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Ang Lee, Lee Grant & Wynonna Judd

In praise of “Wedding Banquet”; a Film Forum tribute; a hillbilly at the Carlyle

May Chin, Winston Chao, and Mitchell Lichtenstein in Ang Lee’s 1993 “The Wedding Banquet,” at the Quad Cinema on November 19 as part of its “Coming Out Again” monthly series.
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Of all the many and varied films of Ang Lee’s, I think his second, “The Wedding Banquet” from 1993, remains his most satisfying. A simple, human, and very funny account of a mixed race gay couple somehow having to face heterosexual marriage, at a time when the mere mention of a gay wedding would bring on derision, was, I think, more germane to Lee’s immigrant/ assimilated psyche than, say, the Hulk, Jane Austen’s romantic heroines or, God help us, ‘60s cowboys in love.

My view of “Brokeback Mountain” is decidedly in the minority, but two hunky straight actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, “courageously” playing gay for pay in a prestige Oscar-worthy production was, for me, a disconnect — never more clearly than when the two did the deed, like farm beasts without benefit of any foreplay whatsoever or, I might add, lubricant. Lee once told me, “Oh, I’m too shy when it comes to sex scenes. I just let the actors work it out for themselves.” So the two actors behaved just like how straight men would play gay in a bedroom scene: go right to the cornholing and get it all over with as quickly as possible.

By contrast, the wayward emotions and hilarious mishaps in “The Wedding Banquet” may have been a trifle exaggerated at times but overall this small indie production had a bracing authenticity to it. The indispensable Quad is presenting a special screening of it on November 19, part of its “Coming Out Again” monthly series, focusing on lesser known queer film landmarks. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with its co-writer and producer James Schamus.

For one more week at Lincoln Center’s Eleanor Bunin Film Center is Navad Lapid’s “Synonyms,” the best film I’ve seen this year, starring the phenomenal and gorgeous newcomer Tom Mercier. This astonishing, daring work about a traumatized immigrant Israel ex-soldier’s experience in Paris is at once difficult, exhilarating, disturbing, and often quite beautiful in its relentless exploration of the truth, profoundly ugly as it may be in our world today. It has echoes in it of two other confrontational, sexy, and seminal films with a Paris setting — Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” and Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” — and is, superior to both. Brando’s butter shtick in “Last Tango” is nothing compared to what Mercier’s character puts himself through at the behest of a gay porn director. It leaves you gasping for breath and yet rapt.

Film Forum is starting the new season right with screenings on November 11-12 of one of my favorite and very rare pre-Code gems, Rowland Brown’s 1933 crime thriller “Blood Money.” It features George Bancroft as a bluff bail bondsman who finds himself crazily implicated in a bank robbery, but the real interest is provided by the women in his life. Before her unforgettably creepy Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” typecast her forever as a movie villain/ harridan, hatchet-faced Judith Anderson, with a sleek svelte figure, was the sexiest woman on Broadway, and she is able to show that side of herself in her screen debut here. As Ruby Darling, Bancroft’s longtime long-suffering mistress who runs a nightclub, she looks supernally glamorous in a lacquered ultra-sophisticated way but also has an ingratiating, down-to-earth appeal.

And then there’s the gal with whom Bancroft steps out on her, an exquisite young Frances Dee, who plays the madcap heiress to end them all, because she is also not only a kleptomaniac, but a nymphomaniac, given to lines like “What I need is a man to give me a good thrashing — I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash!” Bancroft eventually comes to his senses and returns to Anderson while Dee runs into a girl staggering around with a black eye. Upon learning who her abuser was, Dee madly sets off in hot pursuit of him.

It was stuff like this that got this film the No. 1 spot on the Catholic League of Decency’ s condemned film list. Curator and pre-Code purveyor extraordinaire Bruce Goldstein will appear at the screenings to talk about the film, its censorship travails, and those of its incredibly gifted, hard-living writer-director Brown — who was credited as director in only three films, all of them striking in their own way.

Also coming up at Film Forum, starting November 17, is a film festival featuring that most intelligent and radiantly durable of actresses Lee Grant, who survived a McCarthy era blacklisting to go on to appear in an Oscar-winning film, “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as to win one herself, as a deliciously rapacious Beverly Hills rich bitch in Hal Ashby’s dazzling “Shampoo.”

On the roster of screenings are those two titles, as well as William Wyler’s “Detective Story’ in which she played a shoplifter, winning a Cannes prize and an Oscar nomination; Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” where she was the assistant/ lover of Shelley Winter’s brothel madam; and “An Affair of the Skin,” an art film curio from 1963 by Ben Maddow, about an unhappily married wife (Grant) and husband (Kevin McCarthy), whose lives intertwine with an aging model (Viveca Lindfors) afraid of losing her young lover.

Grant was something of muse to rebel auteur Ashby, and his timely “The Landlord” is also scheduled, with Grant playing the wealthy mother of Beau Bridges who cannot understand why he bought an apartment building in late-‘60s Brooklyn, until she drops by and gets rollickingly high and scarfs ham hocks with none other than Pearl Bailey. It is my very favorite 420 movie scene.

When I spoke to Grant back in 2014 — when she published her marvelous, coruscatingly honest memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything” — she was every bit the utterly real, friendly, ultra-smart, and warm pal you’d dream of having. I felt like I had been decorated when she said at the end, “You’re my new best friend! I’ve talked with you about things I haven’t talked about with anybody!”

From the moment Wynonna Judd stalked irritably onto the stage at Café Carlyle on October 15 — confiding she’d forgotten to pack the outfit she was supposed to wear — and gave forth with elemental, soul-stirring sound on the Anthony Newley/ Leslie Bricusse warhorse “Feeling Good,” I was in the palm of her hand. Not only was there that voice, but also a beautifully sculpted Statue of Liberty face, an unpredictably uproarious wit that ranges from low-down backwoods to bone-dry as Noël Coward, queenly confidence that at times verged into Mae West-land with haughty smirk of a smile, and seen-everything eyes, rolling up to the heavens in sarcasm as well as musical transport (as she played guitar, harmonica, and snare drum).

Most of all, there was an undeniable, priceless authenticity, as she sang and bantered with her veteran musician husband, Cactus Moser. She reminisced about the kind of insecure, fish-out-of-water hell it was to be the bigger, nonconformist odd girl out (“who never saw difference, every race, every gay were my friends in school”) alongside those pretty princesses, Mama Naomi and sister Ashley. And she just kept gasping with astonishment at the unlikely fact of “these hillbillies, playin’ the Carlyle.”

“We wanted to do something different in this so-called fancy cabaret world,” she admitted. “I’m not sure how we were gonna, but I wanted this to be less formal, more comfortable, and all about the music and my stories. Because you see I’m still that little girl, trying to fit in somehow, as Mr. Johnny Cash walks in and says, ‘How are you Wynonna?’ Wynonna? And he was always Mr. Cash, never Johnny. I mean I got to meet George Jones, Loretta!”

When she finished this unrehearsed — which she confessed like a bratty teen) — altogether wondrous, and loosey-goosiest set I’ve ever experienced in any venue, I turned to my date and said, “It’s all about being real with her.” Not two seconds later what should I hear, but her voice, telling an ecstatic fan, four feet away from us, “I’m just real.”

LEE GRANT: ACTOR. FILMMAKER | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | Nov. 17-Feb. 12 | filmforum.org/series/lee-grant-actor-filmmaker

Updated 11:26 am, November 7, 2019
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