Tag Archives: Marlon Brando

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

Marlon, Tony, and Cyd

Thanks to the cable TV channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I frequently watch a wide range of movies produced from the late ‘30s to those in the 21st century.

Some of my favorites are movies from the 1950s.  One highlight is the 1955 film Summertime, featuring Katharine Hepburn as a single woman who finds love while touring Venice on her own. Shot on location in Venice, it’s not your typical romantic movie, surpassing that genre with Hepburn’s brilliant performance and its glorious setting.

Among many other films from the ‘50s, I recently came across the 1955 Hollywood version of the 1950 Broadway blockbuster musical Guys and Dolls.  I’d seen it before but not for decades, and the TCM introduction by host Ben Mankiewicz was intriguing.  He noted that the film’s director, Joe Mankiewicz (Ben’s uncle), induced Marlon Brando to take the role of the leading man (Sky Masterson) despite Brando’s reluctance to assume a role in a musical. 

Joe reportedly told Marlon that he’d never directed a musical before, but, hey, they’d worked well together one year earlier when Joe directed the film version of Julius Caesar, and neither of them had ever done Shakespeare in a film before. As we know, Julius Caesar was a success, and Joe convinced Marlon that they’d also succeed together in a musical.

Although I enthusiastically agree that they both performed at the top of their game in Julius Caesar, their later collaboration in a musical was less than totally successful.

Filled with catchy tunes composed by the great Frank Loesser, the movie is exuberant, probably as far as a movie musical can go.  But one enormous weakness is Marlon’s lack of vocal ability.  His part requires that he sing a host of major songs, but his voice just isn’t up to them.

(By the way, Frank Sinatra was reportedly angling for this role and not happy about being given the secondary part of Nathan Detroit.)

One of the most obvious examples of Marlon’s poor vocal ability is his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a show-stopping musical number on Broadway. 

When I watched Marlon’s pitiful attempt to master it, I was flooded with memories of first hearing this song performed—live—by singer Tony Martin at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

I was a kid when my family and I arrived in Las Vegas en route from Chicago to Los Angeles.  We’d left our life in Chicago behind, hoping to find a new life for all of us in LA.  Our move was prompted by my father’s serious illness, which we optimistically believed was cured, and his hope to establish a new life for our family in sunny LA.

I was delighted by our departure.  I knew I’d miss my friends in Chicago, who memorably gave me a surprise farewell party featuring a cake emblazoned with “California, Here Comes Sue” (my preferred nickname at the time).  But I was excited about forging a new life on the West Coast, where I fervently hoped that Daddy would be healthy and able to forge a new career.  Sadly, that wasn’t to be.  (I plan to write about that period in my life another time.)

Many of you may be wondering, “Who was Tony Martin?”

Although Tony Martin has faded into our cultural background today, he was a prominent American singer and film actor during most of the 20th century.  Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Tony began his musical career with a local orchestra until he left for Hollywood in the mid-‘30s.  He appeared on radio programs like Burns & Allen, then moved on to films, where he starred in a number of musicals and received equal billing with the Marx Brothers in their final film, The Big Store.  After serving during WWII, he came back to the U.S., recorded memorable songs for Mercury and RCA records (including some million-sellers), and returned to Hollywood to star in film musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  He also began performing in Las Vegas and other venues and continued to perform live till he was over 90.  (The NY Times reported that he performed at Feinstein’s on Park Avenue in NYC at the age of 95.)

Before dying at 98 in 2012, Tony was truly a fixture in Hollywood films, recorded music, TV appearances, and as a headliner in live concert performances for seven decades.  In the public mind, he’s been eclipsed by another Tony—Tony Bennett–who became successful during the ‘50s recording hits like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.”  His rendition of 1962’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” became his signature song and made him a hero in San Francisco (although it was Tony Martin who was actually born in SF).  Tony Bennett, perpetuating his role as a celebrated singer of pop standards, jazz, and show tunes, has become something of a cultural touchstone.  Despite his recent battle with Alzheimer’s, his popularity endures.  I can’t deny that his prominent place in the American musical landscape has lasted far longer than Tony Martin’s.

Back to my story…. 

Our family was staying at an inexpensive motel on the Las Vegas Strip, but Daddy had grand plans for us.  He succeeded in getting us front-row tickets for Tony Martin’s memorable performance at the Flamingo, a luxury hotel on the Strip.

The Flamingo Hotel itself is noteworthy.  As the 1991 film “Bugsy” (starring Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel) and, more recently, the 2021 film “Lansky” (featuring Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky) make clear, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky were major figures in organized crime who funded the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in the late forties.  It was finally completed in 1947 around the time Bugsy was shot to death by his fellow mobsters, who believed him guilty of skimming money. 

I knew nothing of this history until many years later.  When I was a kid, all I knew was that I got to see and hear Tony Martin live at the Flamingo.  I absolutely reveled in being part of the audience that night, watching Tony perform.

When Tony sang “Luck Be a Lady,” he lighted up the stage, and the audience responded enthusiastically. I recall being completely enthralled. 

Marlon’s performance in Guys and Dolls wasn’t in the same league.

At the same time that Tony was executing this song far better than Marlon ever could, Tony’s wife, dancer Cyd Charisse, was making her own mark in Hollywood.  Tony and Cyd married in 1948, and their six-decade marriage ended only with Cyd’s death in 2008. 

Cyd was an astounding dancer in a raft of Hollywood films, paired with both Gene Kelly (in Brigadoon, for one) and Fred Astaire.  Her dance number with Astaire in The Band Wagon (to the song “Dancing in the Dark”) has been immortalized in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III.  And if you watch 1957’s Silk Stockings (a musical version of Garbo’s Ninotchka), your eyes are riveted on her fantastic dancing, which outdoes Astaire’s in every way.  (By the way, Cyd’s comments in her autobiography on dancing with Kelly and Astaire are fascinating.)

Was Cyd in the audience that night, sharing her husband’s fabulous performance with the rest of us?  I’ll never know.  But it’s exciting to imagine that she was there, applauding with gusto, just as we did, to pay tribute to Tony’s outstanding rendition of “Luck Be a Lady.”

It goes without saying that Marlon Brando was a brilliant actor, one of the most remarkable actors of his generation.  His performances in films like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, and, for that matter, Julius Caesar, will remain in our cultural memory as long as films endure. 

But notably, after playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Marlon never attempted another singing role.  

Hooray for Hollywood! Part II: I Love Your “Funny Face”

I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.

The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.

It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City.  It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.

My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it.  I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)

Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived.  I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there.  The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved.  Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.

Another vivid memory:  Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon.  Daddy refused.  I didn’t view my request as unreasonable.  Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons.  Why couldn’t I have one?  I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon.  No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine.  But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.

Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City.  It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran.  It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June.  The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.

Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals.  Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us.  Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop.  Other concert-goers were probably horrified.  But something else I can’t forget:  The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.

Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.”  Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well.  But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful.  (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel.  Please keep showing them!)

In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.

The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”).  The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes.  (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)

Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing.  When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”).  But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea.  She’s always wanted to see Paris!

Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there.  But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)

As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.”  My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it.  Peer pressure also played a role.  Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me.  At least a little.  My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.

Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes.  The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay.  Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris.  A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down.  He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music.  (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance.  She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London.  She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951.  She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)

The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials.  (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.)  A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.”  Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones.  In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background.  Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.

Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years.  (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)

Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape.  The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.

Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless.  Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels.  These became her favorite style of footwear.  (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)

Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark.  She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it.  Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with.  But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men.  The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)

In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris.  The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result.  Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades.  Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.