Saturday, October 06, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Foxx

Over at Alex Ross's invaluable The Rest Is Noise, I just read that Jamie Foxx is preparing for his next film by taking violin and cello lessons. Foxx studied piano as a boy in Texas and then worked with The Genius himself, which is at least part of the reason he won an Academy Award for Ray. Now he joins my remarkably short list of culture heroes.

For years, movies have been ruined for me by actors pretending to play musical instruments (and I have ruined movies for others by pointing out their deficiencies, I'm afraid). When the real thing comes along, I'm almost prepared to overlook the most awful shortcomings. Steve Allen was no actor, but when he portrayed Benny Goodman he took the time to learn how to hold and finger a clarinet. Dudley Moore was no Rex Harrison, but in the otherwise pointless remake of Unfaithfully Yours he displayed real conducting skills. I'm eternally grateful to Hollywood for reaching out to Hoagy Carmichael and Oscar Levant, who basically played themselves when they weren't playing the piano. There ought to be more of this. Just don't give musicians too many lines, like poor Stephen Sondheim in the TV production of June Moon.

When I watch Casablanca I have to look away at certain moments because, while Dooley Wilson began his career as a singer and drummer, he clearly didn't play piano. I must have seen a dozen different actors play Sherlock Holmes, and not one of them even knew how to hold a violin. Why isn't this taught in the English acting schools, like fencing? It's probably easier and less dangerous. And you "trumpet players" -- go and watch a real player for a couple of hours. See how he breathes, how he generally leaves that third valve alone. It's called preparation.

One movie I never miss on TCM is Deception, a classic Warner Brothers lollapalooza. Florid plot, overripe dialogue, and the scene where Claude Rains orders dinner rivals Groucho's lunch order in A Night At the Opera. ("And two hard-boiled eggs!") But you can just tell that Bette Davis and Paul Henreid knew their way around the piano and the cello respectively. Whether they learned for the movie or they were "kids who took," as Woody Allen once put it, their musical deportment more than makes up for Rains's conducting (after all, he is primarily a composer).

Once Hollywood, or at least the brothers Warner, took a lot of care with this kind of thing. When John Garfield played a violinist in Humoresque, the close-ups involved a real violinist alternatively fingering and bowing for him, while the music on the soundtrack was recorded by Isaac Stern. (Levant suggested that the four of them embark on a concert tour when the picture was finished.) Now the assumption seems to be that nobody will notice. Actors will spend months picking up a few kung fu moves, memorizing dialogue in Russian, gaining and losing weight, learning to drive a tank or fire a bazooka. A few music lessons, or even "music lessons," wouldn't kill them. Maybe if Jamie Foxx wins another Oscar....


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