Thursday, March 4, 2010

Like a Circle in a Spiral

In 1968 Norman Jewison, the man behind In the Heat of the Night, the film that one year earlier had made a legend out of Sidney Poitier (who became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film) and the line "They call me Mister Tibbs!" (which later became one of the more obscure references in the 1994 Disney masterpiece The Lion King and ranks #16 on the AFI list of "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes"), followed up that success with a moderately received caper starring Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen and titled The Thomas Crown Affair. Though it received some positive remarks for its stylish visuals and direction, the promising plot turned out messily, and it became largely forgotten over the years. Then, in 1999, an even more stylish remake starring then-James Bond Piece Brosnan as the titular con artist and Rene Russo, who then in her mid-40s had (and has) never been sexier as his femme fatale insurance detective/love interest Kathryn Banning hit the screens...to an arguably similar reception, at least among the leading (read: loudest) critics and box office receipts (the film grossed nearly $125 million on a $48 million budget).*

Though much of the plot and setting was changed in the second film (which can hardly be called a "remake"), several things remained to tie the 1999 picture to its 1968 inspiration, as the latter was, after all, the height of postmodern exercise in filmmaking (see footnote). One not-so-subtle reference to the Jewison film is the inclusion of his leading lady Dunaway in an added role as Crown's psychiatrist, who pops in throughout the film to deliver an often-mocking psychoanalytic expose of the plot's goings-on. Another notable echo of the earlier film that significantly appears in the later one, though, is the tune that won the 1968 film its only Oscar, "Windmills of Your Mind," music by Michel Lagrand (who also wrote the Oscar-nominated score) and lyrics by husband-and-wife team Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman**. The song first appears as Crown and Banning dance tensely at a black and white ball - a crucial scene, and those who get the reference only have their anxiety heightened while those who don't lose nothing. Later, over the end credits, a coolly jazz-infused rendition of the song, sung by a cooly jazz-infused Sting, ends the film with the same slinky sensuality that has infused it from the moment Russo (or rather, her high-heel- and black hose-clad lower leg) first appears on screen. Sting's deliciously sexy track is one I have had in my library ever since, and always in or near the "most played" list. Hear for yourself why that might be.


* Dr. Drew Casper, film historian and renowned professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, has a passionate self-professed distaste for postmodern film, although he does teach a class devoted entirely to the period and style. In that class, when I took it in 2005, Dr. Casper presented the 1999 film of The Thomas Crown Affair as an extraordinarily rare example of great postmodern filmmaking.


** Alan and Marilyn Bergman have earned fifteen Oscar nominations together as lyricists between 1968 and 1995, their most recent nomination year, winning two ("Windmills of Your Mind" with Michel Lagrand in 1968, and "The Way We Were" with Martin Hamlisch in 1973). In 1982 they became the first songwriters to have three songs nominated in the same year, and unlike later composers and/or lyricists who equalled that honor such as Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, that still would have flown with the recent rule change allowing no more than two songs to be nominated from the same film, as all three 1982 nominees were from separate films (none of them, sadly, won). The duo is still alive and kicking, so one never knows if they might Streep it out to a 16th nomination!
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