Le Conversazioni 2015

Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Sondheim talk to Antonio Monda about films that have impacted them.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Stephen Sondheim and Joyce Carol Oates in conversation before Antonio Monda's  Le Conversazioni
Stephen Sondheim and Joyce Carol Oates in conversation before Antonio Monda's Le Conversazioni Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Following his fall 2014 Le Conversazioni with Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and Patrick McGrath (Asylum and Spider), Antonio Monda invited Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Sondheim to discuss films that influenced their lives and work.

Henry Hathaway's Niagara, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront were chosen by Joyce Carol Oates.

George Stevens' The More The Merrier, Mike van Diem's Character (Karakter), Krzysztof Zanussi's The Contract and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt were picked by Stephen Sondheim.

Le Conversazioni and Rome Film Festival Artistic Director Antonio Monda
Le Conversazioni and Rome Film Festival Artistic Director Antonio Monda Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Walk Don't Run with Cary Grant, Privacy, Gene Hackman, West Side Story, Vertigo, The Rules Of The Game, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Calvary, Michael Haneke's White Ribbon, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Gay Talese, and Joseph Cotton are woven miraculously into the evening.

Eight clips, four each, plus one from the newly appointed Rome Film Festival Artistic Director at the end, accompanied the sold-out spring 2015 Le Conversazioni on May 7 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

Here are the blow by blow, round by round accounts on the films they chose.

Niagara (1953)

"It was a movie that brought her from one level of fame to another. Once she got to that level she never went back." The clip chosen by Joyce Carol Oates has Marilyn Monroe climb up the bell tower, pursued by Joseph Cotton. "She is so beautiful and has the sense of infantile sexuality and is very vulnerable. She is pursued by that male figure who is death." Oates points out Monroe's unhappiness and self-destructive tendencies off screen. "She was very suicidal. She had a number of miscarriages. She always tried to invent herself… She was always trying to prove herself. For me, seeing this clip is like the story of her life. She tried very hard. She tried to seduce the man…The whole film is based on her. When she is not on screen, it's a terrible movie." Oates, asked by Monda, if she considered Monroe "a great actress," said she saw her as "a very fine actress". Sondheim disagreed. "No," he said, "I don't think she was a good one either." He explained that "you're always aware that she is a personality acting, instead of the character." He continued to compare stars from the Thirties and Forties with post-war actors: "Many stars from the Thirties and Forties could act. But - think about Katharine Hepburn - she is always Hepburn." Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, he saw in two plays in New York with not much time in-between and "the second time I did not recognise him."

Joyce Carol Oates on Marilyn Monroe in Niagara: "It was a movie that brought her from one level of fame to another. Once she got to that level she never went back."
Joyce Carol Oates on Marilyn Monroe in Niagara: "It was a movie that brought her from one level of fame to another. Once she got to that level she never went back." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The More the Merrier (1943)

Sondheim explains why George Stevens is his favorite director: "I think he made the best movie in every genre, except one - he never did a film noir." Charles Coburn won an Oscar for his role in The More The Merrier. Jean Arthur sets the schedule for the three unlikely roommates during the wartime housing shortage in Washington. Joel McCrea is terrific in it. Monda and Sondheim discuss why the remake, Charles Walters' Walk Don't Run with Cary Grant, set in Japan, did not live up to this version. Oates didn't know the film, nor did she recognise Jean Arthur disguised under her morning face mask, although she thinks "Jean Arthur is wonderful."

The Conversation (1974)

Coppola's film has a new relevance today with "now people spying on one another constantly," Oates comments. The clip shows Gene Hackman dismantling his apartment, tearing it to shreds, including a small statue of the Virgin Mary. "In the ending, he's found out that somebody has been eavesdropping on him. And he's gone mad. He is tearing up his apartment, looking to try and find the small bug. And he finally destroys the Virgin Mary and there is nothing inside." It reminds Oates of Edgar Allan Poe's story The Tell-tale Heart with the character looking for the beating heart to find out it is his own. Sondheim tells us about a play that recently was staged in London called Privacy (by James Graham): "When you come to the theater, you sit down and a voice from the stage manager comes on and says 'please turn on your cellphones.' About halfway through the play, the characters, the actors, start telling people in the audience their names, their addresses, their bank accounts - the whole audience has been spied on."

Character (1997)

The Dutch film won the Foreign Language Oscar and Sondheim loves that it is "Dickensian" and "contemporary". He uses another superlative for this movie choice - Character for him has "the best dream sequence." It seems to work well on a smaller screen too. Sondheim doubts that he saw the film in a theatre which prompted Monda to ask about the first movie little Stephen ever saw in a cinema.

Joyce Carol Oates, Antonio Monda and Stephen Sondheim in Le Conversazioni
Joyce Carol Oates, Antonio Monda and Stephen Sondheim in Le Conversazioni Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

First movies seen in a cinema:

"I was seven years old. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Radio City Music Hall." Monda and Oates both said that their first movie was Fantasia. The Disney stamp seems to be quite universal. I told Gay Talese, who sat next to me during the evening, when we left the Morgan Library, that my first film in a cinema was The Jungle Book. Gay broke the Disney monopoly, telling me that his first was Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Sondheim's favorite in Snow White was the wicked witch - "she got me." A fascination that undeniably lasted many years. Meryl Streep's performance in Rob Marshall's Into The Woods gives credit to that first impression.

Hated or overrated movies:

At midpoint, traditionally Monda's heart of darkness - or sense of mischief - comes out with a question about a film his guests hate. "A great film," that everybody else loves, a classic, is preferred. And Sondheim delivers not one, but two movies, that have topped the lists of greatest films ever made for decades. "Well, I hope nobody has anything to throw," Sondheim says, obviously enjoying the suspense he created. "I think the most boring, most overrated film … is Vertigo." He calls himself a big Hitchcock fan, though, and once saw him on the street and followed him. "I followed him down 5th Avenue for eight blocks. He went into the New York Public Library." Joyce Carol Oates finds Vertigo very interesting but "overrated also."

Vertigo: "overrated."
Vertigo: "overrated."

Sondheim has a second answer. "This one, I wish I liked." He really likes the director, has seen it several times and just can't get into it. It turns out to be the film I presented two days earlier at the Alliance Française in their Haute Couture on Film program - Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game. "I don't think it's overrated. I understand why people like it. I want to, but I just can't get into the rhythm."

Oates, on the other hand, could not come up with a film that she feels as strongly about in a negative way as Sondheim does. She finds something "very interesting in a great failure." "I've been a professor for many years, " she deadpans. After the event, I spoke with Joyce and reminded her of the conversation we had over lunch at the Explorer's Club last fall for John Michael McDonagh and the cast of his film Calvary. Triggered by the stuffed polar bear and other creatures at the venue, we talked about filmmakers using animal cruelty to get to an audience's emotion. "I leave," Joyce told me and brought up Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon as an example. We told Antonio Monda of this P.S. to his unanswered question while leaving the Morgan Library.

Raging Bull (1980)

Oates, who herself wrote on boxing, has seen the film many times. "It's such a fascinating film. Everything about it I find just riveting." She talked about her conversations with Martin Scorsese and how astounded she was when Scorsese told her there were only eight minutes of boxing in the movie. The clip of the boxing match "is not realistic at all," as the fight would have been stopped had it been like that in reality. Scorsese places the camera in the ring, not with the audience, so the effect is "hallucinatory and surreal," almost like a ballet.

Raging Bull: "hallucinatory and surreal."
Raging Bull: "hallucinatory and surreal."

The Contract (1980)

Sondheim explained that the audience could not understand the greatness of the ending of the film from the clip shown if they didn't know what preceded it. "That scene might be the single greatest last shot in movie history. But if you don't know what's going on, it's just a shot of an animal." Zanussi's movie is about corruption in middle class Poland, "it's political and it's funny and it's upsetting and surprising. It's Chekhov. Sondheim recounts that he asked a question to Zanussi from the audience at the New York Film Festival public screening, something he said, he never does out of shyness. He had seen two other movies by the director and loved the endings of those films as well. Sondheim raised his hand and said "'Mr. Zanussi, do you always start with the last shot?' And without pause, he said 'Always!' I was so proud of myself."

On the Waterfront (1954)

Oates began with an icon and her last clip was of one as well, Marlon Brando. Corrupt labor unions, a fairy tale from 1954, with a Christ figure. Brando, Monda said, hesitated to accept the part until another young actor, Paul Newman, did a screen test for Kazan. Oates comments about Brando's career and that he "ran out of that youthful radiance" in later years. Sondheim compliments Bernstein's score and states that because there is no concert version of it it is less known. Monda asks Sondheim, apropos Leonard Bernstein, what he thinks of West Side Story on which they worked together. "It's not a movie - it's sort of a photographed stage show." The color-coordinated sneakers of the gang members and the matching items on the laundry line don't aid in making the opening scary. "The original idea of the story was Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side." But somebody had already done that in the 1920s and so it moved up and crosstown and at first was titled Gangway! "West Side Story was the working title."

On The Waterfront: "youthful radiance."
On The Waterfront: "youthful radiance."

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Sondheim "know[s] this film shot by shot. If I wanted to direct a movie, I would use this as a guide on how to direct a movie." He loves how every camera placement is for an emotional purpose, how it deals with a subject rarely put on screen, namely incest, and how "Hitchcock was really good at creepy." Monda asks if Sondheim ever thought of directing. " No. Visually, I'm talentless," he responded, which might explain why Vertigo and Rules of the Game leave him so cold. "I have limited patience with actors," he gave as a second reason. Joyce Carol Oates agrees about Shadow of a Doubt, a Hitchcock film she also likes very much. Uncle Charlie and niece Charlie's bond is established with two shots showing them lying on their respective beds in the daytime, the Merry Widow Waltz floating through the air. And we come full circle with Joseph Cotton, in another, for him atypical, role as a villain as in Niagara, which started the evening.

Since neither of the guests selected an Italian movie, Antonio Monda closes with a clip of Claudia Cardinale bewitching Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster in Visconti's The Leopard, and with a quote by Lampedusa about the invincibility of a woman sure of her beauty.

In 2013, Marina Abramovic and Daniel Libeskind plus Julie Taymor and Jeffrey Eugenides and in 2014, Isabella Rossellini and Salman Rushdie also joined Antonio Monda in Le Conversazioni at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Le Conversazioni 2015 concludes in New York with Jhumpa Lahiri and David Remnick on December 3.

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