DRAMA TAKE CENTER STAGE

New films are based closely on actual events

By Leonard Heldreth

All the films this month are close adaptations of real events and people.

All the Money in the World

Ridley Scott’s newest thriller is based on John Pearson’s 1995 book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. In 1973, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) is the richest man in the world when his 16-year-old grandson, J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation), is kidnaped. in Italy. There he is held for $14 million ransom by a branch of the Red Brigade, a violent, left-wing urban-terrorist organization that specializes in kidnaping for large ransoms. Getty refuses to pay, announcing on international television, “If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnaped grandchildren.” The stalemate drags on, while in Rome, the boy’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), fends off the paparazzi and negotiates with the police and the kidnappers; aiding her is a security specialist named Fletcher (Mark Wahlberg) hired by Getty. After four months, the kidnappers show their growing impatience by severing the boy’s right ear and sending it to his mother. Scott’s film shows how the final financial transfer is made and the case resolved, although the senior Getty did not die immediately after the boy’s return, as the movie implies.
Williams, the younger Plummer, and Wahlburg are all fine, but it is the 88-year-old Christopher Plummer who steals the show. Distilling the selfish cynicism, greed and cold-blooded nature of Getty, he creates a searing portrait of a man who has shut himself off from any humanitarian impulses toward his family or anyone else. His entire focus is on making money, and when he is asked how much he needs, he replies, “More.” Shaped by his psychological drives, he confides to his grandson, “A Getty is special. A Getty is nobody’s friend.” This bit of wisdom is given as Getty shows the boy around the ruined palace of the Roman emperor Hadrian; he believed he was Hadrian in a previous life, and a look at the Getty museum in California shows the influence of that belief.
Most amazing, the senior Plummer was brought into the film at the last minute. The film was in the final stages of editing with Kevin Spacey as Getty when Spacey was publicly accused of sexual misconduct. Trying to avoid penalizing the rest of the cast and crew for accusations made against Spacey, Riley Scott talked Plummer into reshooting the Spacey scenes. The rest of the cast was reassembled, locations were reserved, and over a period of one or two months, new footage was completed and edited into the film to create essentially a new movie. The film opened only two days later than its original planned debut. The amazing aspect is Plummer’s ability, with only a couple of week’s notice, to walk into the part and completely nail it. Plummer was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actor.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Gloria Grahame was a major film star in the 1950’s, often playing the femme fatale in movies such as Crossfire, Sudden Fear with Jack Palance, The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart and The Bad and the Beautiful, for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar. She was also featured in It’s a Wonderful Life, The Greatest Show on Earth and Oklahoma! After four disastrous marriages, some scandalous behavior and a reputation for being “difficult,” Grahame’s career collapsed; in addition, the trend of movies away from film noir left her with few opportunities to play her best-known role. As a character in Liverpool states, “She always played the tart. Big name in black and white films. Not doing so well in color, though.”
In 1981, Grahame was acting in a small stage production in Liverpool when she collapsed; her emergency contact information identified Peter Turner, a young actor whom she had met two years earlier and with whom she had a short, passionate affair, despite the 28 years difference in their age. At her request, Turner took Grahame to his family home in Liverpool, where she slowly declined for several weeks; one day after flying back to her family in New York, she died of breast cancer at age 57. In 1989, Turner published an account of their two years together entitled Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The movie, adapted from his book, offers little insight into Grahame’s life before she met him but reveals a believable love story despite the difference in their ages.
The best reasons for seeing this film, other than some history of Gloria Grahame, are the performances of the lead actors, Annette Bening, Jamie Bell and Julie Walters. When she starred in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, Frears looked at Bening and said, “My God, Gloria Grahame!” Bening acknowledged that she patterned her character after those that Grahame had played. She adopts just enough of Grahame’s character, breathy voice, and strut to make it work, and when the real Grahame is shown in film clips, there is no jar in the appearance. Some of Grahame’s sharp wit is transferred from the book. When Turner compliments her by asking, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke?” she snaps back, “Yeah. Humphrey Bogart. I didn’t like it when he said it, either.”
Jamie Bell as Peter Turner is also excellent in his first big role since his breakout as a boy yearning to be a ballet dancer in Billy Eliot. He manages to make the love affair convincing, despite the often prickly relationship between the two. The short disco-dancing sequence in their apartment house is outstanding because Bell is a professional dancer. Dame Julie Walters plays Bella, Peter’s mother, whose attitude of sympathy and helplessness toward Grahame makes some scenes moving that could have slid easily into weepy melodrama. She was Bell’s dancing teacher in Billy Eliot.
Although the film is uneven and inevitably becomes depressing as it nears the end, there are some very memorable scenes. In addition to the disco-dancing scene, Grahame and Turner go to see Alien, and she laughs at the “chest-buster” while he hides his eyes. Then, referring to her kids, she comments that you can’t control these things that burst out of your body. One of the most revealing scenes is set in Grahame’s Malibu mobile home, where she entertains her mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) and her sister (played by Frances Barber), who dig up some of the dirt from Grahame’s past. In addition to the first rate performances, the film has a nice soundtrack with a new song by Elvis Costello. All together, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a solid film that captures the last years of an impressive actress.

The Post

Directed by Stephen Spielberg, The Post chronicles the conflict leading to the 1971 Supreme Court decision that upheld the freedom of the press to publish the secret Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen and distributed to the New York Times. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), longtime editor of The Washington Post, urges publication whatever the consequences, but publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has concerns about the political and economic consequences of fighting the Nixon administration. During the week of the Pentagon decision, The Washington Post is also going public on the stock market and is therefore more vulnerable than usual. How the publication of the Pentagon Papers will affect the paper’s stock price, and therefore its economic survival, is uncertain. Even though the outcome is set in history, Spielberg manages to make the conflict between the newspaper and the government a tense thriller, and the one between Bradlee and Graham almost as compelling. Hanks and Streep are both excellent in their roles, as are the supporting cast, one of the most impressive collections of actors in quite some time. (The Post was nominated for best picture, and Meryl Streep for best actress.) The pressroom and newsroom sets are recreations from historical photographs and are completely believable. Given the current questions about media accuracy and the conflicts between the press and the White House, The Post couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. Significantly, the film ends with a security guard discovering the Watergate break-in. Is Spielberg suggesting something?
All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.

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