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SWEET JANE

Jazz’s need to create on the spot never really goes away—testing moves in front of an audience is always a consideration for performers who truly want to know how an arrangement or an approach will play to a crowd. Jane Monheit is an intrepid soul; starting tonight she’ll green-light this notion for the next three months, hosting a Sunday-evening “Jazz Party,” which affords audiences a chance to peek behind the curtain and enjoy the looseness of a jam session while basking in the talents of a very tight band. The singer and her trio, including pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner, and drummer Rick Montalbano, will be opening the doors to guest instrumentalists and giving new ideas plenty of elbow room—a spotlight on spontaneity. The boss lady and her seductive coo ain’t shy—Monheit is a natural charmer. Whether she’s tweaking her take on “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” (there’s a Judy Garland tribute in her future) or embedding herself in a boo-hoo opus such as “Two Lonely People,” prepare for charisma around every turn.

Sundays, 6 p.m. Starts: July 6. Continues through Aug. 10, 2014

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The Star Maker: 50 Years of George Cukor

Perhaps the most astute assessment of George Cukor’s moviemaking career, which spanned 51 years (1930–1981), was delivered by the auteur himself. “There are lots of creative directors who can seize a script and make it part of their world — like Lubitsch, or Ford, or Hitchcock,” Cukor told Kenneth Tynan in a 1961 profile of the filmmaker. “And there are others who try to become part of the script’s world. Like me.” Many, however, interpreted the director’s modest approach to his work uncharitably, such as this anonymous screenwriter quoted in Tynan’s piece: “Oh, Cukor doesn’t make movies. Cukor just makes actors.”

But what actors! Many of Hollywood’s most enduring icons made their first films — and many others — with Cukor, who admitted to Peter Bogdanovich in a 1969 interview, “I think that maybe I have nose for talent.” He also magnificently revived careers that had stalled and presided over the swan songs of Greta Garbo (Two-Faced Woman, from 1941) and Norma Shearer (1942’s Her Cardboard Lover). Even 30 years after his death, Cukor is sometimes condescendingly referred to as a “women’s director” (a term that was also used to show contempt for his homosexuality, an open secret for five decades), as if eliciting some of the greatest performances from Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Judy Garland were no extraordinary accomplishment. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete, 50-title Cukor retrospective proves the foolishness of such dismissals, showcasing the gifts of a director as deft in noirs (see 1941’s A Woman’s Face) as in comedies.

Born in New York City in 1899 to middle-class Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents, Cukor began as a theater director, overseeing a Broadway adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1926. In 1929, he relocated permanently to Hollywood, part of a group of stage talent recruited to serve as dialogue directors during the transition from silents to talkies. Two years into his screen-helming career, he cast an actress he admired, per Tynan, for her “gawky self-confidence”: Hepburn, making her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). She would star in nine more Cukor projects; this felicitous collaboration illuminated the performer’s fey, gender-bending charms in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), her command of fierce fragility in Holiday (1938), and her knack for courtroom zingers in Adam’s Rib (1949), in which she argues a sensational case opposite her husband, played by Spencer Tracy. (Speaking of open secrets, Hepburn and Tracy, according to Bogdanovich, spent many years of their adulterous relationship in Cukor’s guest house.)

Shelley Winters had her first credited screen role in the noir A Double Life (1947); she would reteam with the director in The Chapman Report (1962), a lurid, often incoherent ensemble drama inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s convention-shattering findings about female sexuality, here in the service of the highly conventional message that marriage cures all. Yet even in this major misstep — largely the result of studio interference and timidity — one can still sense Cukor’s deep empathy for his four suburban heroines and their profound dissatisfaction.

But nowhere was Cukor’s compassion for his distaff protagonists more touchingly evident than in the four comedies he made with Judy Holliday, the quintessential smart dumb blonde; she is yet another incomparable talent whose movie career commenced with Cukor, in a small role in the fervently patriotic (and anomalous) Winged Victory (1944). This quartet includes Adam’s Rib — wherein Holliday’s neglected, two-timed spouse is defended against attempted-murder charges by Hepburn — Born Yesterday (1950), The Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen to You (1954; cast opposite Holliday was Jack Lemmon in his screen debut). These (and other titles) were written, either individually or together, by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the husband-and-wife team whose partnership with the director was as invaluable as those he formed with his most cherished performers.

For all of Cukor’s impeccable instincts in launching careers, he was also responsible for the legendary resurrection of a star whose colossal gifts were frequently overshadowed by her incorrigible tendencies toward self-sabotage: Garland. He cast her in his CinemaScope musical adaptation of A Star Is Born (1954), her first film since MGM suspended her contract in 1950 for failing to complete several projects. As Esther Blodgett — an aspiring performer deeply devoted to her husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), an A-lister rapidly declining — Garland uncannily plays an idealized version of herself: punctual, non-neurotic, steadfast. Late in the film, Esther breaks down, fretting over Norman, whose own dysfunctions and addictions mirror his co-star’s real-life troubles. “What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” she sobs, and it’s impossible not to think about the same impulses that bedeviled the woman delivering the line. However poignant, Cukor doesn’t emphasize these painful ironies, concentrating instead on Garland’s transcendent musical numbers “The Man That Got Away” and “Lose That Long Face.” He’s not “just” making an actor — he’s remaking one.

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The Wizard of Oz Is Still Grand and Still Human, Even in 3D IMAX

You have every reason to be skeptical. We’ve suffered years of 3D cash-grabs. This spring visited upon us a cheap-jack James Franco grimacing through the stubbornly un-magical Oz the Great and Powerful. And the movies have only gotten L. Frank Baum right precisely once, in 1939. Return to Oz,Walter Murch’s electroshock horror show, has its admirers, but would you leave a kid alone with it? And have you seen Larry Semon’s 1925 cock-up, in which a goose vomits in a farmhand’s face?

So, yes, it stands to reason that a 3D IMAX Wizard of Oz in 2013 would be at best a vulgar folly—something familiar all tricked out and puffed up, a special-effects humbug on par with the smoke bombs and pyrotechnics of that sad Kansas huckster hiding behind that Emerald City curtain.

It’s not. It’s un-ruined, still grand, still human, still stagebound and performance-driven in that wonderful way that the movies have lost now that filmmakers are reared on video games rather than theater. Even swollen to IMAX size, the movie is sharper than you’ve ever seen it, and the vaudevillian brilliance of the choreography (and Ray Bolger’s straw-boned tumbling) is entirely undiminished. At times, it’s even a revelation, although the 3D demands you hold your head just so.

The mad scale has never been clearer—or more overwhelming. Dorothy’s welcomed by more than 100 Munchkins, and for the first time you can truly see their faces, their flowered shoes, the ginger-tinged cowlicks and hair-horns appliquéd to their shaven heads.

When Judy Garland first skips down that yellow brick road, the Munchkins gather behind her, skipping, too, a sugar rush of smiles and kicks and incomparably goony hats. It’s quite possibly the happiest moment in cinema, besting even Gene Kelly’s rain dance and capping a parade of delights: the twister,”Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead,” that absurd singing coroner with the conquistador’s beard, the union toughs of the Lollipop Guild, “and your little dog, too!”, those stockinged feet curling up beneath Dorothy’s house. The penultimate shot of the first “We’re Off to See the Wizard” is such a marvel of staging, costumes, scoring, and movement that it should inspire the humiliated self-meltdown of all Macs at all the effects houses that worked on making Zach Braff into a monkey bellhop for Oz the Great and Powerful. This is peak human achievement, and seeing it like this is like seeing the world you thought you knew on the day you get new glasses.

Getting a better glimpse than ever of the seam between set and backdrop or poppy field and matte painting is no betrayal of the spell. Instead, it’s an invitation to admire the craft, to revel in the illusion-making. This feels appropriate, since the movie (unlike the book) celebrates the ability of each of us to find magic within ourselves, even if we have to fake it a little.

The movie never tops Munchkinland, but how could it? The movies have never topped it, either. But what follows is another revelation, this one about the possibilities of 3D and IMAX rather than just new details in The Wizard of Oz. The immensity of these screens hasn’t done much to make the digital flimflammery of today’s blockbusters more impressive. But it can honor human performance, if given the chance. Garland, Bolger, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, and the rest are each the size of a house, and they’re so physically, theatrically inventive in their roles that there’s plenty to gape at in all the extra yardage. See the way Lahr, that superlative clown, is forever worrying his own tail like a security blanket, or how Bolger, as the Scarecrow, knocks about each in scene, spilling his hay even when the focus isn’t on him—or how his facial makeup is rigorously scored and crosshatched to achieve a burlap look that could hardly be done justice by the projectors of 1939. (Another new detail: One chunk of yellow brick road that he crashes onto knees-first is clearly yellow foam.) Garland, it turns out, had pores and freckles that complement her courageous, guileless turn as a girl so much more naïve than herself, one steely and dreamy as hell, yet for some reason eager to dash her promised land away for the first ticket back to Mudball, Kansas.

With so much to relish, this blown-up Oz creates a serious challenge for viewers. Who to invest your attention in when the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion are all onscreen together?

The Lion, of course.

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz lived on TV, part movie and part ritual. One thing in it I found fascinating was the many ways it anticipated Star Wars, which back then was a for-all-people phenomenon rather than a geek-specific one. Here’s the clanking metal man, the furred and fearsome companion, the pure-hearted princess, the impregnable fortress, the consummate villain, the farm-kid hero with the power to triumph held inside all along.

It occurred to me, as I thrilled to this 75th anniversary release, that the gulf of time between the premieres of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars is just barely longer than that between the premiere of Star Wars and today. Consider the artistic achievements of the studios in that first gulf versus all that they managed in the second. Then, to cheer yourself up, you may as well return to Oz.

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Judy Garland Rehearsal Footage–No Makeup!

This is an astounding clip that alternates between Judy Garland singing “What The World Needs Now” on the TV show show Hollywood Palace in 1966 and her rehearsal footage of the same song, done without makeup, costume, or smiles.

Show biz is amazing–and so was Judy.

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Girls Against Boys

Girls Against Boys is intensely laconic, with so little dialogue it could almost all fit the 140-character Twitter max. This reticence is due, perhaps, to the film’s own confused relationship with itself. Is it a high-camp female revenge fantasy, in the vein of the far superior Teeth? Is it a psychosexual thriller preoccupied with homo-social behavior among women, in the vein of Black Swan? Or, most likely, is it a derivative distillation of various horror motifs that fails to cohere, or even to gross out? Writer/director Austin Chick intersperses college-lecture scenes (“post-feminist critiques” of Japanese animation is a rib-bruising set piece) with the rudderless revenge-mongering of Shae (Danielle Panabaker)—an ingénue-cipher with an uncanny resemblance to Judy Garland—and Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), Shae’s bad angel who looks like Emma Stone’s collagened evil twin. The obligatory lesbian kiss is checked off like a box on a clipboard, but the B-horror standbys that might rescue the film from self-serious tedium are nowhere to be found. Where are the chain saw castrations? The taut moments of imminent gore? The closest we get is a scene in which a rape enabler gets shot with a pistol through the anus—a symmetrical retribution for sexual assault and, sadly, the movie’s cleverest moment. Should we congratulate Chick (XX/XY) for the Thelma & Louise rewrite? He seems to think so.

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Broadway’s Judy Garland On Not Getting The Tony

I MC’d a Talkback after last night’s performance of End of the Rainbow, in which Tracie Bennett gives a volcanically energetic performance as declining legend Judy Garland.

And as herself, Tracie was raw, insightful, and very funny.

When asked about her career, she joked, “I started as a hooker!”

She also made remarks about knowing a whole lot of addicts.

But mostly she was sincere, probing, and informative, as when she talked about not nabbing the Tony award for her performance.

It happened when an audience member blurted, “I can’t wait till you win the Tony!”

Tracie shot back, “I lost!” and we all had a giggle.

She went on to say that it’s absurd to compare the different nominated performances unless all the actresses are playing the same role.

She added that she got to know Nina Arianda (who won the award for Venus In Fur) and she felt similarly about the weirdness of such a competition.

(They grew to really like each other, by the way.)

It’s an apples and oranges kind of thing, said Tracie, and you should be gracious when you win because it’s good for the project, but it’s weird when some people want to win so badly.

“I’m friends with Andy Roddick, ” she said, “and if he doesn’t win, there’s no talking to him for two weeks.

“But sportspeople have to have that. They need that competitiveness to do what they do.”

I noted that Tracie was very classy to go to the Tony after party anyway.

There was booze, she noted, laughing–plus she had a great gown courtesy of a big fashion editor.

In another highlight from the Talkback, Tracie talked about how someone recently told her, “You must have been beautiful when you were young!” (People say the dumbest things sometimes.)

I also asked if Liza Minnelli should go see the show (which is closing August 19, by the way).

“That’s a hard one,” Tracie said. She could see both sides of it, but said it’s awful to have a mother who became an addict and it would probably be difficult to witness that onstage.

In any case, I’m going again. The next Talkback is August 7. See you there!

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For Me and My Gal

Dir. Busby Berkeley (1942) Wearing an enlistee’s uniform for the first of many times, Gene Kelly, making his screen debut, plays a highly self-regarding vaudeville hoofer who, after a failed draft-dodging attempt, becomes a war hero in battle. In this musical, Kelly established an important alliance—and easy onscreen chemistry—with his tremulous female lead, Judy Garland.

Wed., July 18, 3:15 p.m., 2012

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The Pirate

Dir. Vincente Minnelli (1948) This 1948 musical features Minnelli’s then-missus—Judy Garland—as a proper Caribbean young lady betrothed to the town’s mayor. Yet she soon falls for the rakish charms of Gene Kelly’s Fairbanks-like traveling troubadour.

Sun., July 15, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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Gene Kelly @ 100

Gliding through space on roller skates in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Gene Kelly—the film’s star, co-director, and choreographer—sings “I Like Myself,” perhaps the most self-evident declaration in musical history. I mean this as high praise: The effortless, down-to-earth confidence, optimism, and ebullience in Kelly’s performances are what made so many of the MGM classics of the 1940s and ’50s that he was an integral part of soar. Crucially, unlike the top-hatted and tuxed swells Fred Astaire played in musicals of the 1930s, Kelly integrated dancing with characters several notches down on the socioeconomic scale. As the actress Betsy Blair, Kelly’s wife from 1941 to 1957, writes in her 2003 memoir, The Memory of All That: “A sailor suit or his white socks and loafers, or the T-shirts on his muscular torso, gave everyone the feeling that he was a regular guy, and perhaps they too could express love and joy by dancing in the street or stomping through puddles. . . . He democratized the dance in movies.” Walter Reade’s 23-film Kelly salute showcases not only his work in musicals, both behind and in front of the camera (often both at once), but also his work as a dramatic actor and director of hoofing-free comedies.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1912, Kelly and his brother Fred briefly had a local dance act in the early 1930s; Gene diversified by studying ballet in Chicago. In 1938, he moved to New York, where his breakthrough stage role was playing the lead in Pal Joey in 1940. Two years later, at age 29, he made his screen debut opposite Judy Garland in Busby Berkeley’s World War I–set For Me and My Gal. Wearing an enlistee’s uniform for the first of many times, Kelly, playing a highly self-regarding vaudeville hoofer who, after a failed draft-dodging attempt becomes a war hero in battle, established an important alliance—and easy on-screen chemistry—with his tremulous female lead. Garland, according to Clive Hirschhorn’s 1984 biography Gene Kelly, helped shield her newbie co-star from Berkeley’s animosity; Kelly, in turn, “taught her all he could about dancing.” As proof of his loyalty to Garland, Kelly, though he found the script corny, agreed to play the male lead in Summer Stock (1950), a role originally intended for Mickey Rooney. During one of Garland’s frequent neurasthenia-induced absences from the set, Kelly developed, with the film’s choreographer, Nick Castle, his ingenious newspaper-and-squeaky-floorboards tap solo set in a barn—a dance number that transforms the most quotidian sounds and objects into something that astonishes both the ear and the eye.

Using old copies of the Los Angeles Times as a dance partner was only one of Kelly’s many innovations. For Anchors Aweigh (1945)—his first of three films with Frank Sinatra, in which they both play sailors on four-day leave in Hollywood—Kelly, the film’s choreographer, convinced Louis B. Mayer that he should spend an additional $100,000 and two months shooting an intricate eight-minute cartoon-and-live-action sequence: a seamless, fluid bit of fancy footwork between the actor and Jerry Mouse.

As ecstatic and boundary-breaking as Kelly’s number with the animated rodent might be, no musical has ever matched the nonstop exhilaration of On the Town (1949), Kelly’s directorial debut (a task he shared with frequent collaborator Stanley Donen). On 24-hour leave in New York, three horny, hopped-up seamen played by Kelly (has any actor ever made Navy whites look so sexy?), Sinatra, and Jules Munshin burst into “New York, New York” after racing down a gangplank onto the Brooklyn Navy Yard—one of several actual Gotham locations used in the film, which Kelly insisted on, making it one of the first movie musicals to break free of studio sets. Another rarity: Kelly’s ballet sequences in the movie, which he feared might alienate male audience members. But as Bob Fosse noted in Hirschhorn’s bio, the fellas bought it: Kelly was “like a guy on their bowling team—only classier.” (To further prove just how “virile” the terpsichorean arts could be, Kelly oversaw the production of an episode of the educational TV series Omnibus entitled “Dancing Is a Man’s Game” in 1958.)

Not all of Kelly’s ambitious experiments succeeded, however. After his triumphs in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951)—for which Kelly received an honorary Oscar, citing his “brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film”—and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), co-helmed with Donen (and regrettably not included in the Walter Reade retro, owing to a studio-imposed moratorium pending the film’s July 16 Blu-ray release), he began working on a pet project, a dialogue-free film in which all the roles would be performed entirely through dance and mime. An anthology consisting of three separate, elaborate stories, Invitation to the Dance (1956) was Kelly’s noble attempt to bring the best ballet dancers from around the world to the masses (though initially he had no intention of appearing in his film, which he directed and choreographed, MGM insisted). Back then, the masses stayed home—but you shouldn’t. The film gets much better after the trying first sequence, a commedia dell’arte showcase featuring Kelly as the white-faced Pierrot.

With the heyday of the movie musical over by the late ’50s, Kelly still kept busy, doing solid supporting work as an H.L. Mencken surrogate in Stanley Kramer’s dramatization of the Scopes “monkey trial,” Inherit the Wind (1960). He directed comedies, including Gigot (1962), starring a mute Jackie Gleason, and the cameo-glutted infidelity romp A Guide for the Married Man (1967).

During Hollywood’s sporadic, often disastrous attempts to revive the glory years of tuners, Kelly was still called upon on occasion: to direct the elephantine 1969 adaptation of Hello, Dolly!—accurately assessing the movie’s biggest liability, Walter Matthau, quoted in Hirschhorn, said of his co-star, “The trouble with Barbra [Streisand] is she became a star long before she became an actress”—or to class up the roller-boogie fantasia Xanadu (1980), his last feature-film appearance. (Kelly died in 1996 at age 83.) But the greatest use of Kelly’s talents after MGM’s halcyon era took place thousands of miles away from Southern California backlots in a port town in southwestern France. In Jacques Demy’s transcendent American-musical homage The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Kelly, still foxy in his mid fifties in a pink polo shirt and snug, pressed white trousers, appears to descend from heaven, believably stirring romantic yearning in Françoise Dorléac, an actress 30 years his junior. He still likes himself, and we love him for it.

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Part of Me Reveals Katy Perry’s Essential Katy Perry-ness

From bubblegum-bi-curious novelty “I Kissed a Girl” on, Katy Perry has built a career on glorious brain-dead-with-a-wink odes to playacting in a fantasy space of total acceptance and no consequences, sold to children with literal sugarcoating. Her hits are powerful stuff, coming from an artist who was raised by Pentecostal preachers who declared most contemporary culture and anything involving fairy-tale-style magic off-limits. In Katy Perry: Part of Me, those parents gush with support for the daughter who penned the chorus “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock.” The film (presented in never-less-necessary 3-D) documents Perry’s 2011 world concert tour to support her massive Teenage Dream record and weaves together onstage and backstage footage with interviews with Perry and her team, while home movies and video diaries dating back a decade suggest Perry has been calculatedly filming herself in preparation for this moment.

An advertisement of a product targeted at people who are already consuming it, Part of Me is completely uninterested in the contradictions that propel Perry’s persona. Instead, directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz track Perry’s odyssey from failed teenage gospel singer to Alanis Morissette wannabe to world-beating superstar who learns while on tour that she has broken the record for most number-one singles off a single album for any female star, ever. But fame, it comes at a price!

The filmmakers seem primarily interested in the tour itself as a source of b-roll illustration (the hyper-cutty pace means numbers are rarely shown from beginning to end), and so the failure of Perry’s marriage to Russell Brand gives Part of Me its only semblance of a narrative arc. Brand is a peripheral figure in the film and, the movie insists, in his then-wife’s life. Much is made of Perry’s insistence on using her few days off to jet around the world to visit Brand, rather than rest. Notable for a movie about a woman who makes a living selling a drag exaggeration of female sexuality stripped of actual sex for consumption by children, the film’s most potent statements on gender come in the section describing how the show almost did not go on, like, once or twice, because Perry was so worn out from “trying to keep my marriage alive.”

An early shot of a pre-celebrity Perry posing with Judy Garland’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame turns out to be Chekhovian: Part of Me later takes a cue from Garland’s great A Star Is Born, depicting Perry’s ability to snap out of a marriage-sparked crying jag when it’s time to go onstage to sing “The One That Got Away” (the song title itself an echo of Garland’s Star ballad “The Man That Got Away”). Like Garland’s character, Perry’s character (and it is a character) turns personal loss into professional power, sacrificing herself to the crowd to be resurrected by their devotion.

This blatantly patched-together strain suggests that Part of Me’s commercial purpose is, in part, to assimilate the tabloid narrative about Perry’s offscreen life, which she presumably doesn’t fully control, into the on-screen narrative of her onstage life, over which her control is total. But her savvy for self-presentation, though admirable from a business standpoint, makes for a more boring movie. You never get the sense that the camera was ever allowed to see anything that Perry didn’t want it to see.

Or hear. The film is threaded through with hagiographic assessments from Perry’s hangers-on regarding her talent, her cultural importance, and most laughably, her authenticity. In insisting that Perry is, as one member of the team puts it, “like a real girl”—a simile that has a range of connotations, from Pinocchio to porn—they’re willfully misrepresenting Perry’s appeal. We’re talking about a pop star who invented a headgear-rocking-nerd alter-ego for the video for “Last Friday Night,” a song about binge drinking and threesomes; she has to know she’s selling a blown-out fantasy of party-girl invincibility to an audience too young to recognize the gulf between a living cartoon singing ingeniously insipid lyrics and an actual adult woman’s reality. “Thank you so much for believing in my weirdness!” Perry tells one crowd. It’s maybe the most honest moment in the movie—an acknowledgement that Katy Perry’s brand depends on a suspension of disbelief.