Saturday, June 05, 2010

They're Smart . . . And They Want Respect

As a cheapskate, I don't enjoy shelling out good money for an extra TV channel. However, HBO makes a strong case for itself. This season, the big TV event on HBO was "The Pacific," Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg's mini-series about four US Marines that fought the Japanese in World War II.

All in all, "The Pacific" was an entertaining but inferior companion piece to "Band of Brothers." In a way, it wasn't fair. The action in the Pacific was spread out in time and place in a way that kept most of the main characters apart for the the entire series. Throw in the fact that 90% of the cast consisted of twenty-something men in similar uniforms, and you end up with a storyline that's difficult to follow.

Overall, "The Pacific" was disappointing. "True Blood" is boring vampire crap, "Big Love" is just awful, and "Real Time With Bill Maher" is insufferably smug, arrogant, and wrongheaded. So why do I like HBO? This spring, I came across a couple of documentaries that were as well made as anything I've ever seen. The first chronicles what is in my opinion the best sports rivalry of my lifetime: "Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals." As the Lakers and Celtics face off in yet another NBA Finals, this is a good time to revisit the Magic versus Bird era.

We all know the facts about the competition between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. We know that they had different personalities, but shared an understanding of their game that few had. What we didn't know was the deep hatred that Bird had for Magic. We didn't know that Magic, despite being an athelete, wasn't used to being hated and decided to start hating back. Ultimately both men basically said, "I wanted to be the best there ever was, and I would have been if that guy wasn't in my way." The story chronicles their hatred turning to respect turning to friendship. Few people could understand what it was like to be Magic or Bird. But they both understood and that created a bond.

I'd highly recomend this documentary. It's the best sports documentary I've seen since . . . 2008's HBO's "Back Nine At Cherry Hills: Legends of the 1960 US Open." This documentary tells the story of three golf legends who fought for the Open title: the aged and crippled champion Ben Hogan, the amatuer phenomenon Jack Nicklaus, and the king of golf Arnold Palmer. Magic and Bird had nothing on this threesome, all of which had a chance for a late run at their nation's championship.

The common bond of these documentaries is that they feature men who were the best of the best. They were at odds with each other because that's what their craft demanded. Yesterday, I ran across a similar documentary about a man who was the best of the best at a different craft.

John Cazale's acting resume only includes five feature films. But what films they were: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Lung cancer took him at age 42 (a sobering thought), depriving audiences of a great artist.

The documentary "I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale," shows his contemporaries praising him. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep all explain how working with Cazale made them better actors. Steve Buscemi and Philip Seymore Hoffman, who never worked with Cazale, explain how it's easier to play the leading man than the weakling.

Cazale was the master of playing complex characters. Fredo Corleone, his best known character knew he was weak. He felt shame and he wished things were different. Buscemi rightly opines that many actors could have played the tough and angry Sonny, but only Cazale could make Fredo credible. Without a credible Fredo, the Godfather saga isn't a masterpiece.