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August 23, 2011


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I think, at least in The Thin Red Line, by having so many movie stars appear so fleetingly, it makes any one individual star kind of meaningless. This is important for a war film, as very quickly you stop ranking characters' importance based on how famous the actor is (and, thus, what role they'll play in the battles, who'll die, etc.) You stop evaluating the characters based on preconceived notions of Hollywood storytelling because the casting follows no such logic. This may pull some people out of the film, of course, but I like being disoriented and a little confused the first time I watch a movie. And for a metaphysical war film, I gather that's rather the point.


As to Penn on Malick; as Jim Emerson pointed out in his blog post, Penn still recommends the film (if, as he says, you have no preconceived notions going in), and he also wasn't sure where Malick was going with THIN RED LINE at first. I think both movies turned out fine.

As for the point you're going for here in general; where do you stand on James Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE? Do you see it as Ford's using Stewart in the way that, as you say, Hitchcock used Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and Judy Garland was used in her version of A STAR IS BORN? Because, while that does make his casting more sense than otherwise, I still have some difficulty with it because Stewart's work with Mann and Hitchcock in the 50's had put some distance between the more idealistic characters Ford might have been playing on with Stewart's character here.


Malick 1, Penn 0.

Stephen Bowie

Actually BOOM! was shot before SECRET CEREMONY, wasn't it? But I get what you're saying.

The movie star cameos (excepting Nolte -- Nick, not John -- who gives a real performance without a lot of Noltean baggage) still stop THIN RED LINE dead for me, as do a lot of other elements. Sorry.

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, it was, wasn't it? Oy. I'm a little woozy. Existentially.

Mr. Milich

Sean had to be cut to make more room for the moral dinosaur.

Bilge Ebiri

Glad to see that someone else kind of sort of maybe didn't dislike GOYA'S GHOSTS.

Bilge Ebiri

Also, re: the supposed distractingness of star cameos in THE THIN RED LINE. I never quite understood this. I guess I can see that Clooney's showing up briefly at the end might be distracting, but I don't see how Travolta computes: He shows up early on and has one fairly big scene; for all the audience knows at that point, he might continue to have a big part in the rest of the movie. In order to be actively distracted by the fleeting nature of his appearance, you'd have to spend at least part of the rest of the film thinking, "Hey, when's Travolta coming back?" And if that's the case then the film probably isn't working for you anyway.

Somewhat (un-)related to this, one common criticism I heard from friends at the time of TTRL's release was that they often had trouble telling who was who onscreen. Not in terms of voiceover, but more in terms of hey-which-of-our-thin-dark-haired-protagonists-just-threw-that-grenade. I said at the time that this would cease to be a problem in a few years once Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin (and maybe even Adrien Brody) became household names. Alas, poor Ben Chaplin never quite took off, but I'm happy to see that, thanks to Caviezel's later career trajectory, this is no longer a problem with the film...if it ever was.

That Fuzzy Bastard

First Horner, now Penn... How good must this original script have been that everyone still thinks of it so fondly?!?


Isn't there sort of a tradition of WWII movies that are filled with star cameos, predated THE THIN RED LINE? THE LONGEST DAY and A BRIDGE TOO FAR come to mind.


Um, "predating," obviously.


Is it possible to have really, really enjoyed and admired The Tree of Life, but also believing that it could have benefited from even as little as 5-10 more minutes spent with Penn, or a few more lines?

The bottom line is that we know there are TONS of material sitting around, and that judging by how fickle he seemed to be with The New World it's certainly reasonable to entertain the notion of seeing another cut of The Tree of Life before all is said and done. Or maybe not, since he's editing another film and gearing up to do another one.

But again, going back to the example of The New World, it's safe to say that Malick's initial release cut isn't necessarily the optimum one.

Bilge Ebiri

Since people are already talking about a much-longer cut of TREE OF LIFE being prepared, there's some reason to assume this is now just becoming part of Malick's process. However, it's also worth noting that TREE OF LIFE was done editing and locked for nearly a year before its release (they finished in September 2010 and then just waited for the film to be released). That's a different situation from THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD, which were being cut right up until (and even right after, for TNW) their release dates.

Then again, it's pretty much impossible to say that Malick is pleased with any cut of the film, since, according to at least one of his editors that I spoke to, he probably never watched it all the way from beginning to end.

B rian Dauth

I kinda/sorta didn't dislike GOYA'S GHOSTS either. But one thing I have noted about Forman's films is that on more than one occasion he has erred (at least to me) when it came to casting/directing significant female roles. Sometimes he does well, e.g., VALMONT. Other times, I have been left scratching my head over his choices (and the actresses always seem miscast in identical ways).

As for star iconography: I recall an older tradition where brief appearances would be announced to an audience with a credit such as "and Henry Fonda as The President" (or other authority figure that he happened to be playing) which set up audience expectation for a one-scene appearance (maybe two) that was narratively significant, but not extensive in terms of screen time.

The way stars are listed today does raise a viewer's expectation of spending at least some time with the actor throughout the course of the movie. While not a fan of TToL, I thought Malick used Penn’s contribution to good effect, especially in dialectic with Pitt’s performance.

One last thought as I was spell checking my post: in the past, it could be advertised: “Elizabeth Taylor as you have never seen her before” – with the actress engaging in variations on previous performances: isn’t Martha just Angela Vickers after she loses George Eastman, starts to drink in secret, and ends up marrying a substitute George? In present times, the tagline might be: “Sean Penn as intense as ever, but in bite-sized, widely spread out portions” – the performance is the same, but how it is deployed within the film is where the variations occur, i.e., it may well be that Penn has as much screen time in TToL as Fonda does in IN HARM’S WAY.

Gordon Cameron


My friend always liked to call A BRIDGE TOO FAR "A Cast Too Large."


I remember a review at the time calling it "An Hour Too Long"


Malick’s use of Penn reminded me of Jerome Robbins casting the dynamo Edward Villella in “Watermill” and then having him stand around and not do much. Villella held the stage by presence alone and Robbin's purpose was accomplished in that regard, but that didn’t mean it was a great idea to begin with.

I take the point about Virginia Woolf, but I also note that Burton gave a real performance (and a most generous one, propping up his wife at every turn). Maybe at the time it was all about Elizabeth but it seems to me now that without Burton there's no movie.

Not David Bordwell

If you haven't seen WHO'S AFRAID (etc.) for a while, it's well worth renting the disc just to hear Stephen Soderbergh basically interviewing Mike Nichols on the commentary track. I'm pretty sure Nichols claims that Burton was always in awe of Liz as a film actress, which Nichols came to appreciate, as well.

While I agree that the film absolutely cannot work without Burton's performance, I think it's difficult for him and other British stage actors of roughly the same vintage to avoid the whiff of theatricality in their film acting (and especially in such a stagey/texty piece). It's really in the third act that I think Taylor starts to leave Burton in the dust... just compare how she conveys Martha's fragility leading up to the tour-de-force breakdown to the scene where George has a bit of a weeping jag (about which Nichols says, "he didn't want to do it like Olivier").

In re: Forman, I always thought VALMONT vastly superior to DANGEROUS LIAISONS. But hell, I also think CRUEL INTENTIONS is better than DL.

Not David Bordwell

That would be STEVEN Soderbergh, natch.


For my money Soderbergh brings out the best in DVD commentary. CATCH-22 with Nichols and THE LIMEY, OUT OF SIGHT, THE THIRD MAN, SECRETARIAT, OCEANS 13, BILLY BUDD all very good. Although, the jury is still out---I haven't yet heard the commentary on the fox-Lorber JULES AND JIM dvd.


SECRETARIAT really threw me off there, haice. At first I thought you meant SECRETARY, confusing Soderbergh with Steven Shainberg. But now I'm thinking you meant SEABISCUIT.

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, "Seabiscuit" I think it must be. I've actually got "Catch-22" on my coffee table, having FINALLY read the book and wanting to catch up with the movie and the circumstances of its creation and such. I'm surprised/disappointed some critic hasn't written more extensively on the stylistic links between Steven and his two pals/quasi-mentors from '60s filmmaking, e.g., Nichols and Lester. I suppose I'd be a good man for the job, but, you know... Anyway, I CAN'T be the only critic who saw the affinities between "Girlfriend Experience" and "Petulia."

Yashoda Sampath

Surely announcing Brad Pitt as your star carries the same expectations as casting Sean Penn, if not more so?

Mike Nichols must have been very aware of the tensions between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as the audience's expectations when seeing the two of them on screen together. It must have added a level of heft to the steady disintegration of the marriage in the film. And yet, there is no sense that either actor is actually playing themselves, whereas in Closer, that sense is ever-present for all the actors except Clive Owen.


jbryant,yes definite lapse in the brain while intending SEABISCUT.

Jesus Glenn, a mouthwatering project like 60s filmmaking with Soderbergh/Nichols/Lester is too much of a tease.
Of course you're the man for the job!

Not David Bordwell

Soderbergh's commentary/interview with John Boorman on POINT BLANK is also a treat -- particularly amusing how often SS claims to have "stolen" directly from the film, especially for THE LIMEY.

Glenn Kenny

He DOES get around, doesn't he? While I'm flattered by Haice's kind words, and while I certainly don't want to give any credence to a certain commenter's ridiculous supposition that I "hang" with the filmmaker, there's too much professional intertwining/engagement in play for me to make him or his work a subject at the moment.

Jeff McMahon

One of the things I love about Nichols' WAoVW? is his introductory shot of Burton and Taylor, basically a shock reveal via lighting cue of the two of them looking terrible, to tell the audience he knows what he's doing on this point.


Been waiting for this one.. give us more info. Been movies fan my whole life.. And I must say... keep going

Michael Brooke

A couple of years ago I saw a Polish film called 'Before Twilight' ('Jeszcze nie wieczór', directed by Jacek Bławut), which was set in a retirement home for elderly actors, the casting gimmick being that almost every part was played by a genuine stage and screen megastar of decades gone by (pre-war, in some cases).

Naturally, I wouldn't have had a clue about this if I hadn't had someone next to me helpfully whispering who they were, and even with those 'footnotes' I'm sure most of the casting significance went way over my head. Although someone took the trouble to add English subtitles, it was clearly a film primarily aimed at domestic audiences, and middle-aged to elderly audiences at that. (Though I do remember enjoying it very much).

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