Ben's Top Pick for September
CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973) - September 13
In November, 1977, James Caan headed to Chicago to promote his latest movie--a western romance with Geneviéve Bujold--Another Man, Another Chance. In an interview with Gene Siskel, Caan expressed regret over the movies he made after breaking out with The Godfather. "My beef now is with myself over the choice of movies I've made since I've had the opportunity to choose," Caan told Siskel.
No doubt, Caan made some forgettable pictures. Slither, Harry and Walter Go to New York, Freebie and the Bean and The Killer Elite are unlikely to find their way into the Criterion Collection any time soon - or ever. But Caan called out two movies from the post-Godfather era that made him proud: The Gambler from 1974 and Cinderella Liberty, produced and directed by Mark Rydell, from 1973, the year after The Godfather.
Caan plays a career sailor on leave in New York - he's stuck there. The Navy has lost his papers, so he can't get paid and he can't get a new assignment at sea. He meets an attractive woman playing pool in a bar, played by Marsha Mason. Turns out she's a prostitute raising her young son and living in a tenement. The movie defies convention. Caan is a reluctant savior - he's not even sure why he's doing what he does, but we can imagine that as a Navy lifer he's struggled to make lasting and meaningful emotional attachments. And Mason is a no hooker with a heart of gold. She's a hooker with a heart of copper, maybe bronze. She's jaded, though she maintains some degree of hope. But when things go wrong, her cynicism proves powerful.
20th Century-Fox sent Rydell a copy of Darryl Ponicsan's book and Rydell agreed to direct it, but only this single chapter about the sailor on leave and the hooker. Fox agreed. But then Rydell surprised Fox. He wanted to hire Marsha Mason, whom he'd seen in a play, to star opposite Caan. Prior to that, she had only one small part in a single movie - a spaghetti western five years earlier. Unsurprisingly, Fox balked - the studio wanted a star. Rydell insisted on Mason. Fox agreed, but slashed his budget in half. Then the studio saw the dailies and realized what they had in Mason. She earned the first of her four Oscar nominations for Best Actress. Humbled, Fox restored Rydell's budget. Just kidding. That literally never happens.
I learned this backstory from Mark Rydell himself as part of our Spotlight this month on the Motion Picture Television Fund. For 96 years, the MPTF has been, in its own words, "helping the entertainment community live and age well, with dignity and purpose." Fifteen guests - all of them either residents, volunteers or supporters of the MPTF - each picked a movie, usually one they worked on in some capacity.
It's one of the most meaningful Spotlight series we've ever done. It was an honor to hear these Hollywood artists - actors, writers, directors, members of the crew - tell their stories. And it was a pleasure to watch or re-watch their movies. They picked some quality films, Cinderella Liberty among them.
by Ben Mankiewicz