Drama, queens

NBC’s hyped ‘Smash’ wants one thing: To be the next ‘Glee.’ It succeeds

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HELLO NORMA JEAN | The making of a stage musical about Marilyn Monroe creates a competition between two actresses (Katharine McPhee, Meg Hilty) in the aptly-named ‘Smash.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Smash has one goal in mind: To out-gay Glee.

The much-hyped hour-long drama series (NBC is hawking it by tying in to the Super Bowl, even though the real singing competition The Voice airs after the game; Smash is on Monday) has musical performances interwoven with a melodramatic storyline about the next Broadway star. Forget competing against other teens at regionals: This is the whole enchilada. (Although no one in the cast looks like they have ever eaten an enchilada. Too many carbs.)

A musical theater team — gay composer Tom (Christian Borle) and fag-hag lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) — get suddenly inspired to turn Marilyn Monroe’s life into a Broadway musical. That’s usually a years-long enterprise, only hot stage producer Eileen (Angelica Huston) needs a new show to replace one tanked because of her divorce. Marilyn sounds perfect. The key, though, will be getting the right star.

It’s instantly a showdown between two women: Veteran belter Ivy (Meg Hilty) and fresh newcomer Karen (Katharine McPhee). The sleazy British director Derek (Jack Davenport) wants to sleep with one, which may skew the vote, but the thing is, you really want both to get it. This isn’t Black Swan, it’s A Chorus Line.

Creator Theresa Rebeck is an old hand at New York theater, and Smash oozes insider knowledge gussied up for TV: The catty personality conflicts, the references to other shows and composers, the cumbersome, do-we-know-what-we’re-doing rehearsal process. These routines sometimes devolve into cliché (episode 2 is less deliciously addictive than the pilot, but still entertaining), but the style of the series — with rehearsals magically transforming into idealized fantasy stagings of what the show can be — works, keeping the show visually interesting.

Rebeck also knows her market: Theater queens. When Derek snipes that he doesn’t like gay people, Eileen shoots back that he picked the wrong profession; every assistant and chorus boy seems like a friend of Dorothy, and Tom gets his princess attitude going. Smash is less over-the-top than Glee, as if these characters are the same high schoolers a few years after graduation. Add American Idol runner-up McPhee into the mix (she’s a good actress) and fallen-from-Grace Messing, and Smash has everything a gay boy could want.

Break out the Playbill and grab an orchestra seat — Smash is in for a long run.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

2011 Year in Review: Movies

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INSANE FOR HUSSEIN | Dominic Cooper delivered the year’s most overlooked performance: A riveting dual role as Saddam Hussein’s gangsta son Uday and the doppelganger who impersonates him in ‘The Devil’s Double.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  
Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It took awhile, but 2011 ended up being a decent year for movies, with Hollywood actually financing some edgy stuff and even giving some heft to their high-concept tentpole movies (four of the best entertainments — Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Mission Impossible 4 — superhero actioners).

10. Midnight in Paris. After years of middling (sometimes unwatchable) films, Woody Allen finally found his avatar in Owen Wilson with this, his best comedy since 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite.

9. Anonymous. A huge flop in the fall, audiences failed to connect with this thrilling (though highly fictionalized) riff on whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays. The premise was compellingly told, however, mixing action, a love of language, political savvy and romance in a satisfying way. Biggest surprise of all? Gay director Roland Emmerich of mindless action films like Godzilla and 10,000 B.C. was responsible. Maybe that’s what critics couldn’t get behind it.

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Debate if you will the literary merits of Stieg Larsson’s rangy trilogy about a hacker and a journalist uniting to take down Fascists, but David Fincher’s thoughtful, well-paced thriller was faithful to the spirit of the book, while turning it into a cinematic mind-fuck of a movie, almost as bleak as his signature piece, Se7en.

7. Shame. British director Steve McQueen’s close-to-the-vest investigation of the modern male psyche was as unnerving to watch as it was captivating, delving into dark areas of sexuality with brilliant visual flourishes.

 

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MAID TO ORDER | Octavia Spencer, right, made ‘The Help’ one of the funniest and most poignant films of 2011.

6. Weekend. Two queer Brits spend a night together, but explore something more about the nature of gay relationships of today in this frank, compelling and sexy drama.

5. The Devil’s Double. Poor Dominic Cooper seems to have been all but forgotten by most critics, but his dual role as Uday Hussein and his body double was exciting and frightening, but also finely detailed — how many people get to play both the protagonist and the villain in the same movie? Vivid and energetic, this is the Scorsese film Scorsese should have made instead of the twee kid’s fantasy Hugo: It’s Goodfellas in the desert.

4. The Skin I Live In. Pedro Almodovar returned to great Hitchcockian form with this masterful mystery about a beautiful woman held captive by a perverse surgeon (Antonio Banderas). Layers upon layers are revealed on the way to a breathless, fantastical explanation, aided incalculably by Alberto Iglesias’ fantastic score — one of the best ever written for the screen.

3. The Tree of Life. It may sound like a cop-out, but Terry Malick’s tone poem of a film defies critical analysis. You simply allow yourself to be washed away by his experimental filmic mood shifts, or you resist. Giving over resulted in one of the dreamiest experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.

2. Beginners. Christopher Plummer gave perhaps the performance of the year, if not his career, as a septuagenarian who comes out and enjoys his final years embracing life. Mike Mills’ quasi-autobiographical film was humorous, poignant and delightfully quirky.

1. The Help. Along with Dragon Tattoo, writer-director Tate Taylor showed how to adapt a popular novel to the screen while retaining its literary merits and adding cinematic flair. One of the best shot movies of 2011, it was also exceptionally well-acted by the entire cast, but especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Stephen Frears uses sexual politics as a metaphor for oppression

By Arnold Wayne Jones

Stephen Frears was sexy before sexy was cool.

Well, maybe not exactly. But over the British director’s long career in film, he’s often been at the forefront of frank sexual portrayals onscreen, often of the radical kind.

“You make me feel like a pervert!” Frears exclaims during a recent visit to Dallas.

That’s not the point, of course, but it’s also not something he denies. Frears first gained notice in the U.S. with My Beautiful Laundrette, a disarming story about an immigrant family living in London that expectedly injects a queer twist when the audience discovers the scion of the Pakistani clan is gay. His next film, Prick Up Your Ears, was a darker tale of gay life, chronicling the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his lover. (That was followed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, whose title alone got it banned from many multiplexes; in The Grifters, he kept Annette Bening naked most of the time.)

But Frears, who is straight, says that gay storylines have interested him because outsider stories of all kinds spark his artistic curiosity.

“I couldn’t give you a moment when I was asked to do a racy film or a family film,” he says. “There was only one film I didn’t do, where I said, ‘No — I’ve got kids.’ But I think in my own head, it has all to do with being in opposition, as a way of attacking Mrs. Thatcher. [I see] women and gays and immigrants as a metaphor for being oppressed.”

His newest, Tamara Drewe — now playing at the Angelika Film Center — has limited gay content but is nonetheless casual with its sexual free-spiritedness.  A small English village is a haven for artistic types, including a famous novelist and his patient wife. When a former local, Tamara, moves back to town (complete with a nose job and makeover), she sets off a series of escapades that are dramatic, comic, even tragic. The film, though, feels softer than some of his earlier films.

“You make me ashamed that I have gotten tamer,” he says. “But we don’t live in very radical times.”

Frears’ left-leaning politics have often emerged in his films, including The Queen, which netted his a second Oscar nomination. ” [Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair] was a very, very complicated figure. This absurd business of leading countries into war really changed the Labour Party. I’m not a monarchist, but in the end I think you could call me a ‘queenist’ — she reminds me of my mother.”

A queenist? He’s a man after my own heart.

Tamara Drewe is now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones