Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Personal Remembrance of the Last Episode of "M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen"

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the CBS network airing of the last episode of "M*A*S*H," the classic Korean War situation comedy centering on the rag-tag group of Army personnel serving at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  The episode, entitled "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" holds a special place in the lives of me and my family, because my late father (who passed away from lung cancer last November) acted in it as a Chinese soldier, captured by Major Charles Winchester, who turns out to actually be a member of a Chinese Opera troupe.  In the storyline, Winchester is irritated because he is stuck in Korea and loses out on a job he wanted at a Boston hospital.  He tries to distract himself by teaching the Chinese Opera troupe how to perform Mozart and he starts to bond with them before they are shipped out, as part of a POW trade, and killed by a shell attack.  My father was a renowned Chinese Opera Musician known for playing the Huqin, or Chinese fiddle.  He was hired for "M*A*S*H" both to perform the music in this subplot, and also to act on-screen as one of the Chinese soldiers in this storyline.  My understanding is that he got the job through the recommendation of his Chinese opera colleague and friend, actress Lisa Lu.  My father was paid only for acting in this episode, he didn't get additional payment for going to a studio later and recording the music.  He complained later that he should have made sure to get paid for both acting and performing music for this episode!

I'll never forget the night my father came home and told us he got the "M*A*S*H" gig.  It was an unexpected windfall in our lives, because he struggled to earn a living as a Chinese Opera Musician in Los Angeles, and so this was a big deal in our home for many weeks.  Because this was a 2 and a half hour TV movie, he worked on it 2 months and our whole family enjoyed his daily reports of what happened on the set.  He told us that Alan Alda, who also directed the episode, was very kind and respectful of my father and his musical talents.  Alda told my father that the reason why the Charles Winchester character teaches the Chinese soldiers how to perform Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A.K. 581 was because that was the music that was playing the night Alda met his wife.  Alda selected it for sentimental reasons.  My father also remembers how fascinated and respectful Loretta Swit was when my father was performing his music.  He liked her very much.  Jamie Farr was evidently a genuine cut-up on the set and kept my father laughing.  My father thought Harry Morgan was an annoying grouch.  Evidently, Morgan kept blowing takes because he kept forgetting his lines and he would lose his temper in frustration and that annoyed my father.  Be that as it may, Harry Morgan was tolerable compared to David Ogden Stiers, who my father despised working with.  Evidently, Stiers kept telling my father that he was performing Chinese opera badly on his Huqin, and that offended my father, who had been a renowned musician for over 25, 30 years by that point.  My father didn't speak English well, so he had the on-set translator tell Stiers, "I don't tell you how to act, you don't tell me how to perform my music, OK?"

I think the biggest surprise for my father is when he ran into actress Rosalind Chao on the set.  Chao was playing Soon-Lee, a Korean refugee who Klinger (Jamie Farr) falls in love with.  Soon-Lee returned the following season as a regular on the short-lived spinoff "AfterMASH."  Chao is the daughter of one of my father's closest friends and Chinese opera colleagues.  He had known her since she was a kid, and so he was shocked to run into her working on this episode.  He remembered that production on this episode was a long and arduous process.  It was evident that everybody was working hard to ensure that this would be a fitting send-off to the whole series.  At one point, a fire destroyed the exterior set out in Malibu, which necessitated moving locations and writing the fire into the storyline of the episode.  That meant my father's time working on "M*A*S*H" would be longer than expected, as the production was delayed to allow for the sets to be reconstructed elsewhere.  That was fine with my father, not only because it meant that he'd work longer on the show, and get paid more money per day, but also because it meant that he could continue to enjoy the food being served at the craft services table.  I think that was my father's favorite thing about working on "M*A*S*H"--the food.  He told me of how they served steak and hot sandwiches and dessert on an unlimited basis on that show, and he enjoyed every moment of it.

My father took a lot of professional pride in being a Chinese opera musician, but he definitely was not trying to be a scene stealer.  In real-life, he hated the Communists in China with a passion.  He had to flee China in 1949 to Taiwan when the Communists took over, leaving everything he knew behind.  So the one thing he did not like about this gig was having to play a Communist soldier and wearing the Communist Army uniform.  He was really embarrassed by that, and would avoid any notions of the producers giving him a close-up.  He tried as much as possible to not make himself visible on-camera.  He just tried to blend into the ensemble, as he felt he was there to perform his music, play that role, get paid for it, and that was it.  My understanding is that my father was the only person among the five actors playing the musicians in this subplot who actually was a musician, as the others were non-musical actors hired to play those roles.  Because the others didn't have any issues playing Communist soldiers, and appreciated having as much face time on-screen as possible, it was easy for my father to remain inconspicuous.

Late in the episode, there is a plot twist where the Chinese opera soldiers are taken away as part of a POW exchange, against Major Winchester's wishes.  The truck transporting them is shelled and one of them is sent back to M*A*S*H for treatment.  The other four, including my father's character, are killed off-screen.  The wounded Chinese soldier who makes it back eventually dies on-screen.  My understanding is that they asked my father to be the one who is brought back for treatment.  However, that would have required my father to perform the scene lying on a gurney outdoors, with his shirt off, on location in Malibu during winter, when the scene was shot.  My father said that it was freezing on location, and he was afraid of catching a cold if he were to film the scene without wearing his shirt for an extended period of time, so he refused to do it.  He said he'd only do it if they paid him extra, which they refused, so another actor from the quintet got to play the scene instead.  At the time, I was disappointed my father didn't do the scene.  I would have liked him to have his one big scene in the episode.  But, now that he has passed away, I feel differently about it.  I think I'm glad he didn't do it because seeing him die on-screen now, even if it's just in an episode of "M*A*S*H," would probably be very upsetting to me.

The night the "M*A*S*H" episode aired, I have to admit I was very shallow and didn't watch it with my family.  I was young and figured that I see my father everyday, so it's no big deal to see him on TV.  (How thoughtless I was at the time!)  I was too busy watching the stupid Irwin Allen disaster movie "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" (which I blogged about the other day regarding the talented Barbara Rush who starred in it), airing on NBC opposite "M*A*S*H."  I wish I had been less selfish and experienced watching the episode with my family that night.  I have since watched it with them many times through the years and it is never less than a special experience for me and my family.  Clearly I was one of the few people not watching the last episode of "M*A*S*H" 30 years ago tonight, as it went down in the record books as one of the highest rated TV programs of all time, with 121 million viewers.  The fact my father was part of pop culture history is something my family takes pride in.  My brother said recently "No show will ever get a 53 share again.  It was before cable had a true foothold, and before the splintering of the TV audience with iPads and other ways to get entertainment, it was truly the end of an era."  I also think the last episode of "M*A*S*H" was significant in that it was one of the first "big finale episodes" in the history of television.  Before that, TV shows were of such an episodic nature that, except for the last episode of "The Fugitive" in 1967 (and, to a lesser extent, the last episode of "Charlie's Angels" in 1981 where Jaclyn Smith's Kelly is shot in the head and the other characters reminisce about past cases as they pray for her to pull through), if a show ended, it just ended like a regular episode.  Most TV shows up to that time didn't attempt to wrap things up for the audience the way "M*A*S*H" did.  I remember in the year after that episode aired, we suddenly had "big finale episodes" that wrapped up "Happy Days," "Three's Company," and "Little House on the Prairie" for viewers.  Now, every long-running TV show has to have a final episode that provides a sense of closure for its audience, and I truly believe that "M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell and  Amen" paved the way for all the others that followed.

I think what stands out the most for me regarding my father's participation in "M*A*S*H" is that he had one project in his career as a Chinese opera musician that continues to have longevity.  Even though he had just a featured role, it was in one of the most watch television programs of all time, and he got to perform his music on-screen.  It means a lot to me that there is something he worked on that will never be forgotten.  When he passed away, I remember thinking "My this really the end?  After everything he's survived and been through in his life, it all ends here?"  But it doesn't end there because I'll always have my memories of my father and I'll also have the last episode of "M*A*S*H" in addition to my memories to ensure that his presence and existence in this world will always be remembered.  I think it's fitting that my father's one role in a big television project was something that celebrated perseverance and humor under difficult circumstances (even though he witnessed the Japanese occupation of China during World War II and had to flee China to escape the Communists and leave his parents behind, he never stopped enjoying life), and which involved saying a warm goodbye to loved ones.  I saw a clip of the episode again recently on YouTube not long after my father passed away in November.  It kind of shook me up to see him not just alive again, but looking so much younger.  I think that's the reason why I ultimately love movies and TV more than I do theater.  I know everybody says that there's nothing like the spontaneity of a live performance, but there's something to be said for re-experiencing something you've enjoyed again and again, especially if it allows you a chance to remember how your father moved, talked, behaved, and (most importantly) to see him perform Chinese opera again.  In our family, "M*A*S*H" is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Journey to "A Place Called Today"

When I was in High School, I saw a late movie on TV titled "A Place Called Today" (1972).  I watched the movie because it starred Lana Wood, who discussed it in her memoirs.  I recall she said that she thought the movie would turn out well because of the script, but felt the end result was a terrible film.  She joked in her book that the late movie is often populated with awful movies made with the sincerest of intentions and that this was one of them.  I had read a review and plot description of the movie and thought it sounded interesting.  That's why I was interested in seeing "A Place Called Today."  When I saw it that night on TV, I was appalled.  I thought it was ineptly-made and over-acted.  Director Don Schain stages close-ups in the movie with characters looking almost directly at the camera, which has an unsettling effect upon the viewer.  For years, I used to think it was the worst movie I'd ever seen until "American Beauty" (1999).  Having seen it again recently, I was pleasantly surprised at how it appeared to have improved with age.  Despite its deficiencies, it has a provocative premise and is never boring.

"A Place Called Today" tells the story of African American attorney Randy Johnson (J. Herbert Kerr), who is running for Mayor of an unnamed major American city.  His candidacy threatens the establishment, who vow to campaign vigorously against him.  Unknown to many is the fact that Randy Johnson is the engineer behind violent acts of terrorism throughout the city that are designed to frighten all voters into looking to him as their savior for the city.  Randy promises to work to stop the violence if he is elected.  Randy is aided by Caucasian radical Carolyn Schneider (Lana Wood), who helps him plan and engineer the violence with two other radicals, one African American and the other Caucasian, who are the ones who actually carry them out.  Carolyn is in love with TV news producer Ron Carton (Richard Smedley) who frustrates Carolyn because he refuses to take sides in the election, and also because he refuses to end his affair with wealthy, spoiled heiress Cindy Cartwright (Cheri Caffaro), whose powerful father is backing incumbent mayoral candidate Ben Atkinson (Peter Carew).

The election campaign turns heated and heightens the racial tension and inequality characterizing the city.  When the election appears too close to call, Randy urges his followers to commit one final act of violence to convince voters into voting for him: the kidnap and murder of Carolyn's romantic rival Cindy Cartwright, who Ron has decided to marry even though he loves Carolyn.  After Randy's radicals kidnap Cindy from her home, Ron's TV station broadcasts an editorial endorsing Randy as mayor, effectively helping him win the election.  Now realizing that Cindy's murder is unnecessary, Carolyn races against time to get to the city Country Club, where the radicals have taken Cindy, only to find out that she's been raped and murdered by them.  Ron arrives with the police, who get into a shoot-out with the radicals.  Ron and Carolyn run to each other but are caught in the middle of the gunfire and killed.  As they lie dead next to one other, Randy receives confirmation that he has won the election.  As his aide tells him "Atkinson has conceded!  The City is yours!," a grim Randy remarks, "I have a feeling someone must've said that to Cesar as he stood out on one of those seven hils and looked at Rome." 

At its worst, "A Place Called Today" is a misguided, self-important early 1970s melodrama overwhelmed with archetypes "Discussing Important Issues" rather than creating interesting and fully-dimensional characters.  Whatever high-minded purpose the movie had is also undermined by its violence and sexploitation elements exemplified by the presence of Cheri Caffaro (wife of the film's writer/producer/director Don Schain), who briefly enjoyed R-Rated exploitation stardom starring in a series of violent "B" movies including "Ginger" (1971), "The Abductors" (1972), and "Girls Are For Loving" (1973).  Caffaro's participation in the movie ensures the presence of explicit nudity and sex scenes that earned "A Place Called Today" an X-Rating at the time of its release.  However, these scenes, which were clearly aimed to titillate the audience, throw the film's serious intentions off-balance and call into question what director Don Schain ultimately intended with this film.  The sequence where Caffaro's Cindy Cartwright character, is brutally raped and killed in the nude outdoor at the Country Club is truly gratuitous and disturbing.  It leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

On the other hand, at its best, I give "A Place Called Today" some kudos because there are moments when there are intelligent, provocative ideas being discussed by the characters concerning racial and economic equality, and whether violence or discourse is the best method of achieving such goals.  A lot of these issues, for better or worse, remain relevant in 2013.  Very few of the characters come off well in "A Place Called Today," so the movie never completely shows a bias for either the African American or Caucasian characters.  Randy Johnson proves to be a very flawed, ruthless character and not the noble, well-meaning savior that he thinks he can be for the city.  After the radicals have kidnapped Cindy, they bring her to Randy's office because they feel that he has maintained too impersonal a distance from the violence they have perpetrated on his behalf.  The radical tells Randy "I wanted you to be able to remember very clearly that it's the things we're doing, and not those fancy words of yours, that's going to push the levers in the voting booths tomorrow!"

For once, Randy is forced to look face-to-face with a victim of the violence he has instigated.  Randy tells Cindy, "Until I'm sure of winning, there's nothing to save you.  Not your money, not that body of yours that you flaunt so well.  In fact, those are the very reasons you're here.  You're what might be called a 'political abduction.'  Because to the haves and the have-nots alike, you're the symbol of the have-it-all, damn-it-all of this city.  And if this can happen to you, then nobody's safe...Unfortunately, for you, to us you're Cindy Cartwright.  A symbol.  Not a person."  For all his purported noble intentions, Randy Johnson proves he is indeed an evil man, no better than the establishment figures he purports to be a superior alternative to, and without any genuine compassion for other human beings because of the hurt he has caused others, despite his claims otherwise.  Randy Johnson is an interesting and complex character, and J. Herbert Kerr does a fine job with the role.  Kerr's scene where Randy meets with his working-class mother in her modest apartment shows that he is still a human being, with people in his life that he cares about, but he is ultimately evil because he is a man who does have a conscience, but chooses to ignore it.

As I said, the movie doesn't play favorites, so the Caucasian characters are not portrayed as being any better than Randy.  They are simply flawed in their own, different ways.  Cheri Caffaro's Cindy Cartwright is a spoiled, one-dimensional character who remains generally unsympathetic.  (Morgan Fairchild would have been perfect for this role.)  One wonders why Ron would have anything to do with her.  Caffaro has a harsh quality as an actress that makes it difficult to understand why she was considered sexy in her movies.  As a result, little suspense is generated in the race-against-time finale because the audience never grows to care for Cindy.  She remains as shallow as she was designed to be.  (To be fair, I found some candid production stills of "A Place Called Today" on IMDB where Caffaro, out of character, projects more warmth while interacting with crew members on the movie than I've ever seen from her on-screen.)  If Cindy has any redeeming quality, it's that she doesn't really intentionally harm anyone in the movie.  She's one dimensional, but has no malevolence about her.  The one sympathetic moment Cindy has in the movie occurs right before she is kidnapped, after Ron has asked her to marry him and he tells her that they are moving to New York so that he can take a job with a major network.  For once, Cindy demonstrates a level of sincerity that hadn't been seen earlier in the movie when she says "Ron, I made the first commitment I ever made in my life to you.  I don't care if we go to the South Pole."  To our surprise, she appears to genuinely love him.  In addition, Cindy's completely honest about who she is and what her shallow purposes and goals in life are.  She has no noble delusions about herself.

In contrast, Lana Wood's radical Carolyn Schneider might believe she has noble intentions in helping Randy plan violence acts throughout the city, but she's ultimately nothing more than an immature, politically misguided terrorist.  She never acknowledges or realizes that her actions are not effecting a proactive, progressive response from the city's voters, but a reactive one in response to fears of violence.  The people of the city aren't voting for Randy because they believe in him, but because they're afraid of him and what will happen if they don't.  At the beginning of the film, Carolyn mouths Hippie Radical Cliche 101 when she says "Money, credit cards, car keys, right there is what it's all about.  Either everyone has them, or no one has them.  Better still, throw them away and start over.  They're the wrong...set of values to begin with!"  Ron sensibly responds, "All you do is take one group from power, and put another one in, which for the most part wants and does the same kinds of things as the ones they threw out.  But the average guy...well, nothing ever changes for him does it, Carolyn?...You forgot something.  You forgot the guy who doesn't give a damn.  The guy who wants his own life on his own terms and has it.  What about him, Carolyn?"

Carolyn is probably one of the meatiest roles in Lana Wood's career, a character whose presence in the movie is not purely decorative, despite her brief topless love scene with Richard Smedley.  Despite the flaws in Carolyn's logic, it is still a substantial role for Wood and she gives a sincere and committed performance in it.  Wood filmed this right after appearing as Bond Girl Plenty O'Toole in "Diamonds are Forever" (1971).  I can't imagine two such dissimilar back-to-back roles for any actress.  Some of the best moments in the movie are Carolyn's frequent arguments with her lover Ron.  They sincerely love each other, but are at an impasse.  Ron can't imagine being married to someone with such radical views on how the world should be.  Carolyn can't imagine being married to someone who chooses not to take sides on issues.  At one point Carolyn pleads with Ron, "I'm not asking you to think like I do, I'm just begging you to give a damn about the way I think!"  Even though it feels at times that "A Place Called Today" is a movie featuring issues, not people, talking, at least it has ambitions about itself.  That's more than can be said for most movies or TV shows these days.

Richard Smedley's Ron is probably the most sympathetic character in "A Place Called Today," a person who may not appear to be taking sides, but who appears to have the most truthful perspective on what is happening in the city.  He may not satisfy Carolyn's radical expectations, but he proves to be a sincere journalist who is not easily bought by Cindy's father or Mayor Atkinson.  When Ron approves the editorial supporting Randy Johnson at the end, it's the only sincere expression of principled thinking in the whole movie.  On his own, without Carolyn's influence, or being influenced by the violence, Ron concludes that Randy might offer the best hope for the city.  He knows that Randy is a hypocrite, but decides on his own that the establishment has used up its chances, and that Randy's ideas might be better for the citizens, despite all of his flaws.  At one point, Ron tells Randy that what the city needs is a "dedicated idealistic fool like I thought you were, who's willing to waste his life and pull 'em out!  But you let me down!  You sold out for glory or whatever!"  Ron may have compromised his integrity by choosing to marry Cindy instead of Carolyn, but it's because he has enough sense to realize that marrying Carolyn would not work, despite their love for each other.  They are simply too different to be able to live peacefully with one another.

I don't want to give the impression that "A Place Called Today" is some sort of undiscovered masterpiece.  It's an extremely flawed, at times crudely made and trashy movie with performances that are mostly solid, but are occasionally screeching and overbearing, due to the uneven direction by Don Schain.  The violence and sexploitation elements ultimately undermine whatever noble purposes the filmmakers had in-mind for this movie.  But, in this day and age, with movies containing gross low-brow humor and even lower aspirations, "A Place Called Today" is almost admirable with its naive ambitions of attempting to combine serious drama, political messaging, and drive-in grindhouse elements into one motion picture.  In the end, after Ron and Carolyn are shot to death, director Don Schain effectively super-imposes a montage over their dead bodies showing, side-by-side, Cindy and Carolyn each making endorsement speeches for their respective candidates, as well as Mayor Atkinson and Randy Johnson side-by-side making campaign speeches in front of crowds of supporters, as we see the hands of voters pull the levers in the election booth.  As the sound mix blurs each pair of speeches into a deafening wall of noise, you realize that Cindy and Carolyn, and Mayor Atkinson and Randy Johnson, are just two sides of the same coin.  As Ron indicated at the beginning of the movie, one group of people in power have simply been replaced by another who ultimately want, and will do, the same things as the previous regime.  In "A Place Called Today," nothing has changed for the city with Randy Johnson's election. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

What is it about Barbara Rush...Or is it Just Me?

Barbara Rush is the sort of actress who forms the backbone of the entertainment industry.  Beautiful and talented, she has always delivered the goods from the moment she burst onto the scene in the early 1950s.  With a career spanning decades, Rush remains a welcome, appealing presence in movies and television.  She is respected and well-liked by both critics and audiences and has enjoyed a solid career consisting of substantial roles.  Rush might be difficult to peg because of the diversity of her career.  She's a sci-fi cult favorite ("When Worlds Collide" and "It Came from Outer Space"); a Universal-International contract player ("Taza, Son of Cochise", "Captain Lightfoot" and "The Black Shield of Falworth"); 1950s melodrama heroine ("Bigger than Life," "No Down Payment," "The Young Lions," and "The Young Philadelphians"); a distaff member of Sinatra's Rat Pack ("Come Blow Your Horn" and "Robin and the Seven Hoods"); a "Batman" baddie; TV guest star perennial (you name it, she's been on it); and prime time soap queen ("Peyton Place" and "Flamingo Road") at different stages of her career.  The term "classy" is incredibly overused when it comes to describing actresses, but it genuinely applies when it comes to discussing Barbara Rush, however.  Rush grew even more beautiful as she matured, probably because she continued to find the warmth, humanity and dignity in every character she played.

Even though Rush gave many fine performances in films during the 1950s and 1960s, my favorite era from her career were the roles she played in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  She guest starred twice on "The Love Boat" in 1979 playing a recurring character.  In her first "Love Boat," entitled "The 'Now' Marriage," Rush played Eleanor Gardiner, a woman married to a psychologist (played by Peter Marshall) who has written a book advocating open relationships in order to keep things lively in a marriage.  Eleanor is happily married to her husband, but becomes alarmed when he decides to put his theory to the test by entering into an adulterous relationship with a single passenger (Phyllis Davis) he meets aboard ship.  Eleanor tries to retain her dignity even as her heart breaks as her husband flaunts his affair in front of her.  She finds an unselfish confidante in Captain Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), who is clearly attracted to her but knows better than to take advantage of her during a vulnerable moment.  Rush brings genuine heart and sensitivity to this role that allows the segment to rise above the average "Love Boat" episode.  Eleanor comes across as a real human being whose life has been turned upside down in the course of the cruise, and Rush makes sure never to trivialize the character.  At the end of the episode, when Peter Marshall's character dumps Phyllis Davis and thinks he can come back to Eleanor, she turns the tables on him and tells him that their marriage is over.  When the cruise ends, Eleanor and Captain Stubing vow to remain friends.

Rush made a welcome return to "Love Boat" several months later reprising the character in the appropriately titled segment "Eleanor's Return."  In the episode, Captain Stubing is excited at seeing Eleanor again, only to find that she has become involved with another passenger on the ship played by character actor Jon Cypher.  During an intimate moment with Cypher's character, however, Eleanor makes the heartbreaking discovery that he's a married man just looking for a light, no-strings rendezvous.  Eleanor, who was on the verge of really falling for this guy, is humiliated that the first serious relationship she's had since her divorce from Peter Marshall's character turns out to be a bust.  Captain Stubing again comes to her rescue and again proves to be a loyal and thoughtful friend.  Rush sensitively dramatized the sorts of small steps that women who are entering the dating scene after years of being married go through.  At the end of the episode, Eleanor and Stubing vow to stay in touch and become more intimately acquainted, but unfortunately the character was never seen again on the series.  It's a shame, because Rush and MacLeod had great chemistry together and she would have been a welcome continued presence on "The Love Boat."

Rush again brought depth to what could have been a stereotypical character in the Irwin Allen-produced TV disaster movie "The Night the Bridge Fell Down."  It was shot in 1980 but sat on the shelf for several years until NBC finally aired it on February 28, 1983, opposite the last episode of "M*A*S*H."  Originally intended to air in two-parts, Rush played Elaine Howard, a secretary who helps her married lover Paul Warren (Leslie Nielsen) embezzle valuable bonds to use as collateral for an investment scheme he has going.  As Elaine and Warren are driving to deliver the bonds, they are trapped aboard a collapsing commuter suspension bridge along with other motorists including an armed bank robber (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) who holds everyone hostage.  James MacArthur played the heroic engineer determined to help rescue all the motorists before the bridge completely collapses and takes the motorists with them.  Unlike other actors appearing on made-for-TV disaster movies, Rush doesn't phone in her performance and is completely committed to her role.  In Rush's best scene, she expresses to Leslie Nielsen her sense that their entrapment on the bridge is divine punishment for luring him away from his wife, and for helping him to steal the bonds.  As such, she comes across as the most haunted, thoughtful and soulful character among the hapless protagonists in the movie.

Throughout "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" are some lame "flashback" scenes among the other characters as they recall past events in their lives in a lazy attempt by the screenwriters to provide a backstory to these thinly drawn roles.  Rush was one of the few characters in this film without those flashbacks, a reflection on how her performance was so well thought-out that her character's "arc" didn't need artificial padding to enhance it.  Another good moment for Rush in the movie takes place when the bridge is violently shaking and she almost goes over the edge.  Rather than reaching out to help her, Leslie Nielsen's character reaches out to save the bonds hidden in her purse.  Realizing that the bonds mean more to Nielsen than her, she angrily throws the purse over the railing into the water below.  Like Eleanor in the "Love Boat" segments, Rush again brings sensitivity to another woman who finds herself expendable to the man that she has made sacrifices for.  At the end of the film, when Rush and the other characters are slowly climbing down the base of the bridge to try and reach safety, she completely submerges herself into the terror her character is experiencing at that moment.  Unlike other actors, who appear disinterested while starring in made-for-TV disaster movies in order to pick up a paycheck, Rush's sincere expression of nervous fear helps heighten the suspense for the audience during the finale of the movie.  "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" isn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Rush's fine performance helps make it better than it has any right to be.

My favorite Barbara Rush role was her two-season tenure on the short-lived NBC prime time soap "Flamingo Road," which I have blogged about before.  Rush played the noble Eudora Weldon, wife of cowardly paper mill tycoon Claude Weldon (Kevin McCarthy) and adoptive mother of snooty Constance Weldon Carlyle (Morgan Fairchild), the richest girl in Truro, Florida.  Throughout the first season of "Flamingo Road," Eudora is oblivious to the fact that Constance is actually her husband Claude's natural daughter, the result of his long-ago affair with Lute-Mae Sanders (Stella Stevens), proprietor of the local roadhouse/brothel in Truro.  What was wonderful about Rush's performance on "Flamingo Road" was the genuine compassion and sympathy that Eudora felt for others.  Unlike her adoptive daughter Constance, Eudora is always genuinely warm towards Lute-Mae before she learns that Lute-Mae is her daughter's natural mother, and even afterwards.  After Eudora learns the truth of her daughter's parentage in the second season premiere of "Flamingo Road," while overhearing Claude and Lute-Mae talking in the hospital chapel after Constance has taken a fall off the bannister at Lute-Mae's, she never feels threatened or jealous because of her newly-realized knowledge of Lute-Mae's biological relationship to her daughter.  Instead, she treats Lute-Mae with generosity and kindness because she is appreciative of the fact that Lute-Mae gave birth to the adoptive daughter she loves deeply.  Eudora rightfully takes out her rage, over being lied to, upon her own husband Claude, not Lute-Mae.

Eudora was a complex, nuanced role that Rush complemented beautifully.  Not only did she bring reservoirs of depth and humanity to the role, she also brought an accepting, non-judgmental quality to Eudora that made her incredibly endearing.  She is one of the few people in Truro who does not shun carnival dancer-turned-saloon singer Lane Ballou (Cristina Raines) even after she arrives in town and becomes rivals with Eudora's own daughter Constance for the affections of handsome Deputy Sheriff Fielding Carlyle (Mark Harmon).  When Eudora meets Lane for the first time, she admits to Lane that she understands why her son-in-law Field would be so attracted to her.  Eudora reassures Lane that, unlike her daughter Constance, her own husband Claude, and evil sheriff Titus Semple (Howard Duff)--who all tried to run Lane out of town--she is not Lane's enemy.  Eudora treats Lane with respect during the few times they encounter one another on "Flamingo Road," and genuinely wishes Lane well when she marries successful businessman Sam Curtis (John Beck) and moves into the house next door to the Weldon's during the second season of the series.  Perhaps Eudora, who feels like an outsider living amongst her own treacherous and devious family members, feels a kinship with outsider Lane than she does with her own relatives.  When Lane and Field's affair during Season One destroys his marriage to Constance, Eudora is genuinely heartbroken.  One of my favorite scenes is the moment when Field has packed his bags, in order to move out of the Weldon's house to go live with Lane, and runs into Eudora at the bottom of the stairs.  Field thanks Eudora for her kindness to him during his marriage to Constance.  Eudora urges Field to do the right thing and not "thank" her by committing adultery against her daughter and betraying the trust that her family had bestowed onto him.  When Field admits he never loved Constance, Eudora slowly-mounting anger erupts.  She tells Field that the men in her family were all honorable and lived up to their commitments; and if Field is unable to live up to the promises he has made, he should just go ahead, walk out the door and leave her family immediately.  In the hands of a lesser actress, it could have come across as hammy and mannered, but Barbara Rush gave a marvelous and superb performance in that scene so that her feelings were never less than authentic.

Barbara Rush gave such consistently excellent performances throughout her career that one expects her to have an armful of awards.  However, except for winning the Golden Globes' Most Promising Female Newcomer Award in 1954, Rush has not had the sort of nominations, awards and prizes that an actress of her caliber and stature deserves.  She deserved, at the very least, several Emmys for her fine work in television that characterized much of her career.  Here's to hoping that we get even more performances from the still-attractive Rush that will finally bring her the awards she richly deserves.  In Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment" (1957), which was a blueprint for "Knots Landing," Rush gave a sympathetic performance as a solid middle-class housewife raising a young family in a suburban tract community.  Her authentically nuanced performance in "No Down Payment" was a refreshing contrast to co-star Joanne Woodward's mannered Actors Studio/Method Acting posturing.  I think the reason why Barbara Rush is sometimes taken for granted is because she is so subtle in her approach to acting that she makes it seem effortless when, in fact, a lot of skill and craftsmanship went into creating all of her performances.  While watching a Barbara Rush performance, we don't sense that she's "acting" the way other more overt performers (Elizabeth Ashley comes to mind) are when they approach their roles.  In many ways, because the appropriately-named Rush brings to life characters in such an excitingly authentic and nuanced manner, she is able to live what other, more stylized and esoteric actresses can only dream of. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hey Oscar, Why Didn't You Mention Ann Rutherford in your "In Memoriam" segment?

I have blogged before about how the Academy Award's "In Memoriam" section leaves out people who have made valuable and indisputable contributions to the movies, and how hurtful it is to the families and friends of loved ones who get ignored by the Academy year after year in this category.  It feels strange to now have to blog from the perspective of being one of those slighted friends.  The Academy failed to mention Ann Rutherford, who passed away last June.  Ann was a good friend and I had no doubt that she would be included in the Oscar "In Memoriam" section.  I was shocked that Ann was short shrifted by the Academy, along with Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Harry Carey Jr., and other notables.  Her career encompassed appearances in over 50 feature films in a 15 year period.  Some of those films include "A Christmas Carol" (1938) where she played the Ghost of Christmas Past, "Gone with the Wind" (1939) where she played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Carreen, "Pride & Prejudice" (1940), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947), and over a dozen appearances as Mickey Rooney's girlfriend Polly Benedict in the "Andy Hardy" series that stretched from the Depression through World War II.  I shouldn't have to build a case for why Ann should have been included.  Her work speaks for itself.  You can look up her credits on IMDB here.

During her film career, Ann Rutherford was under contract to Republic Pictures (where she made Westerns with John Wayne), and then MGM for almost 7 years, and then 20th Century-Fox.  She shrewdly dealt with powerful studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck during her lifetime.  Ann was always proud to have been part of moviemaking in the classic era of Hollywood.  I hesitate to speak on her behalf, but I have a strong feeling that she would have been hurt and disappointed had she known she was excluded from Oscar's "In Memoriam" section.  Ann was a great unofficial goodwill Ambassador for Hollywood.  Even though she had long been retired, she still had an active interest in the movies and her tastes were much more eclectic than one would expect.  She was proud to be a voting member of the Academy.  I recall how she greatly enjoyed "The Kids are Alright" (2010), which refutes the notion that older Academy members like herself are not open-minded about modern, cutting-edge material.  Turner Classic Movies still outclasses the Academy with their annual "TCM Remembers" reel because the people who prepare it are much more inclusive, and have much more reverence and respect for both the film personnel it honors and film aficionados, than the Academy.  As I said before, TCM honors the average film buff, while the Academy just honors themselves.

I'm glad that Ann is not here to witness the sort of politicking on display that others have resorted to in order to ensure their place on the "In Memoriam" list this year.  The "In Memoriam" segment is the one section of the Oscars where there should be neither competition nor campaigning.  By choosing to decide who gets to be included or excluded, the Academy is not just passing judgment on one performance, or one particular piece of work, but the entire body and value of a person's career.  The rationale for who gets included or short-shrifted in the "In Memoriam" segment still baffles my mind.  The Academy, in the past, has made excuses for short shrifting people like Farrah Fawcett in their "In Memoriam" section, claiming that she was better known for her TV work and they would leave it to the Emmys to honor people like Fawcett.  I still do not understand why the Academy does not dispense with its stupid comedy routines and musical numbers and add more minutes to the "In Memoriam" segment so that even more people can be included.  It would spare everyone involved a lot of grief and heartache if they did, because it's important for family and friends of a loved one who is gone, especially soon after they have passed away, to see them appropriately acknowledged by their Industry.  To borrow an expression that Ann liked to use when she was annoyed, it's apparent to me that the Academy is run by "Card-Carrying Idiots."  Ann Rutherford's body of work in motion pictures warranted her inclusion in this year's "In Memoriam" section, so what's your excuse this time, Oscar, hmmm?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A "Civilian's" Night at the Oscars 16 Years Ago

I had almost forgotten that the Academy Awards--the "Oscars"--were this Sunday.  In the last few years, I have not watched the Oscars on television the way I once did when I was a kid.  I just check out the highlights the next morning.  That seems to surprise some friends, who expect me to breathlessly pore over every detail of the Awards, understandably so, because I love movies so much.  I think I started to become less enchanted with the Oscars after I had the opportunity to attend one of the ceremonies in-person.  I attended the Oscars on March 24, 1997 during the 69th Annual Academy Awards.  That was "The Year of the Independents" because most of the films nominated were financed outside of the traditional Hollywood studios.  That year, "Fargo," "The English Patient," "Jerry Maguire," "Secrets & Lies," and "Shine" were all nominated for Best Picture.  It was an underwhelming line-up of movies, which helped to ensure that the roster of actors and celebrities attending the Oscars that year would be equally underwhelming.

A good friend of my father's, who my brother and I consider more an "Uncle" than anything else (he's more an Uncle to me than my own Uncles!) worked at one of the foreign Embassies with offices in Los Angeles during that period of time.  On Saturday, March 22nd, 1997--just two days before the awards--he called me up and said that the Embassy was given two tickets to the Oscar ceremony and asked if I wanted to attend.  He knew of my love for movies and figured it would be natural to ask me if I wanted to go.  For some reason, a crazy banshee must have jumped into my mouth at that moment and I said "no."  Everybody--family and friends--were shocked I turned my Uncle down.  Eventually, I was scolded and shamed by enough people that I called him back and asked him if I could go with him.  He had not asked anyone else yet to go with him, so he happily agreed to take me.  That meant a mad rush to rent a tuxedo in a short amount of time.  I was not nearly as well-versed on clothing as I am now, so the tuxedo I rented that night was barely acceptable.  I have one photo of myself taken that night that I will never show anyone because I still had a cherubic face and I didn't know how to wear the tuxedo properly.  People asked me at the time why did I turn my Uncle down the first time he offered to take me to the Oscars.  I guess I felt uncomfortable at the idea of attending.  As much as I love the movies, I didn't work in that Industry and, as such, didn't feel like I was part of that world and had earned the right to be there.  I felt self-conscious that I would come off as a "poser" for being there, and that everyone would notice it.  I also now realize, some 16 years later, that another reason I hesitated about attending is because, like everyone else, the Oscars had always seemed like it was a magical, larger-than-life event.  On a subconscious level, I must have worried that seeing it all in-person would ruin the image I had had about it up to that point.

On the afternoon of the Oscars, I met my Uncle at his apartment at the Park LaBrea complex in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles and we started out towards the Shrine Auditorium near USC.  It seemed ironic that all these expensive cars and limos were headed towards a glamorous event while the neighborhood surrounding it was still sketchy and seedy in spots.  When we arrived, the valets parked my Uncle's car, and we walked the red carpet.  It was very surreal to be there and soon we were inside the Shrine.  I recall, from a distance, seeing Variety columnist Army Archerd interviewing Anne Jeffreys.  I remember thinking how Anne Jeffreys never seemed to age and looked more glamorous and beautiful than most of the other attendees.  Years later, I became friends with Anne Jeffreys through my friendship with Ann Rutherford, and I told her about seeing her from a distance that night.  I also recall seeing Morgan Brittany from "Dallas" and character actor Marvin Kaplan, who played Henry on the TV show "Alice" also among the guests in the lobby of the Shrine, enjoying drinks and hors d'oerves.  But, aside from the people I just mentioned, I didn't recognize 95% of the people in there.  I wondered if they were agents and industry executives whose faces are simply unknown to the common man.  Or, if they were like me and my Uncle, "civilians" who were lifelong fans of the movies and somehow got complimentary tickets to attend the event.

Eventually, one major movie star showed up in the lobby, and that was Susan Sarandon.  I recall she was wearing a shimmering gold gown and was accompanied by Tim Robbins.  As she walked into the lobby, I recall hearing her wryly remark, "OK, here we go again!" or something insolent like that.  Her earthiness made me immediately like her on the spot.  Eventually, my Uncle and I found our seats, which must've been like 38 rows back from the stage, and waited for the show to begin.  I was struck by how small everything seemed in-person.  I guess the wide-angle lenses gave the setting a greater sense of grandeur on television.  The seats were incredibly uncomfortable and I recall being surprised at how restless I felt throughout much of the evening.  I guess it would have been more exciting if the films nominated that year were something to get excited about.  (Although, since then, I have grown to really like actress Emily Watson, who was nominated that year for "Breaking the Waves," and I now wish I could've seen her in-person.)  We sat behind an older couple who, I believe, had a film nominated in the Documentary Feature category and they were very nice. 

I recall being amused by Cuba Gooding, Jr's excited Oscar acceptance speech for "Jerry Maguire," but seeing it in-person seemed to highlight how theatrical and forced it was.  I felt Gooding was "acting" during his acceptance speech even more than in the actual movie for which he had won the award.  My biggest memory was during the Best Supporting Actress segment of the show.  This was the year that Lauren Bacall was nominated for "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996) and everybody expected her to win.  When Juliette Binoche's name was announced as the winner, I distinctly recall the audible gasp that went through the auditorium, quickly followed by boos and catcalls from people who were clearly upset that Binoche had won.  I felt bad for Binoche that her big moment was ruined as she walked to the stage to collect her prize by tactless people who were rooting for Bacall to win.  (To be honest, the only time Bacall gave an Oscar-worthy performance was her debut in "To Have and Have Not" in 1944.)  When I watched it later on my VHS recording, I couldn't hear the audience's vitriolic response that I distinctly remember hearing in-person.  When you see Binoche's speech on television, she appears to be nervous and humble during her acceptance speech when she says "I'm so surprised.  It's true, I didn't prepare anything.  I thought Lauren was going to get it.  And I think she deserves it."  However, in-person, Binoche's nervous acknowledgement of Bacall appeared to me to be less due to humility, and more due to being shamed into feeling like she didn't deserve to win because of the resentment emanating from the audience.  I'm not a fan of Binoche, but I don't dislike her and I never felt she deserved that treatment and reaction from the disapproving people in attendance that night.  It seemed to bring down the sense of decorum I would have expected from such an event. 

I also remember how, during the commercial breaks, the doors to the lobby were opened so people could take a quick bathroom break.  I learned that, if you didn't get back to your seat in time when the commercial was over, the doors closed and you were stuck out in the lobby until the next commercial break.  When I was in the men's room, I recall two gentlemen in tuxedos at the stalls on either side of me.  One talked over me to the other gentleman (they obviously knew each other) and said "I guess this is going to be an 'English Patient' evening" a remark which caused an audible groan from everybody nearby who heard it.  I remember thinking it was so odd that there was such resentment against "The English Patient" from people all around me that evening that I wondered how it was possible that it could have generated enough votes to have won that many awards.  There were people openly resentful of both the movie and producer Harvey Weinstein's Oscar campaign for it that it was apparent that it was not a beloved film by any stretch of the imagination.  (Not that I was a fan of it either.  I was incredibly bored when I saw it.)

While I was in the lobby waiting for the next commercial break, so the doors would open and I could retake my seat, I found myself standing next to Joan Allen, who was also nominated that year in the Supporting Actress category for "The Crucible" (1996).  She was wearing an elegant red gown that evening that made her look stunning.  I've always liked Joan Allen and thought she was an attractive woman, but she absolutely glowed in-person the way you expect a movie star from the classic era of Hollywood to glow.  She reminded me of Grace Kelly in-person.  I remember thinking how ironic that Allen is not known for being a glamour-girl on-screen.  I wondered if it was because she might be one of those people who is strikingly beautiful in-person, but whose beauty doesn't translate when she's on-screen.  Or perhaps it's because she chooses not to play up her natural beauty as an actress so that her work speaks for itself.  No matter because, next to Anne Jeffreys, I felt Joan Allen in-person was the closest person I saw that night to a glamorous, larger-than-life movie star of the classic definition.  I admired her even more after meeting her in-person.  I chatted with her a bit, while we were standing in the lobby, and told her that I always enjoyed her work since "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), "Manhunter" (1986), and "Tucker: The Man and the Machine" (1988).  She said she was surprised I even remembered her from those films, because they were from early in her career.

I have only vague memories of the remainder of the Oscar show.  I was sad for the older couple sitting in front of us whose Documentary ultimately did not win that evening.  After their category was announced, they got up and left and never came back.  I guess they were disappointed enough that they didn't want to stick around for the remainder of the show.  The only other thing I recall was when Susan Sarandon took the stage to announce the Best Actor winner.  As she was reading off the teleprompter, Sarandon started to say "The parts the nominee for the Best Actor in a Leading Role play are all basically challenged in some way."  Then she paused and said, "I think they're time challenged so why don't we just cut to the chase here and let's just give this lucky guy an extra eleven seconds.  That's right, go ahead, OK?  The nominees for Best Actor in a Leading role are..."  Sarandon's sassiness at that moment left a bigger impression on me than anything winner Geoffrey Rush said when he won for "Shine."

After "The English Patient" was announced as the Best Picture for that year, and the 69th Annual Academy Awards show drew to a close, I remember my Uncle turned to me and said "That was very underwhelming."  We could've stayed to attend the Governor's Ball, but I think we were both tired and decided to go home.  We joined other attendees as we walked down an alley next to the Shrine towards a parking lot where all the cars had been parked.  The valets who had taken the cars were nowhere in sight to direct us to where we needed to go.  I recall Tim Robbins walking down that alley from the opposite direction and passing us.  It looked like he was trying to figure out where he needed to go next.  When we got to the parking lot, all the vehicles were parked in a haphazard manner and it took awhile for us to find our car.  We were both hungry so we stopped at Norm's Diner on La Cienega in West Hollywood.  I had steak and eggs and I remember thinking how funny we looked dressed in tuxedos having a very basic, late supper in a diner after coming straight from attending the Oscars.

I don't want to seem ungrateful for having the opportunity to attend the Oscars at least once in my lifetime.  I realize what a privilege it was to attend and I value the experience.  If I hadn't attended, I might still have that wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm for the Academy Awards that allowed me to put it on a pedestal that it probably doesn't deserve to be on.  I guess witnessing the hostility that Juliette Binoche experienced when she beat out Lauren Bacall for Best Supporting Actress showed me an unpleasant side to the Oscars, and the people who attend, that made me think of them in less esteem.  Nevertheless, I still love the movies, still believe in glamour, and still enjoy the concept of the Oscars.  And I don't like this post-modern elitism that tends to denigrate the Oscars, and which considers theatre and independent movies to somehow be superior to mainstream Hollywood cinema.  Each medium has its place in society and Hollywood and the Oscars have rightfully earned their place in the zeigeist of our culture.  I simply realized that it's better to have a healthy skepticism of the Oscars, and not take it too seriously, and that the seemingly glamorous individuals who attend aren't any more special or rarefied than the rest of us.  I also realized it's more fun to order in pizza or Chinese takeout and watch the Oscars at home with your family and friends.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Admiring Cary Grant's Suit from "North by Northwest"

A couple of years ago I was shopping for a new suit when I found a light blue/grey suit that caught my eye.  As I was trying it on and looking at myself in the mirror, I realized that it reminded me a great deal of the suit Cary Grant wore while playing hapless Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill, pursued by both spies and the police, in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1959).  I purchased the suit and always enjoy wearing it, particularly because of the compliments I get from people.  As an inside joke with good friends, I dubbed my suit "The Cary Grant Suit."  (I subsequently dubbed other suits that I bought "The James Stewart Suit," "The Sean Connery Tuxedo," "The Joel McCrea Suit," etc.)  In actuality, my "Cary Grant Suit" doesn't come anywhere close to being as perfectly tailored and elegant as the one Grant actually wore in the movie.  Mine was bought at Jos. A Banks and, even though it's a good suit, it's missing that attention to detail that made Cary Grant's actual suit from "North by Northwest" so special.  This made me wonder what it was about the Cary Grant suit that has made people continue to admire it through the years.

I think one reason has to do with the utter simplicity of the suit.  It's a two-piece, lightweight wool Kilgour suit, in a blue/grey fine glen plaid pattern, that is easy to move around in and is just elegant enough to be impressive without ever becoming overly ostentatious.  As such, it's the perfect suit for a Madison Avenue advertising executive like Roger Thornhill to wear to work and attend conferences and meetings in.  It's also ideal for cocktails and dinner with clients and friends after work because it balances elements of formality and leisure to compliment both types of occasions.  It's also the perfect suit for Thornhill to wear while he is being pursued across the country by law enforcement officials and enemy agents out to kill him.  It allows him to blend into the crowd easily without being noticed and is also tailored for comfort as well as elegance so that he can make a quick getaway when necessary.  It may be the most athletically tailored article of clothing in the history of cinema. 

The understated elegance of the suit also comes in handy for Thornhill when he is enjoying a romantic flirtation and interlude with the industrial designer he meets on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).  The simple and clean lines of the suit help to enhance Thornhill's handsome features and athletic physique and ensure that he doesn't come across as stuffy and officious the way a less flattering suit might make him appear.  The suit allows Thornhill to be relaxed around Eve Kendall so that he can turn on his charm and let his guard down for just a brief moment as he is making love to her in her cabin.  The comfortable flexibility of the material used for the suit is also essential for the moments in the movie where Thornhill is forced into uncomfortable positions and situations while eluding either capture or death.  Because the suit is not overly layered with thick, heavy material, he can easily hide in the upper berth of Eve Kendall's train cabin when the police inspect the room in order to question her about her conversation in the dining car with Thornhill.

It also allows him to easily run to safety when being pursued by the crop dusting plane pursuing him in the middle of the cornfield, and provides enough of a cushion when he is knocked to the ground by the gasoline tank truck that screeches to a halt and almost runs him over as he tries to signal it to stop in the middle of the highway.  The light blue color of the material of the suit also does a good job of camouflaging the pesticide from the crop duster that is covered all over his suit, after he survives that attempt on his life, so that he does not make himself overly conspicuous when he arrives in Chicago and seeks out Eve Kendall at her hotel.  The elegance of the suit allows Thornhill to maintain his dignity when he is forced to do embarrassing things to stay alive, including making nonsensical bids at an auction where he is surrounded by enemy agents, so that he can become enough of a nuisance and be saved by the police who have been called in to remove him.  Later, in the movie, when Eve Kendall pretends to shoot Thornhill in a crowded cafeteria at the base of Mount Rushmore, in order to deflect suspicion away from her true identity as an agent for American intelligence, the flexibility of the suit again allows Thornhill to gracefully fall to the ground, and pretend to be dead, for the benefit of fooling villain Philip Vandamm (James Mason) into believing that Eve is on his side.

But what's really special about the suit is its ability to enhance Roger Thornhill's inherent charm and sex appeal without ever making him too larger-than-life and, as a result, inaccessible to the audience.  The suit helps to accentuate Thornhill's warm, friendly, down-to-earth qualities that make it easy for the audience to root for his survival throughout the movie.  The suit never makes Thornhill come across as an elitist fop who the audience would have difficulty sympathizing with.  The suit makes Thornhill look dapper, not dandy, and also enhances his inherent masculinity so that it makes sense he would proactively and assertively attempt to uncover the nature of the conspiracy that has made him a wanted man with both the police and Vandamm's men.  Thornhill already has many positive qualities as an individual that the suit merely helps to augment and illustrate.  The same suit wouldn't have the same effect if it were worn by another actor because it wouldn't be as complementary.

James Stewart, who purportedly wanted to play Thornhill in "North by Northwest," wouldn't have been as effective if he had been cast as Thornhill, instead of Grant, and wore the same suit.  Because of his more folksy nature, had he been cast in "North by Northwest" instead of Cary Grant, Stewart would likely have worn a suit made of heavy wool, flannel, or tweed instead of the lightweight wool used for Grant's suit.  The only other suit that has a similar effect on a movie character are the perfectly tailored Tom Ford suits Daniel Craig has worn in the James Bond movies "Quantum of Solace" (2008) and "Skyfall" (2012).  Like the famous Cary Grant suit, Craig's suits as Bond help reflect and enhance his own sex appeal, masculinity and other inherent strengths.  I think the reason why people admire the Cary Grant suit so deeply is because they seem to subconsciously understand that it was the perfect blending of the right man wearing the perfect suit under ideal circumstances.  In this instance, it's neither the suit that makes the man, nor the man that makes the suit, but a combination of both.  Cary Grant's suit in "North by Northwest" demonstrates how it's both the man and the suit that help to bring out the best in each other.