BEING THERE (1979). Peter Sellers is nothing short of brilliant in director Hal Ashby's alternately lovely and lacerating satire, although as far as many Carolinians are concerned, it's Asheville's Biltmore Estate that handily steals the show. Adapting his own novel, Jerzy Kosinski has penned a delightful comedy about Chance (Sellers), a simple-minded gardener who, after an entire lifetime spent on the grounds of a Washington, D.C., home, suddenly finds himself out on the streets. A "chance" encounter, however, leads to him being invited into the majestic D.C. residence (read: the Biltmore) of politically connected millionaire Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Both take an instant liking to Chance the gardener (whose name they take to be Chauncey Gardiner), and, like everyone else, they interpret his elementary observations as profound musings on the state of the nation. Soon, Chance has been reinvented as a scholar who knows no less than eight languages, an international man of mystery whose CIA and FBI files have reportedly been destroyed – much to the dismay of the U.S. president (Jack Warden) who would like some background info on the man whose advice he's suddenly following. Amusingly, what seemed outrageous at the time – a man this stupid ascending this far in the national political arena – suddenly became factual with the election of George W. Bush. Sellers earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his disarming performance, while Douglas copped the Best Supporting Actor prize as the elderly politico; Richard Dysart also scores highly as the family doctor, the only person who suspects the truth about Chance.
DVD extras include an interview with actress Illeana Douglas (Melvyn's granddaughter) in which she discusses her memories of the movie, and the theatrical trailer.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1977). Two legends in the horror field, producer-director Dan Curtis and writer Richard Matheson, teamed up for several TV projects throughout the 1970s, most notably The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror. Largely forgotten is Dead of Night, which cobbles together three tales of the macabre. The first story, "Second Chance," is – perhaps due to its gentle nature – considered the weakest of the bunch, but because it offers a nice twist ending that would be right at home on an episode of The Twilight Zone or on the pages of the ample suspense comics filling up magazine racks at the time, it ranks as my favorite. Ed Begley Jr. stars as a college-age kid who buys an antiquated 1926 roadster and restores it to its original condition. But as he drives it down a dusty back road, he finds himself transported back to 1926, and suddenly he's faced with Back to the Future-style dilemmas. "No Such Thing As a Vampire," the middle yarn, is a period piece in which a nobleman (Patrick Macnee) turns to his manservant (Elisha Cook Jr.) and his medical colleague (Horst Buchholtz) to help him find the bloodsucker who's been supping on his bedridden wife (Anjanette Comer). This one would be more effective if the "surprise" ending wasn't immediately evident. The final tale, "Bobby," is an occasionally draggy yet nevertheless entertaining work about a woman (Joan Hackett) who manages to bring her recently deceased son (Lee H. Montgomery) back from his watery grave; needless to say, he's not exactly as she remembers him.
DVD extras include A Darkness at Blaisedon, Curtis' pilot for an aborted 1969 attempt to get an anthology series off the ground; deleted scenes from "No Such Thing As a Vampire"; and highlights from Robert Cobert's music score.
FUNNY FACE (1957) / BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961). Casual observers might be forgiven for believing that Paramount Pictures only employed Audrey Hepburn in its slate of classic motion pictures, given the fact that four of the first five titles in its new Centennial Collection star the lovely and talented actress. Still, considering the quality of these films, nobody will see fit to complain – this declaration is backed up by the releases of the fourth and fifth movies in the line. Director Stanley Donen's Funny Face is irresistible fluff, with Hepburn cast as an intellectual (described as working in one of those "sinister Greenwich Village bookstores") who becomes a fashion model under the tutelage of an easygoing photographer (Fred Astaire). The Gershwin score is lively, the Givenchy designs are eye-catching, the jibes at beatniks (a term that wouldn't even become official until the following year) are wicked, and the Technicolor is absolutely stunning. This earned four Academy Award nominations, including one for its screenplay. Breakfast at Tiffany's, meanwhile, finds Hepburn in one of her most iconic roles: Holly Golightly, the sensual sophisticate described by one character as "a phony ... but a real phony!" Escaping from a shameful past, Holly employs her feminine wiles on "rats" and "super-rats" to always get ahead, but her best-laid plans run into interference after she meets a genuinely nice guy (George Peppard). On the down side, this adaptation of Truman Capote's story features the worst racial stereotype ever to disgrace a Hollywood film, with Mickey Rooney simply abysmal as Holly's Japanese neighbor, a bucktoothed nerd who's constantly bumping into objects in his own apartment. Barring this, director Blake Edwards makes the most of George Axelrod's screenplay, and the film will forever be linked to its smash single, the enchanting "Moon River" (by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer). Nominated for five Oscars (including a bid for Hepburn), this won for Best Original Song and Best Original Score (also Mancini).
Each film arrives in a deluxe two-disc edition. Extras on Funny Face include a half-hour piece on actress Kay Thompson, who co-stars in the film as the fashion magazine editor (The Devil Wears Prada's Meryl Streep has nothing on her); a half-hour look at the widescreen process called VistaVision; and a featurette on Givenchy. Extras on Breakfast at Tiffany's include audio commentary by producer Richard Shepherd; a featurette on Mancini; a discussion of cocktail parties; Hepburn's letter to Tiffany on its 150th anniversary; and a piece in which Asian-Americans discuss the offensive character of Mr. Yunioshi.
Both Movies: ***1/2
MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954). Film reviewers may have largely dismissed director Douglas Sirk's opulent 1950s melodramas upon their original releases, but ever since the rediscovery of his works by latter-day critics – not to mention his championing by such filmmakers as Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes (whose exceptional Far from Heaven was a homage to Sirk) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – his stock has only risen. Magnificent Obsession is one of the defining works from that period, with Rock Hudson cast as Bob Merrick, a smug, self-centered playboy whose foolish abandon directly leads to the death of the town's most respected doctor. Stricken with guilt, Merrick tries to make it up to the doctor's widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), but she won't have anything to do with him. In a cruel twist of fate, further actions on his part lead to her going blind; a mutual friend (Otto Kruger) hints that Merrick should turn to God for help (although, since Christianity is rarely explicitly mentioned, the hush-hush nature of their conversations amusingly brings to mind the don't-ask-don't-tell aspects of Scientology), resulting in the disgraced Merrick giving up his hedonistic ways and taking up medicine as his chosen profession. Wyman earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination as the quietly suffering widow who eventually forgives – and falls in love with – the man who destroyed her domestic bliss, yet it's really Hudson (in a star-making performance) who dominates the film.
Extras in the two-disc Criterion edition include the 1935 version (both films were adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas' novel) starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor; audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty; video interviews with filmmakers (and Sirk devotees) Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow; and a 1991 documentary titled From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers.