More stories

  • in

    Val Kilmer Documentary Review: The Iceman Cometh

    A documentary about Val Kilmer offers a self-portrait of the artist that’s personal but not quite intimate.The actor Val Kilmer is not only the subject of “Val,” a documentary directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. He also receives a cinematography credit, having shot many of the home movies and video diary entries that give the film its visual texture. More a self-portrait than a profile, “Val” tells the story of a Hollywood career with a candor that stops short of revelation. The tone is personal but not quite intimate, producing in the viewer a warm, slightly wary feeling of companionship.Hanging out with Kilmer, now in his early 60s, is an interesting, bittersweet experience. In on-camera interviews, he still radiates movie-star charisma, even though his voice isn’t what it used to be. Since being treated for throat cancer in 2014, he speaks through a tracheostomy tube, and his words are spelled out in subtitles.What he says in his own raspy, electronically distorted voice is supplemented by narration — read by his son, Jack — that reflects on the ups and downs of a career that was never quite what he wanted it to be. Kilmer muses on the way acting crosses and blurs the boundary between reality and illusion, concluding that he’s spent most of his life “inside the illusion.”A Juilliard graduate with a passionate sense of craft, he ascended to Hollywood in the less-than-golden age of the 1980s. His best-known roles are probably still Iceman, the jaunty, square-jawed heavy in “Top Gun,” and Batman, whose suit he wore, not very comfortably, in between Michael Keaton and George Clooney. When Kilmer visits Comic-Con, the autograph seekers want him to sign memorabilia from those movies. But to appreciate the full range of his talent, you are better off cuing up “The Doors,” “Tombstone” and of course “Heat,” in which he credibly holds his own alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.In outline, “Val” is a standard biographical documentary, tracing an arc from childhood through struggle, triumph and more struggle. We see Kilmer with his parents and brothers, hear about his marriage to the British actress Joanne Whalley and witness on-set and backstage shenanigans with the likes of Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and Marlon Brando.Conflicts with directors and castmates, and Kilmer’s tabloid-fueled reputation for “difficulty,” are mentioned in passing, but “Val” is neither a first-person confessional nor a journalistic investigation. It seems to arise, above all, from the desire of a sometimes reluctant celebrity and frequently underestimated artist to be understood. With a combination of wit, sincerity, self-awareness, and the narcissism that is both a requirement and a pitfall of his profession, Kilmer succeeds in explaining himself, or at least convincing us that we never really knew him before.ValRated R. Rough language. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters. More

  • in

    The Riddle of Riley Keough

    The “Zola” actress has a knack for inhabiting working-class characters who feel real, even though her own family history is as outrageous as it gets.Most actresses play to you. When they’re thinking or feeling something, you know exactly what that thing is. But Riley Keough is a little more elusive.Whether she’s weighing matters of money and sex in “The Girlfriend Experience” or staring down a romantic rival in “American Honey,” Keough, 32, certainly looks like a star — it helps that she inherited ice-blue eyes and a chin curved like a question mark from her grandfather Elvis Presley — even though her screen presence remains unusually impassive and mysterious. What are Keough’s characters thinking? You can never quite tell.This isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it’s the primary source of her allure: That gap between what you don’t know but want to find out is what’s so beguiling. And then, as you scan Keough’s face for flickers of intention and emotion, you realize you’re leaning in.“She’s one of those actors who so effortlessly lands in the feet of her character that it almost seems like it isn’t acting,” said the director Janicza Bravo, who pursued Keough to play Stefani, an exotic dancer with murky intentions, for her raucous new comedy “Zola.” You’re compelled by Stefani even when you don’t fully trust her, and Bravo knew Keough could play that ambiguity to the hilt.“That morsel, that taste, that juice, that flavor — I wanted that,” Bravo said.In late 2018, the “Zola” script was sent to Keough, and a meeting was set at the starry, storied Chateau Marmont, in Hollywood. Bravo got there first and while she waited, a woman came by her table, said hello and began to hover. The Chateau boasted a high level of celebrity density in its prepandemic heyday but every so often, a civilian still got through. And this one wasn’t leaving.Though Bravo nodded back, she was busy scanning the room for her would-be star. But this normie, this noncelebrity, this interloper kept standing by her table like she expected something.And then she said, “I’m Riley.”Bravo apologized profusely to Keough that day, and now she laughs about it. “I had this idea of what I thought she was going to be like — I believed her to be a larger-than-life person — and what landed in front of me was someone with a good deal of ease,” Bravo said. “I’m maybe dancing around it, but I didn’t expect her to be normal.”Me neither. When I met Keough in mid-June at the home of a friend in Los Angeles, I was struck by her calm, undisturbed energy — something I’ve never sensed in even the most wellness-obsessed stars. With Keough, there is no eagerness to please, no need to impress or to have all eyes on her. You feel that you’re simply talking to and observing a normal person.So how does she hold on to that lack of self-consciousness in Hollywood? “I have an ability that’s really hard in this industry to be kind of like, ‘Meh,’” Keough told me, shrugging. “I don’t take things too seriously.”“Zola,” based on a notorious Twitter thread, is about people who use social media as an advertisement, but Keough prefers using it to puncture her own celebrity: Though she has starred in a few films for the hot studio A24, Keough hopped on her Instagram last year to breezily rattle off all the A24 movies she failed to book, including “Uncut Gems,” “Spring Breakers” and “The Spectacular Now.”Directors of those films messaged Keough to offer apologies, but the rejections hadn’t bothered her much to begin with. “I don’t care if I fail,” she said. “I have this attitude of, ‘Well, then I’ll just do better.’” And besides, there were bigger quandaries to spend that energy on.“I’ve lived my whole life in a sort of existential crisis,” she told me matter-of-factly, tucking strands of auburn hair behind her ear. “The minute I got to Earth, I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Why is everyone just acting like this is normal?’”Of course, Keough’s childhood was far from ordinary: When she was about 5, her mother Lisa Marie Presley split from her musician father, Danny Keough, and married Michael Jackson. One parent provided access to moneyed fortresses like Graceland and Neverland, while the other lived more modestly, in trailer parks with mattresses on the floor.Keough had no qualms about visiting her father; once, she even told him, “When I grow up, I want to be poor like you.” She hadn’t known then how offensive her remark was, but that bifurcated childhood with her brother, Benjamin, would come in handy in her 20s, when Keough pursued work as an actress: She had amassed enough authenticity to play regular people as well as enough privilege to live her life without much worry.And blasé suits her: In movies like “American Honey” and “Logan Lucky,” about hustlers just trying to get by, her characters feel real and lived-in rather than condescended to. Or, as a recent tweet put it, “Riley Keough understands the white working class way better than J.D. Vance.” Was it glib to compare her to the “Hillbilly Elegy” author turned struggling Senate candidate? Perhaps, but the tweet still got more than 1,000 likes: Keough’s brand is strong.Keough as a sex worker opposite Taylour Paige in “Zola.”  Anna Kooris/A24The Florida-set “Zola” at first appeared to be cut from that same cloth: Stefani is a Southerner and a sex worker, two types Keough has played plenty of in the past. Still, the actress wanted to use this opportunity to push things a little further. “I didn’t want it to be ‘American Honey,’ this really naturalistic, understated performance,” Keough said. “When you do something well, people want it again and then you kind of get stuck.”Bravo wanted her to go big, too. Adorned in blond cornrows and hoop earrings, Stefani shrieks and cajoles in a blaccent so pronounced that even Iggy Azalea might blush. At first, when Keough was trying to find Stefani’s voice, she would text recordings to Bravo: “And Janicza was always like, ‘More, more.’ I was like, ‘OK, if you say so!’”The movie’s Black heroine, Zola (Taylour Paige), can hardly believe the vibe that Stefani is putting down, and in an era when white appropriation of Black culture has become a hot topic, audiences might find themselves shocked by Stefani, too. “Riley said, ‘Am I going to get canceled for this?’” Bravo recalled. “But what she’s playing only lands if you’re going to the extreme. If you’re at all shying away from what it is, it can look like an apology.”The result is the polar opposite of Keough’s more tamped-down performances: Stefani is outrageous, over the line and gut-bustingly funny, even if Keough can sense that some viewers don’t know what do with her.“People are like, ‘Am I allowed to laugh? Am I a bad person?’” she said. “I love that. I’m a little bit of a troll in my heart, and I think I bring that into my work.” And if you have trouble sussing out Stefani’s intentions as she goads Zola into a road trip that quickly turns dangerous, that’s by design.“You don’t know if the whole thing’s a manipulation, even in her moments of being vulnerable,” Keough said. “That’s why I love playing these characters that would seem like the bad guy. It’s so much more fun to make people have moments with those characters where you’re like, ‘I feel bad for her.’ Or, ‘I’m having fun with her. I’d go with her, too.’”“Zola” premiered in January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, and Keough was excited for it to come out that summer: She’s always been kind of a searcher, and if the movie led to new and more interesting work in comedies, maybe those roles would help her to understand herself better. Then the pandemic scuttled those plans, and as Keough was adjusting to months off from work, her younger brother, Benjamin, killed himself in July 2020.What followed was “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim,” Keough said. “The first four or five months, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was totally debilitated. I couldn’t talk for two weeks.”Even now, Keough finds the tragedy hard to accept. “It’s very complicated for our minds to put that somewhere because it’s so outrageous,” she said. “If I’m going through a breakup, I know what to do with that and where to file it in my mind, but suicide of your brother? Where do you put that? How does that integrate? It just doesn’t.”After the suicide of her brother, Benjamin, Keough went through “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim.”Maggie Shannon for The New York TimesKeough got through it with the help of her friends and her husband, Ben Smith-Petersen, a stuntman, but first she laid down some ground rules: “I wanted to make sure that I was feeling everything and I wasn’t running from anything,” she said. To that end, Keough recently became a death doula. Instead of helping to facilitate a birth, she guides people through the issues that arise during the final portion of their lives.“That’s really what’s helped me, being able to put myself in a position of service,” she said. “If I can help other people, maybe I can find some way to help myself.”And she has lately found things to treasure about her grief, too, though she admits that if someone had told her to expect a silver lining shortly after Benjamin died, she probably would have replied with expletives. “But there’s this sense of the fragility of life and how every moment matters to me now,” Keough said.It’s her new normal, one she’s still getting used to: Maybe you’re never quite certain where Keough stands because until recently, she hadn’t been all that sure herself. It almost couldn’t be helped with a childhood that whiplashed between two extremes. But now, at 32, she’s finally figured something out.“I think growing up, I was always searching for answers,” she said. “Now I know that everything’s inside me. All you can do is surrender and be present for the experience.” More

  • in

    Charlie Robinson, Actor Best Known for ‘Night Court,’ Dies at 75

    Mr. Robinson became a fan favorite as Mac, a levelheaded clerk surrounded by oddballs, on the long-running NBC courtroom comedy.Charlie Robinson, the veteran actor whose best-known role was Mac, the good-natured and pragmatic court clerk, on the long-running NBC sitcom “Night Court,” died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 75.His family confirmed the death, at the Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, in a statement. The family said that the cause was a heart attack and organ failure brought on by septic shock, and that Mr. Robinson also had adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the glandular cells.Mr. Robinson’s acting career spanned six decades and included roles in television and film and onstage. His first credited onscreen appearance was in Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, “Drive, He Said,” in 1971.In 1984, he was cast in the role for which TV viewers would come to know him best: Macintosh Robinson, better known as Mac, on “Night Court,” then in its second season.“Night Court,” which aired on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., after “Cheers,” was set in a Manhattan courtroom that played host to a parade of oddballs and misfits in the dead of night. It was built around Harry Anderson as Harry Stone, a quirky, kindhearted judge, but it was really an ensemble show.John Larroquette became the breakout star as Dan Fielding, a bawdy, lascivious prosecutor, but Mr. Robinson became a fan favorite as Mac, a levelheaded Vietnam veteran turned court clerk who favored cardigan sweaters, plaid shirts and knit neckties. He played the role for the rest of the show’s nine-season run and directed three episodes.Mr. Robinson was born in Houston on Nov. 9, 1945. He served in the Army and briefly attended the University of Houston before leaving to pursue an acting career.He attended the Studio 7 workshop at the Houston Music Theater in the late 1960s and also trained at the Alley Repertory Theater there before moving to Los Angeles, where his family said he studied at the Actors Studio, the Mark Tapper Forum and the Inner City Cultural Center. Mr. Robinson, right, with Wendell Pierce in the play “Some Old Black Man,” which was streamed online this year.Doug CoombeIn addition to “Night Court,” Mr. Robinson was seen on numerous TV shows, including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Key and Peele,” “This Is Us,” “Malcolm & Eddie,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “NCIS.” Before joining the cast of “Night Court” he was a regular on “Buffalo Bill,” the Dabney Coleman sitcom that lasted only two seasons but developed a cult following. His film credits include “The Black Gestapo,” “Gray Lady Down” and “The House Bunny.”Mr. Robinson won the 2006 Ovation Award for best actor in a play for his performance as Troy Maxson in a production of August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. More

  • in

    Paul Huntley, Hair Master of Broadway and Hollywood, Is Dead at 88

    The many famous heads he worked on included those of Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Channing. Some actors requested him in their contracts.Paul Huntley, the hair stylist and wig designer who gave Carol Channing her expansive bouffant in “Hello, Dolly!,” Alan Cumming his plastered curl in “Cabaret” and Sutton Foster her golden bob in “Anything Goes,” died on Friday in London. He was 88. His death was confirmed by a friend, Liz Carboni, who said he had been hospitalized for a lung infection.Mr. Huntley left New York for London, his native city, in February, and made clear in an interview with The New York Times that his work on “Diana: The Musical,” which is to begin performances on Broadway in November, would be his last. The pandemic, he said, had dried up opportunities, and his fractured hip was hurting.In a 60-year career, Mr. Huntley styled hair and created wigs for more than 200 shows, including “The Elephant Man,” “Chicago” and “Cats.” He was so respected that Betty Buckley, Jessica Lange and others had contracts specifying that he would do their hair.“He put wigs on my head for every show except ‘Les Miz’ in London. He was the master,” the actress Patti LuPone said. “When I put on a Paul Huntley wig, I never felt anything but my character.”The costume designer William Ivey Long called him “by far the premier hair designer on the planet, hands down.”Mr. Huntley tried a wig on Sutton Foster in 2002 for her role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which he sought to evoke New York City in 1922 with bangs, spit curls and finger waves.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesMr. Huntley’s output was prodigious, and he typically worked on several shows at once. In 2014 alone, he turned out 48 wigs for “Bullets Over Broadway” and more than 60 wigs and facial pieces for the Shakespeare Theater Company’s two-part “Henry IV” in Washington.In 2002, when he designed the hair for the Broadway musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” he also worked on “Morning’s at Seven,” “Hairspray” and the Off Broadway comedy “Helen.”For the show “Diana” — a version of which, filmed without an audience during the pandemic, is scheduled to premiere on Netflix on Oct. 1 — he created four wigs for the actress Jeanna de Waal to portray how the style of the Princess of Wales changed over time, from mousy ingenuousness to windswept sophistication.Paul Huntley was born on July 2, 1933, in Greater London, one of five children of a military man and a homemaker. He was fascinated at an early age by his mother’s movie magazines. After leaving school, he tried to find an apprenticeship in the film industry, but the flooded post-World War II job market had no space for him, so he enrolled at an acting school in London.He ended up helping with hair design for school productions and in the 1950s, after two years of military service, became an apprentice at Wig Creations, a large London theatrical company. He went on to become the main designer, working with the likes of Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Laurence Olivier.Mr. Huntley helped construct the signature braids worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 movie “Cleopatra.” Ms. Taylor introduced him to the director Mike Nichols, who a decade later enlisted Mr. Huntley to do hair for his Broadway production of “Uncle Vanya” at Circle in the Square. He eventually became the go-to designer for plays and musicals, including “The Real Thing,” “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Crazy for You.” More

  • in

    William Smith, Action Star Known for His Onscreen Brawls, Dies at 88

    In addition to his Hollywood legacy, the Missouri native was also a bodybuilder, a champion discus thrower and a published poet.William Smith, an actor known for his portrayals of villains and his onscreen movie brawls, died on Monday in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 88.Mr. Smith’s wife, Joanne Cervelli Smith, said he died at the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Country House and Hospital. She did not specify the cause.While Mr. Smith was best known for his roles in action movies like “Any Which Way You Can” (1980), and television shows including “Laredo,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Hawaii Five-O,” the real action came from his offscreen life.He was a polyglot, a bodybuilder, a champion discus thrower and an Air Force pilot during the Korean War, according to his website.Mr. Smith had more than 300 acting credits listed on IMDb from 1954 to 2020. He did many of his own stunts, and sometimes those scenes got heated. He was throwing punches with Rod Taylor for the 1970 film “Darker Than Amber” when the two began fighting each other for real. Both walked away with broken bones.“Now that was a good fight,” Mr. Smith recalled in a 2010 interview with BZ Film.The Columbia, Mo., native solidified his Hollywood status after tussling onscreen with actors like Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Yul Brynner. In the 1980s, the 6-foot-2 actor earned roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” (1983) and in “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), for which he was cast as the father of Conan, who was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.His last role was in “Irresistible,” a 2020 film directed by Jon Stewart.In “Rich Man, Poor Man,” he played the dangerous and eccentric character Anthony Falconetti, which he would later reprise in a follow-up to the series, “Rich Man, Poor Man Book II.”Mr. Smith, who was born on March 24, 1933, grew up on a cattle ranch in Missouri owned by his parents, William Emmett Smith and Emily Richards Smith. At the ranch, he would develop a love and admiration for horses and the classic Western lifestyle, according to his website.His family later moved to Southern California, and Mr. Smith immediately began to seek work in films, finding jobs as a child performer and later as a studio extra.Ms. Smith said in a phone interview on Sunday that besides the tough guy roles that made her husband a star onscreen, he had a compassionate side as well. “He’s definitely tough as nails but he had the heart of a poet,” she said.In 2009, Mr. Smith published a book of poetry, “The Poetic Works of William Smith.”The place to find Mr. Smith, even as an older man, was the gym, Ms. Smith said. Young actors often would talk to him between workout sets, and he would share advice, sometimes inviting them to his home to discuss upcoming auditions.In addition to his wife, Mr. Smith is survived by his son, William E. Smith III, and his daughter, Sherri Anne Cervelli.Alyssa Lukpat contributed reporting. More

  • in

    Cannes Film Festival: ‘Val,’ ‘The Velvet Underground’ and Famous Jerks

    Two documentaries take different approaches to their star subjects. One, about the actor Val Kilmer, prefers to be hands-off. The other, about Lou Reed, welcomes complications.CANNES, France — As the documentary “Val” begins, a young, bare-chested Val Kilmer lounges on the set of “Top Gun” and claims that he’s nearly been fired from every movie he’s made. Then Kilmer’s lips twist in a smirk. He’s not playing for sympathy. He’s bragging.At the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, two documentaries debuted about famously prickly pop-cultural figures, but despite that promising first scene, “Val” would rather recontextualize the actor as a misunderstood softy. Perhaps you remember the stories about Kilmer, a major 1990s movie star whose career fizzled amid rumors that he was difficult to work with. Well, “Val,” directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, lets the 61-year-old actor retell those tales more sympathetically, in his own voice.Or, to be more precise, the voice of his son Jack, who delivers the documentary’s first-person narration. Throat cancer has ravaged Val Kilmer’s signature purr, and Jack Kilmer, an actor, is an acceptable voice substitute who nevertheless sounds far more easygoing than his father ever did. Kilmer has been recording himself since childhood, and over decades of home movies, he and his son paint the picture of an undervalued artist who always wanted to give his all, even when Hollywood wasn’t interested.Jack’s narration is so good-natured that it may take you a little while to realize that Kilmer dislikes nearly every film on his résumé that a fan might want to hear about. “Top Secret,” his first film, was “fluff” that Kilmer says he was embarrassed to appear in, and he practically had to be strong-armed into making the jingoistic Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.” On “Batman Forever,” Kilmer claims the studio machine thwarted his attempts to deliver an actual performance, so he instead patterned his Bruce Wayne on soap-opera actors.All the while, Kilmer was recording elaborate audition tapes for the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, efforts that “Val” devotes nearly as much screen time to as the roles he actually booked. Here’s the funny thing, though: Kilmer was a much better actor in the movies he hated! In the clips of “Top Gun,” you see Kilmer at his most loose and playful because he isn’t taking anything about the movie seriously, but when we watch his “Full Metal Jacket” audition — or when he practices lines from “Hamlet,” a dream role he never got to play — Kilmer’s charisma calcifies, and he becomes far too preening and pretentious.Much of the footage in “Val,” directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, was shot by Kilmer over the years.Amazon StudiosSo was he as big a jerk as had been rumored? “Val” sidesteps the story about his stubbing his cigarette out on a cameraman or the “Batman Forever” director Joel Schumacher’s claim that the actor was “psychotic”; here, Kilmer simply says he quit playing Batman because the suit was too arduous. In a segment about the notorious 1996 flop “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Kilmer portrays himself as the troubled production’s serene moral compass; you’d never know that a fed-up Brando threw Kilmer’s cellphone in the bushes and reportedly said, “Young man, don’t confuse your ego with the size of your salary.”Much is made, too, of Kilmer’s romance and marriage to the actress Joanne Whalley, though we hardly hear her speak in all of Kilmer’s home-video footage. After they divorce and he fights for more time with their children, the film lets his noble, aggrieved phone calls to Whalley play out nearly in full. I’d expect that unchallenged point-of-view from a celebrity memoir. I’m not sure I buy it in a documentary.By contrast, the new Todd Haynes documentary “The Velvet Underground,” which also debuted at Cannes on Wednesday, is all too happy to confirm every story you’ve ever heard about the singer-songwriter Lou Reed being a self-obsessed jerk. Like Kilmer, Reed claimed that anyone who beefed with him was simply interfering with his artistic process, but unlike “Val,” this film isn’t afraid to show how badly Reed wanted to be famous, and how much he resented collaborators who could wrest the spotlight from him.Todd Haynes’s documentary examines Lou Reed (center, with a reclining Andy Warhol in sunglasses), and his band, the Velvet Underground. Apple TV+Reed died in 2013, and other important figures in the film like Andy Warhol (credited with steering the early career of Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground) and the singer Nico have long since passed. Haynes isn’t interested in incorporating a lot of archival clips to bring those lost voices to life; instead, this artsy documentary lets the living members of the band, like the instrumentalist John Cale and drummer Moe Tucker, do more of the heavy lifting.“The Velvet Underground” is no conventional music documentary: For one, it uses hardly any performance footage, though some of the band’s most iconic songs, like “Candy Says” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” play often in the background. Haynes is more invested in conjuring a vibe, placing the viewer smack in the middle of the mid-60s milieu that produced seminal figures like Reed and Warhol.And though Haynes is clearly a fan of his subject, he isn’t afraid to complicate that vibe, either. One of the film’s most welcome talking heads is the critic Amy Taubin, who recalls what was so beguiling about Warhol and Reed’s artistic scene, then adds a spiky observation: If you weren’t pretty enough, Taubin claims, all those men eventually lost interest in you.Let’s face it, famous people are narcissists: If you’re going to will yourself into fame and then stay there, it’s practically required. Haynes explores that concept in a way “Val” can’t quite bring itself to do. Even if “The Velvet Underground” is less of a comprehensive documentary and more of a perfume that lingers for a while, evoking a time and place, at least it’s not afraid to add a few sour notes in pursuit of a more full-bodied scent. More

  • in

    Robert Downey Sr., Filmmaker and Provocateur, Is Dead at 85

    His movies, most notably “Putney Swope,” didn’t make a lot of money. But they attracted a lot of attention and influenced a lot of younger directors.Robert Downey Sr., who made provocative movies like “Putney Swope” that avoided mainstream success but were often critical favorites and were always attention getting, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Rosemary Rogers, said.“Putney Swope,” a 1969 comedy about a Black man who is accidentally elected chairman of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, was perhaps Mr. Downey’s best-known film.“To be as precise as is possible about such a movie,” Vincent Canby wrote in a rave review in The New York Times, “it is funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant.”The film, though probably a financial success by Mr. Downey’s standards, made only about $2.7 million. (By comparison, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that same year made more than $100 million.) Yet its reputation was such that in 2016 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, an exclusive group of movies deemed to have cultural or historical significance.Shelley Plimpton and Ronnie Dyson in a scene from Mr. Downey’s “Putney Swope” (1969).Cinema VAlso much admired in some circles was “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), in which a Christlike figure in a zoot suit arrives in the Wild West by parachute. Younger filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (who gave Mr. Downey a small part in his 1997 hit, “Boogie Nights”) cited it as an influence.None other than Joseph Papp, the theater impresario, in a letter to The New York Times after Mr. Canby’s unenthusiastic review, wrote that “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.” (Mr. Papp’s assessment may not have been entirely objective; at the time he was producing one of Mr. Downey’s few mainstream efforts, a television version of the David Rabe play “Sticks and Bones,” which had been a hit at Mr. Papp’s Public Theater in 1971.)Between “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” there was “Pound” (1970), a political satire in which actors portrayed stray dogs. Among those actors, playing a puppy, was Robert Downey Jr., the future star of the “Iron Man” movies and many others, and Mr. Downey’s son. He was 5 and making his film debut.That movie, the senior Mr. Downey told The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in 2000, was something of a surprise to the studio.“When I turned it into United Artists,” he said, “after the screening one of the studio heads said to me, ‘I thought this was gonna be animated.’ They thought they were getting some cute little animated film.”Allan Arbus in Mr. Downey’s “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), of which the theater impresario Joseph Papp wrote, “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.”via PhotofestRobert John Elias Jr. was born on June 24, 1936, in Manhattan and grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. His father was in restaurant management, and his mother, Betty (McLoughlin) Elias, was a model. Later, when enlisting in the Army as a teenager, he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Jim Downey, who worked in advertising.Much of his time in the Army was spent in the stockade, he said later; he wrote a novel while doing his time, but it wasn’t published. He pitched semi-pro baseball for a year, then wrote some plays.Among the people he met on the Off Off Broadway scene was William Waering, who owned a camera and suggested they try making movies. The result, which he began shooting when John F. Kennedy was still president and which was released in 1964, was “Babo 73,” in which Taylor Mead, an actor who would go on to appear in many Andy Warhol films, played the president of the United States. It was classic underground filmmaking.“We just basically went down to the White House and started shooting, with no press passes, permits, anything like that,” Mr. Downey said in an interview included in the book “Film Voices: Interviews From Post Script” (2004). “Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was too tight with the security, so we were outside the White House mainly, ran around; we actually threw Taylor in with some real generals.”The budget, he said, was $3,000.Mr. Downey’s “Chafed Elbows,” about a day in the life of a misfit, was released in 1966 and was a breakthrough of sorts, earning him grudging respect even from Bosley Crowther, The Times’s staid film critic.“One of these days,” he wrote, “Robert Downey, who wrote, directed and produced the underground movie ‘Chafed Elbows,’ which opened at the downtown Gate Theater last night, is going to clean himself up a good bit, wash the dirty words out of his mouth and do something worth mature attention in the way of kooky, satiric comedy. He has the audacity for it. He also has the wit.”Mr. Downey with his son, the actor Robert Downey Jr., at a Time magazine gala in 2008. The younger Mr. Downey made his acting debut in one of his father’s movies when he was 5.Evan Agostini/AGOEV, via Associated PressThe film enjoyed extended runs at the Gate and the Bleecker Street Cinema. “No More Excuses” followed in 1968, then “Putney Swope,” “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.” But by the early 1970s Mr. Downey had developed a cocaine habit.“Ten years of cocaine around the clock,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. His marriage to Elsie Ford, who had been in several of his movies, faltered; they eventually divorced. He credited his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping to pull him out of addiction. She died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Downey drew on that experience for his last feature, “Hugo Pool” (1997).In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Allyson Downey; a brother, Jim; a sister, Nancy Connor; and six grandchildren.Mr. Downey’s movies have earned new appreciation in recent decades. In 2008 Anthology Film Archives in the East Village restored and preserved “Chafed Elbows,” “Babo 73″ and “No More Excuses” with the support of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to film preservation. At the time, Martin Scorsese, a member of the foundation’s board, called them “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born.”“They’re alive in ways that few movies can claim to be,” Mr. Scorsese told The Times, “because it’s the excitement of possibility and discovery that brought them to life.”Mr. Downey deflected such praise.“They’re uneven,” he said of the films. “But I was uneven.”Alex Traub contributed reporting. More

  • in

    Suzzanne Douglas, Star of ‘The Parent ’Hood,’ Dies at 64

    Her four-decade acting career also included roles in the films “Tap” and “Inkwell,” as well as appearances on Broadway.Suzzanne Douglas, an actress who appeared on Broadway but was probably best known for her role as a wife, mother and law student on the sitcom “The Parent ’Hood,” died on Tuesday at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. She was 64.Her husband, Jonathan Cobb, said the cause was complications of cancer. He did not specify what type of cancer Ms. Douglas had, but he said she had been sick for more than two years.Ms. Douglas with Gregory Hines in the 1989 movie “Tap.”TriStar Pictures/Getty ImagesMs. Douglas played a wide array of roles in her career. Eight years after her first onscreen appearance, in the 1981 television adaptation of the Broadway musical “Purlie,” she starred alongside Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr. and Savion Glover in the theatrical movie “Tap,” earning an N.A.A.C.P. Image Award. In 1994, she was seen in the films “The Inkwell” (1994) and “Jason’s Lyric.”She became nationally known as the matriarch Jerri Peterson opposite Robert Townsend (one of the show’s creators) on the WB sitcom “The Parent ’Hood,” which explored the challenges of raising a family in New York City and ran for five seasons before ending in 1999.Ms. Douglas, seated at right, in an episode of “The Parent ’Hood,” a sitcom about the challenges of raising a family in New York City, which aired for five seasons on the WB network. Her co-star, Robert Townsend, is standing in the center.Warner Bros.Ms. Douglas’s other acting credits include the films “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” (1998) and “School of Rock” (2003), the sitcom “The Parkers” and “Whitney” (2015), the made-for-TV Whitney Houston biopic directed by Angela Bassett, in which she played the singer Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother.She was also in “When They See Us,” the award-winning 2019 mini-series directed by Ava DuVernay about the teenage boys known as the Central Park Five who were convicted of rape. She played the mother of one of them. Ms. DuVernay remembered Ms. Douglas on Wednesday as “a confident, caring actor who breathed life into the words and made them shimmer.”On Broadway, Ms. Douglas was seen in the 1989 revival of “Threepenny Opera,” starring Sting, and “The Tap Dance Kid” (1983). In 2000, she became the first Black woman to play the lead role of Vivian Bearing, a poetry professor battling ovarian cancer, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit.” Alvin Klein’s New York Times review of the production, at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., called Ms. Douglas’s portrayal “vibrant” and “defiant.”“I believe that artists are, and can be, the consciousness of the nation,” Ms. Douglas said in a 2015 interview. “We have a social obligation to tell a story that creates dialogue that allows us to grow and change.” She said she chose roles with social consciousness, adding, “They have to really speak to my heart and bring awareness.”Ms. Douglas, second from left, with, from left, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury and Niecy Nash in the 2019 mini-series “When They See Us.”Atsushi Nishijima/NetflixMs. Douglas was born on April 12, 1957, in Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University and, much later, a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, according to her website.She was also a recognized composer and singer, having performed with jazz musicians including the drummer and bandleader Thelonious Monk Jr., the trumpeter Jon Faddis and the saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, according to a talent agency representing Ms. Douglas.At her death, Mr. Cobb said, she was working on an album.In addition to Mr. Cobb, her husband of 32 years, Ms. Douglas is survived by a daughter, Jordan Victoria Cobb.Having done so much in her career, Ms. Douglas reflected that it was much more intimidating to perform as a singer than as an actress.“You’re more vulnerable,” she said in a 2014 interview. “It’s just you. There’s no character to hide behind. There are no costumes, no lights. It’s just you sharing the songs and telling the stories within the songs so that they have a universal appeal and touch people where they need to be touched.” More