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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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In celebration of Superman's 75th anniversary, and the release June 14 of the Son of Krypton's latest big-screen adventure Man of Steel, writer Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, Now Out In Paperback, contributes this essay exclusively to Hollywood.com on the unique qualities some of the actors who've played Superman — Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and Henry Cavill — have brought to the role.
Nobody is more All-American than Superman in his red cape, blue tights and bright yellow "S." So how is it that a Brit – a native of the Channel Islands and a product of a Buckinghamshire boarding school, with an English brogue no less – is donning the leotards and cape in the new Man of Steel movie?
Warner Bros' selection of Henry William Dalgliesh Cavill as our newest Superman seems ill-conceived if not profane, the more so coming just as America is celebrating its hero's milestone 75th birthday. But Cavill, a British heartthrob who played the First Duke of Suffolk on the Showtime series The Tudors, wouldn't be the first on-screen Man of Steel to defy convention and, in so doing, to soar higher than even his studio handlers dared dream.
Kirk Alyn, the original live-action Superman, was more a song-and-dance man than an actor, having studied ballet and performed in vaudeville and on Broadway in the 1930s and early forties. That's where he decided to trade in the name he was born with, John Feggo, Jr., for Kirk Alyn, which he felt was better suited to the stage. He appeared in chorus lines and in blackface, modeled for muscle magazines, and performed in TV murder mysteries in the days when only bars had TVs and only dead-end actors performed for the small screen. But he had experience in movie serials, if not in superheroes, so when he got a call from Columbia Pictures in 1948 asking if he was interested in trying out for Superman he jumped into his car and headed to the studio. Told to take off his shirt so the assembled executives could check out his build, the burly performer complied. Then producer-director Sam Katzman instructed him to take off his pants. "I said, 'Wait a minute.' They said, 'We want to see if your legs are any good,'" he recalled forty years later. They were good enough, and fifteen minutes after he arrived, Alyn was hired as the first actor to play a Superman whom fans could see as well as hear.
Alyn and his directors were smart enough not to try and reinvent the character that Bud Collyer had introduced so convincingly to the radio airwaves. “I visualized the guy I heard on the radio. That was a guy nothing could stop,” Alyn said. "That's why I stood like this, with my chest out, and a look on my face saying, 'Shoot me.'" His demeanor said "tough guy" but his wide eyes signaled approachability and mischievousness, just the way creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had imagined their Superman a decade before. Alyn understood, the same way Collyer had, that kids could spot a phony in an instant. If they didn't think Alyn was having fun – and that he believed in Superman – they wouldn't pay to see his movies. His young audience, after all, didn't just admire the Man of Steel. They loved him. Superman was not merely who they dreamed of becoming but who they were already, if only we could see. The good news for them was that Alyn was having fun, and he did believe in his character in a way that these pre-teens and teens appreciated even if movie reviewers wouldn't.
In the 1950s, when Superman was gearing up for television, producer Robert Maxwell and director Tommy Carr screened nearly two hundred candidates who were sure they were him. Most made their living as actors, although some were full-time musclemen. Nearly all, Carr said, "appeared to have a serious deficiency in their chromosome count." So thorough – and perhaps so frustrating – was their search that the executives stopped by the Mr. America contest in Los Angeles. One choice they never seriously considered, despite his later claims, was Kirk Alyn, who had done well enough for the serials but had neither the acting skills nor the looks around which to build a Superman TV series. The search ended the day a barrel-chested B-movie actor named George Reeves showed up on the studio lot.
Maxwell's co-producer had recognized Reeves in a Los Angeles restaurant, seeming "rather forlorn," and suggested he come in for a tryout. He did, the next morning, and "from that moment on he was my first choice," said Carr. "He looked like Superman with that jaw of his. Kirk had the long neck and fine features, but although I like Kirk very much, he never looked the Superman Reeves did." His tough-guy demeanor was no put-on. Standing six-foot-two and carrying 195 pounds, Reeves had been a light-heavyweight boxing champ in college and could have gone further if he hadn't broken his nose seven times and his mother hadn't made him step out of the ring.
The Superman TV show, like other incarnations of his story, turned around the hero himself. Collyer, the first flesh-and-blood Man of Steel, had set the standard. He lowered and raised the timbre of his voice as he switched between Superman and Clark, making the changeover convincing. Maxwell's wife Jessica, the TV dialogue director, would follow Reeves around the set urging him to do the same – but he just couldn't master the switch. The result: a Superman who sounded just like his alter ego. They both swallowed their words. They looked and acted alike. There was no attempt here to make Clark Kent into the klutz he was in the comics. No slouching; no shyness. Reeves portrayed the newsman the way he knew, and that Jessica's husband told him to: hard-boiled and rough-edged, Superman in a business suit. The only differences were that Reeves would shed his rubber muscles and add thick tortoise-shell glasses with no lenses – that was the sum total of his switch to Clark Kent.
But it worked. It worked because fans wanted to be fooled, and because of the way Reeves turned to the camera and made it clear he knew they knew his secret, even if Lois, Jimmy, and Perry didn't. This Superman had a dignity and self-assurance that projected even better on an intimate TV screen than it had in the movies. Reeves just had it somehow. He called himself Honest George, The People's Friend – the same kind of homespun language Jerry and Joe used for their creation – and he suspended his own doubts the way he wanted viewers to. He looked not just like a guy who could make gangsters cringe, but who believed in the righteousness of his hero's cause. His smile could melt an iceberg. His cold stare and puffed-out chest could bring a mob to its knees. Sure, his acting was workmanlike, but it won him generations of fans. Today, when those now grown-up fans call to mind their carefree youth, they think of his TV Adventures of Superman, and when they envision Superman himself, it is George Reeves they see.
Christopher Reeve was an even less likely choice when producers set out to find the right Superman for their 1970s motion picture extravaganza. It wasn't just his honey brown hair and 180 pounds that did not come close to filling out his six-foot-four frame. He had asthma and he sweated so profusely that a crew member would have to blow dry his armpits between takes. He was prep school and Ivy League, with a background in serious theater that made him more comfortable in England's Old Vic than its Pinewood movie lot. He was picked, as he acknowledged, 90% because he looked "like the guy in the comic book . . . the other 10% is acting talent." He also was a brilliant choice. He brought to the part irony and comic timing that harked back to the best of screwball comedy. He had dramatic good looks and an instinct for melding humanism with heroism. "When he walked into a room you could see this wasn't a conventional leading man, there was so much depth he had almost an old movie star feeling," says casting director Lynn Stalmaster. The bean counters loved his price: $250,000, or less than a tenth of what Marlon Brando would get for the modest role as Superman's dad. Director Richard Donner asked Reeve to try on his horned-rimmed glasses. Squinting back at him was Clark Kent. Even his name fit: Christopher Reeve assuming the part made famous by George Reeves. "I didn't find him," Donner would say throughout the production. "God sent him to me."
Superman changed with every artist who filled in his features, writer who scripted his adventures, and even the marketers and accountants who managed his finances and grew his audience. Each could claim partial ownership. Actors like Christopher Reeve did more molding and framing than anyone and could have claimed more proprietorship. With each scene shot it was clearer that he was giving the hero a different face as well as a unique personality. Reeve's Superman would be funnier and more human – if less powerful or intimidating – than any who had proceeded him. He was more of a Big Blue Boy Scout now, in contrast to Kirk Alyn's Action Ace and George Reeves's Man of Steel. In the hands of this conservatory-trained actor, Supes was getting increasingly comfortable baring his soul.
Picking up the role and the mythos now will be English actor Henry Cavill, whose first appearance on the big screen was as Albert Mondego in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). Can Cavill make us believe the way Reeve, Reeves, and Alyn did, and make us embrace a British-accented Man of Metropolis?
History suggests he can – provided he and Warner Bros. remember the formula that has served their hero so brilliantly for 75 years and counting. It starts with the intrinsic simplicity of his story. Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist reminded us how compelling a foundling's tale can be, and Superman, the sole survivor of a doomed planet, is a super-foundling. The love triangle connecting Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Superman has a side for everyone, whether you are the boy who can't get the girl, the girl pursued by the wrong boy, or the conflicted hero. His secret identity might have been annoying if we hadn't been let in on the joke and we didn't have a hero hidden within each of us. He was not just any hero, but one with the very powers we would have: the strength to lift boulders and planets, the speed to outrun a locomotive or a bullet, and, coolest on anyone's fantasy list, the gift of flight.
Superpowers, however, are just half the equation. More essential is knowing what to do with them, and nobody has a more instinctual sense than Superman of right and wrong. He is an archetype of mankind at its pinnacle. Like John Wayne, he sweeps in to solve our problems. No "thank you" needed. Like Jesus Christ, he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man. For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes: the good guy never loses. That is reassuring.
There is no getting around the fact that the comic book and its leading man could only have taken root in America. What could be more U.S.A. than an orphaned outsider who arrives in this land of immigrants, reinvents himself, and reminds us that we can reach for the sky? Yet this flying Uncle Sam also has always been global in his reach, having written himself into the national folklore from Beirut to Buenos Aires. If Cavill acknowledges both sides of that legacy, the all-American and the all-world, then he should be able to reel back aging devotees and draw in new ones.
Larry Tye was an award-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. A lifelong Superman fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Satchel, as well as The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and is currently writing a biography of Robert F. Kennedy.
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For all the controversy and hype surrounding "Eyes Wide Shut," the film will most likely be remembered as director Stanley Kubrick's last opus -- finished just days before he died in his sleep March 7.
The 70-year-old eccentric filmmaker's career was founded on spectacle, from the shocking "A Clockwork Orange" to the profound "2001: A Space Odyssey." It somehow seemed fitting that "Eyes Wide Shut," despite the star talent of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, would make its mark by bearing the director's ghost.
The year that was marked the passing of other legends, as well -- from George C. Scott (Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" star) to singer Mel Tormé to movie critic Gene Siskel.
Some, like Sylvia Sidney and DeForest Kelley, died after long, rich careers; others, such as Dana Plato and David Strickland, succumbed in relative youth to their inner demons.
From marquee names to behind the sceners, Hollywood will mourn:
Kirk Alyn, 88, died March 14. In 1948, the first actor to play Superman on the big screen.
Hoyt Axton, 61, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Singer-actor who wrote hits such as Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World"; appeared in "Gremlins" and "The Black Stallion."
Ian Bannen, 71, died Nov. 3, car accident. Theater veteran who starred in "Waking Ned Devine," appeared in "Braveheart" and was nominated for an Oscar in 1965 for "Flight of the Phoenix."
Mary Kay Bergman, 38, died Nov. 11, suicide. Actress who voiced numerous "South Park" characters in the TV series and film.
Dirk Bogarde, 78, died May 8, heart attack. British veteran of more than 70 films, including "Death in Venice."
Rory Calhoun, 76, died April 28, emphysema and diabetes. Western film actor in the 1940s and '50s and star of CBS' "The Texan" series.
Allan Carr, 62, died June 29, cancer. Producer of the hit 1978 musical "Grease" and Tony Award winner for "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway.
Iron Eyes Cody, about 90, died Jan 4, natural causes. American American actor best known as the "Crying Indian" in 1970s anti-litter public-service announcements.
Ellen Corby, 87, died April 14. Oscar nominee for the 1948 film "I Remember Mama"; Emmy winner for her grandmother role on TV's "The Waltons."
Harry Crane, 85, died Sept. 14, cancer. Co-created the TV sitcom "The Honeymooners''; wrote for entertainers such as the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Bing Crosby.
Charles Crichton, 89, died Sept. 14. Acclaimed British director of film comedies, including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "A Fish Called Wanda."
Frank De Vol, 88, died Oct. 27, congestive heart failure. Film composer who received Oscar nominations for "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "Pillow Talk" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'' Wrote the theme music for TV's "The Brady Bunch."
Edward Dmytryk, 90, died July 1, heart and kidney failure. Directed films such as "The Caine Mutiny"; one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1940s Red Scare.
Allen Funt, 84, died Sept. 5, complications from stroke. Hosted and created prankster TV show "Candid Camera."
Betty Lou Gerson, 84, died Jan. 12, stroke. Provided the voice for villainess Cruella De Vil in Disney's 1961 animated "One Hundred and One Dalmatians."
Ernest Gold, 77, died March 17, complications from stroke. Composer for films such as "It's a Man, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; won an Academy Award for "Exodus."
Sandra Gould, 73, died July 20, stroke. Played nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on TV's "Bewitched."
Huntz Hall, 78, died Jan. 30, heart failure. Starred in more than 100 "Dead End Kids" and "Bowery Boys" films in the 1930s through the '50s.
Brion James, 54, died Aug. 7, heart attack. Played the murderous droid Leon in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner."
Madeline Kahn Madeline Kahn, 57, died Dec. 3, ovarian cancer. Oscar-nominated actress-comedian who starred in "Blazing Saddles" and "Paper Moon."
Garson Kanin, 86, died March 13, heart failure. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Adam's Rib," "Pat and Mike"); penned hit play "Born Yesterday." DeForest Kelley
DeForest Kelley, 79, died June 11, long illness. Starred as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on TV's original "Star Trek" series and in several of the franchise's big-screen movies.
Richard Kiley, 76, died March 5, bone marrow disease. Actor/singer best known for introducing audiences to original power ballad, "The Impossible Dream," via Broadway's "Man of La Mancha."
Stanley Kubrick, 70, died March 7 in his sleep. Acclaimed director of films such as "Dr. Strangelove," "Spartacus," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining."
Desmond Llewelyn, 85, died Dec. 19, car accident. British actor who played James Bond's gadget-guru Q through "From Russia With Love" (1963) to "The World Is Not Enough" (1999).
Victor Mature, 86, died Aug. 4, cancer. Hunky star of the 1940s and 50s, with leading roles in "Samson and Delilah" and "My Darling Clementine."
Jay Moloney, 35, died Nov. 16, suicide. Talent agent known as the "boy wonder," who once represented Hollywood heavies such as Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Clayton Moore, 85, died Dec. 28, heart attack. Longtime star of TV's "The Lone Ranger."
Dana Plato, 34, died May 8, apparent accidental drug overdose. Former child star of the 1970s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."
Abraham Polonsky, 88, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Body and Soul"); one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
Mario Puzo, 78, died July 2, heart failure. Novelist/screenwriter ("The Godfather") who two Oscars for his screenplays for "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974).
Irving Rapper, 101, died Dec. 20. Golden-era director best known for collaborating with Bette Davis on four films, including "Now, Voyager" (1942).
Oliver Reed, 61, died May 2, apparent heart attack. British actor best known for starring in "Oliver!" and "Women in Love."
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, 94, died April 21, natural causes. Starred in 1927's "Wings," the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar; widower of silent-star Mary Pickford.
George C. Scott George C. Scott, 71, died Sept. 22, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Gruff-voiced leading man who starred in "Dr. Strangelove" and "Anatomy of a Murder." Won (and refused) the Oscar for 1970's "Patton"; won Emmy and Golden Globe for 1997's Showtime film "12 Angry Men."
Sylvia Sidney, 88, died July 1, throat cancer. Veteran actress whose career spanned the 1930s through the 1990s. Nominated for an Oscar for 1973's "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams." Gene Siskel
Gene Siskel, 53, died Feb. 20, brain tumor. With Roger Ebert, the nation's most influential movie critic and purveyor of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" rating system on their syndicated TV series. Writer for Chicago Tribune.
Susan Strasberg, 60, died Jan. 21, breast cancer. Theater/TV/film actress ("The Diary of Anne Frank"); daughter of famed acting guru Lee Strasberg; cohort of Marilyn Monroe.
David Strickland, 29, died March 23, suicide. Co-star of the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan"; played a lovelorn ex-boyfriend in "Forces of Nature" (1999).
Mel Torme, 73, died June 5, complications from stroke. Velvety crooner of jazz and pop, who co-wrote "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."
Norman Wexler, 73, died Aug. 23, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Joe" and "Serpico." Also wrote "Saturday Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive."
John Woolf, 86, died June 28, heart failure. British producer of "Oliver!" and "The African Queen."