Tuesday, February 2, 2010

D.W. Griffith


David Wark (D.W.) Griffith is one of the most important film directors of all time. He directed five films that appear in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book.

Born ten years after the Civil War in the great commonwealth of Kentucky, Griffith was the son of a legislator and Confederate soldier who saw his life decline following the Confederacy’s loss. As such, Griffith developed a strong Southern identity that would permeate throughout his film career. When Griffith was ten years old his father died and Griffith and the rest of the family faced poverty. They moved to Louisville, where eventually Griffith would become involved in the entertainment industry.

At the age of 20 Griffith was touring the country in stock companies and working on writing plays. In 1907, James K. Hackett produced Griffith’s play, A Fool and a Girl. When this was a flop, Griffith decided, with the help of his actress wife, Linda Arvidson, to become involved in the new medium of motion pictures. His first role was in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, directed by Edwin S. Porter. Griffith eventually landed at Biograph and directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. He would go on to make hundreds of shorts over the next five years. Through this period, Griffith and his cameraman, G. W. "Billy" Bitzer, would redefine the silent film industry, using close-ups, medium shots, panoramic long shots, parallel editing, and innovative lighting techniques. In addition, he put together his own stock company of actors, with future legends such as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and Lionel Barrymore.

When Griffith wanted to branch out and make longer features, he and Biograph parted ways and Griffith formed a independent film company with Harry Aitken. This would eventually lead to his making Birth of a Nation in 1915, which was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s best-selling novel about Reconstruction, The Clansman. The film ran over three hours and was a huge hit. The NAACP protested and tried to have the film banned as racist propaganda. Griffith was shocked and angered at the attempts to suppress his film.

Griffith followed The Birth of a Nation with his epic Intolerance, which is comprised of four stories from different periods of history, illustrating the persistence of intolerance and inhumanity through the ages. The work he did on this film inspired countless other directors, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and King Vidor.

In 1919, he joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists. His first big film with this new company was in Broken Blossoms, the story of an Asian man who falls in love with an abused child played by Lillian Gish. The following year he released Way Down East. Filmed on location in New England during winter, the film starred Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Some say the film was an attack on Puritanism and sexual double standards. He would go on to make Broken Blossoms

Griffith’s next great film, Orphans of the Storm (1921), was a spectacular recreation of the French Revolution with 18th century Paris virtually replicated at his studio. In it, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish are separated by the ancien regime and caught up in the storm of revolution.

Yet, something horrible happened to Griffith in 1927, the talkies began. He would only direct four sound films in his career. The most notable of the four was his 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston. In 1931 he made his last film, The Struggle, a film that opposed Prohibition. The film was both a commercial and critical disaster that ended Griffith’s directorial career. He spent the remainder of his life fighting alcoholism. He died in 1948 at the age of 73.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Catherine Deneuve

catherine-deneuve-20070715-283618 Catherine Fabienne Dorléac was born to be an actress. The daughter of two Parisian stage stars, she started her film career at the ripe old age of 13, working alongside her older sister Francoise on Les Collegiennes. To distinguish herself from her well-known parents and sister, Catherine changed her last name to Deneuve. She definitely distinguished herself.

Her breakthrough role came in Jacques Demy’s Oscar nominated musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). She would re-team with Demy in 1967 to make another musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort (which co-starred her sister Francoise and Gene Kelly). Deneuve and Demy made two more films together, the 1970 musical Donkey Skin and the strange A Slightly Pregnant Man, which co-starred her then lover Marcello Mastroianni.


It was her work in Umbrellas that led to more prominent roles and directors. One of these directors was Roman Polanski, who cast her in the lead of his psychological thriller Repulsion (1965). Luis Bunuel would call next, casting her as the lead in Belle De Jour (1967) and then again in Tristana (1970).

belleDeJourThroughout the 1970s she made some interesting role choices, some good and some very bad. Perhaps this had something to do with having two small children (Chiara Mastroianni and Christian Vadim) and a revolving bedroom door (most notably Mastroianni and Francois Truffaut). The more memorable films of this decade, other than Donkey Skin and Tristana, would have to be Un Flic, Le Sauvage, and Hustle. However, what she became most known for in this decade was her beauty. She was the face of Chanel No. 5 and caused sales for the famous perfume and Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion line to go through the roof. She was even named the most elegant woman in the world by the American press. chanel5deneuve(ebay)

She started the 1980s off great by starring in Truffaut’s Oscar nominated The Last Metro (also starring Gerard Depardieu, who has now made 7 films with Deneuve). She made a string of very good French films during this period, most notably Hotel des Ameriques, Le Choc, and Fort Saganne.


In 1992 she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the Oscar winning Indochine. She followed this film with a series of critically acclaimed films, such as My Favorite Season, Les Voleurs, Place Vendome, Time Regained, and East-West. Though I love her early work from the 1960s when she was in her twenties, the roles she played once she met the half-century mark and beyond are more nuanced and controlled.


Deneuve prepared for the new millennium by writing director Lars von Tier and asking him to consider working with her. When he started working on Dancer in the Dark (2000) with Bjork he contacted Deneuve and the new millennium began with another critically acclaimed film.


Next, Deneuve worked with perhaps the greatest French female casts ever assembled (Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Virginie Ledoyen, and Fanny Ardant) to make the wickedly funny 8 Women. When she turned 60 she decided to play Choderlos de Laclos' sexually charged Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons—she did not look or act like a 60 year-old grandmother. She then made a string of emotionally raw films, such as Kings and Queens, Palais Royal, Changing Times, and Apres Lui. She also made two politically-conscious films, the animated Persepolis (which focuses on the role of women in Iran) and I Want to See (which explores the aftermath of the Israel-Lebanon war). Her most recent performances in A Christmas Tale and Meres et Filles (Hidden Diary) can only be categorized as searing.


Deneuve is now entering her 54th year of acting and she just keeps getting better. She has been nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and 10 César’s (the French Oscars); she has won 2 César’s and a number of lifetime achievement awards. In addition, she is the most represented actress (along with character actress Mae Marsh) with 7 films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die book. She has now made over 100 films and acted in four different languages. To me, she is one of the greatest film actresses of all time.