Drinking wine in the sunshine with Patrick Swayze

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Patrick Swayze jumped menacingly from the corral fence to the dusty ground of his ranch in the flats next to the Angeles Forest in La Canada. “Steve McQueen said what?” he said. “There’s nothing tough about making movies,” I repeated. Swayze shook his head. “God, I loved that man but that sounds like bullshit to me.”

That was a long time ago before Swayze had hits like “Dirty Dancing”, “Ghost” and “Point Break”. He would have turned 65 today but Swayze died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 in 2009. When I spent a day with him in 1985, when he was 33, he was full of life, feisty and combative.

I drove out to his spread just after lunch as his wife, Lisa Niemi, was just heading out. Swayze greeted me with a wave of a bottle of red wine. “You boys behave, now,” Niemi said before she left. Swayze kissed her and he was pouring wine before the door closed behind her. Energetic and immensely likeable, the young actor couldn’t sit still and suggested we take our glasses – and the bottle – out to the corral so he could show me his horses.

We stood in the California sunshine as he told me about making movies: “I’ll tell you about tough. For ‘Red Dawn’, I was in the Rockies in winter at 10,000 feet and 30-below. For ‘Uncommon Valor’, I was in a jungle fighting heavyweight boxer Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, who nearly killed me because he didn’t know how to pull a punch.”

For the 12-hour ABC-TV miniseries “North and South”, he spent more than six months filming on location in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina, often in sweltering conditions. Swayze said, “The key there was speed. You better be ready and able to deliver or you got problems – you blow your performance, you blow your goals, you blow your ambitions. I think Steve McQueen was full of shit.”

Swayze paused and realised what he’d just said. He made a wide grin. “Of course, if was he was comparing acting to what it takes for the average Joe to get through from eight to five without becoming a lunatic, then he was talking straight. Comparatively, making movies is a dream.”

We drank to that. “Still,” he said, “the only thing that will make my career last is if I always deliver 100%. If I don’t, I’ll have no one to blame but myself if my career peters out.”

His co-star in “North and South”, the delectable but steely Lesley Anne Down (pictured with Swayze above), then 31, took a wry view of the actor’s energy. “Mine has faded,” she told me. “I don’t know how long he’s been in the industry but I’ve been in it for 21 years. I want to put my energy into other things now.”

On location for the Civil War series, Swayze said, “It was very hot wearing West Point woollen uniforms and great coats in 100-plus degrees,” and Down agreed: “You’d be uncomfortable, too, if you had to wear dresses that weighed 40 pounds with six petticoats and those bloody corsets.” She recalled the balmy days in England when she starred in “Upstairs, Downstairs”: “We used to wander in at 1 o’clock, have tea and buns, play cricket, do about an hour’s worth of work and all pootle off at 5. This was totally different. Totally.”

It was all grist for Swayze, who told me, “I work non-stop. I work like a crazy man and I love it. My father died not too long ago and I realised, ‘What the hell? What’s the insecurity? What’s the fear?’ Go for it!”

As a child, he studied with his mother, dancer/teacher Patsy Swayze (“Urban Cowboy”), at her studio in Houston, Texas. As a fiercely enthusiastic high-school athlete, he was offered scholarships in gymnastics, diving, track and football but instead he joined the “Disney on Parade” touring show, performing all over the U.S. for a year. After a stint as an ice skater in Houston, he moved to New York and studied with the Harkness, Joffrey and Feld dance companies. His first chance on Broadway was with Joel Grey in “Goodtime Charley” and then he followed John Travolta as the lead in the long-running “Grease”.

Hollywood beckoned and, after a series of appearances in TV movies and series (notably as a soldier dying of leukemia in an episode of “M*A*S*H”), he made his first feature film, “Skatetown, U.S.A.” in 1979. He was busy after that, mostly in tough-guy roles but he didn’t always like the results. He dismissed “Skatetown, U.S.A.” as “garbage” and of the cult picture “The Outsiders” in 1963, he said, “They sold out the story of three brothers and turned it into a Matt Dillon flick. ‘Red Dawn’ could have been a legend but it was sold out for the action.” The Swayze grin appeared again: “I voice non-stop. If anything will blow my career, it’s because I open my mouth too much.”

He was proud of “North and South” not only for his performance – “My best work” – but because of its clear-eyed view of the American Civil War: “I don’t believe ‘Gone with the Wind’ cut it. It made that time look pretty. This show tells it straight because the South was wrong about slavery but the North was wrong about immigrants.”

When “Dirty Dancing” (pictured above) came out in 1987, Swayze spoke positively to me about it although he said that it’s really Jennifer Grey’s movie. Daughter of his first co-star Joel Grey, she plays the girl who becomes a woman in the story. He said, “The picture took a lot of real work and passion, I was concerned going into it. Would a sweet, simple story work these days? It’s so difficult to get a message across subtly. It’s not brilliant but I think the movie’s a breath of fresh air.”

So was Patrick Swayze. I recall well that afternoon at his ranch with the wine, the horses and the sunshine when life was full of promise. He said he retreated to his ranch between projects because “horses don’t mess with you; dogs don’t mess with you; you do it right and they work beautifully for you”.

He didn’t view Hollywood the same way: “As fast as you’re hot in this business, you can be not-hot. People can be talking about you so quickly it makes your head spin. But I don’t care. I don’t have to have this film career. I really don’t care.”

Once again, Swayze heard himself, stopped and grinned: “I do care. That’s bullshit, that’s a lie. I do care.”

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FILM REVIEW: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The bleak but beautiful frozen wilds of Utah substitute readily for Montana in Taylor Sheridan’s taut, violent and gripping crime drama “Wind River” in which Jeremy Renner is both cool and moving as a troubled hunter who helps Elizabeth Olsen’s plausible FBI agent on the trail of a murderer and rapist.

Sheridan wrote Denis Villeneuve’s pulsating border war thriller “Sicario” (2015) and David Mackenzie’s superior bank robbery tale “Hell or High Water”, one of the finest films of 2016, and his second film as director (“Vile” in 2011 was his first) has the same scintillating tension and depth.

The picture succeeds on many levels, not least as a human drama and exciting chase, but also as the rape and murder of a young Native American woman touches on serious issues that affect those who live on reservations across the United States.

Renner plays Cory Lambert, a skilled hunter whose job is to find and despatch beasts who prey on the local folk and their animals in remote and mountainous country. Haunted by personal loss and separated from his wife, he maintains a warm and caring relationship with his son and Renner shines in showing all sides of a complex character who also can be very dangerous.

Olsen does a sterling job as Jane Banner, summoned from the Las Vegas office to investigate the murder alone without much experience and with no winter clothes. Resourceful and commanding but smart enough to know she needs help, she recruits Lambert as clues lead to another murder and a crew of macho but miserable security men at a local mine.

Sheridan’s dialogue sparkles in the dynamic between the two and in scenes with disillusioned senior Native Americans including Graham Greene, as a local lawman, and Tantoo Cardinal as Lambert’s gruff father-in-law. Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbile, and Gil Birmingham make fine contributions as does Jon Bernthal, in a savvy bit of casting to which he brings his tyical menace.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) captures the beauty and wildness of the remote locations while composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide impressively mournful and reflective tones.

Released: US: Aug. 4 (The Weinstein Co.) / UK: Sept. 8 (STX Entertainment); Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, James Jordan, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbile, Martin Sensmeier, Tokala Clifford, Tantoo Cardinal; Writer, director: Taylor Sheridan; Director of photography: Ben Richardson; Production designer: Neil Spisak; Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; Costume designer: Keri Perkins; Editor: Gary Roach; Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Peter Berg, Matthew George, Wayne Rogers; Executive producers: Erica Lee, Jonathan Fuhrman, Braden Aftergood, Tim White, Trevor White, Christopher H. Warner, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Nik Bower, Deepak Nayar, Nicolas Chartier, Jonathan Deckter, Joni Sighvatsson, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua, Agnes Mentré; Production: Thunder Road, Film 44, Savvy Media Holdings; Rating: US:R / UK:TBA; running time: 107 minutes.

Photos: Fred Hayes

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The night Jeanne Moreau and I had square bottoms

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Standing alone in the middle of the stalls before a concert in Ghent, I saw the petite figure of a woman enter the hall and stroll to the seat directly in front of me. She turned and put out her right hand. “Allo,” she said. “I’m Jeanne Moreau.” Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a spectacular fireworks show filled with exciting action but as a record of an iconic World War II event it falls short and as human drama it’s a damp squib.

When fighter planes are screaming, bombs are exploding and bullets are flying, it’s pulsating stuff with a gut-punching battle between sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s score, which the composer wins through sheer verve and ingenuity. Continue reading

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Do film critics matter any more?

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When everyone is a critic, who needs critics?

It’s a question asked more and more in the movie industry as the ranks of mainstream critics dwindle and the tide of those with something to say online surges ever stronger.

The consensus is that some critics do still matter but their employers, the film industry and the general public hold them in less esteem than they used to. Meanwhile, everyone’s on Facebook. And Twitter. And YouTube. And Instagram. Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Vincent Perez’s ‘Alone in Berlin’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – For those who have not read Hans Fallada’s terrifying novel “Alone in Berlin”, Vincent Perez’s film version is probably a mildly absorbing drama about two people bucking the odds. For those who have read it, the film is hugely disappointing. Continue reading

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Lalo Schifrin on his love of the music for ‘Tango’

By Ray Bennett

Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin, who turns 85 today, is known for his concerts, recordings, film scores such as “Bullitt”, “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dirty Harry” and TV shows such as “Mission: Impossible” and “Mannix” but one of his most treasured works was for Carlos Saura’s Oscar-nominated musical “Tango”.

“I feel very proud of being involved in that movie,” Schifrin told me in 1998 just before the film had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Continue reading

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Twenty of the best films of the century so far


By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The New York Times critics have named their choices of the best movies of the 21st century so far. They include titles such as “I’m Not There”, “L’Enfant” and “The 40-Year Old Virgin” but ignore fine films such as “Arrival”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Inception”.

Any such list is, of course, subjective. We all can think of great films overlooked but here, in alphabetical order, are 20 more films that for me have been highlights of the century so far. All are available on Blu-ray and/or DVD except “The Sun Also Rises”. Continue reading

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A subjective list of movie scores that I like very much

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “A good music score,” two-time Academy Award winner Randy Newman told me, “cannot turn a bad movie into a good movie but it can raise its IQ by a couple of notches.”

My friends at the World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent recently drew attention to a ranking of the best film soundtracks published sometime ago in The Guardian newspaper and when I said it was a terrible list, they asked me to make my own suggestions, so here goes. Continue reading

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Memories of KFMF’s brilliant 2017 birthday party

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Most big film shindigs including Festival de Cannes and events from Berlin to Venice are like being in a bubble. When you’re there, nothing else matters. As soon as it’s over, you forget about it. The Krakow Film Music Festival (KFMF) is the exception.

Every year, those lucky enough to be there continue to share memories long after it ends. KFMF’s principal organisers, Robert Piaskowski and Agata Grabowiecka oversee a dedicated team and a flock of volunteers each year to produce a festival that celebrates film and television music in the best possible way: they invite the best. Continue reading

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