Movie critic Shawn Levy, author of the superb books King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Show Biz Party, has a new book about one of the most accomplished and adored movie stars of all time, Paul Newman. He very kindly made time for an interview in the midst of his book tour.
Q: Newman was one of those rare performers who become icons of their eras. What was it about his style of acting and choices of scripts that seemed so particularly characteristic of the post-WWII years?
A: He often played younger than he really was, like many actors, but it was particularly his casting as the failed sons of strong fathers in such films as “The Rack,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Hud” and, in a sense, “The Long Hot Summer” and “The Hustler” that cemented him as an icon. He carried the sensitivity of James Dean into a new era when the promise of a film like “Rebel Without a Cause” bled into mainstream and prestige films. He easily segued into rebel/countercultural figures starting in the mid-’60s (“Harper,” “Hombre,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy”). And because he was older than the characters he was playing (he was 38 when he made “Hud”), he also carried a savor of mature authority. He played, in short, equally well to both the establishment and the kids who threw mudballs at it.
Q: Is there a performance of Newman’s that you think is particularly overlooked or underrated?
A: His turn as the stage manager in the Broadway production of “Our Town,” which is available on DVD, is a classic bit of Americana. In movies, “Hombre” is tough and sullen and cool in a way you’d associate more with, oh, Steve McQueen than Newman. Both excellent films.
Q: What did he consider his biggest failing?
A: In acting, he felt he was too mechanical and calculating for the first 25 years or so of his career, and I think I’d agree. You see him pulling poses and striking moods quite deliberately even in such fine films as “The Hustler” and “Hud.” But later in life he ratcheted back and produced some astonishing performances. In life, I think he felt he was a very remote and arbitrary father until he reevaluated himself after the death of his son, Scott, in 1978.
Pixar is the must successful studio in movie history, with every single one of its releases earning over $100 million. Even more impressive, every one of them is entirely original, not based on a book or classic fairy tale. I have a special affection for “A Bug’s Life,” and so chose it as this week’s DVD pick, in honor of its newest cinematic sibling, “Up.”
“A Bug’s Life” did not get the attention it deserved when it was first released was because it was the second computer-animated movie about ants within a few months. The difference between the two animated ant movies is exemplified by their lead characters. “Antz” had Z, voiced by Woody Allen as — well — Woody Allen, angst-ridden, in analysis, searching for individual identity in a world of conformity. “A Bug’s Life” has “News Radio’s” Dave Foley providing his voice as Flik, an All-American ant-next-door type, inventive, brave, and loyal.
When Flik inadvertently loses the food tribute set out by the ants for the predatory grasshoppers, he must find a way to protect his community. In the spirit of “The Magnificent Seven,” he goes off in search of warrior bugs to fight the grasshoppers. He mistakenly hires a group of unsuccessful vaudevillians from (of course) a flea circus, who think they are being booked for a performance and have no idea he expects them to fight. But they turn out to have just the right stuff to help the ants fight the grasshoppers after all. And Flick gets to prove that he is a hero at heart. The result is a delightful movie that is great fun for all but the smallest kids, who may be frightened by the scary grasshoppers and by some intense action sequences that put the lead characters into danger.
Helped by outstanding voice talent, the characters are quirky and endearing enough to make you forget they are computer-animated. “Seinfeld’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the ant princess, learning about the responsibilities of leadership. Phyllis Diller lends her raspy voice to the ant queen. Kevin Spacey is smoothly menacing as Hopper, the leader of the grasshopper bad guys, and “Spin City’s” Richard Kind plays his not-so-bad-guy brother. The flea circus performers include the voices of “Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce, and John Ratzenberger of “Cheers.”
“Antz” was largely brown, but this ant movie uses a paintbox of color to produce stunning images with luminous tones. You’ll need to see it twice to appreciate the scope of the movie’s visual wit and technological mastery. It also has the funniest credit sequence I have ever seen — be sure to watch all the way to the end to enjoy it.
Subjects for family discussion include bullies, and how to deal with them (note Hopper’s view that their power depends more on the ants’ perception than on reality), what makes a leader, the obligations of responsibility, and responding to challenges — including failure.
I love the Slate Spoiler Specials, discussions of movies for you to listen to on the way home from the theater. Because they allow the participants to include spoilers in the conversation, they are more satisfying than a review can be. I’d love to invite my readers to have a spoiler-permitted discussion as well. If you like, listen to the Slate spoiler specials on Star Trek and Terminator Salvation first if you like, and then weigh in with your comments, questions, criticisms, and spoiler-filled thoughts. I’d love to hear from you and will add a few of my own. Beware, though — do not read until you’ve seen the films.
The first thing I saw when I walked into the room was — of course — a bunch of beautiful helium balloons. And then I saw Pete Docter, the lanky and affable director of Pixar’s new film, “Up,” about an extraordinary journey to South America in a house lifted into the sky by an enormous bunch of balloons.
What makes a good voice actor for an animated film?
Some actors can create a picture of what is happening with their voice. Some actors works a lot with their bodies and facial expressions. You have to unplug the video part and listen to the voice. For Carl [the older man] we wanted a voice that was grouchy and curmudgeonly, a voice that suggests that nothing is quite as good as it used to be, but a voice that is still very appealing and funny and Ed Asner fit that bill. You can tell he deeply cares about the peoople he is insulting. For Russell [the little boy who goes along for the ride), we didn’t want anybody sounding like they were acting or phony. We put up fliers looking for kids and we read about 400 different kids. This kid wasn’t even trying to audition. His brother was at the call. He wasn’t an actor. But he had a real genuine sound, and hearing his voice I was smiling already.
So, how do you work with a little boy who isn’t really used to acting and who has to imagine so much about what is going on around his character and convey it all through the voice?
I came up with games. I wanted the kid to be relentlesly optimistic. Sometimes he’d be at about a 6 or 7, and I would tell him to make it a 10 when he had to be really loud. I would say, “Run over there, run around that chair, and then come back here and say the line.” We’d get him all worked up and physical and he responded to that. I even held him upside down and tickled him!
The movie starts with the story of Carl and his wife which is very bittersweet, not the kind of thing audiences usually see in an animated movie for kids.
It does start in a melancholy mode. We knew we had humor and broad stuff and action and we wanted to give it more. A lot of times going to action movies, you leave saying, “That was fun,” but it goes away and doesn’t have anywhere to sit in your consciousness. [Legendary Disney story artist] Joe Grant taught me to ask, “What are you giving the audience to take home?” You have to have some relatable emotion as a foundation for the fun stuff. You need the sad beginning so that you care about Carl and want what he wants.
What movies did you love as a kid?
I loved “Dumbo.” I watched Bugs Bunny time and again. The Muppets were big, too. All of those, they have this real, not darkness but poignancy, that’s what makes it stick with you. We tried for that in this film. When we were about halfway done we showed it to an audience, and the highest group of positives was women age 12-25 because they connected to the story.
Did you draw inspiration from real-life locations for some of the stunning images in this film?
Yes, we studied the Tabletop Mountains called tepui, with all these weird rock shapes. You start to see figures in the mist. There are strange plants you dont see anywhere else. It is where Venezuela meets Brazil and Guyana. “The Lost World” was inspired by this one mountain we studied. Most of them have never been set foot on. The more we can base on real life, the more you will believe the stuff we make up. The bird in the film was based on a crane and a monal pheasant, the most iridescent creature there is.
Every animated movie director tells me there was one technical challenge that was especially difficult. What was yours?
Balloons! The maximum our system could only handle was 500 and we had to expand to ten thousands. Not only does each balloon “know” where the others are, each one can respond to wind, turbulence, and each of the other balloons. And we could not have thousand strings. The whole things is so preposterous we had to find little elements that anchor it and make it more believable but also poetic.
What were some of the decisions you made about the film that were different because it was being made in 3D?
We did a bunch of reseasrch what makes successful 3D. We did not want the “Whoa! 3D” effects that take you out of the movie; we wanted them coming out of the story. 3D allows us to play with the depth the way we use color and lighting. When Carl is cut off and closed, we made it claustrophobic and slow. When he triumphs we make it as spacious as we can.
I don’t know the exact quote, but there is this thing that Walt Disney said, something like, “We’re not making these movies for kids, we’re not making them for adults; we’re making them for that still quiet part the world has made you forget but that our films can make you remember.”