With a nod to Esquire’s regular feature with the same title, this column springs naturally from a confluence of documentary films I’ve seen recently. (Netflix is the greatest company in the world. After Oberweis Dairy.) And each documentary featured a woman at the center of the story whose wisdom and grace caused me to fall in love with all of them (two of them, unfortunately, posthumously.) I urge everyone to see each of these:
BHUTTO, a film by Dave Baughman & Johnny O’Hara. Like many a self-involved American, I knew little of the Benazir Bhutto story, other than vaguely remembering she was assassinated a couple years ago. She came from a family who were like the Kennedys of Pakistan; attractive, educated parents with a brood of intelligent, beautiful kids. Her father became Prime Minister of Pakistan when she was a teen-ager, and saved the country after a disastrous war with India. Benazir accompanied her father on his world-wide diplomatic tours, was praised for her presence and style, and learned world politics at his feet. It wasn’t long after that the Pakistani military, as they do every so often, wanted the country back. They trumped up charges against Benazir’s father and hung him. This inflamed Benazir and her brothers who were involved in the dangerous game of Pakistani politics from then on. Benazir was eventually elected Prime Minister before she was run out of the country by the military. During these volatile years, both her brothers were assassinated. In 2007, she returned once more to help save the country from the military’s corrupt rule. Like her father, she knew the military would have to get rid of her to maintain control. She knew she was in constant danger, but continued to politic and work the crowds as she roared to re-election. But again, (as we’ve seen here, there and everywhere) she was cut down by thugs hired by the right-wing government. Benazir Bhutto was a courageous and wise woman. She instituted (or tried to institute) wide-spread education, health care, and poverty-easing programs that the country desperately needed. At the same time, she was a devoted mother of two daughters, with a rock-solid marriage that withstood unproved corruption charges and jailing-without-conviction of her husband. It’s heartbreaking to hear her daughters talk about their final times with their mother, as she was heading back to Pakistan with a too-real danger of assassination. Benazir Bhutto was beautiful but not vain, articulate but with a common voice, down-to-earth but with a global vision, and compassionate without limit. She was an epic hero of our times.
MATISSE AND HIS MODEL, a film by Barbara F. Freed. In the early days of WW II, Henri Matisse was battling cancer. He needed additional nursing care, and advertised for a “young, beautiful nurse.” Young Monique Bourgeois showed up, not quite a nurse (she had a bit of experience) and not thinking herself beautiful (she’d been constantly dismissed by her parents as unattractive, unworthy of much), but determined to live a meaningful life. Matisse was taken by her friendly manner and care, her naturally pleasant looks, and her artistic interest and ability. He encouraged her drawing. And then he asked her to model for him, and finished five paintings based on sittings with her. (Monique’s parents, when they heard about this said, “You, model? For the Master? But why? You’re ugly.”) Monique went back to help with her family after her father’s death, and Matisse moved inland during the latter days of the war, to a small town named Vence. Monique then became a novice Dominican nun. Matisse was horrified. “You’re an idiot!” he said. “Don’t do that!” But she did, and though their relationship turned cold for a couple years, she then contracted tuberculosis, and by chance, was sent to recover at a hospital in Vence, right across the street from the house where Matisse lived. They resumed their friendship, and she actually assisted him with his great paper art of the era, cutting paper for him that he then refined. Now Sr. Jacque-Marie, she remained as nurse at the hospital in Vence, and circumstances led to Matisse’s final masterpiece. When one of the Dominican nuns died there, Sr. Jacque-Marie honored her with a piece of art, done in a stained glass window style. Coupled with everyone’s realization that the chapel in Vence was tumbling down, Matisse offered to design a new chapel for the town. There followed four years of hell for St. Jacque-Marie as she battled red tape, town officials, money issues and the Dominican order (Matisse had painted too many “sexy” pictures.) Matisse had to battle Picasso (when Pablo heard about it, he called Matisse and said, “You’re an idiot! Don’t do that! Build a market or a train station. Not a church. What are you, religious now?” Matisse said, “This isn’t religious, this is art.” They prevailed and the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence is a gem. Small, lots of windows, with peculiar, particular Matisse angles. He designed everything for the chapel, including the priests’ vestments. The crucifix is the only dimensional piece or statue in the place. Various saints are depicted as Matisse painted them on the walls. The stations of the Cross are on one wall, a montage of images that you stand and contemplate rather than wind around the church, station at a time. The Chapel of the Rosary is a work of art, Matisse’s final masterpiece. Sr. Jacque-Marie was still alive and interviewed for this documentary. (She passed away in 2005). She is a delightful woman. Chatty, funny, direct (“No! Nothing like that ever went on between him and I. We were friends.”) She was an inspiration to a genius. And this film is an inspiration to the collaborative creative process. (Always on the lookout for dramatic material, all the while I was watching this thing, I was thinking, “This is a play.” When it was over, I was already composing my letter asking for rights from Barbara Freed, but then realized I’d heard of a movie being announced in development a year or so ago. The movie was called MASTERPIECE, it was about the Matisse/Monique (Sr. Jacque-Marie) relationship, and Al Pacino was attached to play Matisse.)
TROUBADOURS, a film by Morgan Neville. Filmed around the Troubadour reunion tour of James Taylor and Carole King, the film goes back with archival footage and sounds of the late 60’s in L.A. and the singer-songwriter boom. The Beatles had broken up, the Stones weren’t doing anything, and people were hungry for something different. Thus, the singer-songwriter emerged, and most of them emerged at a club called The Troubadour. The film covers (and interviews) Taylor and King, of course, about those days, but also Jackson Browne, Crosby/Stills, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Neal Young and more. All lived above Sunset in the Hollywood Hills, and those years were a creative bonanza from a group of talented young people bed-hopping through the hills, fueled by their beauty, passion and marijuana. (Before coke came in and destroyed a lot of things.) Amidst the history lesson, King’s story stands out. A teenage, Tin Pan Alley rock ‘n roll hit-maker in the 50’s, as part (the main part) of a songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin, she moved with him to L.A. in the 60’s as the creative tide crested that way. After Goffin left (after one of several abusive relationships that King has fallen into), She looked inward, became a California woman (in his biography, Burgess Meredith calls California women the most evolved creatures on earth) and the result was TAPESTRY. But initial appearances at The Troubadour helped make her new name and set the stage for her success. (Another like story about the club is Elton John’s. He arrived in L.A. with one album and no U.S. reputation. His Troubadour concert, covered by a rapturous review in the L.A. Times the following day, established him, and the rest is glittering history.) Carole King comes off as THE natural woman. Honest and self-effacing, she deals with her work and life with a perspective and good humor that makes one want to hear a lot more from her. TAPESTRY was a seminal album for me (like lots of folks). I’m going to revisit and stay a while.
ONE MORE? This won’t be about a majestic, prime of her life woman with her history and stories, but a gorgeous young actress. It will be about a movie I saw (not a documentary) and other stuff I’d heard. When I acted in PERICLES for the Black Rep, I shared a dressing room with Bob Mitchell, and one of the many topics we wiled away some hours with was one suggested by Bob. Who are the serious young actresses in film these days? Women who are really trying to stretch, and do some good work, despite their prodigious beauty. Recently, I found one and let Bob know right away. She’s Jessica Chastain. You may have heard of her from a batch of tv work she’s done. But it’s what she’s been doing lately that made my eyebrows raise:
- Desdemona in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s staging of OTHELLO
- Salome in Pacino’s staging of SALOME, reprising her role in Pacino’s upcoming documentary, WILDE SALOME.
- Virgilia in the upcoming Ralph Fiennes-directed CORIOLANUS.
- The female lead opposite Brad Pitt in Terence Malick’s long-awaited TREE OF LIFE art film.
- A key role in Malick’s next film, an Oklahoma love story with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams.
- And a major role in John Hillcoat’s (THE ROAD director) next film, THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD, with a cast including Gary Oldman, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce. Great resume credit all. I’d heard her name, but then ran across her in a 2008 movie called JOLENE (based on an E.L. Doctorow short story), a typical coming-of-age story, following a cute teenage girl through her marriages, her stint as a Vegas dancer and finally as an aspiring actress, all the while linking to various men (and a woman) who fancy her. A good supporting cast and quirky direction helped this movie, but it was Chastain’s honest, smart performance (and dazzling beauty) that made it all work. Watch for her.