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DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Brian Dennehy, the burly actor who often played emotionally vulnerable characters, died last week of natural causes. He was 81. An accomplished character actor, Dennehy was a recognizable face in numerous movies and TV shows. But he was best known for his work in the theater, earning Tony Awards for his leading roles in "Death Of A Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Our TV critic David Bianculli interviewed Dennehy in 1999, when he was then starring as a world-weary Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")
BRIAN DENNEHY: (As Willy Loman) I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was 84 years old. and He had drummed merchandise in 31 states. Old Dave (laughter), he'd go up to his room, you understand, he'd put on his green velvet slippers - I'll never forget - and pick up his phone and call the buyers. And without ever leaving his room at the age of 84, he made his living (laughter).
Of course, when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. I mean, what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, 20, 30 different cities, pick up a phone and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people, you know? When he died - by the way, he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston.
DAVIES: The role of Willy Loman is grueling. At the time, Dennehy was 61 and had no understudy. David Bianculli asked him what it was like to perform that part so many times a week, month after month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DENNEHY: Doing a demanding role in the theater over a long period of time is like having a bad case of Lyme disease or the flu.
DAVID BIANCULLI: (Laughter).
DENNEHY: You find yourself taking thin soup and resting a lot and then getting up and going to the theater so that you have that explosive energy that you need for the three-hour periods that the play runs. And then after that, you collapse. And you go back to your very monklike existence. I mean, what you do is the play. And you're doing very little else. It's a grind. It's tough.
At the same time, it certainly represents, for me, the kind of culmination of many years of being in the business and many years of life. I mean, Willy is a part that has more to do with your life experiences than it does with your acting experiences. And I suspect it would be very difficult for someone 35 or 40 years old to play Willy Loman. I think you've got to have the age and the scars and the toughened hide to play Willy, to understand him.
BIANCULLI: Is there a moment in "Death Of A Salesman" or was there a moment in preparing for "Death Of A Salesman" where the character of Willy Loman really hit you personally?
DENNEHY: Well, there was a moment in rehearsal - I had an awful lot of trouble. I always have trouble in the first few weeks because I'm struggling with the lines, and I'm trying to rationalize what it is I'm doing. And this is why you have directors. And this is why Bob is such a good director. And I kept saying to him, I don't understand this guy. I don't understand what's going on here. I don't understand why he does this. And even though the rehearsals were going very well, I had no idea why certain things were happening.
And Bob said, don't try to understand it. Willy does not lead an examined life. He's not capable of it. And he's afraid to examine his life because if he does, he'll see all kinds of things that he doesn't want to see. What Willy does is live by instinct. He lives by a bumper sticker philosophy. And he keeps lowering his head and just going straight ahead in his life. There's just an instinctive, primal quality to the way he lives. when I realized that and I realized that that was right, it became clearer. Acting is strange in that way. It's very hard to hold. Its quicksilver.
There's a great story about Maggie Smith when she did Desdemona to Olivier's famous "Othello." After the show had been running about four or five months, Olivier tried all kinds of interesting things. He made himself into a black man. And he lowered his voice. And he did all kinds of interesting physical things in order to get this Othello. And one night, it all came together. And it was extraordinary. It was just an extraordinary performance.
And Maggie Smith ran down to Olivier's dressing room to tell him that. And she walked in, and Olivier was sobbing, uncontrollably sobbing at his makeup table. And she was shocked. And she said, Larry, what's the matter? She said, why are you so upset? That was brilliant. I've never seen anything like that. And he turned to her. And he says yes, I know. And I don't know why.
BIANCULLI: Oh, wow.
DENNEHY: And at the end of the day, that's what happens. You never know why.
BIANCULLI: To go back to how you got on the stage in the first place, I understand you were raised Irish Catholic in Queens. And in high school, you were both on the football team and in the high school theater. Is that right?
DENNEHY: Well, we didn't have a high school theater program when I started high school. I had a wonderful teacher named Chris Sweeny, who is still a friend of mine and still very much a part of my life. I was one of those very, very fortunate young people who had an extraordinary mentor at the right age. I was 13 or 14. And I was a complete wiseass. Chris realized that there was some energy there - I wouldn't call it talent at that point, but energy - and he was interested in the theater himself. So he started a theater department at this Catholic boys - all-boys school. And we started out by doing "Macbeth."
DENNEHY: And I was 13 or 14 years old. And we did a shortened version of "Macbeth" for the student body, which, again, was a bunch of tough Irish Catholic boys - 1952, 1953.
BIANCULLI: Right, really wanted to hear Shakespeare.
DENNEHY: Yeah, they really wanted to see me play Macbeth. And people always say, boy, you had a lot of guts to go out there and play Macbeth in front of this audience. And I said, can I tell you something? Not nearly as much guts as the little 13-year-old freshman who had to play Lady Macbeth.
DENNEHY: He was really brave because he put on a dress. And he was good, too. He was very good. That took guts. Anyway, as any great teacher does, Chris opened a door and showed me something on the other side that I didn't even know existed.
BIANCULLI: Even before you became an actor for real, what actors and actresses inspired you?
DENNEHY: Well, I think as a kid I liked - you know, I loved John Wayne. It's only in recent years that I've come to realize what an interesting actor he was. John Wayne had the essential quality that an actor must have, which is the ability to suspend disbelief.
Now, later on, of course, I, like many of my peers, was enormously affected by Marlon Brando. I remember vividly seeing, at the age of 14 or whatever, "On The Waterfront." And for the first time - because it's not something that John Wayne could do for me or Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or any of those guys - for the first time when I saw that picture, I realized that there were people in the business who looked like me and who sounded like me and who had - who came from places like I came from. Before that time, acting was like ballet. It was something that I could appreciate but never could consider myself part of. But all of a sudden, acting became a possibility because there were people in this movie doing it that I knew were actors, but they weren't like no actors I'd ever seen before.
BIANCULLI: One of the things that I really love about your career is that you don't seem to have any snobbery about stage versus movies versus TV.
DENNEHY: That's a very kind way of putting it.
BIANCULLI: But looking back, each of those areas requires something, I think, very different in an actor. And what are the frustrations and freedoms of each? I mean, how is stage acting different from TV acting, different than movie acting when you're putting together a role?
DENNEHY: Well, for one, you get paid a hell of a lot less. Once I became a professional actor - and it took a long time; I really wasn't making a living at this until I was in my late 30s - I was playing catchup. I had kids. I had kids who were getting ready to go to college. And I knew I had the responsibility, which I did not resent, to make sure that they had good educations. I had a wife that had made great sacrifices over the years, whom I knew it was not fair to ask any further sacrifices of.
So I made decisions in those days to do certain things that I probably shouldn't have done. I did a lot of television. But I was paying the bills, and I was sending my kids to school and eventually trying to help them buy houses and so forth. And I have no regrets about that. I learned a lot doing television. I learned how to work fast. I learned how to rewrite stuff in a hurry that was barely written and had a good time and then certainly made a good living at it. I got a chance to be in some really good movies. And I learned that part of the business, to see a real good filmmaker work, like Alan Pakula or Larry Kasdan or even Peter Greenaway. So I had a wide-ranging career. I've never been as careful about my choices as I should have been. And there are some regrets about that, but not too many.
BIANCULLI: As you've come to know Arthur Miller, what advice or compliments or anything has he given you that really registered?
DENNEHY: Well, he's very careful with his compliments, but I - you know, I know he likes this production. I know he likes this Willy. It's not Manny Newman, who is the real Willy. But he said one thing. He didn't say it to me, but he said it to one interviewer. And I treasure it, and I will always treasure it. What he said - he said, well, I really admire Brian because he goes out there every night, and he falls on his sword (laughter). And he's exactly right. That's what I do.
BIANCULLI: Well, Brian, I want to thank you very much for that production and that performance and for being here today on FRESH AIR.
DENNEHY: Thank you.
DAVIES: Actor Brian Dennehy, recorded in 1999. He died last week at the age of 81. He spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. After a break, a tribute to jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "'ROUND MIDNIGHT")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz died last week from complications of the coronavirus. He was 92. Konitz had one of the longest careers in jazz and was one of its great improvising soloists. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this appreciation.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDE THORNHILL'S "ANTHROPOLOGY")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Nineteen-year-old Lee Konitz on alto saxophone and his first record date with Claude Thornhill's big band in 1947. He sounds green but full of promise. By then, Konitz was already a student of pianist Lennie Tristano. That influential teacher focused on improvising long, lucid lines over standard song forms. Lee Konitz took that lesson to heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF LENNIE TRISTANO'S "WOW")
WHITEHEAD: The Tristano school aimed to keep cool heads when they improvised - no wailing or forced excitement. Folks said Konitz's style was cerebral, but he insisted he was an intuitive player making choices in the moment.
Early on, he was deeply influenced by saxophonist Charlie Parker's fleet virtuosity. Parker had pet licks he'd insert into a solo, but Konitz aspired to improvise from scratch every time. His pliable tone also set him apart - sometimes soft, sometimes acerbic, sometimes luminous. It was put to good use in trumpeter Miles Davis's nonet, the so-called "Birth Of The Cool" band. Konitz could sound wispy, but he could fly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "MOVE")
WHITEHEAD: Miles Davis's nine-piece band was a huge influence on white, West Coast jazz in the 1950s. Konitz's thoughtful approach and cottony sound inspired California saxophonists, including cool Paul Desmond and fiery Art Pepper. Lee Konitz drifted away from Lennie Tristano in the early '50s, looking to work more often in more varied settings.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL RUSSO'S "MUSIC FOR ALTO SAXOPHONE AND STRINGS, PART 3")
WHITEHEAD: That's from Bill Russo's "Music For Alto Saxophone And Strings" 1958. By the 1960s, Lee Konitz's trajectory was clear. Ever after, he'd front small groups, improvising on familiar standards without a lot of window dressing. For 1961's trio album "Motion," he tapped bassist Sonny Dallas and John Coltrane's ferociously swinging drummer Elvin Jones. On "I Remember You," Konitz peppers a solo with well turned phrases and sly allusions to other tunes. He shows how much drive he can muster and how much tonal variety he can work into his dry sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "I REMEMBER YOU")
WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz didn't like being a bandleader. He didn't like herding musicians and hustling up gigs. So he became an international wandering troubadour, teaming up with other stars or fronting local rhythm sections from Stockholm to St. Paul. Playing common tunes, he and his new mates didn't really need to rehearse. Weak accompanists made a more self-reliant. But a great rhythm section could free him up to carve shapely lines in the air that might or might not hint at the tune. Then he'd use that pliable tone like a scalpel.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "CHEROKEE")
WHITEHEAD: "Cherokee," live at the Village Vanguard in 2009 with the trio Minsara. Lee Konitz made hundreds of records, playing jazzed up Bartok or the electric saxophone, guesting with pianist Dave Brubeck and Andrew Hill, even free improvising. He recorded dozens of duets with rhythm players and with other horns, practicing spontaneous counterpoint. Konitz the balladeer valued a good melody, though he rarely played one totally straight. This is "Crazy He Calls Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "CRAZY HE CALLS ME")
WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz and guitarist Bill Frisell in 1991. In this century, Konitz connected with a brace of admiring younger players. Saxophonist Ohad Talmor built a number of ambitious projects around Konitz, music whose bright colors might conjure Miles Davis' nonet. In his last years, Konitz played less in tune, but the mind still worked. His last album released in his lifetime, the recent "Old Songs New," was recorded in 2017, when Konitz was 90, 70 years after he debuted on record. Now that is dedication to pursuing the long, lucid improvised line.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio. His new book is "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Coming up, a concert from our archives with singer Catherine Russell. And film critic Justin Chang recommends two new crime dramas that are now available for streaming. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEE KONITZ'S "IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, as a treat while all of us are coping with the pandemic, we have a performance by one of the best jazz and blues singers around - Catherine Russell. A lot of the material she does is jazz, blues and pop dating back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger and was Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-'40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-women's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Catherine Russell's latest album is titled "Alone Together."
Terry invited her to our studio in 2012, when her album "Strictly Romancin'" was released. She was accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) Wake up and live. Don't mind the rainy patter, and you will find it's mind over matter. Dark clouds will break up if you just wake up and live. Yeah, wake up and live. Show the stuff you're made of. Just follow through. What are you afraid of? You'll try it, won't you? Why don't you wake up and live? Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Wake up and live, if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live. Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Yeah, wake up and live if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live.
TERRY GROSS: Yeah, that was great. Thank you both so much.
GROSS: That's Catherine Russell singing with Matt Munisteri featured on guitar. Now, you're here singing live for us, which is thrilling. But there's an album - there's a song from the new album I actually want to play from the album because your mother is featured on it, singing a duet with you on a Rosa (ph) Tharpe gospel song.
RUSSELL: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sister Marine Knight recorded a lot together back in the 1940s. And she swung. You know, that's what also grabbed me about her music.
GROSS: So let's hear the track from the album in which you sing a duet with your mother, and this is "He's All I Need." And this is my guest, Catherine Russell, with her mother Carline Ray, who used to perform most famously in The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women's band, during World War II. And this is from Catherine's new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S ALL I NEED")
CATHERINE RUSSELL AND CARLINE RAY: (Singing) If I was hungry without bread to eat. Well, If I was naked with no shoes on my feet. Well, if I was wondering, oh, Lord, where would I be? The Lord, he is my shepherd, - yeah, yeah - and that's all I'll ever need. And now the Lord is my shepherd - he is my shepherd - the Lord is my shepherd. And that's all I need to know. Oh now the Lord is my shepherd...
GROSS: That's Catherine Russell duetting with her mother Carline Ray from Catherine's new album "Strictly Romanin'." I really like that so much. At a time when there were few women instrumentalists in jazz, your mother was playing guitar with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm...
GROSS: ...In the 1940s, during World War II. And then your father dies when you're 7.
GROSS: So your mother's on her own...
RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Raising you.
GROSS: So you must have gotten the impression from her that women can definitely be strong and do things that are unconventional for women.
RUSSELL: Yes. You know, even when my dad was alive, I mean, she was always very independent. She left home to go on the road, and women just didn't really do that. You know, so my grandfather - she used to tell me the story. You know, my grandfather would say, you'll be back, you know, when you've...
RUSSELL: You'll be back, you know. And she left, and she didn't come back, really, you know. She just left and started working right after she graduated from Juilliard School of Music. You know, she wanted to play, and she was inspired by all the jazz on 52nd Street and hearing, you know, Billie Holiday live, and Art Tatum accompanied her one night. And so she was really determined and very independent and very focused.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're doing something special today. We have Catherine Russell performing some songs for us in our studio, accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri.
So both your parents were jazz musicians.
GROSS: But you grew up hearing all kinds of things growing up in the '50s and '60s. I'm going to ask you to sing a song that meant a lot to you when you were coming of age musically and when you were really impressionable and learning new things.
RUSSELL: All right. Well, my first 45 that I bought was a Supremes 45. I think it cost me about 40 cents back in 1964, 1965 - something like that. Then with all the girl groups, I loved a song called "Nowhere To Run" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Then later on, I realized that The Isley Brothers also recorded it, and I loved their version of it. So that's where I take this version from.
GROSS: Fantastic. And this is my guest Catherine Russell singing with guitarist Matt Munisteri.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO RUN")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. I got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. It's not love I'm running from; it's just the heartache I know will come 'cause I know you're no good for me. But you've become a part of me. Everywhere I go, every face I see, every step I take, you take with me, baby. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Oh, got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. I know you're no good for me now, but free of you I'll never be, yeah. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Oh, yeah, nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Nowhere to hide.
GROSS: That was great. And what an achievement to sing that solo without a backup group, you know?
GROSS: It's funny 'cause that's the kind of song that's usually so dependent on, like, the backup singers. You used to be a backup singer. And here you are doing it solo.
RUSSELL: I don't know. I just love that song. I love the fact that it's actually blues, you know. It's a sad song, but it's - you know, we used to dance to that song when I was a kid.
DAVIES: We're listening back to a concert recorded in 2012 with jazz and blues singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our concert with Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri recorded in 2012, after her album "Strictly Romancin'" was released.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I'd love for you to do another song. And this is a song by Fats Waller that's the title track of one of your earlier albums called "Inside This Heart Of Mine." You know, you always associate Fats Waller with these, like, up-tempo kind of jokey songs, and this is a really, like, heartbreaking song. And it's not what you'd expect. It's a beautiful song. Tell us why you chose it.
RUSSELL: That's why I chose it because another instance of me, you know, cleaning up the kitchen after a great meal, and I said, let me put Fats Waller on, you know. And I was kind of, you know, dancing around the kitchen, and then it just struck me. It's such a beautiful song, and the lyric just kind of caught me. And I thought, OK, I have to learn this; I have to sing it.
GROSS: Well, you're not kidding around when you sing it.
RUSSELL: Thank you.
GROSS: So this is my guest Catherine Russell with Matt Munisteri on guitar, and they're performing in our studio. And she has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancin'."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSIDE THIS HEART OF MINE")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Outside it's sunny. But in this heart of mine, the world is gloomy. The sun refused to shine. I've done the best that I could do, all for you. Now we're through. Sunshine brings danger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me. Memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny, but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me. Memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny, but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine - inside this heart of mine.
GROSS: Fabulous. Thank you so much. I love the way you do that song.
With me in our studio is singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They're performing some songs for us. She has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancin'." He's the featured guitarist and music director on the album.
So I hate to say it, but our - I think our time is up. And before you leave, I'd love for you to sing another song for us.
GROSS: And I have one to recommend, and it's called "Everything's Been Done Before." It's one of the songs on the new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'." And again, tell us why you chose this one.
RUSSELL: I was once again listening to a compilation and this time it was a Louis Armstrong compilation, and Decca had just put this compilation out.
GROSS: Was your father on these records?
RUSSELL: Yes. And this is during a period when my dad was musical director and one of the arrangers for Louis Armstrong's orchestra - it was actually my dad's orchestra during the years of 1935 to 1943. This collection goes up to 1946, but many of the tunes are, you know, my dad's arrangements. And so when I listen to this music, it's like I'm just home, you know. It's - so when I hear Louis Armstrong sing, everything he sings - he's so inspiring to me because he had a hard life. And everything he sings, his life is in every lyric. You believe everything he sings, you know? And so when I heard this song, I thought anyone else singing that, it would kind of be corny-sounding to people, maybe. I don't know. But when he sings it, it's so real that it just drew me in. And I thought, what a simple idea. What a old-fashioned, romantic idea.
GROSS: So was your father music director when Armstrong sang things like "Got A Brand New Suit" or...
RUSSELL: Yeah. Yes.
GROSS: No, really?
RUSSELL: Yes. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Or "On A Coconut Island?"
RUSSELL: Yeah. That's on those...
GROSS: No - oh, I love that stuff.
RUSSELL: All of those things are on that - yeah, during those years...
GROSS: Oh, no.
RUSSELL: ...Yeah, in the '30s.
GROSS: So that was actually your father's band?
RUSSELL: Yeah. That was his orchestra.
GROSS: Catherine Russell, it has been, really, very special to have you here performing today. Thank you so very much.
RUSSELL: Well, thank, you. You have no idea. It's been so special for me. And I just want to say, dreams can come true. So...
GROSS: And Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for being here today.
MATT MUNISTERI: Thank you, thank you.
GROSS: So we're going to hear one more song. And this is, again, a song from Catherine Russell's new album, "Strictly Romancin'." But she's performing in our studio with Matt Munisteri on guitar. And thank you both again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S BEEN DONE BEFORE")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss, and hear you whisper you love me - sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills. But it's new to me. Oh, everything's been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always singing above me - yet, with you, their singing is something that's new to me. Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although, I know I'm only doing what the others do. Yet, it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve. But when I'm with you, I just want to do what's been done before. Oh, life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although, I know I'm only doing what the others do. Yet, it all seems news. Everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve. But when I'm with you, I just want to do what's been before.
DAVIES: Our concert with Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri on guitar was recorded in 2012. Her latest album is titled "Alone Together." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews two crime dramas that begin streaming this week. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "LEMON TWIST")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. There's no shortage of old and new movies to watch while many of us are staying at home. Our film critic, Justin Chang, reviews two new, very different crime dramas that begin streaming this week, "Bad Education" and "True History Of The Kelly Gang," both of which he first saw at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Here's Justin.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I see a lot of movies every year at film festivals, which, like all public gatherings, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like South by Southwest, have been cancelled while others, like Cannes, have been postponed until further notice. Many in the industry are cautiously optimistic that Toronto, one of the biggest festivals in the world, might happen in September. I'm hopeful, but also wary about the prospect. As eager as I am to go to festivals again, it's hard, at this point, to imagine any major event proceeding as normal.
As it happens, the two titles I'm recommending this week, "Bad Education" and "True History Of The Kelly Gang," are both films that I caught at Toronto last fall. "Bad Education," which premieres this Saturday on HBO, is a smart and wickedly funny drama about a scandal that rocked Long Island in 2004 when it came to light that millions of dollars have been embezzled from the wealthy school district of Roslyn Heights. Like all good scam movies, this one is full of outrageous twists and satisfying comeuppances. It's also about white-collar crooks, who are always painfully human even at their most dastardly and dunderheaded. Hugh Jackman stars as Dr. Frank Tassone, Roslyn's beloved school superintendent. And Allison Janney plays his deputy, Pamela Gluckin. Their district is one of the top-ranked in the nation. Test scores are up. And Roslyn's students are flooding Ivy League schools, driving up property values.
Frank and Pam make quite a team and so did Jackman and Janney, who give their best performances in some time. Working from Mike Makowsky's sharp script, they turn day-to-day administrative chatter into scintillating repartee. Frank, in particular, makes a charming and genuinely complicated antihero. You can tell how image-obsessed he is from his impeccable suits and his strict low-carb diet.
But there are early signs that his perfectly manicured life isn't all it's cracked up to be. But Frank is also a gifted teacher and administrator. And he takes a genuine interest in his students. We see this when a student journalist named Rachel interviews him for an article on a very expensive real estate project that the district is considering.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD EDUCATION")
GERALDINE VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) OK. So they just - they want me to write an article about the skywalk proposal in the new budget. And I just need a pull quote from administration.
HUGH JACKMAN: (As Frank) Yeah. Oh, OK. Soundbite. Nice. We've been asking high schoolers how we can make their day easier. So we came up with this idea of the skywalk, a bridge to link the school from end to end. And it's a huge undertaking for us. And we can't wait to break ground once the plans are approved next May.
VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) Great. That's all I need. Thank you so much.
JACKMAN: (As Frank) Well, that's it? No follow-ups?
VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) No, it's just a puff piece. They save the real stories for seniors.
JACKMAN: (As Frank) Rachel, it's only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.
CHANG: Frank's advice will come back to bite him when Rachel, played by the terrific Geraldine Viswanathan, begins digging into the district's financial records and finds some curious discrepancies. Even if the Roslyn scandal doesn't ring a bell, you can probably guess where this muckraking story is headed. But the director, Cory Finley, navigates the material with ease. And his actors never stop surprising you. And Jackman, with his seductive charm and megawatt grin, reminds you that he was born to razzle-dazzle an audience. Between this and the two-faced carnival barker he played in "The Greatest Showman," he's truly a con man for all seasons.
A much more notorious crook is at the center of "True History Of The Kelly Gang," an IFC Films release that you can watch on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and other platforms. This brutal and gripping drama, adapted from Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, is a revisionist riff on the life and crimes of Ned Kelly, the 19th century Australian outlaw whose bloody exploits have been memorialized in books, plays, songs and two earlier films starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. Here, the role falls to the excellent George MacKay from "1917." Though, he is initially played by a striking young newcomer named Orlando Schwerdt.
We see Ned's hard upbringing, where his poor, Irish-born parents run afoul of the law, leading to his father's untimely death. Ned is even more profoundly scarred by his prostitute mother, played by a ferocious Essie Davis, who looks at the boy with a weird mix of pride, contempt and near-Oedipal lust. The superb cast also includes Russell Crowe as Harry Power, a bandit who shows Ned the ropes. And Nicholas Hoult is memorable as the louche and sadistic Constable Fitzpatrick, who becomes Ned's chief nemesis when he and his gang begin their thieving, murdering rampage.
While the dialogue is steeped in gnarled, period vernacular, the movie's sensibility is thoroughly modern. It gazes at Kelly through a punk rock prism. In the most outre touch, Ned and his gang commit their crimes wearing women's dresses on the logic that nothing will seem crazier or scarier to their enemies.
Despite its title, "True History Of The Kelly Gang" doesn't claim any basis in reality. And yet, its wild, untamed reading of the Kelly legend gets at something that feels remarkably true. The director, Justin Kurzel, achieves the same visual intensity he brought to his "Macbeth" - all fire-lit interiors, bizarre strobe effects and snowy, blood-spattered landscapes. It deserves the grandeur of the big screen. But don't deny yourself the thrill of seeing it any way you can.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times. Monday on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Mindy Kaling. She has a new Netflix series called "Never Have I Ever" that draws on her experiences when she was in high school. It was described in Vanity Fair as breezy and delightful, practically built for quarantine marathon watching. Kaling first became known for her role on "The Office" as Kelly Kapoor. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUCKY PIZZARELLI AND JOHN PIZZARELLI'S "THREE LITTLE WORDS")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUCKY PIZZARELLI AND JOHN PIZZARELLI'S "THREE LITTLE WORDS")