Depending on the kindness of strangers

Tuesday, 6 July 2004 — 1:41pm | Film, Full reviews

The reference to A Streetcar Named Desire in the above title bears some relevance to The Terminal, which I have already put off discussing for a week and a half, but first, some belated thoughts on Marlon Brando. This will be far briefer than an actor of such legendary calibre deserves, but events like these are cases to file under “saturated volume of discourse”; more than a day after the fact, and there is little left to add.

Everybody has their favourite Brando moments on the screen, not to mention the mystique they find in one or more of the many offscreen legends that surround his persona. Heather Wallace, for instance, associates him most with his big moment in Streetcar. Many of us, even those such as myself born after the fact, recall the 1972 Oscars, when he refused his Best Actor win by proxy, sending a Native American actress named Sacheen Littlefeather to deliver a statement on his behalf. Brando, of course, was all about theatrics; as it turns out, Littlefeather was not a Native American at all, but the little-known Californian actress Maria Cruz. If anyone back then projected that they’d be talking about that one for years – thirty-two years on, that anyone is still correct.

What makes the ’72 acting Oscars even more interesting is that Marlon Brando was nominated in what could be considered the wrong category. The Godfather earned four acting nominations – one for an Actor in a Leading Role (Brando), three for an Actor in a Supporting Role (Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall). Watch the movie, read the screenplay, read the original book by Mario Puzo: there is no way Don Vito Corleone is the Leading Role in The Godfather. The central character who dominates in terms of screentime is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Michael. Of course, the Oscar nominations have always been driven by election-style marketing campaigns in trade publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter; two years ago, Ian McKellen was being pushed for a Leading Role nomination for his performance as Gandalf the Grey in The Fellowship of the Ring, but New Line decided partway through to switch gears and rightly push him for Supporting nomination instead – where, conveniently, his chances were better anyhow.

Not so with 1972. That year, all three Supporting Corleones – Michael, Sonny and Tom Hagen – were defeated by none other than Joel Grey. While among the younger generation he probably rings a louder bell as the father of Dirty Dancing‘s Jennifer Grey, his Oscar win that year was more than just a consequence of vote-splitting. It was the consequence of one of the best performances in any movie musical (and certainly the wackiest), the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret – a role Grey created on Broadway, reprised by Alan Cumming (Nightcrawler in X2, Boris the Invincible in GoldenEye) in the 1998 revival. Joel Grey, whom I actually saw perform live at the Jack Singer a few years back, is a show-stealer. Mark my words: if Marlon Brando were in the right category that year, we would have no Sacheen Littlefeather of which to speak – and deservedly so. Yes, Don Corleone is iconic in the way he moves, the way he talks, the way he falls over and dies with an orange in his mouth; but I would put the balance in favour of “Wilkommen”, “Two Ladies” and the “Money” duet with Best Actress winner Liza Minelli.

But with Marlon Brando in the Actor in the Leading Role category, the Academy ended up awarding the two best performances of the year without pitting them against one another – and in doing so, set themselves up for Oscar’s most memorable stunt.

But returning to a spot of praise here, I want to talk about A Streetcar Named Desire. In only the greatest performances, like the aforementioned Master of Ceremonies, does one equate an actor with his work. Never mind that he practically invented method acting: Stanley Kowalski is Marlon Brando, and moreover, Marlon Brando is Stanley Kowalski. I have seen three screen versions of the Tennessee Williams play – Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie starring Brando, and two colour television remakes: one in 1984 with Treat Williams, another in 1998 with Alec Baldwin. The three varied in terms of how close they were to the original stage play; as some may know, Stella’s decision at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Kazan film, is quite different from what she does in A Streetcar Named Desire on stage.

This, not Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is my pet example of how the slavishness of a screen adaptation bears no linear correlation to the quality of a motion picture. Okay, so the other two are already disadvantaged by the fact that they are not really motion pictures, but dramas made for television, which is itself an inherently inferior medium for reasons I will not go into for the time being. They are not helmed by Elia Kazan, or any director who knows how to position a camera, for that matter. In fact, the only thing worth mentioning about the 1984 version is that the music is scored by the reliable Marvin Hamlisch; and the 1995 version has absolutely nothing going for it, except it is a cheap and accessible alternative to seeing the complete Tennessee Williams text on a stage where it belongs. But the most telling difference is this: not only are Treat Williams and Alec Baldwin not Marlon Brando (and by induction, not Stanley Kowalski) – they aren’t fit to lick his boots. Anyone who even attempts to play Stanley in front of a camera can be described in three words: not Marlon Brando. Never mind that Stella walks out on the guy – because of Marlon Brando, among other factors, the Kazan film upstages (no pun intended) the play itself in terms of being the definitive Streetcar. As such, it is an untouchable property.

And so were The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and all the other films where Marlon Brando didn’t just act – he defined. That’s how iconic he was.

With that very brief statment out of the way, let us proceed to a fictional character who, as the saying goes, depends on the kindness of strangers: Viktor Navorski, the stranded traveler played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal.

Now, this film had to live up to some lofty expectations, seeing as how given the prolific versatility of his curriculum vitae, Spielberg is probably whom I would identify as my favourite director living or dead. I am only three films away from being a Spielberg completist, not counting the ones prior to Jaws: The Color Purple, Always and Amistad being the last ones on the checklist. It was generally considered, up until he directed Leonardo DiCaprio to a career-best performance as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, that the one genre Spielberg could not do was comedy. Of course, the reference point for this was 1941, a slapstick piece of the silly-stupid school, which few people remember was still above the cut insofar as the silly-stupid school is concerned. In The Terminal, he aims for a middle ground between the two extremes and ends up with a piece that features both a cat-and-mouse character dynamic and just-for-laughs scenarios aplenty, but certainly not to the same extent.

As a movie that is built entirely on the premise of a man stuck in an airport terminal, this is the equivalent of what Trekkies commonly refer to as a “bottle episode”, a story that takes place entirely aboard the Enterprise: on the surface, it appears to be one of Spielberg’s least ambitious projects, but it deals with its own challenge of trying to stay interesting for two hours whilst trapped in a very finite number of sets.

Not much can be said for The Terminal in terms of plot, but its situational character relationships and more comedic scenes keep it alive. Navorski, who goes to America for reasons I will not reveal here but is denied entry on the basis of his country ceasing to exist en route, is an inspiring presence played by an inspiring thespian. Tom Hanks has a convincing stumble and a foreign grasp of English, only falling short of completely becoming the character because we have already seen his face in ten or more other films and heard him sing “You’ve Got a Friend In Me”; he delivers hilarious physical comedy with a charm that eludes the Jim Carreys and Ben Stillers of the industry.

Speaking of Jim Carrey, The Terminal in many ways reminds me of the former Ace Ventura’s own career best, The Truman Show. The connections are more than superficial; both are about a man confined in a world monitored by the cameras of a god from above. Here, Stanley Tucci takes the Ed Harris role, as a supervising immigration officer engaged in a battle of wills with Viktor Navorski. The conflict between the two is, sadly, one of the less engaging subplots of the movie, and it has a lot to do with how Tucci’s character is written. As far as villains go, unlike Tom Hanks’ FBI agent in Catch Me If You Can, he never grows beyond being a frustrated control freak, and this lack of dimension hurts an otherwise delightful movie.

The Terminal is largely a one-man show, but it also delves into how Navorski brings something out in the people around him, and how everyone’s life is really a journey to escape a cycle of perpetual waiting. There is an engaging supporting cast that includes the likes of a fugitive janitor who watches people slip on wet floors for entertainment (Kumar Pallana), and a lovelorn cook (Diego Luna) who offers Navorski food in exchange for proxy advances on a Trekkie customs officer (Zoe Saldana). Less interesting is the flight attendant that captures Navorski’s attention, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the romantic subplot does round out a few thematic corners and make for a terrific candlelight dinner scene.

John Williams, by the way, is on fire this year. Following the act of finally giving the Harry Potter series a breath of musical freshness in The Prisoner of Azkaban, here he delivers arguably the best of his lighthearted and contemporary scores, other than, well, Catch Me If You Can. It supports the movie with a whimsical, lively sort of bounce. You can shortlist this one for the Original Score award right now.

For the most part, Spielberg’s latest offering never pretends to be anything more than a diversionary comedy, and an uproariously funny one at that, but it comes bundled with some very real ideas about goals, destinations, and lives that never seem to get there. See it for a lovable Chaplinesque performance from Tom Hanks that transforms what should be a dreary backdrop into a fantasy playground in its own right.

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