“Why is life worth living?” Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) asks into a tape recorder in Allen's 1979 film Manhattan. His answers—random yet specific—include the crabs at Sam Wo’s, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues” and “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.” Here’s our version of that, certain elements of cinema that make our lives worth living, or at least make movies worth watching. They seem to come to us from out of nowhere, little pockets of breathtaking beauty, expert craftmanship and happy accidents. Here are ten such moments—random yet specific—that make us stick around for one more day.
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Alan Alda is born in New York City, 1936. Known primarily for his work on TV’s M*A*S*H (1972-1983), the actor began work in feature films in 1963 with Gone Are the Days!, an adaptation of Ossie Davis’s 1961-1962 Broadway play Purlie Victorious. To date, he has appeared in 33 motion pictures and worked with such prominent directors as David O. Russell (for 1996’s Flirting with Disaster) Martin Scorsese (receiving an Oscar nomination for 2004’s The Aviator), and, most recently, Steven Spielberg (for 2015’s Bridge of Spies). Alda performed in three Woody Allen films, the best of which was Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), with the actor earning raves for his performance as an arrogant television producer. But the director for which Alan Alda has worked most often is Alan Alda, who directed himself in The Four Seasons (1981), Sweet Liberty (1986), A New Life (1988) and Betsy’s Wedding (1990).
Freaks has its world premiere at the Fox Theater in San Diego, 1932. In spite of his detractors, MGM producer Irving Thalberg was firmly committed to bringing the unusual tale of romance and deception set in the world of circus sideshow performers to the screen. Screenwriter Willis Goldbreck was given the task of adapting Spurs, the Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins’s story that served as the genesis for Freaks, with the sole stipulation from Thalberg that it should be “horrible.” Complaints on the lot to Thalberg about the pinheads, dwarfs, limbless people, conjoined twins and others that comprised most of the cast were met with a reminder that, at MGM, all kinds of movies were being made and that director Tod Browning knew what he was doing. A dreadful test screening spurred Thalberg to make several edits, but not in time for the premiere in San Diego, which became the only theater to ever show the uncut version of the film. Lines were around the block and the Fox Theater enjoyed unprecedented business.
Cavalcade premiers in New York City, 1933. Throughout the course of the film, the Boer War is fought, Queen Victoria dies, the Titanic sinks and The Great War breaks out, all mere backdrops in the lives of Jane and Robert Marryot, the British couple at the center of Noël Coward’s drama. The London stage play opened in September of 1931, ran for 405 performances and was deftly snapped up by Fox Film in Hollywood. The movie became the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar winner.
Robert Duvall is born in San Diego, California, 1931. As a struggling actor in the mid-to-late 1950s, Duvall shared a New York apartment with fellow thespians Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, a grouping that would later yield a total of 19 Oscar nominations and five wins.
Hans Conried dies of a heart ailment in Burbank, California, 1982. His memorable turn as dictatorial piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) proved to be the stuff of nightmares, at least for the movie’s adolescent protagonist Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig). Conried’s other performance highlights included the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s animated feature Peter Pan (1953) and Uncle Tonoose on television’s Make Room for Daddy (1953).
Diane Keaton is born in Los Angeles, 1946. Before Something’s Gotta Give (2003), her forays into directing, her involvement with Warren Beatty—even before her early film career with Woody Allen—she was a Broadway performer in one of the seminal musicals of the 1960s. Of her experience in Hair, for which she was an understudy and eventual replacement for the Sheila character, Keaton remarked, “At the time it was astonishing to have a job. It was odd. Before the show opened we got a shot by a Dr. Bishop. A vitamin shot, only it was not vitamins. It was like methamphetamines. You were flying. A lot of people got addicted.” Her next show—Allen’s Play It Again, Sam—earned her a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Her personal relationship with Allen led to the couple performing in eight films together, including the 1972 movie version of the play.
Christopher Isherwood dies of cancer in Santa Monica, California, 1986. The British-born author’s writing touched ten feature films, beginning with Little Friend in 1934. Highlights over the years included his screenplay for The Loved One (1965), a satire on the funeral business based on the Evelyn Waugh book, and A Single Man (2009), about an English professor in early 1960s Los Angeles, with a screenplay adapted from Isherwood’s novel by Tom Ford and David Scearce. Isherwood’s crowning achievement, however, undoubtedly stems from the writer’s experiences in the sexually liberated nightclub culture of Weimar Germany.
His short novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin were first published in 1935 and 1939, respectively, and combined to form The Berlin Stories, published in 1945. Next, derived from the Isherwood tales, came John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which became a successful Broadway play and, in 1955, a rather unsuccessful film, both starring Julie Harris as Sally Bowles. Bowles became the central figure of Cabaret, a Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb that debuted at the Broadhurst Theater on 1966 and ran for 1,165 performances. The show was significantly reworked for the screen—certain songs and characters added while others were deleted, and most of the musical numbers where shifted to the confines of the story’s main setting, The Kit Kat Club. Directed by Bob Fosse, Cabaret (1972) was a landmark movie musical, winning eight Oscars and defining the career of its star, Liza Minnelli.
Mae Questel dies of Alzheimer’s disease in New York City, 1998. The character actress enjoyed a 58-year movie career, beginning in 1931 with the first of her more than 150 Betty Boop shorts, for which she provided the voice of the animated, Jazz Age sex symbol. In later years, she played a middle-aged bride in Jerry Lewis’s It’s Only Money (1962) and a card-playing pal to Fanny Brice’s mother in Funny Girl (1968). In 1983, she was heard on the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s Zelig singing “Chameleon Days” and, in 1989, she scored two memorable appearances—in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and in “Oedipus Wrecks,” a section of the film New York Stories. In “Oedipus Wrecks,” she was Allen’s overbearing Jewish mother who disappears during a magic act and ends up hovering over Manhattan (above).
Here’s a glimpse of her turn as Woody’s mom.
Thelma Ritter dies of a heart attack in New York, 1969. She had a small but memorable role as a beleaguered Christmas shopper in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), her film debut. From there, she became regularly employed and oft-nominated, receiving six Oscar nods (and no wins) for Best Supporting Actress for the films All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1953), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
In the early 1960s, Ritter appeared in two features that strangely echoed each other. The Second Time Around, a comedy-western about a New York widow having to work as an Arizona farmhand, was released to theaters on December 22, 1961. A year later, How the West Was Won, a Cinerama production about the settling of the American West as seen through the eyes of two families, premiered (oddly enough) in London. In both films, Ritter played almost identical types and acted opposite Debbie Reynolds. And, in both films, her character was named Aggie.
Charlotte Rampling is born in Sturmer, England, 1946. From her first film, The Knack…and How to Get It (1965), to later successes like Swimming Pool (2003), she has never been less than terrific. She was Lynn Redgrave’s sharp-edged flatmate in Georgy Girl (1966), a sadomasochistic concentration camp survivor in The Night Porter (1974) and a treacherous mate for Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982). But it is her performance as the emotionally complex Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories that is my favorite.
The movie, about filmmaker Sandy Bates (Allen) who rather begrudgingly endures a film festival of his work and the fans it attracts, is to Federico Fellini what Allen’s Interiors (1978) was to Ingmar Bergman—direct beneficiaries of the legendary directors’ themes and visual styles. "She was just right for that part.” Allen once said. “I mean, she is so beautiful and so sexy and so interesting. She has an interesting neurotic quality." The actress was similarly laudatory towards her director, calling him “brilliant at creating entertaining reality, opening up closed doors and exposing monsters."
One scene involving Rampling stands apart: Dorrie, in a psychiatric hospital, gets a visit from Bates and talks directly to the camera in a series of jump cuts shot in extreme close-up. It is a Jean-Luc Godard moment in a sea of Fellini, a nod to Breathless (1960) in Woody’s own private 8 1/2 (1963).
Here's the scene: