Coming soon: “Mikey and Nicky”

On January 22, the Criterion Collection will release what is likely to be the definitive version of Elaine May’s great 1976 film Mikey and Nicky, which some consider to be one of the masterpieces of the period. (Earlier this year, the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw wrote this perceptive review of the film, memorably calling it “a vivid, almost sensually rancid slice of 1970s cinema” — and that’s a good thing.) Like many other films of the 1970s, it’s a crime drama, as Criterion describes it on its web page for the release:

Elaine May crafted a gangster film like no other in the nocturnal odyssey Mikey and Nicky, capitalizing on the chemistry between frequent collaborators John Cassavetes and Peter Falk by putting them on-screen together as small-time mobsters whose lifelong relationship has turned sour. Set over the course of one night, this restless drama finds Nicky holed up in a motel after the boss he stole money from puts a hit on him. Terrified, he calls on Mikey: the one person he thinks can save him. Scripted to match the live-wire energy of its stars — alongside supporting players Ned Beatty, Joyce Van Patten, and Carol Grace — and inspired by real-life characters from May’s childhood, this unbridled portrait of male friendship turned tragic is an unsung masterpiece of American cinema.

True, all that, but it’s also only a hook upon which hangs a brilliant, moving dissection of a kind of masculinity with which we’re still all too familiar. May, who wrote the screenplay and directed, examines all of the qualities of this masculinity — comic, maudlin, finally toxic and tragic — and the film ends with one of the most terrifying depictions of isolation the American screen has ever produced as Mikey watches his friendship — and his past — slip away. May also has a particularly astute eye for Philadelphia, where Mikey and Nicky was filmed. (No surprise there, perhaps; she was born in Philadelphia in 1932.) Ten years later, May would flip this over into a sunnier, sillier portrait of male friendships in the similarly neglected Ishtar, marrying it to a satire of a kind of U.S. foreign policy which, these days, also sadly seems to still be with us. (And she’s still going strong at 86; later this month she opens on Broadway in The Waverly Gallery.)

The Criterion edition features a brand-new restoration of the film supervised and approved by Elaine May; a short documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with producer Michael Hausman, distributor Julian Schlossberg, and actor Joyce Van Patten; interviews with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey; and an audio interview from 1976 with Peter Falk. More information about the edition can be found here.

A comedian to take seriously: Albert Brooks at Metrograph

Albert Brooks in “Defending Your Life.”

In recent years, comedian Albert Brooks has become known more for his acting career than anything else — from his well-received performances in Drive, the series Weeds, and other films, to an ongoing career in voiceover work in films like Finding Nemo and The Secret Life of Pets and the series The Simpsons. But this shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments as writer/director/performer in a series of remarkable feature comedies, released from 1979-2005. Those who are unfamiliar with these films are in for a treat, when Metrograph screens all of them during an Albert Brooks career retrospective this October.

When Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, the book was hailed as a mordant description of a social epidemic sweeping American culture (the book, now a classic, will be republished by W.W. Norton in October, with a new introduction by E.J. Dionne, Jr.). And if anyone was prepared to offer an unofficial film adaptation of the book, it was Brooks. Like Steve Martin’s routines, Brooks’s comedy deconstructed the cliches of stand-up performance, but there was more to Brooks than that — his characters, even when they were named “Albert Brooks,” were dour and always on the verge of anger; more, his characters exemplified the kinds of self-destructive individual and cultural narcissism, as well as a perverse urge to public performance, that Lasch anatomized. More than Martin’s, Brooks’s comedy was a comedy of discomfort. And it’s still relevant and uncomfortable almost 40 years later, as the republication of Lasch’s book attests.

A reluctant stand-up comedian, Brooks parlayed a series of surreal appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and several situation comedies into the role of house filmmaker when NBC launched Saturday Night in 1975. Brooks was ahead of his time as a comedy deconstructionist. (One of his most memorable short films, “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians,” originated as an article in Esquire magazine in the 1970s; the film will be presented in the Metrograph series, and you can find the Esquire article here.) It was only in 1979 when Brooks went behind the camera to direct Real Life and his concern with the culture became evident. With a script by Brooks, Harry Shearer, and Brooks’s long-time collaborator Monica Johnson, who co-authored most of the films that Brooks has directed (she died in 2010), the film was more than a hilarious parody of the groundbreaking PBS series An American Family; by inserting the documentarian himself into the story, Brooks explored the idea that people’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched, either consciously or unconsciously, especially by the egocentric entertainers who are watching them. Brooks’ intrusion into the lives of the Yeagers nearly destroys the family and certainly destroys the family’s home at the end of the film. And prescient? A quick glance at tonight’s cable TV listings reveals that Brooks was there decades before everybody else.

Brooks followed Real Life with the even more acidic Modern Romance (1981), a look at narcissists more in love with themselves than with each other; though Modern Romance was a box-office disaster (despite Stanley Kubrick’s admiration for the film), he struck gold with Lost in America (1985), which added pungent observations about America’s professional class and generational malaise to a portrait of the self-loathing David Howard as he and his wife, inspired by Easy Rider, cross the continental United States in an attempt to “find themselves” and, as David puts it, touch Indians. His follow-up film, Defending Your Life (1991), proposed a Southern California resort hotel as a purgatory of sorts as Brooks’ Daniel Miller was forced to confront his various demons during his time on earth (it turns out that Heaven has a “blooper reel” ready for each of us; I’m sure mine is just as embarrassing as Daniel’s). Mother (1996) chronicled the uneasy relationship between a science-fiction novelist in middle age and his widowed mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a performance that won raves), but The Muse (1999), an abstract essay about artistic creativity, suffered somewhat from its insider-baseball satire of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In his most recent film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), Brooks played “Albert Brooks” once again in a farce about a comedian’s misadventures in a multicultural society.

Like most successful comedians-turned-directors, there’s more to Brooks’s style than meets the eye; he doesn’t just turn the camera on himself then “act funny” in front of it. He prefers long takes, often with a stationary camera, framing his shots from a middle distance, more of a scientist intent on examining a biological specimen than anything else. And that is, really, what Brooks is, as a comedian and a filmmaker: a dispassionate observer of his deeply flawed self-involved subjects and the society and relationships they’ve built around themselves. Brooks has also distinguished himself in other media: his albums from the 1970s, Comedy Minus One and A Star is Bought, experimented with the received forms of spoken-word comedy, and the Boston Globe called his 2011 novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America “an inspired work of social science fiction, thoughtful and ambitiously conceived, both serious and seriously funny.”

The Metrograph series, which is scheduled to begin on October 5 and run through October 12, provides the opportunity to revisit each of these films and will also screen The Scout (1994), which Michael Ritchie directed from a script co-authored by Brooks and featuring one of his more nuanced performances for another director. (Ritchie also directed four great satires about competitiveness and the American Dream in the 1960s and 1970s: Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile, and The Bad News Bears.) More information about the Metrograph series can be found here. And below, perhaps one of the most quintessential Albert Brooks scenes, exemplifying much of what I said above, from Lost in America. Art Frankel plays the employment agent.

Two minds without a single thought

Like W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy began their careers in silent film, then hit their stride with the coming of sound. It’s hard to think of any of these gentlemen without Fields’ gutteral growl, Laurel’s lyrical lilt, or Hardy’s exasperated Southern twang. Nonetheless, it was in pantomime that they honed their craft as comedians, and their silent work is becoming more popular as the appeal of their wordless comedy is being rediscovered. And, also like Fields, the team receives the R. Crumb seal of approval:

Great. Love ‘em. One of my favorites. I like them better than Chaplin, actually. Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, they’re right up there at the top for me. I love Laurel and Hardy.

On Saturday, July 7, the Silent Clowns Film Series at Lincoln Center will present “The Disaster Masters,” four of Laurel & Hardy’s silent comedies from 1928, just before they made the leap into sound. From Soup to Nuts, You’re Darn Tootin’, Their Purple Moment, and Should Married Men Go Home? feature the team struggling with “the frustrations of everyday life,” as the series’ web page puts it. The program, curated by Bruce Lawton, will feature a live piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

The most recent biography is by Simon Louvish, and the lion’s share of their pre-1940 sound films for Hal Roach, before they entered a period of creative and popular decline with their move to 20th Century-Fox, is available on DVD. UCLA’s Film and Television Archive is engaged in a full-scale project to restore L&H films, though the silents don’t appear to be high on the list. Which makes the July 7 screening all the more welcome. More information at the Silent Clowns Film Series web site here. Admission is free.

Below, Laurel & Hardy in From Soup to Nuts, directed by Edgar Kennedy (no slouch among comedians of the period himself).

Remembering the Great Man

Fields defeated, in It’s a Gift.

UPDATE: Alas, the event is full as of this morning; no one will be admitted without a prior RSVP reservation.


This Wednesday, June 27, at 8.00pm, the National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett.

Just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.

Fields was one of the great satirists of the American middle class. He shares quite a bit in common with a similar satirist, cartoonist Robert Crumb, who has confessed his admiration:

Love him. I love to watch W.C. Fields. He has his visual jokes that he carried over from vaudeville, you know, where his hat gets caught on his cane and stuff like that. But just his persona; he embodies this American type of the 30s particularly: alcoholic; wheeling and dealing in a very low key way and not very successfully. Have you ever seen It’s A Gift, where he’s a grocery store proprietor in the 1930s?  He embodies that certain type of American man at that time. A lot of people my age remember having an uncle or somebody in their family that was like the W.C. Fields character; an alcoholic with a big, bulbous, red nose.

I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.


Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal. The essential biography comes from James Curtis; W.C. Fields by Himself is a similarly essential collection of Fields’ own writings, edited by his grandson Ronald J. Fields into an “intended autobiography”; William K. Everson wrote the first book-length critical work on Fields, The Art of W.C. Fields, worth tracking down at your local used book store.

Roundup: Eliot, Gaddis, Feldman and Fields

W.C. Fields

This week I took a quick look back at T.S. Eliot and William Gaddis, and looked forward to an unmissable Mother’s Day concert featuring music by Morton Feldman. Who, I’m pretty sure, loved his mother.

I attended a class taught by William Gaddis back in my undergraduate days, and although he has little in common with W.C. Fields, the two men did share a nasal drawl suggesting that they had little patience with the stupidities of the human animal. On Wednesday, June 27, the National Arts Club here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett. You can be in attendance too; the program, which will feature clips from Fields’ career, is open to the public, and it’s free. More information at the National Arts Club web site here.

This might be a good time to remind you that just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.

I’ll be raising a glass to the Great Man at Cafe Katja later this afternoon. I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.


Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal.