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Nichols, May and The Heartbreak Kid

There’s a famous line about Ginger Rogers and her struggle for recognition in a male-dominated Hollywood: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels.” It's a great little phrase and you can (as Barack Obama did recently) easily sub out Rogers for any number of famous women. One such woman is Elaine May, an extraordinary screenwriter and director who, like Rogers, risked disappearing in the shadow of her male creative partner. To my mind, May was the Rogers to Mike Nichols’s Astaire. Before they were successful directors and screenwriters, they were the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and May. As partners and contemporaries of the famed acting coach Del Close, they began their careers in the mid-1950s with the Compass Players, the Chicago theater troupe that would become Second City. From the improv circuit, they took their two-person act to television and stage and recorded a handful of albums—one of which went on to win a Grammy. While their act tended to appeal to the highbrow, their premises were based on the mundane and archetypal—a rocket scientist who is chewed out by his mother for being too busy to call; a psychiatrist who can’t stop hiccupping through his patient’s sobbing confessions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKL1tNv__kU In 1961, at the height of their fame, Nichols and May disbanded. “Several things happened,” Nichols explained. “One was that I, more than Elaine, became more and more afraid of our improvisational material. She was always brave. We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I'll try to make you, or we'll fight—whatever it was. We found ourselves doing the same material over and over, especially in our Broadway show. This took a great toll on Elaine.” Following their split, Nichols went into film and May into theater. Nichols’s break came in 1966 when he directed the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Critics dubbed him the “new Orson Welles,” and the next year he bested himself with The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. May, meanwhile, found moderate success in the theater until 1971, when she directed her first feature film, A New Leaf. The following year she had her first big Hollywood hit, an adaptation of the Neil Simon–penned screenplay The Heartbreak Kid. While The Heartbreak Kid was warmly received by critics, many reviews seemed to boil the film down to a satire of, or even a malicious jab at, her former comedy partner’s film The Graduate. Both movies certainly parallel each other in plot: The Graduate is a dry comedy about a boy named Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) drifting through life after college, having an affair with a married woman twice his age and then falling for her daughter; The Heartbreak Kid is a dark comedy about the recently married Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), who regrets his wedding and likewise falls for a teenage beauty, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), ultimately terminating his marriage to pursue her. Both films end similarly, too, with the main characters, immediately after their impulsive romantic elopement, staring into the camera with an indefinable expression on their faces. In a way, The Heartbreak Kid picks up where The Graduate leaves off—with a man realizing that his fantasized romance didn’t fulfill his spiritual desires, which leads him to chase another whim. Unlike Benjamin, Lenny is living purely on impulse. His realization at the end is one of selfishness; he desires the chase more than the prize. It’s a great juxtaposition—Nichols’s gentle flirtations with existentialism versus May’s darkly realistic and fully grounded musings on male ego (the type only a woman in the 1970s would be so acutely aware of). Whereas The Graduate is told through Benjamin’s eyes, May defines her protagonist primarily through the supporting cast. She sets up her shots with a focus on secondary reactions in relation to her main character, keeping the audience pointedly outside of Lenny’s thoughts. The result is that the viewer learns about Lenny through the expressions of his companions: Through his wife’s tears, his paramour’s amused smiles, her father's simmering glares. The infamous dinner breakup scene is a perfect example. Though driven forward by Lenny’s awkward stammering, as he attempts to ever-so-politely end his week-old marriage to Lila (expertly played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin), the focus is all on his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who barely has to say a word to steal the scene. Lila’s expression falls from love and sincerity to innocent confusion, to philosophical awe, to mortal fear, and at last to pure stomach-churning devastation. While Lenny tries to comfort her, the camera fixes on Lila’s dry heaving. We never get this sort of intimacy with Mrs. Robinson, the object of young Benjamin’s illicit fantasies; compared with the supporting cast of The Hearbreak Kid, the family Robinson is rather one-dimensional. While both films surely stand on their own, I think of May’s as the perfect comedic heightening of Nichols’s, especially given May and Nichols’s history. The Heartbreak Kid is not a satire as much as an alternative perspective—the flip side of the same coin. For every Benjamin Braddock out there who believes they’re fighting for truth and meaning in a void, there are just as many egocentric Lenny Cantrows, leaving Lilas in their wake. Feature photo: Everett Collection

by Jenna Ipcar

Aug 23, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: Robbin' of Lochte

Thursday, August 18 Robbed in Rio The boys’ story did not make good sense, And it gave the Brazilians offense. The four U.S. relayers Aren’t sportsmanlike players (Plus, they all seem to be somewhat dense).

by James Waller

Aug 19, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Does Exactly What Great Movies Are Supposed to Do

In the title role of director Stephen Frears’s new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep is more a wonder than ever. Playing a high-society music patron who longs for the operatic limelight but who cannot sing a true note, Streep will split your sides and eardrums even as she rends you in two. Tragedy is wriggling just inside the comic cocoon of this story of a real-life New York City doyenne who, in 1944, at age 76, achieved her lifelong dream of singing at Carnegie Hall—and who brought down the house, though not quite the way she wanted to. Florence Foster Jenkins may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that gives voice, as it were, to a particularly wicked kind of artistic anxiety. Of course, every serious artist, working in whatever medium, feels at least occasionally like a fraud. But suppose all the people around you were forever telling you just how great you are—but none of them meant a word of it? If you ever found out, wouldn’t it destroy you? Florence Jenkins had plenty of money to support a retinue of flatterers, chief among them her kept man, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a semi-successful British Shakespearean actor who for 30-odd years was Florence’s companion and manager, a job that mostly entailed protecting Florence from the truth about herself—and from a world that would gleefully have let her know just how awful she was. Playing St. Clair, Grant delivers a careful, nuanced performance: He’s financially dependent on Florence, yes, but he’s also genuinely devoted to her—as she is dependent on his devotion—and it’s impossible to write him off as just a gigolo. So FFJ isn’t only a tale of failed artistry and self-serving deceit; it’s also a love story. Actually, it’s a love-triangle story, for there’s another devotee-deceiver helping to keep Florence from the unaesthetic truth: Her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. A struggling young pianist seduced by Florence’s provision of a regular salary, Cosmé relinquishes his own artistic ambitions in the service of a fool whom he, too, comes to cherish. His circumstance—hilarious, excruciating, touching—is impeccably communicated by actor Simon Helberg (of Big Bang Theory fame), whose comedic skill is matched by his talent at the keys. (Helberg does all his own piano playing in the role—a remarkable feat, given that he must prompt and follow Streep’s expert caterwauling while acting at the same time!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6ubiUIxbWE Of the three main characters, it was Cosmé who affected me most. That’s in part because he’s gay—something the film more than hints at while never stating it explicitly. I identified. As a young, impecunious, “artistic” gay man in New York, I more than once hired myself out to wealthy, imperious women who weren’t nearly as gifted as they fancied themselves. One was an Italian countess who was making a movie about—of course—herself; the other was a silk stocking district matron who strove, rather pathetically, to become a TV fashion guru. Both were nuts—though in a lower key of crazy than Florence Jenkins. Both were generous. I took their money, flattered them, and found them laughable—and I admired them for their resolute idiocy. It’s a compromising situation that, I hear tell, is not unfamiliar to many young gay men in the big city, and Helberg’s performance hits that bent nail right on the head. There are some wrong notes (forgive another unavoidable pun) in the film. A scene in which Florence visits Cosmé at his apartment—the scene, in fact, that establishes their emotional bond—is a screenwriter’s clumsy, unconvincing device. (Are we really expected to believe that the fastidious Cosmé inhabits an untidy hovel, or that the regal Florence would deign to wash his dishes?) The script also condenses events that happened over years into a very short period of time, and this chronological trickery isn’t always credible, as when Florence’s recording career (ridiculously, she made several records) is squeezed, impossibly, into a couple of days. But I can easily set those and a few other quibbles aside. The film’s final sequence, in which Florence achieves a near-death apotheosis and you suddenly, shockingly are permitted to hear her as she hears herself, does just what great movies are supposed to do: Lift you up. Stir your soul. Break your heart. Feature photo: Everett Collection

by James Waller

Aug 18, 2016

Insider Interview: Michael Lantz of Accedo

Accedo CEO and cofounder Michael Lantz is most comfortable when he’s exploring the outer edge of the video experience. Back in 2004, he and partner Fredrik Andersson, SVP of business development, scanned the horizon of emerging internet TV technology and saw an opportunity to challenge the existing market. They came up with Accedo, a video solutions service that would usher in the next generation of the TV experience. In the 12 years since, Accedo has built a list of first-class customers including Netflix, Fox, Sky, Roku, Discovery and Disney. Always looking ahead, Accedo struck a deal this spring with Brightcove to create a cloud-based turnkey OTT solution, OTT Flow, geared for media companies and content owners. Then, in June, the firm received a capital injection of $10 million from SEB Private Equity and brought in industry legend James Ackerman as chairman. More recently, the fast-growing video service announced plans for a Brazil office, further anchoring its global presence. Accedo is clearly positioned as a go-to video experience provider for now and the future. Q: You began Accedo all the way back in 2004. What was it that made you want to reinvent the TV experience more than a decade ago? A: Back then TV was boring. Everyone was doing the same thing. Everyone was repackaging various TV channels and selling them back to the customer. When internet was released for TV back in 2002 or 2003, it was offering new possibilities of interacting with your TV, but the companies who launched those offerings were still just copying the old-fashioned linear TV packages. So we felt there was room for a company to specialize in the truly interactive experience of TV. Q: So you were very forward-looking. But so much changes in 12 years. What caught you most by surprise? A: We really thought the next evolution of TV would be a living room development with set-top boxes, rather than with mobile phones. What we didn’t foresee was the mobile revolution. At the time, mobile was very much just a feature phone. This was before the smartphone era. Though we did have mobile in our business plan at the beginning, it was the speed of the change that was surprising. The quality of the networks changed much faster than we thought. Then, in terms of penetration, we had assumed that only the top 10 percent of the market would use premium phones with video on the go, rather than 50–60 percent of the total population, as it is at the moment. Accedo founders Michael Lantz and Fredrik Andersson. When we finally realized that mobile was going to be one of the key outlets of the premium video, we decided we had to go all-in on mobile. Mobile is now 60–65 percent of our total revenue. It has been a huge growth driver for us over the past five years. Then, the pay TV expertise makes us a bit unique because we compete with mobile specialists who have no experience in the TV ecosystem. Q: As a founder, at what point did you think, “Wow, this is really going to work!”? A: The first time we actually thought this would succeed was in 2007, because that’s when we got our first VC funding. We saw the change of growing from a 10-person company to a 25-person company, and that was the first realization that we would be a more permanent fixture. From there we have grown every year, so it has been sort of business as usual, though very rapid. Our primary challenge has been operational scalability. Q: Accedo is very good in front-end UX and UI across multiple technologies. Meanwhile, there are companies that are very strong in back-end API technology. Is it a mistake to try to compete in both spaces? A: I don’t think it is a mistake. This ecosystem is so complex, so it’s difficult to draw the line and say someone is only a UX company, and someone is only an API company. In order to deliver the UX we need to have certain back-end modules to help deliver those front-end components. Similarly, the companies that have the video distribution modules also have a front-end interface, because they need to make sure that whatever video they are distributing is displayed well. So I think it goes both ways, and I think that’s probably the way it will be for the next 3–5 years. Most markets go through a cycle of best-of-breed vendors, and then suddenly one vendor provides the entire stack from back to front. I think we’re in the best-of-breed stage, which is great for us because we’re a UX-centric company. But I think there will be an end-to-end solution eventually, which is both a threat and an opportunity for us. Q: Thinking back to your mobile experience related to speed and penetration, what are your thoughts on 360-degree video, virtual reality (VR) and other emerging video technology? A: I was just writing an article on immersive TV, so it is immediately on my mind. I think the challenges with VR are the same as the challenges with 3D. It changes the underlying use-case of TV so much that it requires an early adopter to really get their head around it. Then, as soon as it’s a use-case change, it takes a long time before it becomes mass market. So I believe it will be 10 years, at least, before any VR will be mass market. We have several of our customers experimenting with VR at the moment because it is such an interesting use-case, and everyone can see that in 10–20 years there will be plenty of opportunities. But what’s interesting with 360 is that it’s a poor man’s virtual reality, if you know what I mean, because you don’t need the consumer devices. So just by using your normal devices, whether that’s a smart phone or PC, or set-top box, you can create a more immersive feeling of being on site. So that offers specific challenges in terms of UX, but once consumers get their head around it, it’s a beautiful way of adding value, especially with a live event. I strongly believe that there will be a big breakthrough very soon. Plus, I think monetization-wise, the additional production costs for 360 are not that great a difference, so it is quite cost efficient. The challenge is more on the distribution side, how to get this to low-end devices. VR is a different story, of course, because the production costs are huge, and the distribution costs are very high. So I think 360 is a good first step. Q: We like to talk about the relationship between engagement and content. What are some of your thoughts on balancing these two critical elements? A: I am constantly telling my business customers, normally a digital service provider will spend 60, 70, 80 percent on content, and the remaining on things like technology, customer service and billing. But you have to add some value for the consumer as well. So if you’re spending 70 percent on the content, there’s 30 percent that should be spent on user engagement. So, I believe the content will always be the most important part of any service, but what everyone is under-investing in is the user experience. Of course I’m a bit partial in this discussion, but there is plenty of room for improvement among most of our customers and everyone in the market. Q: There have been so many big content deals reported in the press recently. What is your take on what is happening here? A: I am fascinated about this consolidation trend in the tech industry. The Verizon and Yahoo deal is just one example. When we the look at the broader picture of these consolidations, there’s this underlying war between the distributors and the content providers. In this model, Verizon is a typical distributor and Yahoo (or many of Yahoo’s assets) is a provider. There seems to be a desire to build a new type of company that can address all the consumer needs, and gather all the data that this can provide. I am not convinced that this is the right approach, but I can see that everyone is struggling with what will be the role of the content company in the future. Click here for more information on Accedo. Photos courtesy of Accedo.

by David Pfister

Aug 17, 2016







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