Heavenly Friendship

When the call came about writing the music for Todd Haynes'”Far From Heaven,” Elmer Bernstein was initially dismissive. “The film alreadyhad a temporary score, and I won’t look at a film with a temporary score,” saidBernstein, who has received 13 Academy Award nominations and a 1963 Oscar for”Thoroughly Modern Millie.” His agent replied that he might make an exceptionfor this temporary score, because it happened to be Bernstein’s music from “ToKill a Mockingbird.”

“So I watched the movie, and I was stunned,” the jovialcomposer said in his Santa Monica office. “Then I had a Todd Haynes filmfestival at my house, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out more about thisdirector.'”

So began a collaboration that has yielded yet another Oscarnomination for Bernstein and a close friendship between the 80-year-oldcomposer and 42-year-old filmmaker. 

“Heaven” is Haynes’ homage to the 1950s melodramas ofDouglas Sirk, who fled Hitler to Hollywood and transformed “women’s pictures”into slyly subversive critiques of American social taboos. The story revolvesaround perky Connecticut homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whoseseemingly perfect life unravels when she discovers her husband, Frank (DennisQuaid), is a closet homosexual and her friendship with her black gardener(Dennis Haysbert) is alienating the town. Because the year is 1957, whenhomosexuality wasn’t discussed, Bernstein’s score captures Cathy’s heartacheand other emotions the characters can’t verbalize.

If the ’50s cinematic style contrasts with the contemporarysubject matter, the director and composer also proved a fortuitous union ofopposites. Bernstein, who represents old Hollywood, has scored more than 200movies for filmmakers ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to Martin Scorsese.

He is the composer who “marched Steve McQueen through ‘TheGreat Escape,’ who led Chuck Heston … into the Promised Land carrying The TenCommandments … [and] who celebrated the gathering of cowboys as they bandedtogether as ‘The Magnificent Seven,'” according to the Dallas Observer.

By way of contrast, acclaimed renegade independent filmmakerHaynes, who is up for a screenwriting Oscar for “Heaven,” has deliberatelyremained a Hollywood outsider. Once a poster boy for the New Queer Cinema, hisunnerving, stylishly avant-garde films depict people pushed into various kindsof exile — from the housewife literally poisoned by suburbia in 1995’s “Safe”to the androgynous glam-rockers in 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine.”

Yet as the director and the composer began discussing”Heaven” in Bernstein’s Santa Barbara studio in summer 2001, their differencesquickly fell away.

“Elmer and I became friends very fast, which I think has alot to do with being Jewish, left-leaning and interested in the arts,” saidHaynes, who has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.

“We commiserated about ‘the world,'” Bernstein, the son ofEastern European immigrants, said with a laugh. “I heard from Todd the liberalviews I enjoy hearing from my own sons, and he heard from me what he would haveexpected to hear from his own grandfather.”

During a series of trips to Bernstein’s studio, thecerebral, exuberant Haynes often remarked how much the composer reminded him ofhis charismatic grandfather, Arnold Semler, who died in early 2001.

In fact, “Heaven” is dedicated to Semler, a.k.a. “Bompi,” ason of Romanian and Polish immigrants who started out in the Warner Bros. mailroom in the 1930s and worked his way up to head of set construction and unionorganizer. A Communist Party member, he quit his job during the McCarthy-erablacklists and founded a communications and electronics business. By the 1960s,he was living on an affluent Studio City street, it turns out, just two doorsdown from Bernstein’s home at the time.

“My whole life, we’d see films together,” Haynes said of hisgrandfather. “He helped me to go to college [at Brown University] andultimately, he became a primary financier of my films.”

The politically progressive Semler was pleased when Haynes’provocative first feature, “Poison,” not only won the top prize at Sundance butbecame the center of a National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy.

“He identified with the history of Jewish struggle,” Haynessaid. “All my films are about resilient outsiders, whether in terms of race orsexual orientation, and I think I inherited that from my grandfather.”

Bernstein, in turn, told Haynes about his grandfather, a”leather jacket socialist,” and described his banishment to low-budget sciencefiction and “cheesecake” films for a time during the McCarthy era. That ended,he said, when DeMille summoned him to his office, asked if he was a Communist.Bernstein said no, and DeMille hired him on “The Ten Commandments.”

The old Hollywood stories inevitably startled Haynes. “I wasreminded of whom I was working with, and I was, like, speechless,” he said byphone from his Portland, Ore., home.

Haynes never imagined he would engage a composer likeBernstein when, burned out on New York’s indie filmmaking scene, he closed hisBrooklyn apartment and drove to Portland to write “Heaven” — now up for a totalof four Oscars — two years ago. He had long intended to pen a domesticmelodrama inspired by Sirk, whose own life read like one of his tear-jerkers.

“His second wife was Jewish, and he had a difficult timegetting her out of Nazi Germany,” Haynes said. “Meanwhile, his first wife, aNazi sympathizer, made their son a star of the Nazi youth cinema. Because shewouldn’t let him see the child, he had to watch propaganda films to keepabreast of his little boy, on the screen wearing Nazi regalia. When the childdied, the Nazi cinema was his last connection to his son.”

From the moment Haynes began writing his own Sirkianmelodrama, he had the score in mind. During his first telephone conversationwith Bernstein, the composer referred “to all the detailed descriptions in myscript — ‘a dark mist of music gathers,’ ‘music bathes the shadowy quiet’…and we laughed,” Haynes said.

If the descriptions sounded over the top, the director andcomposer were adamant that the music should not be.

“It took us the better part of three minutes to realize wewere in total agreement as to what was to be done,” Bernstein recalled.

Nevertheless, scoring a melodrama for contemporary audiences”was like walking a tightrope,” he said.

“A failure … would have easily resulted in parody,” Haynessaid.

He knew Bernstein had succeeded when the composer sat at thepiano and played him the finished score as the movie ran on a video monitor.

The lush, lyrical music speaks out in ways the repressedcharacters can’t: piano sequences underscore Cathy’s fragility, whileotherworldly strains accompany Frank’s trek to an underground gay bar.

When Cathy walks in the woods with her African Americangardener, Bernstein introduces a rich melody that later repeats as she pinesfor the man. “It’s the only moment in the film where the music goes, shall Isay, sunny,” he said.

Almost a year after the composer agreed to watch “Heaven”with its temporary soundtrack, his score is eliciting the best reviews of hiscareer.

“One critic called my music ‘the sound of paradise,'” hesaid. So was his harmonious collaboration with Haynes, whom he continues to seesocially.

“One of the biggest bonuses of doing this film was findingTodd as a friend,” he said.

The “‘Far From Heaven’ Original Soundtrack” is now availablein stores.  The Oscars air March 23, at 5:30 p.m. on ABC.  

Family Business

At age 5, long before he began writing satirical pop songs and Oscar-nominated film soundtracks, Randy Newman trekked down to the sound stage at 20th Century Fox to watch his Uncle Al conduct the studio orchestra. Uncle Alfred was only 5-feet-4, but the Newman family patriarch seemed larger than life as he conducted his intensely dramatic score from "All About Eve."

"It was a big deal for me," Newman recalled during a recent Journal telephone interview from his sprawling estate in Pacific Palisades. "It had a big effect on me that it was possible to make that noise. It was really the main impetus for my getting into the music business."

For all the Newmans, music is in the blood. Uncle Al (1900-1970) scored many of Fox’s most famous films from the 1930s to the ’60s; Uncle Lionel ran Fox’s music department and shared an Oscar for "Hello Dolly"; Uncle Emil conducted the music for most of John Wayne’s movies; Alfred’s sons Thomas and David are Oscar-nominated film composers; and Alfred’s daughter, Maria, is a respected composer of contemporary classical music (see sidebar).

To honor the centennial of Alfred’s birth, Maria and Randy Newman will perform at the March 4 Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) concert "Cinema Judaica II: A Salute to Alfred Newman." "It’s a tribute to my Uncle Al," explained Newman, who has received 14 Oscar nominations for his work on films such as "The Natural," "Awakenings," "Pleasantville," "Parenthood" and "Toy Story."

Of course, he remains best known for his politically incorrect, bluesy pop ditties satirizing sadists, lechers, liars and bigots. Death threats came his way for "Short People," a parody of prejudice; even Newman is nervous about performing his song, "Rednecks," which makes liberal use of the N-word and describes a racist on TV "with some smart-ass New York Jew."

In "The World Isn’t Fair," the narrator chats with Karl Marx about rich old geezers married to gorgeous young blondes who look like Gwyneth Paltrow. "My music has a high irritation factor," the composer gleefully admitted.

During a Journal interview, the irreverent Randy Newman was most evident when reminiscing about his Uncle Lionel. "He had nicknames for everybody," Newman recalled. "The composer Elmer Bernstein was ‘The Wrong Bernstein.’ [Composer] Jerry Goldsmith he called ‘Gorgeous,’ because he was handsome and had all that hair." (During the March 4 concert, LAJS director Noreen Green will conduct an arrangement of Goldsmith’s score from the 1981 miniseries "Masada.")

Newman turns serious when the subject reverts to his Uncle Al. He grew up with tales of how Alfred, the eldest of 10 children, showed talent early on in his working-class family in New Haven, Conn. Since the family was too poor to afford bus fare, young Albert walked 10 miles each way to practice on a friend’s piano; by the age of 12, he was sponsored by Polish composer and pianist Ignacy Paderewski for a recital in New York. But the following year he had to go to work to support his family, so he set off on a vaudeville tour in which he sat at the piano dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy.

At 16, Albert Newman was the youngest conductor ever to appear on Broadway; in 1930, he arrived in Hollywood to make a film with Irving Berlin. He never left. As the general music director at Fox, he went on to compose rich scores to films such as "Wuthering Heights," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "How Green was My Valley" and "The Song of Bernadette."

Along the way, he was adamant that his younger brother Irving (Randy’s father) did not follow his inclination to become a professional songwriter.

"He made my dad become a doctor," said Newman, who began playing piano at age 6. Nevertheless, Uncle Al encouraged Randy’s musical talents, presenting him with bound scores of symphonies like Beethoven’s Third and Shostakovich’s Fifth.

"He was with me the first time I ever recorded with an orchestra," added Newman, now 57. "We did my song ‘Davey the Fat Boy’; he was conducting in the rehearsal, and he was very nervous. He’d get sick before he worked, and my cousin Tom used to say that that had an effect on me, that I was subconsciously trying to emulate him. It was like, you had to vomit for things to work out well."

Only after Alfred’s death, in 1970, did the younger Newman try his hand at film music with a Norman Lear comedy called "Cold Turkey" (1971). He had turned down similar offers for years. "I was scared, and I still am," he admitted. "I had studied composition privately and at UCLA, but I was a slacker. I didn’t think I knew enough to write something that wasn’t bad." He also realized there would be the inevitable comparisons with his famous relatives. "There was a little extra pressure," he once told People. "Standards are high in the family."

Newman managed to live up to them. In 1982, he received his first Oscar nomination for a song composed for Milos Forman’s "Ragtime," which he had scored while remembering tips from Uncle Al. "I still recall a great many things that he said about the orchestra," Newman said. "He said that if something is written well on the piano, it’ll sound good with the orchestra. He said never to condescend upon the characters."

Is it tough for the guy who wrote "Short People" to create cute songs for talking toys? No, Newman said; he likes the challenge of penning the kind of happy or heroic music he wouldn’t necessarily write on his own.

For the LAJS concert, he’ll conduct an arrangement of his Oscar-nominated score for "Avalon," Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an assimilated Jewish family. Newman related to the story.

"Assimilation was the style for Alfred’s generation, as if anyone would ever mistake us for Christians," said Newman, who had to use the Yiddish dictionary when his father called him a shmegegge. "They all married gentiles, except my father." There were Christmas gatherings in Al’s Pacific Palisades home.

Even so, Newman said, "I have a strong, cultural sense of being Jewish, and I’m glad of it. It’s done something for me in terms of my music and my world view. I believe that I write because of being Jewish, from the position of being the outsider."

During summers with his mother’s Jewish family in New Orleans, young Randy learned a thing or two about racism and anti-Semitism. "I saw those signs on the ice cream wagons," he said in an interview. "It was hot and raining and there was [the word] ‘Colored,’ spelled wrong."

When 8-year-old Randy was once invited to a country club for a cotillion, the girl’s father called to cancel on the night of the ball. "I’m sorry, Randy, my daughter had no right to invite you, because no Jews are allowed [at the club]," he explained.

Newman wrote a song, ‘New Orleans Wins the War," exploring how uncomfortable his father felt as a Jew in the South. Now he’s thinking of writing a new song parodying the anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of Zion." "It would be about a Jewish banking conspiracy meeting," he said. "It would be really funny."

A less pleasant endeavor will be performing his Oscar-nominated song, "A Fool in Love" from "Meet the Parents," at the 2001 Academy Awards ceremony. Newman will attend with as much enthusiasm as his Uncle Al, who, after 45 nominations and nine awards, the most any individual has ever received, used to trudge wearily to the dais when his name was called.

"I remember my father saying to Al, ‘You have to go for your family,’ but Al didn’t like going," Newman recalled. "I don’t like going, either. You sit there for five hours, and it’s a bad vaudeville show. And I have to play for a really tough audience. After all, 80 percent of the people sitting there have already lost."

"Cinema Judaica II: A Salute to Alfred Newman," which also includes works by other composers, takes place March 4 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism. Randy Newman will perform only at the evening concert. For tickets: (818) 753-6681.

Musical and Comic Legends

“Rhapsody in Blue: The George Gershwin Story,” withRobert Alda as Gershwin and Joan Leslie as a fictional loveinterest.

If all you knew about composer George Gershwin washis body of work — “An American in Paris,” “Rhapsody in Blue,””Porgy and Bess,” plus countless enduring melodies — you would thinkhe lived to a ripe old age. But, in fact, the musical legend was only38 when he died.

Gershwin was born to Russian immigrant parents in1898, and, beginning in 1931, he and lyricist brother Ira composedscores for four Hollywood musicals — until George’s death six yearslater. This week, the UCLA Film and Television Archive brings backthese movies, as well as seven other films either based on thebrothers’ theatrical works or original musicals with the scorescompiled posthumously from George’s surviving work.

The series, “Strike Up the Band! George Gershwinon Film,” begins on Thursday, May 21, with the 1945 biography”Rhapsody in Blue: The George Gershwin Story.” With Robert Alda asGershwin and Joan Leslie as a fictional love interest, many of Gershwin’s contemporaries appear as themselves, including Al Jolson.There is also a full-length performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” led byits original conductor, Paul Whiteman.

Among the other films in the series: the 1937 FredAstaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle “Shall We Dance?” which screens with “ADamsel in Distress,” featuring Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allenon Saturday, May 23. The 1959 feature version of “Porgy and Bess,”directed by Otto Preminger and starring Sidney Poitier, Sammy DavisJr. and Pearl Bailey, will show on Sunday, May 24.

Two versions of “Girl Crazy” will screen: the 1943production, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the lesser-knownfilm made a decade earlier. “The Goldwyn Follies,” the final filmthat George and Ira worked on, plays with the Rooney-Garland “Crazy”on Thursday, May 28; it features Adolphe Menjou, a screenplay by BenHecht and cinematography by Gregg Toland, best known for his workwith Orson Welles. A double feature of “An American in Paris,” withGene Kelly, and “Funny Face,” with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, closethings out on Saturday, May 30.

All programs begin at 7:30 p.m. in the JamesBridges Theater on the UCLA campus, with the exception of “Porgy,”which will begin at 7 p.m. For a detailed schedule, call (310)206-FILM.

The Nuart Theatre pays homage to another legendthis week: French funnyman Jacques Tati. “Jour de Fete,” his firstfeature, with Tati portraying a village postman inspired to save timeafter seeing a newsreel of the American postal system, will playthrough Wednesday, May 20. Originally shot with two cameras — oneusing an experimental type of color film and a backup shootingblack-and-white — the color version will now screen for the firsttime in a newly struck print, taking advantage of more recenttechnology.

On Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, at noon,the Nuart will present Tati’s best-known classic, “Mr. Hulot’sHoliday.” A double feature of “Playtime,” with Monsieur Hulot tryingto survive Paris, and “Mon Oncle,” a silent Hulot gem in color, willshow on Thursday, May 21, only.

The Nuart is at 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., LosAngeles. Call (310) 478-6379 for show times.