Jennifer Love Hewitt, an intriguing choice at the very least) after the struggling writer sells his soul to her and then decides he wants it back.

Sounds somewhat promising, but the film languished in postproduction limbo, appropriately enough, for more than five years after its funding dried up—Baldwin told reporters in 2004 that his investors' checks bounced while the film was being shot—leaving "The Devil and Daniel Webster" unfinished and potential distributors wary of picking up the tab.

Yari Film Group finally bought the film in 2007 and released it that July as Shortcut to Happiness. As proof of how many different hands the movie passed through on its way to (a handful of) theaters, 19 (!) producers are listed on the film's poster, including Baldwin, who chose to use the pseudonym "Harry Kirkpatrick" for his director's credit, having washed his own hands of the project.

So the next time you think Alec Baldwin has phoned in a performance, remember, it's not his fault. Blame it on the Devil if you have to, but even then keep in mind that it wasn't the Devil's idea to cast Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rock Bio #6: Faces

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

Ever been to a raucous party that didn't end, it just changed locations? After the Small Faces' frontman, Steve Marriott, announced his resignation by walking offstage during a New Year's Eve performance in 1968, the rest of the group—Ronnie Lane (bass), Ian McLagan (keyboards), and Kenney Jones (drums)—decided to carry on with new members Ron Wood (guitar) and Rod Stewart (vocals), both of whom had recently left the Jeff Beck Group.

Having ditched the Marriott-led configuration's brand of mod pop for a more blues-based rock sound, the Small Faces shortened their name to signal that they were a new band and quickly got down to business, releasing First Step in early 1970. Stewart, meanwhile, had already begun a solo career, releasing his debut album, complete with contributions from Wood and McLagan, just a few months ahead of First Step.

Long Player followed in early '71. Its live covers of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" and Big Bill Broonzy's "I Feel So Good" emphasized the Faces' growing reputation for sloppy, liquored-up concerts—punk rockers on both sides of the Atlantic took notice in the latter half of the '70s, as did the Replacements in the '80s—and Lane showed off his songwriting talents on "Richmond."

By the time the Faces' third album, A Nod Is as Good as a Wink ... to a Blind Horse, hit record stores at the tail end of '71, Stewart had been crowned a solo star thanks to Every Picture Tells a Story and its number-one hit "Maggie May," which spent five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. The Faces' own "Stay With Me" was lifted into the top 20 on the heels of "Maggie May's" success.

Stewart didn't tour separately from the Faces during this period, but because he also played his solo hits in concert, tensions arose between him and the rest of the band, who began to feel (ahem) faceless, mere backing musicians in the eyes of Stewart's newfound "Maggie May" fans. The singer was absent from some of the sessions for the band's next album, Ooh La La (1973), whose second side was dominated by Ronnie Lane compositions, including the wistful title track ("I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was stronger"), which featured Ron Wood's first-ever lead vocal.

After Stewart gave his low opinion of Ooh La La to the press, Lane quit the group and was replaced with ex-Free bassist Tetsu Yamauchi. The Faces carried on for a couple more years, releasing a live album and a few singles, but Stewart's solo career showed no signs of slowing down. As 1975 came to a close, the boys from England called it a day.

Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones that year, while McLagan and Jones recorded two more Small Faces records with Steve Marriott, fresh from his tenure in Humble Pie. Lane sat out the reunion but kept busy by collaborating on albums with Wood and Pete Townshend before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late '70s. When the Who's drummer, Keith Moon, died in 1978, Townshend asked Jones to take over.

The Faces reunited in 1986 and '93 for one-off performances, but in September 2009 McLagan, Jones, and Wood played a charity event without Stewart (Lane died in 1997), adding new faces like Simply Red's Mick Hucknall to the mix. Only time will tell if Rod the Mod can be coaxed out of the house for one last pint.

Friday, June 3, 2011

kiss of death

Actress Jane Lynch has apparently aged quite a bit since I last saw her on the small screen, but I respect the fact that she refuses to "glam it up" for awards ceremonies. Good for you, Jane!