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George Christy 01-01-2010

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Buzz is building about Jeff Bridges’ memorable performance as Bad Blake, the down-at-his-heels, honky tonk, boozer country singer in Crazy Heart.  Jeff says that he was inspired by the music of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Bob Dylan, and prepped for the role with six months of jam sessions.  Even insiders who didn’t cotton to the film applaud Jeff’s portrayal, and believe it’s time for Jeff to be honored with a Best Actor Oscar.   “His body of work stands tall,” is an enthusiastic assessment, many recalling that Jeff’s been acting since age 13, appearing with his dad Lloyd Bridges.   Jeff’s acclaimed roles date back to the 1971 classic The Last Picture Show, which garnered him an Oscar nomination, followed by others (Clint Eastwood’s 1974 Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; the 1986 Starman; and 2000’s The Contender). 

Lest we forget, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, Jeff created the slacker “Dude” character that’s now a metaphor for a man “happy doing nothing.”    After opening in 1998, the movie tanked, but through the decade became popular as a cult comedy.

During the Crazy Heart premiere at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, Fox Searchlight’s president Nancy Utley informed that she and colleague Steve Gilula loved and picked up Scott Cooper’s film when it was shown at a film festival.   Purportedly, Paramount turned it down, and soon as Crazy Heart was screened in Los Angeles, the Oscar buzz for Jeff created a sudden shakeup in the Oscar campaign.   Both Nancy and Jeff vow that Colin Farrell, who plays Bad Blake’s singing rival in Crazy Heart, “did all of his own singing, there was never any dubbing.” 

Jeff soon stars in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the 1969 True Grit, playing U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and co-starring with Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.   The Coens have an open casting call for the young girl, “possessed of true grit and steely determination,” who hires Rooster Cogburn to track down the killer of her father.  Kim Darby played the girl in the 1969 film, appearing with Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, and John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, which won Wayne an Oscar. 

We lost a grand lady in December, albeit a gorgeous and gifted Oscar-winning actress (for 1943’s The Song of Bernadette), and a brilliant woman who became deeply involved as a trustee with her late husband Norton Simon’s museum in Pasadena.   We’d met Jennifer Jones some years ago, but caught up again at that museum party when she opened the doors for the crowd to view the art and the Frank Gehry renovations.   Her beauty shimmered, she wore Norton’s gift of a flawless string of pearls (the only jewelry she ever wore) and her vitality was unflagging.   We became friends.

At that party, where Nancy Goslee Power was complimented on her landscaping, celebrity hairstylist Yuki Takei of the Borrelli Salon revealed that he’d been styling Jennifer’s hair since he was 25.   Last week, we discovered that he looked after her for 37 years until the time of her demise.  “Everything with Jennifer was top class,” he’s explained.   “Wherever we went, to Paris, Italy, London, Chicago, Dallas, whenever she was receiving awards for her work with mental health, we stayed at the best hotels … the Ritz in Paris, the Hassler in Rome, the Connaught in London, Four Seasons in Chicago and Dallas.   Traveling was not easy, she’d say, so why not enjoy the best of comforts.”

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma to parents who owned a traveling tent show, Jennifer, christened Phylis (cq) Isley, worked an elevator and modeled hats in a local department store before heading to New York to study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts.  This was where she met and wed Robert Walker, who later starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller, Strangers on a Train.    They had two sons, Robert Jr. and Michael.  After their divorce, she married film mogul David O. Selznick, with whom she had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who committed suicide, which led to Jennifer’s commitment to mental health.   After David’s death, Jennifer semi-retired from acting.

While filming  A Many Splendored Thing, co-star William Holden, known for dalliances with leading ladies, wouldn’t let up on Jennifer.   The Holden testosterone was in high gear, and embarrassing.  What to do?  Jennifer chewed garlic cloves before every love scene to turn Holden off.    So she confided to us – “I never would betray my husband David Selznick.”

David encouraged her to film the 1953 Beat the Devil, which Jennifer enjoyed being in, madcap as it was, with John Huston directing.   John co-wrote the screenplay with Truman Capote about a bunch of con artists and ne’er-do-wells in Italy waiting to board a ship to Mombassa that’s enroute to Kenya.  Theirs was a get-rich-quick scheme from a Kenyan uranium mine.  Humphrey Bogart joined the cast on location in Portofino, later bitching that he lost money bankrolling the film.  Others included Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley.  Before we lost him, John Huston revealed during our interview that he and Truman would take evening strolls – the passegiatta, as the Italians refer to their leisurely walk — and write the next day’s dialogue then and there.  “Sounds somewhat helter-skelter, but we all had fun.  Truman was witty and clever, and constantly reminded me that he was wearing a couture shawl, created especially for him of a spun-gold fabric by Pierre Balmain, to ward off the nighttime chill.”   The movie didn’t do well, but it’s developed a cult following, with Roger Ebert declaring it “the first camp classic.”

“Everything happens at parties,” observed Jane Austen in one of her novels, and six years after David’s death and during a dinner party hosted by Lee and Walter Annenberg, Jennifer met the multimillion dollar industrialist Norton Simon, who became her third husband.   Legend has it that he’d fallen in love with her portrait in the movie, Portrait of Jennie, wanted to buy it, but to no avail.
No secret that Jennifer was a late riser, and while remodeling a residence in Malibu, with various workmen about, she needed to walk past the work area for breakfast.  Having gotten out of bed, she rang a bell or sometimes clapped her hands before entering the room.  “Remember now,” she’d remind the workers, not wanting them to see her without makeup or hair touch-ups.   “Faces to the wall, please …. everyone!”  And so they did, standing against the walls, patiently and kindly waiting for Jennifer to stroll past them for her morning meal.  Jennifer frequently mentioned to friends that she was a Pisces, which is why she liked being in Malibu with its refreshing seaside air from the Pacific Ocean.

Thank you, Diahann Carroll, for loving Rob Marshall’s Nine as much as we did, and for telling friends like Mark Richman not to miss it.  Also film producer Jay Weston enjoyed it enormously, as did Dr. Harold Karpman (“subperb production numbers, and I like the music”).  Critics didn’t get this artistic triumph of a joyous musical paean adapted from Fellini’s masterpiece, 8 1/2.    Diahann, Jay and Harold and The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, along with us, could not fault the splendid portrayals by Marion Cotillard, those balls of fire Penelope Cruz and Fergie, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, and the adored signora Sophia Loren.  We anticipate Oscar nominations.

What bewilders us, and possibly you, Diahann, is that critics — perhaps lacking an appreciation for theatricality as evidenced in Nine — go gaga for crappy indie movies with their insufferably dark shadows, analyzing them to Kingdom Come.   Boring dysfunctional sagas without much plot or character.  When, in fact, most audiences don’t give a damn.  The films fall flat overnight at the boxoffice, and, yes, we’ll take the high jinks of Nine, hands down, and leave the theater humming Be Italian.

Words to live by: “The system worked!” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comment about the crotch-bomber terrorist Umar boarding a flight after paying cash for a one-way ticket and without any luggage.

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