Monday, March 07, 2011

Alan Arkin – A Tribute


On Sunday morning, March 6th, the Spring semester of my movie class began its weekend bonuses – this time, however, it was something that was a bit unorthodox because they didn’t actually show a movie.  Instead, they paid tribute to the legendary character actor Alan Arkin who, among his many other accomplishments, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the grandfather in the 2006 movie “Little Miss Sunshine”.  The reason for his appearance was because of the fact that he is currently touring the country to promote his memoir, An Improvised Life

The tribute began with a short video that contained a montage of clips from a wide variety of movies in which Arkin appeared throughout his long and storied career.  The scenes included such movies as, “The Russians Are Coming!  The Russians Are Coming!”, “Little Murders”, “Papi”, “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, “The In-Laws”, “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Little Miss Sunshine”.  While the majority of the audience seemed to give the greatest reaction to “The In-Laws” (one of the really great comedies made in my lifetime), “Little Miss Sunshine” received polite recognition.  For me, however, the best clips shown were from “Little Murders” (a dark comedy based on Jules Pfeiffer’s play that’s laugh out loud funny) and “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” (a drama based on the Carson McCullers novel, where Arkin played in a scene opposite Chuck McCann). 

Following that video retrospective, the instructor took over and conducted an extensive interview with Arkin  for the remainder of the time.  Over a decade ago, Arkin – a lifelong New Yorker – moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives to this day in semi-retirement.  Periodically, he teaches courses in improvisational acting.  This, in part, was one of the reasons why he called his story “An Improvised Life” – referring to his book as a “memoir” something of a misnomer, he stated that it is more a reflection of his life in acting.  As an example, he asked the audience how many who were over 50 have actually followed through on the original plan they had for themselves in life – no one raised a hand.  Arkin suggested that if anyone over the age of 50 actually had followed their original life plan, they would probably be quite miserable people by now.  His point, then, was simply that we all wind up needing to improvise our life – we try, we succeed or fail and depending on the success or failure, we improvise – in other words, we tweak our original life plan to accommodate our current situation. 

Of course, Arkin spent time talking about some of his experiences shooting his many movies over the years.  With “The In-Laws”, he said making that movie was one of the most pleasurable experiences of his professional life.  He added that following the success of the film, he and Peter Falk were offered another opportunity to work together – not a sequel to “The In-Laws”, but rather, another comedy that would be something of a buddy movie.  Arkin says that they were sent a script that was one of the funniest he had ever read but when they went into rehearsal, they found that the director didn’t quite get the comedy, so the film was never made.  By contrast, of his role in “Wait Until Dark”, Arkin said that he disliked doing that movie despite his immense admiration for Audrey Hepburn; his reason for his dislike was due to the character he portrayed – he didn’t like playing a character that was so dark and so evil. 

Below is a trailer for the movie, “The Russians Are Coming!”, where Arkin plays the Russian submarine commander being interviewed by Carl Reiner.  While a dated movie, it remains very funny, especially if you either remember or are at least aware of the political climate, fears and paranoia of that time – especially in comparison to modern life, where our concerns folks on Muslim terrorists rather than Russian Communists. 

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