Inside scoop about making movies from moviemakers

July 11, 2008|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

In the first episode of Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence, the former New York Times film critic interviews the late director Sydney Pollack and elicits the sort of practical yet also profound knowledge that found its way into Pollack movies such as Tootsie.

If you missed Monday's airings, set your recording device to TCM for tomorrow noon. Pollack is the perfect guest to introduce a show called Under the Influence, because he understands how intricate and personal the idea of "influence" is. In a spirited give and take, he names An American in Paris as the first film he saw more than once. When Mitchell suggests that its star, the athletic dancer Gene Kelly, was closer to Pollack's reality than the more purely graceful Fred Astaire, Pollack refines that thought - Kelly was closer to a realm that Pollack could dream about.

Under the Influence showcases Mitchell's own talents as a critic and a journalist. Since 1996, he's been hosting a weekly interview show, The Treatment (it airs in 16 public-radio markets), and he's also conducted interviews for major magazines like Interview for a couple of decades. Over the past four years, he has lectured on movie criticism and black images in movies at Harvard.

"Whenever I'm at a film festival," Mitchell said a couple of months ago from the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, "I always run into one or two kids I've taught, and they're more likely to be agents than anything else." They aren't more mercenary than past generations of students, Mitchell says; they're just wired more insistently to the here and now. "I don't want to sound like an old man shaking his head, but they're less interested in stuff much more than 10 years old."

Mitchell thinks the problem is limited exposure to old movies and his students' "almost categorical aversion to black and white." He should help defeat that aversion with Under the Influence.

The series came about because the producers of original programs at TCM were fans of Mitchell's radio show. It was up to Mitchell to find interview subjects who "knew movies and could talk about them - which is tough to do. One of them is Ed Norton, who is both knowledgeable about movies and fascinated by them; also [Quentin] Tarantino, John Leguizamo and Bill Murray [the star of next week's show]."

Mitchell always wanted Pollack to be his first guest. He had met Pollack at a dinner party years ago, and expressed his admiration for the performance Ossie Davis gave in Pollack's The Scalphunters: "He was one of the few guys capable of standing up physically to Burt Lancaster."

Pollack warmed to Mitchell - and to the subject of Burt Lancaster. Pollack recalled how he'd met Lancaster while working as an acting coach on John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages. Lancaster starred in the film as a crusading New York City district attorney. Pollack was supposed to help the younger actors, but Lancaster would approach him and ask, "So how am I doing, New York genius boy?" The star finally called Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal, and said, "I have this kid here, Syd Pollack, and he's better than any of the [screw-ups] you have doing television at Universal." That made Pollack's career. Mitchell says, "I thought it would be great for Pollack to come on the show and tell this story." And it is.

His "idea of a perfect interview is one in which you don't hear me say a word. I'm happy if I can get people to talk and I just sit there and nod." But his love and knowledge of film puts his guests at ease; they know he can field their wildest references. One of Pollack's greatest insights is that "the camera is just a great big microscope. The trick in film acting is really about getting rid of tension. If you are really relaxed and you think a thought and the camera is on you, the camera will know it and register it."

That proves to be the case with the first two interviews, too. Murray has never been so frank and compelling for the TV camera as he is on the episode airing Monday at 8 p.m.

Murray on Margaret Sullavan is almost intimate: "This girl was really funny and beautiful, and to me that's fatal." Murray commenting on the Marx Brothers is a master class in movie comedy: "Groucho Marx was fast. He really did go to the body on people. ... He'd go right at their body and get right in their space and just kind of shake their jelly. ... That's what I need to do. That's how I work." And Murray on Tootsie is revelatory: "I could do anything in any of the scenes, and [Dustin Hoffman] didn't care. There was never going to be any intent to upstage, not going to be any intent to steal. You couldn't upstage a guy who's in a bra and panties."

No one's asleep at the wheel at Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence. When Murray tells of seeing a silent movie called A Romance of Happy Valley in Paris, and how it hit him "like a thunderbolt," we see clips of the movie, which turns out to be one of D.W. Griffith's. "What would a guy like me do during that time?" Murray asks. "I wouldn't be working in movies, you know. Without a tongue, who am I? ... I walked home in shock. There were people doing this long ago, and they made a great movie without any words, without any sound, and it was perfect."

With interviews like these, Under the Influence promises a parade of Eureka moments. It might even make young audiences seek out movies made before Titanic.

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