In Tribute: The World Less Sharp, the Fields More Muddy, the Wind Less Friendly; Yet I Have Touched the Sky
“During only one movie has the onscreen tippling been so inspiring that I actually stopped the DVD, made myself a really stiff drink (something with bourbon, I believe) AND had a smoke. Then I resumed watching, bourbon beverage in hand. That movie was Love Song For Bobby Long. Of course, it could have been Travolta’s performance, er… impression of Blanche DuBois that drove me to drink.”
Alabamapink, November 5, 2007
As most of you know already, our dear ‘bama, Alabamapink, has passed from this earth. Whether there is a god or a heaven or just a final, comforting blackness, none among us can say, so we deal with what we know during the time we have. ‘Bama is funny, strong, insightful, and irreverent. ‘Bama is quick to laugh, gentle with newbies, and harsh with jerks. ‘Bama is beautiful, which I never knew until I saw her memorial photo today. ‘Bama is largely responsible for my becoming socalledonlycousins, because she is a supportive old-timer who wouldn’t turn on someone making his first comment on the internet. ‘Bama helps all of us to make this island Pajiba a community, and now that she is a star in the sky, her soft, distant light guides my way when times are dark and seas are rough.
I refuse to go past tense with ‘bama, because she lives on in every person she communicated with here. There is no “was,” no “used to say,” because when things go badly, when my insides hurt, when I want to curl up and die, ‘bama is there in my mind and my heart. ‘Bama taught me the true power of these interwebs, because she was the first person I met virtually, online, for whom I felt the personal love of friendship. That opened a door to a different place, an old movie theater of the mind with a bar in the cellar where I wasn’t limited to befriending whichever people happened to be on offer at work or near my house; a door leading to rooms full of people with whom I could feel a true kinship of spirit, regardless of whether we would ever have met in the physical world.
There is no goodbye. The road is long, the journey difficult, and good traveling companions hard to come by. ‘Bama has retired, but she is not released from service. Her hologram flickers on a far away planet next to Wash and Shepherd Book, lighting up the dark places for Rachel Dawes and Vesper Lynd, knocking down boilermakers with Gareth and Donny Kerabatsos. Tonight we hoist our glasses against the unknown.
So say we all.
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Before we move to the main topic, I want to throw a gratuitous shout-out at Scott Muskin, the author of a book recently reviewed by Beloved Leader Dustin, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar. Based on Dustin’s recommendation, I picked up Annunciations and proceeded to be blown away. As our own Prisco-sour will tell you, I’m a much more demanding lover than Dustin, but Annunciations is absolutely the shit. With its languid, introspective tone, built around a ferociously self-analyzing protagonist, Annunciations strongly reminded me of Richard Ford’s brilliant The Sportswriter, though the primary male characters are quite dissimilar. At any rate, Dustin has persuaded Mr. Muskin to grace us with an article for Pajiba, despite which, I know for a fact, he’s quite a good writer.
Support good writing. Buy Scott Muskin’s book. Or borrow Dustin’s copy, whatever. Just don’t fall for Prisco’s bait-and-switch screenplay, The Enunciation of Spank Breyerson, Hare-Lipped Cowboy and Gigolo. Not that it’s that bad, but the part with the duct tape is creepy.
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Pop Culture Item Consumed: Down With Love, the candy-colored 2003 homage to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies of the 1960s. Not only does Down With Love feature a great deal of drinking, clubbing and carousing, it’s a ridiculously clever, lovingly textured send-up of romance in the Space Age. You haven’t really had fun till you’ve spent an hour and a half following Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce around swinging Manhattan. While it’s true that ol’ Sphincterpuss McLemonface, aka Renee Zellwegger, features prominently, she’s more than counter-balanced by sharp-as-a-tack Sarah Paulson (“Deadwood,” Serenity). This is a good movie, and every time I watch it, I see and hear more gags that I missed the first few times.
Beverage Consumed: I’ve been holding out on you. As I look back at the Boozehound master list, I see very few cocktails so deserving as today’s candidate, and yet I sat on this one so I’d have something in reserve to let you know how serious I am about a particular film. That’s right. Down With Love is more than worthy of …
When I say “martini,” there should be no question in your mind what the ingredients are. There is only one correct answer here, though the garnish may vary within certain narrow parameters. A martini consists of gin, dry vermouth, and one of the following garnishes: olive, lemon twist, or cocktail onion. That’s it. I have no qualms with the practice of drinking vodka with vermouth and a citrus twist — those are fine cocktails in their own right. They’re just not martinis, and you should scoff when someone says otherwise.
To prepare a proper martini, procure your favorite gin — I highly recommend Boodles, though No. 209 is excellent — along with some good dry vermouth. There are plenty of fancy vermouths out there, but you can’t go wrong with good old Martini & Rossi. (Make sure you don’t buy sweet vermouth; puzzlingly, after all these years together in the bottom of a bottle, Mrs. socalled still does this from time to time.) Modern martini recipes call for gin to vermouth in a four-to-one ratio, which is stronger than the original martini, which went heavier on the vermouth. Because of my deep, abiding love for gin, I prefer martinis substantially stronger, more along the lines of six or eight to one. The trick is to try a few until you figure out what you like, then do that.
Mix the gin and dry vermouth in a cocktail shaker over plenty of ice; shake in your favorite shaker — to waltz time, per The Thin Man — then strain into a martini glass, preferably chilled ahead of time, and garnish with olives (or a lemon twist, or [shudder] a cocktail onion). Of course, if you want a super-dry martini, which is code for ultra-cold gin with a garnish, then chill the gin, pour it into your glass, and — this part is key — whisper “vermouth” over the top of it. Of course, now you’re drinking icy cold gin with no mixer, a practice condemned by the Geneva Accords as downright barbaric.
I highly recommend it.
Summary of Action: There was a cinematic time in this country when, once or twice each year, an elegant, frothy, comic-romance would come out, starring a couple of well-liked icons and featuring a script full of double-entendres, mistaken identities, and the latest gadgets. Back when the phrase “screwball comedy” hadn’t been borrowed, beaten, tarnished, and grudge-fucked into an excuse for being wildly, desperately, flop-sweatingly unfunny, a director could take these wonderfully complementary elements and whip up a frivolous, puff-pastry concoction of crackling one-liners, relaxed romantic chemistry, and groovy 60s fashion. And the booze. Dear, sweet godtopus, the booze. If you tried to emulate the consumption patterns of these folks, you’d be … well … me.
For murky reasons, Doris Day, whom people of the 1960s consistently mistook for funny, was usually the female lead; for obvious reasons, notable hunks Rock Hudson and Cary Grant were typically the male leads. For insightful director reasons, notorious snip-master Tony Randall would appear in a second-banana role to leaven the dough with alternately bitchy and self-deprecating (and, not so coincidentally, gay-friendly) observations. Typically, the plot took the form of an initially antagonistic relationship between the leads, followed by a middle act with the male tricking the female into going out with him, followed by a final act resolving all the trickery and nonsense. The best example of this genre, absolutely without doubt, is Pillow Talk, featuring … wait for it … Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Rock and Doris would team up for several more of these babies, including Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers, but 1959’s Pillow Talk was the origin and the pinnacle of this form. In that film, Rock Hudson played a songwriter playboy sharing a house phone with interior decorator Doris Day. Hudson’s phone-hogging womanizing sets off Day’s creep-o-meter, and Hudson takes on the faux identity of a down-home Texas millionaire to woo Day. Hijinks ensue.
In watching Down With Love, it helps if one is at least somewhat versed in these precedents, as the movie contains myriad sly nods to the tropes of those gems of yesteryear — part of the delight is knowing that Ewan McGregor’s put-on rural accent is an homage to Rock Hudson’s Texas simpleton; that David Hyde Pierce’s continual self-hating neuroticism is a pitch-perfect ode to Tony Randall’s character in the same film; that the split-screen telephone conversations are loving yet hilarious parodies of the equally funny plot devices used in the earlier films. Familiarity is by no means necessary, however, and Down With Love stands on its own as a frothy-to-the-point-of-absurdity love story. Still, watching the 1960s versions provides context that enhances the experience, and the older films are magnificent in their own right. If you’re serious about film — by which I mean you love movies, not just shaming your friends for not having seen The 400 Blows — 1960s comic romances are every bit as essential as Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai because of their heavy influence on pop culture films today. Music critics may not like the Bee Gees, but not knowing their oeuvre is still an important blindspot.
The plot of Down With Love is purposefully contrived and over-complicated: Budding author/wiggly hottie Barbara Novak (Renee Zellwegger) arrives in New York City (natch) in 1962, ready to tout her self-help book, Down With Love, a female empowerment tract designed to teach women to get a job, avoid love and marriage, and “have sex like a man,” i.e., without love or consequences. Barbara meets her publisher’s representative, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), who sets up an interview with hepcat magazine writer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a rakish, impossibly cool investigative reporter whose typical assignment involves exposing a Nazi rocket scientist by partying at a groovy NASA luau.
Catcher works for a magazine owned by skittishly effete publishing magnate Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce). Before ever seeing attractive Barbara, Catcher blows off several meetings with her in order to work his magic on a trio of stewardesses. Once Barbara discovers his actual whereabouts, she refuses to meet with him. Meanwhile, her book takes off as a rave best-seller, with the consequence of nearly every woman in the U.S. becoming empowered and self-determining, to the chagrin of every man in the U.S. As a result, Catcher’s supply of naïve sex dolls disappears at the same time that bitter men everywhere stop giving Barbara the time of day. Catcher concocts a plan of revenge against Barbara involving wooing her under a secret identity — Major Zip Martin, astronaut — so that he can write a magazine exposé revealing her as a “traditional” woman who wants to fall in love and get married. In the meantime, Peter, who is secretly in love with thorny vixen Vikki, awkwardly tries to pursue her, all the while horrified at, fascinated by, and assisting in Catcher’s efforts to discredit Barbara, which Peter knows will cause Vikki to hate him.
Still with me? Because that’s just the set-up.
Everyone involved in Down With Love, even Sphincterpuss, does great work capturing the effervescent energy of madcap 60s romance, while at the same time adding a winking overlay of gentle, in-on-the-joke parody. Ewan McGregor has had an accomplished though spotty career in dramatic roles, but Down With Love allows the comic actor hiding inside a full strut down Broadway. As a consummate likeable cad, a journalist played as a cross of James Bond and Hunter S. Thompson, McGregor relies on a shit-eating grin and perfect comic timing to give a smart, breezy feel to every scene he’s in. (McGregor inexplicably retains his perfect Scottish burr, except when posing as Zip Martin, for whom he adopts a thick hick accent somewhere between T. Boone Pickens and Snuffy Smith.) McGregor’s character would probably be unbearable, however, without the genius supporting turn from David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love’s ace in the hole.
Wags will complain that Pierce merely plays Niles Crane yet again, but Niles Crane is a latter-day expression of the roles Tony Randall popularized in the first place. At this point in his career, Pierce doesn’t appear to have great range, but I can’t say that any actor has ever so thoroughly and successfully inhabited a very specific, career-long role as Pierce has in the various incarnations of Niles Crane, as in Wet Hot American Summer. Although he’s full-on channeling Randall’s dorky buddy role, Pierce throws in enough Niles Crane to make it his own creation, and his scenes with McGregor, alternately scamming Barbara and cluelessly scheming to seduce Vikki, are the heart of the movie. (Fun fact: At one point, while shaking up some martinis, Pierce waves a vermouth bottle over the pitcher without actually adding any. “Vermouth.”)
Zellwegger … well, she’s slightly miscast here. I’m no fan of old Pinch-Face, but she’s got the cute part down, and physically she’s pretty right-on, though this was in the prime of her Linda Hamilton muscle era, right after Chicago — Doris Day was always more on the curvy side. It’s hard to get past Zellwegger’s whispery vocal delivery at times, but the most important thing she does is not sink the ship. She appropriately relies more on her slinky physicality and expressive body and eyes to do her work, leaving most of the comic heavy lifting to Sarah Paulson in the role of romantically challenged, put-upon professional woman Vikki.
Paulson is an absolute dream, as she was in most of her work in the largely disappointing “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Paulson’s frequent scenes with David Hyde Pierce provide just the right ballast to a primary McGregor-Zellwegger romance that occasionally threatens to float away from cuteness. Paulson and Pierce are the pro’s pros, and Paulson nails some of the most difficult lines in the film. Watching Paulson and Pierce set each other up for payoff zinger after payoff zinger is like watching two jugglers throw bowling pins and chainsaws to each other — one miss, and down we go, but they just don’t miss. Paulson’s outwardly confident, inwardly seething pit bull of a downtrodden editor provides the perfect counterpoint to Pierce’s flitty, nervous terrier of a magazine magnate, and I suspect most people end up caring more about their romantic future than that in the main storyline.
The film is lovingly detailed, from the cool, retro opening credits to a title track cover of “Down With Love” featuring neo-Sinatra wannabe Michael Bublé; from the plaid-jacket-and-turtleneck menswear to the many iterations of Barbara’s and Vikki’s slinky, sexy evening gowns and business suits. At one point Barbara and Vikki enter a restaurant in reverse matching outfits, one a canary-yellow dress with a houndstooth outercoat, the other a houndstooth dress with yellow outercoat; the effect is visually striking on its own, but their posturing and preening make it yet another dead-on send-up of 60s genre attitudes, the confident, fashion-forward woman making her bold entrance.
As with so many films, it’s difficult to follow up all the wonderful material in the middle with a slam-bang ending, and the big reveal, when Zellwegger learns McGregor’s true identity, is a bit of a deflation after the brilliant build-up. But it just doesn’t matter, because the destination is predetermined and utterly irrelevant. Like its predecessors, Down With Love is truly about the journey, and it offers enough verve and joie de vivre along the way to fill up three or four movies.
Extra bonus at the end: Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellwegger vamping their way through their own rendition of “Here’s to Love” (“Life’s a mar-tini/And you’re the shaker”), a fun, campy salute to their respective work in Moulin Rouge and Chicago, as well as to their forebears: “I’ll be your Rock”/”And I’ll be your Doris.” McGregor indeed has some pipes, and Zellwegger honors the vocalizing memory of Doris Day.
(Ed.: Doris Day is not dead.)
How the Pairing Held Up: I can’t recommend it enough. Mix up a batch of martinis, plug in this movie, and let go of your self-conscious annoyance at self-conscious 60s-worship. Alas, drinking your martini too fast will impair your ability to follow the whip-crack banter, but if you have to watch it again, just mix up some more.
Tastes Like: Six parts Ewan McGregor’s bracing, natural coolness, one part drily fussy Niles Crane; garnish with Sarah Paulson’s meaty fulsomeness; or, if you’re the type, garnish with a twist of McLemonface.
Overall Rating: Frasier says, “I’m listening.”
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]