MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD, Picks of the Week: The Illusionist, Patton, Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection, Mon Oncle


The Illusionist (Four Stars)

France: Sylvain Chomet, 2010 (Sony Classics)
In this wonderful feature cartoon, master old-style French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) takes an unproduced Jacques Tati script about an aging magician (who looks and dresses just like Tati, with trench coat, hat, lanky frame and mildly distracted air), and the young woman who follows and loves him, and makes Chaplinesque, Tatiesque magic.

The movie is set in, of all places, rural Scotland and Edinburgh, and the way Chomet captures that land and that city, in lines and pastels, is wondrous to behold. They’re among the most beautiful drawings I’ve seen in any recent movie cartoon. There’s also a snip of the real Tati, on screen, in a movie house. (Jean-Claude Donda does the voices for both the Illusionist and the movie house manager.)

And there’s a really great bunny — white, of course, since he comes out of the hat. Now, how many cartoons have a really great bunny? About as many as have a really great illusionist. This one has both — as well as the antic, wistful spirit of the great Jacques Tati, a magnificent talent who could pull lots of stuff from his hat, and who vanished far too soon.


Patton (Blu-Ray) Four Stars

U.S.; Franklin Schaffner, 1970 (Fox)

George C. Scott delivering General George Patton’s flag-backed, five-star, four-letter-word-packed speech  with fiery candor and no inhibitions almost seems enough to win him his Oscar. The rest is good epic stuff, with lots of dynamic fierce-warrior emoting from Scott and a smart, absorbing, sometimes breathtaking Francis Coppola (and Edmund North) script. Also in the cast: Karl Malden as Gen. Omar Bradley and Tim Considine (of Spin and Marty) as the soldier whom Patton roughs up.

Schaffner, one of the great ’50s TV drama helmer class — along with John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, Robert Mulligan and Arthur Penn — is an underrated movie director. This remains his best. (Along with Planet of the Apes, of course.) And though it shouldn’t have beaten out M*A*S*H for the 1970 Best Picture Oscar, it’s still pretty damned good.


“Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection” (Four Stars)

U.S.: Various Directors, 1942-1967 (Warner Home Video)

      Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were Hollywood’s real royal couple. They were the real King and Queen. Not Tracy’s pal Clark Gable and pretty little Myrna Loy, who were elevated by a ’30s press gimmick, but Tracy and Hepburn, who were raised to the heights by talent, by beauty (hers), by rugged humanity (his)  and by class, brilliance and genius  (both of them). Maybe The Golden Age’s best movie actor (Tracy), certainly its best movie actress (Hepburn), and, by all odds, the most fascinating of all its backstage couples: they were lovers who never married, but who, instead of playing out their romance in the shadows, played it out in the blaze of the move screens.

So here is an essential box set: All nine of their tandem movies, from 1942’s Woman of the Year to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, have been assembled together for the first time, with Warner Home Video bringing together at last all their films for MGM, Liberty Films, Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia — a treasure chest for movie-lovers, a great showcase of great movie acting, a loving memento of The Golden Age.  

    Did the public who went to all of these movies, know they were a offcreen couple as well? Hepburn, the fiery bachelor girl, wooed by Howard Hughes, loved by John Ford, by George Stevens and many others? Tracy, the married man, who cheated and drank, but always kept up proprieties in public? Some of  them must have, but the star’s reputations, in that pre-tabloid age, were well-protected by the studios, the publicists.

Spence and Kate’s friends knew of course: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, George Cukor and his crowd, Jim Cagney and Pat O’Brien and Frank Morgan and the rest of Tracy’s Irish-American Hollywood buddies. But did we — or our equivalents in the ’40s and ’50s — know they were together when the lights went out? Maybe.    

They were the seeming opposites who irresistibly attracted. Tracy was a tough sort of guy from Milwaukee (O’Brien was his youthful pal.) Hepburn was a patrician from a posh, politically liberal Connecticut clan. He was salt-of-the-earthy; she was, in a way, ethereal — or so it seemed.

 Joe Mankiewicz , their producer, introduced them on their first film, Woman of the Year. And she’s supposed to have said, to Tracy, “You’re not very tall are you?” (He was 5’10”.) And Mankieiwicz is supposed to have cracked “Dont worry. He’ll cut you down to size.” And it doesn’t really matter whether any of them really said any of it, because we see that meeting and hear those words, always, anyway.

 Was it love at first sight?   Maybe . But it was something even more important, something rarer. It was a love that never ended, a passion that lasted really, truly, deeply, until the moment Tracy died, in the hide-away they shared at George Cuklor’s estate. And afterward. Kate held Spence in her arms (we imagine) and called for help, and then discreetly moved aside so that Tracys wife and family could take over. The proprieties….   

We may never know, completely why they loved each other so much. But we know why we love them. They were both great actors, acting geniuses, the very best of the best in their prime years. Tracy, it was said, could memorize a “side” (a page of movie script) just by looking at it. When Hepburn starred as Clara Schumann in the Brahms-Schumann classical musical bio Song of Love, Hepburn learned to play piano so well that her piano coach claimed Kate finally got to be just as good a pianist as he was. Her coach was Artur Rubinstein

 Tracy won two Oscars (for the beaming Portuguese fisherman Manuel in Captains Courageous, and Father Flanagan in Boys’ Town). She eventually won four, for Morning Glory, for The Lion in Winter, for On Golden Pond, and for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the last movie thay made together. (Kate always said she regarded it as an award for both of them.)

They made nine movies together, starting with Woman of the Year, the romantic comedy about a sports reporter wooing a political columnist, where they famously met, and where you can actually see them falling in love on screen. (You can see the same thing happening to their friends Bogie and Bacall in “To Have and Have Not”)

Spence and Kate made five more together in the ’40s (Keeper of the Flame for director Cukor,  Without Love  for Harold Bucquet, The Sea of Grass for Elia Kazan, State of the Union for Frank Capra, and Adam’s Rib, written by Gordon and Kanin for Cukor). And two more in the ’50s (Pat and Mike from the splendid Gordon-Kanin-Cukor team again, and The Desk Set for George Seaton).

And then, after Tracy’s long illness (Hepburn gave up her career, at her absolute acting prime, between 1962 to 1967, to nurse him), they made “Dinner” together. And, as soon as his last scenes were in the can, Tracy died.

The man was gone; the image remained. But the reality of Spencer Tracy didn’t quite fit his well-crafted image. In his movies, we see him as the ultimate paterfamilias, the supreme father figure. Spencer the rock. But the real younger Tracy, according to his director/admirer Stanley Kramer, was an alcoholic and a brawler throughout his early career, a binge-drinking troublemaker who would leave the set and vanish, drinking himself into a stupor. Kate saved him from the bottle, prolonged his life, maybe saved him from the fate of a John Barrymore or an Errol Flynn. She rescued him, kept him at his best, helped pick his parts, sacrificed her own career for him at the end of his life.

 Why? She loved him, you see. And he loved her.

 You can see it in these films, see it in the way they play together, so immaculately, so beautifully, so well; see it in the delight they take in each others acting, in each other’s company, in each other.

I admire Spencer Tracy greatly, as I love and admire Kate. But there’s something he did toward the end of their decades together, that’s always bothered me. It’s not the fact that he stuck so rigidly to the anti-divorce dogma of his church, or that he never divorced —  and never married Kate. Actually, she may not have wanted to be wed, to anybody. And anyway, they were happy. How many other people, even in the high Hollywood life they lived, were as happy?

What makes me frustrated, is the fact that, in the early ’60s, Tracy turned down the chance to play, alongside Kate, those two superb theatrical parts they were born to play together, in the greatest American play ever written, Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, directed for the screen, at his peak, by Sidney Lumet.

 Tracy was O’Neill’s favorite actor. (He had wanted Spence to play Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.) And this was no ordinary production. Jason Robards, the foremost O’Neill actor of his generation,  and several others, played James Tyrone, Jr. (based on O’Neill’s older brother), and so blisteringly well, with such raucous humor and heart-breaking sadness, driving his climactic drunk scene to heights and depths that make your hair stand on end. Dean Stockwell makes just the right kind of sensitive observer, as the Eugene stand-in Edmund.

And Kate — God! — Kate as Mary Tyrone!  How can any of us who’ve seen that wonderful film will ever forget Boris Kaufman’s  camera moving back and back, leaving Kate’s Mary in a pinpoint of light in a great pool of blackness, as she recites so movingly Mary’s last morphine-ridden monologue about how, one summer, she lost her vocation as a nun, because she met and fell in love with James.

And then the darkness vanishes. For a moment. We see her face in closeup. What happened? “Oh yes…I fell in love wth James Tyrone, and I was so happy for a time….”

In all of American movies, there is no better-acted theatrical movie than Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, no finer female performance than Katharine Hepburn’s as Mary Tyrone (based on O’Neill’s mother). But great as Ralph Richardson was playing James Tyrone (based on O’Neill’s father), I can’t watch the movie, without afterwards imagining Tracy in that role — a role he allegedly turned down out of worry that it would be a cheap, second-rate production.

How could he have made such a blunder? Why didn’t he feel he owed it to Kate to be at her side, helping her, supporting her, in her greatest acting coup — which would probably have been his as well. (As it was Robards’, and as it was Stockwell’s.) How could he? She didn’t hold it against him, of course. Instead, she gave up her career for five years to support him in his last illness.

  “That was the summer I fell in love with Spencer Tracy. And we were so happy. For more than  a while….”

       Why can I finally forget so easily and readily that loss, the loss of the movie, Kate’s loss? Well, it’s not my business, really. Long Day’s Journey Ito Night, directed by Lumet, with Tracy &  Hepburn, (and Robards and Stockwell) exists, in a way, in my mind and always will. And the movie that was made instead, with that Falstaffian knight among actors Sir Ralph Richardson as james, Sr., is beautiful and memorable, a film everyone should see.  The rest…It’s nobody’s business but Kate’s and Spence’s.

She loved him, you see. And he loved her.

Includes: Woman of the Year (U.S.: George Stevens, 1942). Four Stars. With Fay Bainter, William Bendix and Reginald Owen. Keeper of the Flame (U.S.: George Cukor, 1942) Three Stars. With Forrest Tucker, Richard Whorf, Howard Da Silva and Audrey Christie. Without Love (U.S.: Harold Bucquet, 1845) Three Stars.  With Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn.

The Sea of Grass (U.S.: Elia Kazan) Three Stars. With Melvyn Douglas, Robert Walker, Harry Carey and Edgar Buchanan. Script by Marguerite Roberts, from Conrad Richter’s novel. State of the Union (U.S.: Frank Capra, 1948) Four Stars. With Angela Lansbury, Van Johnson, Adolphe Menjou and Lewis Stone. Script from the Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse play.

Adam’s Rib (U.S.: Cukor, 1949) Four Stars. With Judy Holliday, David Wayne, Tom Ewell and Jean Hhagen. Pat and Mike (U.S.: Cukor, 1949) Four Stars. With Aldo Ray, Jim Backus and Charles Bronson. Desk Set (U.S.: George Seaton, 1957) Three Stars. With Dina Merrill and Gig Young. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (U.S.: Stanley Kramer, 1967). With Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton, and Cecil Kellaway.

Extras: Vintage cartoons, including Tex Avery’s rowdy WWII specials The Blitz Wolf and Swing Shift Cinderella (a variation on Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood) and Hanna-Barbera’s classical music classic with maestro Tom and nemesis Jerry, The Cat Concerto; Vintage “Our Gang,” “Crime Doesn’t Pay” and “Theater of Life” shorts; Desk Set Commentaries by Dina Merrill and Neva Patterson;  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner intros by Tom Brokaw, Quincy Jones, Karen Kramer and Steven Spielberg; Trailers. 


 Mon Oncle (Four Stars)

France: Jacques Tati, 1958 (Criterion Collection)

Jacques Tati’s first great clash with the modern world and its sometimes haywire technology was 1958‘s Mon Oncle. His second was 1968‘s Playtime, which defeated him, not artistically but financially.

Mon Oncle is still a gem, a masterpiece. (So is Playtime, but it doesn’t have as much Hulot.) This movie has those wonderful dogs and those little delinquent Parisian kids, roaming and terrorizing the neighborhood, and it has that fantastically ridiculous fish fountain at the Arpels. And it has Tati’s M. Hulot at his most diffident and beguiling, trying to be a good brother to his proudly bourgeois sister. Mme. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) and to her over-fussy factory owner hubby, Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), trying to be a good man, a good worker, and most of all trying to be a good uncle to his scampish little nephew — but only causing comic chaos.

It’s enough for us, of course, but not the world, this world. (By the way, did Bob Dylan see this movie before writing “If Dogs Run Free?”) (In French, with English subtitles.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon