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SNUBBED BY DISNEY, WHAT’S SHYAMALAN TO DO? WALK (AND DISS)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


278 pages. Gotham Books. $27.50.

 


By JANET MASLIN

The New York Times, 7/10/06

New work by important filmmakers is always hyped by early publicity, some of it flattering enough to have been written at gunpoint. Now M. Night Shyamalan has set a new high-water mark for this sort of sycophancy. He has deigned to allow Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, to follow him adoringly through every stage of the filmmaking process. The upshot is not just a puff article but a full-length, unintentionally riotous puff book.

Who is M. Night Shyamalan? The point is that you're supposed to know already. By some lights (namely his own and Mr. Bamberger's) he is an A-list Hollywood legend whose work is ablaze with beauty and wisdom. By others, he's the guy who made a mint with "The Sixth Sense," starred in an American Express ad and has now directed "Lady in the Water." The book makes landfall on July 20, a day before the movie does.

"The Man Who Heard Voices" isn't really the filmmaker's fault. His only serious misstep was allowing it to happen. It was Mr. Bamberger who met the auteur at a dinner party ("Night's shirt was half open — Tom Jones in his prime"), became awestruck ("What kind of power could he have over me?") and started taking deeply embarrassing notes.

How could Mr. Shyamalan have known that his Boswell would place him in a biblical light? The book finds some relevance for Night (as Mr. Bamberger calls him) in the fact that the word night, like the word day, shows up early in the Book of Genesis. It also describes an actress in Night's presence as "like Moses before the burning bush."

As is the case anytime Hollywood lets its hair down, this account exposes deep fault lines of privilege, power and class. Consider the story of Paula, who was Night's assistant when he was ready to spring his "Lady in the Water" screenplay upon the Walt Disney Company. Among Paula's virtues were the ability to make hot chocolate exactly the way Night likes it and to fly cross-country without going to the bathroom. The screenplay was far too important to be left unattended.

Paula "never confused her workaday world with the lives of the rich and superrich with whom she was in daily contact," Mr. Bamberger writes approvingly. He himself has more problems in this area, as he vicariously appreciates Night's home outside Philadelphia ("it was maybe the grandest of all the horse-country estates"), Night's staff, Night's fresh fruit and Night's "chicken with perfect grill lines." The last two were shared by Night's cast and crew, and the book takes note of his generosity.

But back to Paula: in a story that will live in legend, Mr. Bamberger reveals how she was not welcomed with sufficient deference at the home of the powerful Disney executive Nina Jacobson. Ms. Jacobson is blasted for having taken her son to a birthday party instead of dedicating her Sunday to Night's precise timetable for script-reading. "What could Nina be doing that's more important than getting Night's new script?" Mr. Bamberger asks. (The italics are his.) Then the coup de grâce: Paula was offered "low-carb soup from the refrigerator." The implications are clear: it may have come from a can.

The book describes Night's sustained petulance over this snubbing in terms that are, by any standards known on Planet Earth, astounding. So is Mr. Bamberger's ability to pipe-cleaner any anecdote until it twists into a lesson about Night. Night reminds himself of Bob Dylan — and Mr. Dylan's ability to affect a wide and diverse audience is very like Night's, according to the book. When the film's leading lady, Bryce Dallas Howard, is covered with welts after having been dragged across grass and twigs, Night is the injured party. "I can't have a reputation as a director who doesn't protect his actors," he is quoted as saying.

There's a howler on every page for a while. But eventually there's also something real. If only because he had to finish this book so hurriedly (it has a final section dated April 18, 2006), Mr. Bamberger stops genuflecting long enough to capture a Wizard of Oz poignancy about his subject. This happens despite the fact that Night is "devastated" when not enough cast and crew members show up for his "Wizard of Oz" screening.

"Beneath Night's zeal were great reserves of sadness and desperation," the book finally acknowledges. Its overall sense of the filmmaker's self-importance certainly jibes with that impression. There are glimpses of a childhood full of parental pressure, with an emphasis on whopping accomplishments. When Mr. Shyamalan appeared on the cover of Newsweek, his father told him that Time had a bigger circulation. His mother is an obstetrician who once removed a record-breaking 80-pound ovarian cyst. "No wonder Night was such a stat man," Mr. Bamberger says.

There are actually other people who figure in "The Man Who Heard Voices." Eventually the book shifts its emphasis and finds time for them. The boozy antics of the cinematographer Christopher Doyle stand out, as does the personal style of Paul Giamatti, the new film's leading man. "Dude, I am so 'Lady,' " he told Mr. Shyamalan as he accepted the role.

Although Mr. Bamberger treats this film set as if it were the only one that has ever been made, he does a decent job of explaining the function of each cast and crew member. Then there are the executives' roles. "Lady in the Water" was made by Warner Brothers, but the book expresses some kind of backhanded gratitude from Mr. Shyamalan to Disney, because what hurt him eventually made him stronger. By that standard, "The Man Who Heard Voices" will do him a world of good.

 

 

PATRICIA NEAL: AN UNQUIET LIFE

STEPHEN MICHAEL SHEARER
University of Kentucky Press; 442 Pgs.; $35.00

By WENDY SMITH
Variety, 7/9/06


Why would someone publishing the bio of an actress famed for her intelligent performances and unconventional beauty choose an unflattering cheesecake photo that makes her look like an airheaded starlet for the cover? And why would the aforementioned actress entrust her personal papers and reminiscences to a writer capable of only the shallowest comments about her career? These are only two of the mysteries left unplumbed in this disappointing portrait of the electrifying Patricia Neal. Luckily for the author (and readers), her life has had so many tragic twists it makes for compelling reading even in the least competent hands.

Born in 1926, in rural Kentucky, Neal was only 20 when she capped her theatrical apprenticeship with a starmaking turn on Broadway as Regina in Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest."

At 22, she nabbed the female lead in Warner Brothers' much-hyped film version of Ayn Rand's bestselling novel "The Fountainhead" -- and embarked on a steamy affair with her considerably older (and married) co-star, Gary Cooper. Warners, which never knew quite what to do with Neal, dropped her contract just as she found herself pregnant.

At 27, still nursing bitter memories of her abortion and Cooper's refusal to leave his wife, she married British writer Roald Dahl. Their troubled union endured a number of tragedies, including a dreadful accident that left their four-month-old son with brain injuries; the death of their seven-year-old daughter; and Neal's near-fatal stroke at age 39, shortly after winning an Oscar for her warm, world-weary performance in "Hud." Dahl's nine-year affair with a family friend finally prompted their divorce in 1983.

Nothing in her films -- an offbeat list that includes Hemingway's favorite version of his work ("The Breaking Point"), a sci-fi classic ("The Day the Earth Stood Still") a political satire that still has bite ("A Face in the Crowd"), and a portrait of a faltering marriage that must have struck uncomfortably close to home ("The Subject Was Roses") -- could ever match the drama of Neal's personal life.

What a pity that first-time author Shearer has so little of interest to say about either. A few examples of his critical failures will suffice. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is one of the smartest, most philosophically provocative sci-fi pics ever made, but few would call it "undoubtedly the one motion picture for which Patricia Neal will always be remembered." As for "Hud," the single film for which she probably will be best remembered, you have to wonder why Shearer feels it necessary to inform us that "one of the dresses Patricia wore in the film was purported to have cost $3.95" or that the actors' low-budget attire "wasn't much of a stretch" for costume designer Edith Head.

His analysis of Neal's marriage settles for painting her husband as a creep; Dahl certainly could be difficult and nasty, but he goaded his wife to battle back from a stroke few thought she would survive, and no relationship lasts 30 years without some benefits to both partners.

Shearer's final summation is characteristically trite: "Never an ingenue and never forgotten, Patricia Neal will remain forever -- a star."

Surely it won't be too long before some better-equipped author does justice to an actress who brought a new measure of womanliness, maturity and adult sensuality to the screen.

 

JUNIOR

By MACAULAY CULKIN
Miramax; 199 Pgs.; $22.95


By DIANE GARRETT
Variety, 7/9/06


Macaulay Culkin plays the merry trickster in "Junior," a quasi fictional -- and highly freeform -- cautionary tale about the perils of early stardom. The former "Home Alone" star adopts various guises as he recounts his past, interspersing vignettes with frequent asides questioning their veracity. Far from dissembling, these self-protective gambits only feed the conviction Culkin had a seriously messed-up childhood. The tome's happier revelation: he survived with his playful, albeit sophomoric, humor intact. That's more you can say for many child actors.

Culkin knows he has father issues. He jokes about it, but he keeps coming back to it, peeling back layers of hurt and dysfunction in one entry after another. His father used to hit his mother, he writes in one, while another mentions his dad's fondness for drink; most disturbing of all is his father's harsh lesson about friendship on his 13th birthday.

Culkin defuses the intensity of these entries with vignettes about romance, quizzes, lists and crude drawings. Blotted-out passages and a font evoking an old fashioned typewriter underscores the deliberately unpolished text. As Culkin makes clear in the beginning (again protecting himself), he's no writer.

And, he's not particularly interested in conforming to anyone's expectations -- literary or otherwise -- either. Early on in "Junior," he talks about the pivotal moment he decided, at age 13, he wasn't going to play Monkey Boy anymore.

"The mob of photographers didn't cheer," he writes. "They just yelled, 'Do that chicken dance, monkey boy!,' and I obliged knowing that they were killing any speck of joy I used to have for my work.

"Shame on them for doing that," he adds. "Shame on me for letting them get away with it."

Two thirds of the way, the story loses focus, which the narrator soon acknowledges: "Do you see the pickle I'm in? I now have to come up with a way to bring this all together."

He does, of course. Culkin pulls the story together with more lists: things to do before he dies and a series of dedications labeled "for" and "not for." Dad's on top of both, in an amusing, but still promising sign he's working through his issues. The memoir paints an encouraging portrait of a bruised soul finding a way to deal with his issues -- and fame -- on his own terms.

 

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