Monday, March 24, 2014

L.A. Confidential


Troma Studios has sent me the latest script revisions for Toxy Foxy , their big-budget musical sequel to The Little Foxes in which I would play Regina after her big move to Chicago. Here, she makes a new fortune in hazardous waste and teams up with something called the Toxic Avenger. I asked that they include a part for Norman before I could commit. They have complied, giving Norman a cameo appearance as Horace's ghost. The ghost appears on the battlements of the Chicago Water Tower and tells the Toxic Avenger of Regina's hand in his death. Now the Toxic Avenger is hell bent on revenge and his love for me is just part of his antic disposition. This plot development seems vaguely familiar so I'm not sure if it's really for me, especially as they seem to have cut two of Regina's big numbers to make room for it. I'll consult with Norman as soon as he wakes up from his daily coma.

Joseph, my manager, called this morning just after I finished looking at the new pages. I have a new booking for my Sink For Your Supper concert tour at the Grange hall in Wymore, Nebraska. It's a little unclear who the back-up orchestra is to be and there is much repair work to be done, following the fire in Salina. My motorized iceberg is half melted and the dry cleaners have not yet been able to get the scorch marks out of my Gaultier dress. I may have to reconceive the show around a different design concept. Poor Isaac Mizrahi seems to have fallen off the fashion radar these days so I have a call in to him to see if he might be available to design a new gown and backdrop. He should be hungry enough to do it for a reasonable price.

As I have been spending so much time these last few weeks at Chateau Maine, high in the Hollywood Hills, I thought a film looking at the glory days of the studio era was in order. Looking through the ‘To View’ pile, I found the DVD of L.A. Confidential and popped it into the home theater for a look. I had seen it when it first came out, Esther Williams, June Allyson, Jane Powell and I went off to a girls afternoon matinee; we enjoyed the nostalgia of Hollywood in the early 50s but Jane and June were a bit off-put by some of the violence. There had been little of that sort of thing on the back lot - unless you count the time L. B. Mayer and Dore Schary went at it in the commissary. Those girls are fun, but they’re a bit sheltered as they spent most of their time on soundstages while I was always eager to rough it on location. Esther, especially, can be a bit slow. She spent most of her time underwater so most things go over her head.

L.A. Confidential is a sprawling tale of cops and criminals in early 50s Los Angeles, based on the epic novel by James Ellroy. Ellroy's novel, greatly admired for its craft and compelling characters, was originally felt to be unadaptable to film as it was too big and too plot heavy. The novel was originally optioned for a TV mini-series but languished in development hell; eventually, it fell into the hands of director Curtis Hanson and his co-writer Brian Helgeland. Hanson and Helgeland nipped and tucked, cut characters and set pieces and streamlined the story down to two and a quarter hours and did a masterful job of creating a compelling world where fact and fiction blend in a convincing way. Their cuts occasionally lead to some plot elements not quite falling into place (Officer Exley doing something completely out of character with call-girl Lynn Bracken, the unresolved fate of twenty-five pounds of heroin, a somewhat tacked on 'happy' ending) but the good far outweighs the bad.

The plot, which is impossible to briefly summarize so I won't try, revolves around three LA Cops on the Hollywood beat. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is the glamour officer, high profile, and advisor to a hit TV show and on the take to the tabloids. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a thug with a traumatic past and a deep inner sense of justice. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is a calculating prig, trying to live up to his father’s legacy, determined to play by the rules, and with an enormous ambition. These three, with shifting alliances, team up to uncover a web of deceit underlying the burnished image of the LA Police force. Plot elements include the real (Mickey Cohen (who was Bugsy Siegel's lieutenant and took over his rackets on his death), Johnny Stomponato (whose sensational murder at the hands of actress Lana Turner and her daughter Cheryl is a story unto itself) and the 'Bloody Christmas' incident in which LA Cops viciously beat some Hispanic suspects, the lightly fictionalized (Badge of Honor = Dragnet, Brett Chase = Jack Webb, Hush-Hush Magazine = Hollywood Confidential Magazine) and the fictional (The Nite Owl Cafe murders, Fleur-de-Lys). All of these are woven together in a tangled, but tight, narrative, which shows just how good film craft, can be. The film won a well-deserved screenwriting Oscar for adapted screenplay.

The large cast is uniformly excellent and an Oscar went to Kim Basinger as a hooker with the heart of Veronica Lake. Basinger has always been at her best when she plays wounded flowers and she's great in her part, touchingly vulnerable. The casting of Crowe and Pearce (both Australian and relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time) was a stroke of genius. These characters are the two outsiders, not quite accepted in the police culture they inhabit. The use of relative unknowns, with somewhat different voices and body language, subtly reinforces the outsider stance and makes the film stronger. It doesn't hurt that the two are also terrific performers. David Straithairn, who has been providing valuable screen support for decades, is on hand as a seedy millionaire and Danny DeVito, doing his unctuous bit, is a tabloid gossip columnist with no scruples. James Cromwell, of the tall stooping frame and chiseled cheeks, is the police captain who tries to keep a tight rein on his stationhouse, despite the skullduggery going on behind the scenes.

Much of the film is actually about the ugly reality beneath the glossy images of the Hollywood dream factory. The LAPD tries to control its image with cop shows that make their boys in blue always heroic. When bad things happen, such as the 'Bloody Christmas' riot, we are privy to the backroom deal making which puts the proper spin on events for public consumption. This dichotomy between fantasy and reality is there for each of the characters and allows each, in turn, to make excuses for his or her behavior and morally opprobrious choices. Jack must choose between his glitzy Hollywood facade and being a real policeman. Bud must choose between his work behavior and his personal moral code. Ed must choose between his private ambitions and public perceptions. Lynn must choose between her fantasy surface and the reality of her emotional feelings.

Many of the best moments in the movie are commented on, in almost Brechtian style, by pop songs of the period. These act as a device to hold the film together and to allow a large amount of time and history to be covered in relatively brief montages. Hanson and Helgeland are to be commended for making these tricky moments work, both in terms of storytelling, but also in terms of character development. I've viewed the film several times now, but every time I go back, I pick up something new in terms of character or symbolism or texture.

The DVD is a good wide-screen transfer with excellent sound quality. There is a 'making of' featurette that's actually interesting as it talks about process, rather than being press junket puff pieces. There are various trailers, ads, descriptions of locations, and bios as well.

Tax evasion. Tag team shootings. Missing heroin. Gratuitous Christmas roof ornament destroying. White boudoir. Art moderne house. Hollywood Premiere Pot Bust. Urinating on floor. Big dead rat. Gratuitous councilman in underwear. Morgue tables. Dead hustler. DA dangling.

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