DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

If blood is, indeed, thicker than water, does the same chemistry apply to bone marrow? That question is at the heart of the matter in “Marvin’s Room,” a 1996 film produced by Robert De Niro and starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Di Caprio, Gwen Verdon, and Hume Cronyn.

The story, which is based on a play by Scott McPherson, concerns the uneasy reunion of  a badly fractured family. The Marvin of the title (Cronyn) has been bed-ridden at his Florida home for 17 years after suffering a stroke. Unable to walk or to speak coherently, Marvin is cared for by his daughter Bessie (Keaton), who also looks after her aunt Ruth (Verdon), who is in the early stages of dementia.

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a marrow transplant. She turns for help to her sister Lee (Streep) although they haven’t communicated since Lee moved to Ohio 20 years ago. Lee has two sons who are potential donors, Hank (DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino).  Lee and Hank have a poisonous relationship which recently reached new depths when he was confined to a mental health facility after deliberately setting fire to their house.

Despite the mutual hard feelings between the sisters, Lee takes her sons to Florida to be tested for compatibility, although Hank is coy about whether he would agree to donate marrow even if he were a match. The atmosphere is uncomfortable and not made any better when Lee considers the possibility that she could inherit this responsibility if Bessie should die.

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

There is an unexpected chemistry between Bessie and Hank, however, and the story turns on that, though not in a simplistic way.

This film was very well received when it first appeared, and with good reason. Although the premise has all the potential for a sob story, it is written and directed (by Jerry Zaks) into a  tense and moving drama. The unusual array of stars (which includes De Niro as Bessie’s doctor) delivers on its promise, too.

HAROLD PINTER

A friend told me last night that on Saturday he saw a play by Harold Pinter, “No Man’s Land.” My friend posed a question: “Did Pinter always write like that?” I am not an expert on Pinter, and I have never seen “No Man’s Land,” so I could have escaped this conversation save for the fact that while my friend was watching “No Man’s Land” on a stage, my wife and I were watching “The Last Tycoon” on a Netflix DVD. The 1979 film, directed by Elia Kazan, had a screenplay written by Pinter based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I asked my friend what he meant by his allusion to Pinter’s writing, and he said that while the play was literate and funny, and the performances were engaging, the experience left him with a feeling of ambiguity. I have since learned that while “No Man’s Land” was well received when it first appeared in 1975, it left critic Michael Coveney, writing, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

I was in no position to sort that out, but I did tell my friend that while “The Last Tycoon” is a worthwhile diversion for some reasons — including excellent performances by an impressive cast — the movie, too, raises questions that it doesn’t answer. It has been said that Pinter liked to lead his audiences somewhere between reality and dream, and that is the effect of this film.

“The Last Tycoon” is Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood producer whose demanding personality, at least, Fitzgerald ostensibly based on MGM’s “boy genius,” Irving Thalberg. The premise of the film is that Stahr’s wife, who was a major star at the same studio, died suddenly and at an early age, and that Stahr has not gotten over it. In the meantime, he is engaged in a power struggle with studio executive Pat Brady, whose young daughter is in love with Stahr. In the aftermath of a minor earthquake, Stahr notices a young woman — Kathleen Moore — who strongly resembles his late wife. He becomes obsessed with Kathleen, pursues her, seduces her, loses her. As he unravels emotionally, he also runs afoul of his employer, allowing Brady to push him aside.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr

Stahr is played by a 36-year-old Robert De Niro in a performance so devoid of emotion that the audience gets no help in determining what this character’s reactions to people and situations really mean. Kathleen is played by Ingrid Boulting, a South African-born actress who is now an artist and yoga instructor in California. Her performance is much more interesting, but — thanks to the writing and direction — her character is inscrutable. Does she resent the fact that Stahr was attracted to her because of her resemblance to his lost love? Does she love him? Is she a woman easily used by men, is she a tease, or is she an opportunist — even a prostitute? What becomes of her? What becomes of Stahr?

INGRID BOULTING

It’s not the worst experience in the world — this not knowing; in fact, maybe it’s more like life than the movies usually are. At any rate, flawed or not, the story is well told by a cast that includes Robert Mitchum as Pat Brady; Jack Nicholson as a Communist who is trying to organize the studio’s writers; Dana Andrews as a director who incurs Stahr’s dissatisfaction; Ray Milland as a studio attorney; Tony Curtis as a top leading man; Donald Pleasance as a writer, and John Carradine in a brief but charming turn as a studio tour guide.

TONY CURTIS

A scene between De Niro and Curtis provides one of the best examples of Pinter’s approach. The leading man, Rodriguez confides in Stahr: the actor is in love with his wife but has become impotent, and not only with her. Stahr’s reaction to the inexplicable fact that the actor has come to him with this problem is, like the rest of De Niro’s performance, difficult to plumb. More than that, the scene ends abruptly — with no resolution– but when Rodriguez and his wife encounter Stahr later in the film, they appear deliriously happy with each other, and the change is never explained.

Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence

To give credit where it is deserved, I should mention that De Niro has one scene in this film that I could watch again and again. Stahr is having a confrontation with a British writer, Boxley, played by the great character actor Donald Pleasence. Boxley is complaining about the “hack” writers he’s working with, and he’s complaining about the story line on the film he has been assigned. In an attempt — fruitless, as it turns out — to get Boxley off the schneid, Stahr fabricates the fragment of a story line that has no beginning or end — a mysterious vignette about a girl who comes into a room, unaware that she’s being observed, with two dimes and  a nickel and a box of matches, and a pair of black gloves that she burns in a wood stove. De Niro tells this story with such skill, with such a teasing air of mystery, that he make the story irresistible and the desire to know the rest of it palpable.

If you don’t mind scrolling through the whole script, you can read that story at THIS LINK. It begins with Monroe Stahr’s words: “Listen … has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?” See if you can read that without thirsting for the rest of the story.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr

ROBERT De NIRO

We watched “What Just Happened,” an odd film starring Robert De Niro, who can’t be accused of never making interesting choices — “interesting” being a relative term.

This film was released in 2008 and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year. That was fair play inasmuch as the festival itself plays an important part in the movie. Although the title begins with an interrogative pronoun, it does not end with a question mark, which — as I tell my English students — mean that it is not a complete idea. The film is based on a novel which does have a question mark: “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Takes from the Front Line” by Art Linson.

ART LINSON

Linson has produced several films, including “Car Wash,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Untouchables,” and “The Black Dahlia,” and he purports to tell, in his novel, about some of his experiences while he was so employed.
In the movie, De Niro plays a producer, identified only as Ben, who has just completed filming a violent flick that stars Sean Penn. In the conclusion  of Ben’s movie, Penn’s character and the character’s dog are shot to death in a gratuitously violent scene. When the movie is screened, the studio head demands that at least the shooting of the dog be removed, and she threatens to either assign someone else to do the cutting or else pull the from the Cannes festival.
Ben takes this up with Jeremy Brunell, a renegade British director played by Michael Wincott, and Brunell blows his stack, insisting that he will not change his film. While this argument is under way, Ben, who is supporting two former wives and several children, runs into a problem on his next picture when Bruce Willis — like Penn, playing himself in this film — refuses to shave his beard for the part, a decision the studio won’t accept. In the midst of all this, Ben is also obsessed with the idea that  a screenwriter named Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci) is having sex with Ben’s second wife.

BRUCE WILLIS

All of these issues are resolved, so to speak, in manners bizarre enough to earn their places in this film.
Penn’s role is kind of innocuous, but it is interesting to see Willis portraying himself as an overblown jerk. It makes a body wonder.
This isn’t a movie to relax by. It’s full of frenetic shots and screamed profanity and violence both imagined and real. If one assumes that Linson is being at all truthful in describing the atmosphere in which movies are made, it is fun to watch this one while running in the back of one’s mind those vapid scenes on Oscar night when actors and directors and producers compliment each other on their shared “courage” and, hey, for “being there.”

Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, and Stanley Tucci in a scene from "What Just Happened"