Cinefile: Aging actors and dead masters

Christopher Walken in 'Hairspray': If more musicals were made today, he could have been the contemporary Gene Kelly.

As I watched John Travolta in Hairspray, in drag and a fat suit (not that he needed much padding), singing and dancing his heart out as Edna Turnblad, the plucky heroine's obese, agoraphobic mother, I thought back nearly 30 years to another summer musical, Grease. Whether or not you were a Travolta fan, in the summer of 1978 there was no getting away from the movie. Its songs were on the radio constantly, and photos of a young Travolta as lovable greaser Danny Zuko dancing with Olivia Newton-John were on posters everywhere. Maybe it's just me, but it was hard to sit in the theater without comparing the gorgeous Danny Zuko to today's Edna Turnblad. It's considered healthy and fun when actors parody themselves with over-the-top roles as Travolta has in Hairspray, but I couldn't help thinking there was something grotesque and sad about it. Travolta doesn't manage to lose himself in the role as completely as Divine (an actual drag queen) did in the original 1988 non-musical Hairspray by John Waters. That movie had more bite, and wasn't quite as saccharine as the musical, although the new version, in spite of my observations on how Travolta has gone to seed (and who hasn't, after all?) is a good show. The cast is terrific: Nikki Blonsky, supposedly discovered working at an ice-cream parlor, is suitably perky as Tracy, the overweight girl who improbably becomes the star of a teen dance TV program. Michele Pfeiffer (who, to continue the Grease motif, had her first starring role in Grease 2) plays a former beauty queen and the nasty mom of Tracy's svelte rival. It's the first performance she's given since Married to the Mob that made me think she might have even the slightest sense of humor. Allison Janney (best known as C.J. Cregg on West Wing) is nearly unrecognizable and extremely funny as the Bible-thumping mother of Tracy's best friend. In the dance department, the real treasure is Christopher Walken as Tracy's father, who gets one big number. Walken is a brilliant dancer who had a show-stopping number in Pennies from Heaven but has rarely danced on screen since (except for the memorable Fatboy Slim Weapon of Choice video). If only there were more musicals made today, Walken would be the contemporary Gene Kelly. AFTER THE RECENT deaths of cinema masters Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, the Internet Movie Database Website ( ), a free site for film fans, ran two polls, asking readers to pick their favorite film by each. By the end of the Bergman day, 45.5 percent of those responding said they had yet to see a Bergman film, and at the end of the Antonioni day, 64.8% said they hadn't seen an Antonioni movie. There is nothing statistically significant about these polls, but it is disturbing that on a site for movie lovers, so many had never seen a film by these legends. It's probably due to the fact that this site tends to attract younger viewers. Recent movies have far more posts in the User Comments section than classics, which strengthens that assumption. When I was in college, movie buffs like me dominated the film club, and showings of classics like Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim were SRO. Something tells me that's not the case on college campuses anymore. At least here we have the cinematheques, where the average age of audiences tends to be on the 20-something, 30-something side. There's nothing wrong with older audiences, of course, but when there are no young people on the aisle, you have to wonder how long a tradition will continue. SOME OF the most sophisticated programming at any of the cinematheques this month can be found at Sderot, which is offering a retrospective of comic master (now an ultra-Orthodox rabbi) Uri Zohar, the Brazilian film festival, a program of documentaries marking two years since the withdrawal from Gaza, and a selection of Israeli films eligible for the Ophir Awards. Anyone who attends the Zohar retrospective will receive a coupon for a free coffee at the cinematheque café - presumably to encourage them to keep talking about the film. That's a good idea; maybe some of the other cinematheques can do this for certain programs as well.