23 September 2012

Progress Report 16: At Long Last ‘Les Miz’?

Singing on the set: Madeline cavorts with Duilio Del Prete

Anticipation is building for Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Schoenberg and Boublil’s musical-theater adaptation of Les Misérables, that great novel by Victor Hugo that I never finished reading. A trailer, featuring Anne Hathaway as Fantine in the number “I Dreamed a Dream,” has been playing for weeks in movie theaters and other venues, including Musical Mondays at Splash, the Manhattan gay bar, where audiences respond rapturously. Even this writer gets verklempt.

Now the producers have released a behind-the-scenes clip in which members of the Les Miz cast discuss the filming process: rather than lip-synching their songs on camera to pre-recorded vocal tracks, they performed “live” on camera. Off-set, a pianist accompanies the actors, who are equipped with ear pieces; the instrumental tracks are added in post-production. Again and again, we are assured that this technique is completely revolutionary and has never been attempted before at any point in motion-picture history.

I’m sure the producers have employed some modern technology that makes this claim something other than completely fraudulent. But as a general practice, filming musicals with “live” singing is not at all new — as Madeline Kahn could have told you.

Hathaway as Fantine: Let the Oscar© dream begin!

For his Cole Porter musical At Long Last Love (1975), a period piece set in the 1930s, director Peter Bogdanovich wanted to evoke the glory days of the earliest Hollywood musicals. To do this, he did what earlier directors did: he instructed his actors to sing “live” on camera. He went so far as to hire a pickup truck for outdoor tracking shots, so that a pianist could follow behind the actors — who used earpieces to hear the music while they sang.

The result was a complex and time-consuming process that required multiple takes and retakes and prolonged production of the movie, driving up costs while driving the actors to distraction. Madeline generally preferred short shoots like the one she’d just wrapped: Young Frankenstein required her services on-set for precisely one week, plus an extra day of pick-ups and a wrap party.

Swell party? Del Prete, Madeline, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and ensemble.

As the filming of At Long Last Love wore on, she expressed her frustration in her appointment book — the nearest thing to a journal she ever kept — her elegant script turning into angry block capitals, and particularly frustrating days boxed in with hard red lines.

Eileen Brennan, one of Madeline’s co-stars in At Long Last Love, has told me that everyone in the cast found the shooting difficult. Take the example of Burt Reynolds, who among the leads had minimal singing experience and was suffering from a head cold besides. If there was a bright spot for Madeline and Eileen, it was the friendship they forged while commiserating after hours — and sharing their love of music.

“God, I love music!” Brennan exclaimed during our conversation. “Even more than dogs! Even more than cats!” (This is possibly the best thing anyone ever said to me in an interview.)

“Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”: Shepherd, Brennan, and Madeline.

As I say, the idea of shooting a musical comedy with “live” singing wasn’t original to Bogdanovich: it was standard (albeit not universal) practice in early talkies. Robert Florey, the director of the Marx Brothers’ first feature, The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929), to a score by Irving Berlin, tried hard to open up the stage production — and turned off the sound equipment in order to film some sequences, notably the overhead shots in the “Monkey Doodle Doo” dance number, for which the musical tracks were laid in during post-production. This raised Groucho’s eyebrows, and perhaps his dander, but would he have noticed at all if other directors typically did the same thing?*

So yes, we’re right to be excited by Hooper’s Les Miz movie, and on the strength of the clips I’ve seen, he’s elicited some tremendous performances from an authentically stellar cast. But his method is a little less original than the producers claim, and you shouldn’t take their word at face value.

This much is certain: given her inherent anxieties about her appearance, exacerbated by starring opposite the supermodel Cybill Shepherd, if Madeline had been required to get her hair chopped off in any scene of At Long Last Love, then she’d have cried much harder than Anne Hathaway does in “I Dreamed a Dream.”

One of the highlights of At Long Last Love is Mildred Natwick’s appearance as Burt Reynolds’ mother. For Bogdanovich, a John Ford fanatic, having her on his set must have been a thrill. And she sings, too!
Seen here: Shepherd, Madeline, Brennan, John Hillerman, Natwick, Del Prete, and Reynolds.

*NOTE: For the Marxes’ next picture, Animal Crackers, in 1930, director Victor Heerman basically replicated the original stage production: the audience is never in any doubt where the proscenium arch of the theater would be.

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