The Matchmaker

I have a theory that there were ferociously affectionate friends and family on the set of this film every day, just off-camera, sitting on the floor, or on folding chairs with a cushion for Grandma, or on a picnic blanket drinking from of a Thermos filled with coffee and John Jameson Irish Whiskey, watching and bewitched. If not, then there must have been a whale of an audience, because it’s as though each member of the cast is a barnacle, feeding off of some enormous attention; the characters come alive, as they almost never do.

A more credible explanation might be that it was directed by Joseph Anthony, who started on Broadway and made his most significant contributions there, besides a few brief interludes in Hollywood. One can only wish that those interludes had lasted a few more measures, because The Matchmaker is such a wonderful place between Theatre and Film, you wonder why more directors don’t try to make a home there.

Like I am a Camera or Auntie Mame, the genealogy of Matchmaker is nearly Biblical in length. Originally written for Broadway under the title The Merchant of Younkers, playwright Thornton Wilder revised, renamed and reopened it as The Matchmaker, after which it was adapted for film, adapted as a musical, and adapted for film again. The plot never changed, but for those who never followed it, here is a summary.

Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth) is a widow not in the black. She has a lot of business cards, but mostly for businesses in which she has no business. “Nature isn’t satisfactory, quite,” she declares, “and so it has to be corrected. So I put my hand in here and I put my hand in there.” At rise, Dolly’s hands are making a match, finding a find and catching a catch – for her, and for several other people, if convenient. Her prey is Mr. Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford), a wealthy storeowner who can keep Dolly in the manner after which she is lusting; unfortunately he is chasing a younger woman, Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine). It’s nearly enough to split the ends of Dolly’s wits, but she means to use two young men, Cornelius Hackl (Anthony Perkins) and Barnaby Tucker (Robert Morse) to accomplish her purpose. But before then, there will be hiding in closets, under tables and in drag.

It sounds like a harmless farce made for high school drama programs, and yet the film casts a rare spell, the kind Robertson Davies describes in A Mixture of Frailties: “…[a] state of excitement which follows a really satisfactory artistic achievement. Their excitement varied, of course. There were those who talked of the concert, and there were those who talked of politics and the stock market; but all their talk was a little more vivacious, or vehement, or pontifical because of what they had experienced; music had performed its ever-new magical trick of strengthening and displaying whatever happened to be the dominant trait in them.” If you are charming or witty or gay – and everybody is, in their own way – after this film you will be charwittay.

Thanks must be given to the adaptor, John Michael Hayes, who was known for his literary adaptations, but that phrase is contrarian to his purpose: instead of adapting a book for film, he adapted film for the book; or, in this case, the play. While 3 out of 4 screenwriters would recommend medicating the theatrical conditions, Hayes practiced a natural approach, keeping all the character asides and adding a few more for consistency, increasing the hysterical antics to a scale only achievable in film, and giving the entire cast an opportunity to thank us for coming to the show.

But don’t misinterpret that gesture: the star of the show is Shirley Booth. It’s obvious why she is among the elite performers who have won an Emmy, Tony and Oscar. What’s baffling is that she was replaced three times in film adaptations for roles she originated on the stage: by Ruth Bussey in Philadelphia Story, Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen and Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, all three of whom were nominated in her stead. Although each of those women gave a fine performance, it’s a rightfully big boo-hoo of should-have-beens. Yet Booth kept working, and what work there is, is remarkable. When she becomes a character, every thought and feeling is composed in her mind and heart, telegraphed to her face and translated with her mouth – simultaneously, amusingly, poignantly, and often contradictorily, though the message always comes out clear. She plays Dolly as the cat that ate the canary, except she hasn’t eaten it, she’s just holding it in the back of her throat, trying to scare it back to life.

And she is only just the brightest in a film full of stars, laying down squares to make a Hollywood walk upon which you almost float. Robert Morse redirects his energy from its typically manic expression to a touching uncertainty. Shirley MacLaine has a heady charm worth losing your head over. And, in one of the last lines, Anthony Perkins’ characteristically haltering speech has never been so endearing, and the sly grin so boyish, as he says, “I hope that in your lives you have just the right amount of sitting quietly at home and just the right amount of adventure.” After spending time with The Matchmaker, I always feel just the right amount of both.

Grosse Pointe Blank

Billy Collins said that “Death is why poets get up in the morning.” And hitmen. And screenwriters. Or at least the screenwriters of Grosse Pointe Blank, who tell a hitstory that’s so morbid and giddy and cynical and sentimental, it’s like John Hughes, Charles Bukowski and David Mamet patched a script together by mailing it back and forth between them.[1]

It’s the weekend of the “I’ve-peaked-and-I’m-kidding-myself party” (officially, the Grosse Pointe High School Class of ’86 Reunion) and everyone’s in town for it, even Martin Blank (John Cusack). Actually, Martin’s in town to kill someone, but the reunion is close, so he might as well mix business and pleasure. Mixing it up is the adorable DJ of the local radio station, Debi (Minnie Driver), who would have been Martin’s Prom date in 1986, but he never showed. For 10 years.

A lot can happen in 10 years. Or a little. And every day is a little death in Grosse Pointe. It’s appropriate that Martin arrives in a black suit, black shirt and black tie. “My God, it’s you,” a former teacher exclaims. “You’ve been Detroit’s most famous disappearing act since white flight.” The former jock star snorts cocaine and tries to start a fight with him. The former cheerleader teeters like a parrot on its perch, repeating pleasantries. Debi is living in her old bedroom at her dad’s house. “Where are all the good men dead?” she asks her listeners on the air. “In the heart, or in the head?”[2]

Most of the film’s characters lay dying in between, on a lump in their throat, trying to determine what makes sense or feels right. Even the two NSA operatives assigned to “get tough on terror” by targeting Martin aren’t very clear. “Why don’t we just do his job so we can do our job and get the fuck out of here?” One complains. “What do you mean ‘do his job’?” The other retorts. “I’m not a cold-blooded killer…you want to kill the good guy, but not be bad guy? It doesn’t work like that. You gotta wait until the bad guy kills the good guy, then when you kill the bad guy you’re the good guy.”

Such right on, offbeat poetry is the first language of the characters in this film, from Martin’s secretary to a security guard to a cashier. But none are so fluent as Martin and Debi, “two young lovers with frightening natural chemistry.” That same description could be applied to the actors playing them. Like some perfect improvisation, Cusack and Driver seem to be writing the lines as they speak them. The lines are brilliant, but the unspoken ones in between are even better.

But no one can beat Cusack, who plays Martin like a wall with a thousand peepholes. Upon arriving in Grosse Pointe, the first place he haunts is the old homestead, which has been razed and replaced by a convenience store. In a dementia unit he finds his mother, whom he asks, “mom, what happened to the house, and all the money I sent?” She doesn’t have an answer. In the next scene, at a cemetery, Martin walks a bottle of scotch down an aisle, giving it away to his father’s tombstone, watering the grass with the amber liquid and dumping the empty bottle. Cusack wears sunglasses and tightens his lips – and we know everything and nothing.

Underneath all of this existential exoskeleton, Grosse Pointe Blank still has a beating heart – or maybe just a beating head – determined to find meaning. It’s almost a companion piece to It’s a Wonderful Life. You think you’re better off dead, until you come home and no one knows who you are. But then a good woman calls you by name.

[1] This correspondence screenwriting course would have been most convenient for Charles Bukowski.

[2] Apparently it’s a remodeled line from The Merchant of Venice.

Make Way for Tomorrow

Leo McCarey had a strong hand and a clear eye, like a jeweler. He lifted life to the Light, turning it, looking for the flaws, the glimmer – and then he held it out. Tonight I took in every facet of his best film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).

Made and set in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, after Social Security was passed but before payments were issued,* the film follows four children playing a sad game of hot potato with parents Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and Barkley (Victor Moore) whose home has been repossessed by the bank. In a reversal of convention, the parents separate for the sake of the children – Lucy lives with one of them in the city, Barkley with another in the country, thousands of miles apart.

And the children they raised begin to lower them.

The children don’t decide to do this, but they’re still young, there’s still a race to be run, and hurdles must be removed, or lowered enough to step over. Lucy is treated like contraband, smuggled away before company arrives; a granddaughter stows her at the movies and sneaks off for a spree. Barkley is quarantined to the couch during a bad cold, then hustled across icy floors into the nicest bed just before the doctor arrives.

And yet, you can’t get angry at the children. McCarey was an equal opportunity empathizer, perhaps because before he was a film director, he was a lawyer.* He claimed he was so bad they chased him out of the courtroom and he ran until he reached Hollywood; that’s a funny bit, which, after seeing his films, nobody would believe. Every character’s actions are defended, even as the actor’s faces plead guilty.

And actors loved McCarey. Often scenes were improvised and then written. Sometimes, before filming, he would play the piano and sing, leading everyone to the right feeling.

This sensitivity is revealed in every film, in every performance, from the stars down to the extras. Especially in the best scene in Make Way for Tomorrow. It’s a bridge party at one of the children’s apartment where Lucy is staying, and Barkley calls.

“Hello?” Lucy shouts. “Is that you, Bark?” A society woman turns to the source of this disturbance, disgusted, as if a parrot has just repeated a dirty limerick. “This is Lucy, Bark. How are you?” She shouts louder. “I say how are you?” She shouts even louder. At this point the partygoers are exasperated and exacerbating their own exasperation.

But gradually, almost imperceptibly, within the span of Lucy’s devastating two minute monologue, they have forgotten how to play bridge and are trying to remember how to be human. In front of our eyes, the performances bloom, like flowers in time lapse photography: slow and sudden and frozen and pulsating.

And all the time, the intergenerational tension is tightening. I cannot tell you who was stronger, because at the end, I wasn’t certain. I was thinking about my grandpa, the one who died years ago, after serving his time at an assisted living center. The dementia was so advanced that only a half hour after his wife’s funeral, we had to again tell him, through a mirage of tears, that she was gone.


*Thanks to Peter Bogdanovich, Gary Giddins and the Criterion Collection for the biographical and production details.