Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

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Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

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The Chair Challenge

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Did you ever have one of those weeks? I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of having celebrities I like and that feel as if they’re a part of my family die. Plus, is the universe going to blow up? Are we headed for World War III? It certainly seems that way. Not to mention the fact that there hasn’t been one movie I’ve loved or even liked more than a little this summer. I mean, how many reruns of House Hunters International can I watch? Yes, Costa Rica looks nice and inexpensive but, seriously – you’re going to uproot your spouse and two kids, go live in a shack on the beach and have them all piss happily in a rusted tin outhouse for $900 a month? Really????

Sorry, I will not calm down. Or pull out my dog-eared copy of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz from 2008. That was then and this is now. Besides, a good rant can do just as much as being impeccable with your word, not taking things personally, not making assumptions and always doing your best. And in case you were wondering – YES, THIS IS MY BEST! At the moment.

Okay, I feel better already. And so will you. So if that works imagine how good an unlucky 13 of them will feel. What follows are a baker’s dozen of my petty best of the moment. And I CHALLENGE ALL OF YOU to come up with at least one of your own and write in about it. Don’t worry. You don’t have to dump a bucket of ice water over your head afterwards. Or send money. This is therapy. At least for me. For all of us.

Oh, in case you were wondering I AM GRATEFUL – to live in a country where ranting is still legal and among others who can relate, understand and come up with funnier and better things to complain about than me. So as my mother used to warn: DO NOT DISAPPOINT ME. Which explains more than you need to know about myself or my rants on any given day.

MY UNLUCKY 13:

1 – You’re no longer a SPORTS HERO if you beat women and children.

28682-Hell-no-gif-CD0Y

Nuances are meaningless when a man knocks out his wife with a punch to the jaw and drags her limp body across a floor. Ditto when another guy repeatedly whoops his 4 year-old son with a switch to the crotch or beats him bloody with a stick and then chews on the remainder of its picked off leaves in front of him. The NFL’s Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson should be in jail for these offenses – not the subject of debate.   How does any woman put on a Rice jersey or a single football fan support a star running back who put a little boy not yet old enough to attend public school into the hospital? #TimothyRayJones? #Malala? #OJanyone?

2- If you throw your adolescent child out of the house for being gay you should be neutered against your will and relieved of all your wordily possessions. Rolling Stone recently did an expose about the epidemic of homeless LGBT kids, many of who have been thrown out onto the streets by their fundamentalist parents. I, for one, am tired of small-minded cowards hiding behind dogma in order to inflict pain and suffering on family members who they deem unworthy. So let me put it in language their pea brains might understand. Think of your offspring like a plate you knock over in the store. Meaning, you break it, you bought it. Or in this case – you make it, you own it. For life. But unlike a plate, you can’t throw yours out or give it away because you decide you suddenly don’t fancy its pattern or it fails to live up to your preconceived idea of the surface on which you choose to put your cold meatloaf sandwich during one of your typically lazy Sunday afternoons.

3- I don’t have the time to iWatch.

... and just about as useful

… and just about as useful

Who doesn’t love the sleek, stylish lines and shiny cool bling of something Apple? But wasn’t one of the benefits of the iPhone stapled to your person the fact that it pretty much rendered wristwatches obsolete? Do any of us really need a mini computer timepiece on our arms? Well, perhaps need is the wrong word. How about want? Isn’t it tough enough to make an effort lifting up your arms to do…. anything these days? #WWJobsDo?

4- Matthew Perry needs to sit out some more pilot seasons.

Stop trying to make Matthew Perry happen. It's not going to happen

Stop trying to make Matthew Perry happen. It’s not going to happen

We all love MP not only as one of our perennial Friends but for various admirable turns he’s done in both drama and comedy since those halcyon days. Still, a reboot of The Odd Couple as a half-hour CBS comedy this fall? Which was already rebooted in the eighties with an all-black cast from the 1970s hit series? Which was rebooted from the hit film? Which was reinterpreted from the hit Broadway show? The only person not tired of all of these hits is Neil Simon, who brilliantly created the story to begin with and even more brilliantly continues to collect royalty checks from it five decades later. #NoPoachingZone.

5- Too many actors are changing pace. You can’t blame a professional impersonator for wanting to try on all different types of personas but that doesn’t mean you can’t bitch about it. Steve Carrell is a humorless gazillionaire mentally abusing Channing Tatum in the upcoming Foxcatcher, Pushing Daisies’ charming Lee Pace (no pun intended) played the nastiest of villains in this summer’s sole megablockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, and post Thanksgiving we all have to look forward to a live version of Peter Pan starring Girls’…..Allison Williams?? How would they like it if I renamed this blog Notes From A Zeppelin? Or An Elongated Rant from my Chair. And no, the correct answer is not none of them cares. #Dontbemeanasme. #Thoughtofthatfirst.

She is just too tall to be Peter Pan. TOO. TALL

She is just too tall to be Peter Pan. TOO. TALL

6- We need to thin the herd of tour buses everywhere. Somebody somewhere is probably offering a tour of pretty much every region in the world. But nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than on the streets of Los Angeles. Here’s the bottom of lines, though. Those of you in the rest of the country don’t get to hate on us (nee make fun) and then come here to visit from every state in the union all year where you will undoubtedly spend at least one day on a tour bus going 5 mph gawking at everything and everyone you see with disdainful admiration. You’re gumming up the traffic and acting like the asshat guy/girl we all once dated who couldn’t make up their mind about us. Note: Those types of relationships never work. And certainly never end well.

7- Drivers of automobiles are not allowed to signal on their choice of odd or even days. While we’re on the subject of L.A. and traffic listen up – you’re a selfish pig if you don’t indicate when you are going right or left and a complete failure as a human being when you suddenly decide to stop in the middle of the street for no other reason than because, well – the sun looked nice? Organic fennel suddenly came into your mind? You thought a pretty guy or gal looked familiar but then realized it was only your own image reflecting into the windshield from your side view mirror? This also applies to big men driving their big trucks who have decided that because they seem more menacing no one else on the road will ever take them to task. Well, I guess I (let’s make it WE just in case) showed them.

Preach Batman

Preach Batman

8- Huge television stars need to stop doing car commercial voiceovers. I was going to let Jon Hamm slide as the voice of Mercedes Benz because after all, he’s Jon Hamm. But he’s started an epidemic that reached its peak last week when I actually recognized the voice of Modern Family’s Ty Burrell on an ad for some other vehicle. I can’t remember which one. And that’s the point. It’s understandable when they get Samuel L. Jackson or Alec Baldwin before the cameras to endorse Capital One credit cards. Their crazy on-camera personas are being bought and paid for with a lot of cash back. But what difference does it make who’s telling me to drive an overpriced automobile if I can’t see their handsome face IN the car and imagine they’re with me? No, of course I’m not specifically talking ONLY about Jon Hamm.   And certainly not of Matthew McConaughey – who is featured live on camera in one of the oddest, newest and most bizarre auto ads of them all.

9- Why can’t we have one universal cord that plugs into everything??? This was not my idea but came from NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who this week said he suggested it to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Yeah, I know, they’ll call it the iCord, build the prototype here and mass-produce it in China with unskilled, underpaid and overworked cheap labor. We’ll all feel guilty about it but it will come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and be sexy and irresistible. And we’ll purchase all of them because once again, well, life is so, so, so haaaaaaaaaaaard. #Too1stworldXGoogol

10- Network television needs to stop putting John McCain on the air right after every presidential speech.

What I see everytime he comes on screen...

What I see everytime he comes on screen…

In my mind, Sen. McCain gave up all rights to criticize presidential judgment the moment he selected Sarah Palin as his choice for vice-president. There will be no Sarah Palin joke here because how does one top anything she’s already said and done in the past, including the drunken brawl her entire family was reported to have gotten into this past week in Anchorage? What will be stated is that Sen. McCain’s expertise in the area of decision-making and strategy not only sucks but is potentially quite dangerous. Putting him on directly after Pres. Obama spoke to the nation about how he will deal with the beheadings of two American journalists at the hands of the fundamentalist religious terrorists of ISIS is akin to….well, I’ll let you fill in the blank. (Hint: Insert that Sarah Palin joke here).

11- Stop calling America “The Homeland!” There is no other way to say this. We are not in Adolf Hitler’s Germany (yet) or living in a cable series starring Claire Danes. When we discuss whether enemies of our state plan to attack our country that is what we fear they will attack – the country. Words matter. Jingoistic, fascist terminology is dangerous. Unless I’m using it to attack Rick Perry or Ted Cruz in an ironically worded twist on the words they ordinarily use. Which I have not done. Yet. #Oops.

We-all-know-someone-who-needs-to-tuck-and-roll…

12- Adored celebrities need to stop dying for a while. Or at least stop dying so close together. Aside from the emotional grief it causes their friends and loved ones it is hell on us. Robin Williams, Joan Rivers and Lauren Bacall all in the space of a month? And then there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death just a bit before??? The least of this is the confusion it causes to consumers and the corporations they love. Do you feature Mr. Hoffman prominently in the ads for Hunger Games: Mockingjay? Will it ever be kosher to watch a rerun of Fashion Police again? Was it unfair of me to get creeped out by the live images of a great actor like James Gandolfini in the recent ads for his last film, The Drop? It’s only creepy because none of us will get out of here alive. Oh, grow up – it’s true!!!

13- Give Billy Eichner a show that is not on Fuse TV!

Can you ever watch too much?

Can you ever watch too much?

It’s not as if I haven’t known about comedian Billy Eichner’s hilarious Funny or Die videos for the last year or two. But suddenly he seems to be on every other click of the web making me LOL (yes, I’m using THAT abbreviation because I’m not as clever as he is) at what might have been my lowest moment of the week were he not available. So, network or real pay cable TV – why? Why? Why? Don’t tell me he’s too gay or too New York or too Jewish. I might take it personally. As for Billy, no one is this funny and strange and entertaining so consistently. Not even Matthew Perry. Who I am a great fan of. (See #4 above). Don’t believe me? Fine. Here.

Julia Roberts Obstacle Course

It’s Debra Messing, You Gays

And in case you’re in the mood for a song, here’s something you won’t ever HEAR on the radio. Write in and Rant On.