I spent my moviegoing life avoiding Ingmar Bergman movies. A few glimpses of The Seventh Seal or Persona made me think they were not accessible. I also knew Woody Allen worshipped him, so surely they were over my head. It was while working on my Ikea-sponsored web series Easy to Assemble that I thought: Well, if I’m going to be satirizing Swedish culture, I should watch some Bergman. He became the director from whom I have learned the most. He gave me the courage not to shy away from pain, which is the core of all comedy. The results are apparent in “Finding North,” an episode in Easy to Assemble’s third season, and all my writing since.
I chose Wild Strawberries because in it I found the key that changed my work forever. I always lived in a daydream, where sometimes things felt real and sometimes they felt imagined. So much of an actor’s life is imagination.
Wild Strawberries is a road-trip movie about an old man who looks back at his life, his loves, his regrets, and has to face certain truths about himself. The story is not revealed by flashbacks, though. It’s revealed by going from reality to daydream. He reflects on his past with a nostalgia for childhood. This makes reality feel more present and his relationship with his grown son and daughter-in-law more uncomfortable. Have you ever been in the presence of someone having an argument and thought, I can’t believe they revealed that to me? That is every scene in a Bergman film! After his wife died, Bergman said, “I was in a room built of my own sorrow.” No other sentence expresses the pain of losing a loved one in such a poetic way. His words are so revealing, and coupled with the right emotions, the right images, they bring me as close to the human experience as anything I have experienced in a film. There is another reason Wild Strawberries has a special place in my heart. In 2013, because of my involvement in Easy to Assemble, I was cast in a Swedish-American show called Welcome to Sweden. I like to imagine that Bergman had a hand in that. I shot a scene with Lena Olin in which we picked wild strawberries. It was not imagined, though. That really happened!
It’s the first Fellini film I ever saw, so I think it’s my favorite. My Italian relatives always told me we were distantly related to Fellini—not sure if there is any truth in that, but that’s one of the reasons we went to see it. “Oh yeah, he’s our cousin,” they would say. Growing up with Italians, you see that life is absurd: it’s a circus, with some sex in it, and Amarcord simply confirmed that for me. I can watch this movie again and again; it’s that enjoyable. And although some scenes are over the top—and yes, Fellini is obsessed with big-bottomed women and very large breasts—it’s a movie about his childhood. And by learning about his childhood, I learned to appreciate my own.
When I was young, I spent every summer with my Italian relatives in Astoria, Queens. Here’s what I learned: every day is a drama, and it all ends with everyone laughing and drinking wine and eating spaghetti. There was an unbelievable tale to be heard about every third cousin. Somebody would whisper, “That’s Rose—the day her mother died, her face froze into a scowl. And that’s why she looks like that.” We never questioned these things. Listening to stories was part of the immigrant experience. Amarcord feels that way. Fellini is telling stories about people in his village, but I related to all the stories.
This was a movie my Italian relatives took me to, that they wanted to see so they could see themselves and laugh. I think that by watching how much they enjoyed the movie, I began to understand and appreciate my own culture for the first time.
Watching Amarcord was also the first time I experienced the music of the great Nino Rota. When you think of Fellini, you always think of the music, which acts as the perfect bridge between the stories. I challenge anyone to see this film and not want to make love. Amarcord means “I remember.” You will remember.
My Life as a Dog
There is something so moving about this film—you either love it or it’s not for you. And if you don’t love it, we can’t be friends. I was going to acting school in New York City when I first saw it. I literally went to see it because of the poster. I loved the poster. I thought: It’s about a boy and his dog—I’m in.
I love a movie where you know in the first five minutes, Yes, I’m going to love this movie—and that’s what happened to me the first time I saw it. The young hero, Ingemar, a child living in 1950s Sweden, begins to narrate his life story, and in a very poignant but accepting way he says, Well, it could have been worse, I could have been like the little dog that the Russians sent to space with no way to get back. We see a picture of the poor dog—I was crying five minutes into the film!
My Life as a Dog is the best coming-of-age story I’ve ever seen, because it captures sadness without ever being sappy. It captures the helplessness you feel as a child when you are trying to cope with loss and change and you have no power. It captures how sometimes complete strangers can make small gestures that as children we don’t recognize but as adults we come to understand as the best they could offer.
Harlan County USA
Barbara Kopple is one of my favorite filmmakers. What I love about her films is that she gains a unique trust from and access to her subjects. That must be a reflection of the filmmaker and the woman herself. She’s a trailblazer, a role model, and a great director.
Harlan County USA won an Academy Award, and while Kopple has made other films, this is seminal viewing. Yes, it’s a great documentary about a coal miners’ strike in 1973, but it’s much more than that. It’s a history lesson about coal miners, and we need to honor that, and not forget the men who died taking coal out of this earth. It’s also a portrait of Eastern Kentucky. The rural atmosphere is captured through songs and stories that harken back to our pioneers. At some point, it becomes not just a great documentary but a testimony to the strength of the women of Harlan County, who are the spine of the film. They risked their lives to keep this strike going. And all the while, the camera is capturing it. A grieving mother at her son’s funeral, a wife pulling a gun out of her bra and saying she’s not giving up, an elderly woman leading a group in singing “Bloody Harlan.” They lost sons and husbands, but they never stopped fighting. If we forget their struggle, and the struggle of all the workers who built this country, we are lost. Harlan County USA should be shown more than it is now, that’s for sure.
When I interviewed Kopple about this film, I asked her about the effect that filming these people had on her, and she said, “I learned what it was to be brave.” She used her camera to create social change, and by using her camera to film the women of Harlan County, I believe, she gave them courage. That is the power of film.
The poster for Vagabond is an image of a woman with strange, defiant eyes and hair like that of an unkempt animal. In 1985, I was living in New York and going to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. I had a pretty wild roommate named Lizzie who was really into punk rock. She would party all night and sleep all day. This poster was over her bed. You get the picture. She took me to see Vagabond. I still haven’t recovered.
This film introduced me to the director Agnès Varda. Varda has a film language all her own, and anyone who wants to direct will learn story and camera technique by watching Vagabond. You’ll have a field day wondering how she constructed the seamless tracking shots. I had the opportunity to interview Varda, and she gave me the following insight with a glint in her eye: “I try to make something look simple.” Vagabond is a seemingly simple story that gets more complex as you watch it.
It begins almost like Sunset Blvd. In the French countryside, the dead body of a young woman is discovered. She’s frozen as if she’s been there for days, and we don’t know anything about her. There is voice-over by Varda herself, not the victim. Who is this woman? How did she get here? Varda will explain for us.
The movie plays with time, a theme in Varda’s work that she also explores in Cléo from 5 to 7. With tracking shots moving right to left, Varda goes back in time to reconstruct the events that led to this young woman freezing to death in a ditch. Sandrine Bonnaire’s performance is very raw, almost self-destructive, but very effective. There’s a “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling as you watch her. Every act of rebellion, every bottle of booze, every man she has sex with, brings her closer and closer to her demise. Even when someone is genuinely kind to her, you are wondering when the next act of betrayal will come. The world is a tough place, and sometimes the only grace is the dignity of death. Frozen and still.
“What have you done to its eyes?”
How does a movie become a classic? Is it timing? Was it the dream-team collaboration of Paramount, Polanski, and Robert Evans? Was it producer William Castle, the mastermind who purchased the Ira Levin novel with plans to make it himself? Was it Mia Farrow, who had been painted with the brush of scandal after marrying Frank Sinatra? Did the devil himself have a hand in it? Whatever the reasons, my fascination with this film has never waned. There’s an enjoyment in watching Rosemary’s Baby that is similar to another gothic horror film, The Shining. It’s like listening to an album you love. Seeing the repetition of familiar scenes and faces. Shaking your head at Rosemary’s innocence as she tries to convince people that her neighbors might just be in a cult with Satan!
Another highlight is the production design and cinematography. Not a frame is out of place, and it’s beautiful to look at. It captures a kind of sixties avant-garde vibe. I get the feeling Warhol would have liked this film. There are all sorts of great exterior location shots of New York, and the Dakota building on Seventy-Second Street adds the right spookiness.
Does anyone remember or talk about what an amazing actress Mia Farrow is? Watch Broadway Danny Rose, and then watch Rosemary’s Baby. There’s some range there! Farrow as Rosemary has a beautiful, waifish glamour, enhanced by short dresses that make her seem more fragile and doll-like. John Cassavetes playing the “actor.” I love that he’s an “actor.” I love that his name is Guy! He makes a great prince of darkness. With his dark eyes and leering smile, well, you know he’s guilty of something the minute you see him. Then we have Ruth Gordon, who almost steals the film. Her caftan-wearing, mousse-making devil worshipper is the perfect amount of comic relief. I also love Charles Grodin as the fink doctor who squeals on Rosemary. Ralph Bellamy: terrifying! Every woman’s nightmare! Maybe that’s why I love it: Rosemary’s Baby plays on every woman’s fears. The man I married is different. Oh wait—maybe he’s sold his soul to the devil!
All That Jazz
This is a movie about showbiz, musicals, death, Bob Fosse, his love life: it’s all over the map. I can’t tell you what it’s about, but I love it. It’s so sexy. The first ten minutes are a feat of editing and music. One of the great openings of a musical. “It’s showtime,” says Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, a thinly veiled portrait of Fosse himself. Little echoes of Joel Grey singing “Willkommen” in Cabaret. Gideon is our master of ceremonies, warning us to get ready to see some blood, sweat, and tears. I love movie musicals about showbiz—The Band Wagon, A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain—and this really fits in that genre, with the dark edge of The Bad and the Beautiful. That should have been a musical directed by Fosse!
Fosse as a choreographer turned director reminds me of another director I love, Stanley Donen. Aside from dance and music, their movies have another thing in common: incredible editing. All That Jazz and Lenny both play around with time in a way the Donen film Two for the Road does.
A lot has been written about Fosse and his love of Fellini films. All That Jazz does borrow from 8½, but this is not an homage. Fosse, inspired by Fellini, created something new. It’s a tragedy that Fosse didn’t live longer, because in his five films—Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, and Star 80—I see what could have been one of the great filmmakers of all time. Imagine Bob Fosse directing Chicago! All That Jazz is the beginning of that journey. It’s as if all his gifts—the love of dance and the inspiration from Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole; the personal and profound collaboration with his partner, Gwen Verdon; and the man himself—were coming into focus.
Ride the Pink Horse
I’ve always found Robert Montgomery to be a somewhat mysterious figure. He was in comedies, but he never seemed very funny. He played likable people but was not well liked. His right-wing politics angered many on the left. In 1947, the year this film came out, he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild. As a friendly witness for HUAC, he hurt many careers. He directed and starred in two great, innovative noirs, Lady in the Lake and Ride the Pink Horse, both made in 1947, and then stopped directing. Wanda Hendrix, who is superb in this film, really didn’t work much after Ride the Pink Horse, which is another aspect that makes watching the film curious and special. Starring as Pancho, the excellent Thomas Gomez became the first Hispanic American to be nominated for an Oscar.
This postwar noir film begins at a bus stop in a Mexican border town. When Montgomery, as Lucky Gagin, steps off the bus, you pretty much know he’s going to get mixed up in something dark. The film has a haunting score, and it is reminiscent of another Mexican border “noir” by another actor-director, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.
There are a couple of things that make Ride the Pink Horse art-house cool. First, it’s filled with long, complicated takes, which were innovative for the time. I remember sitting with Martin Scorsese, who turned me on to this movie. He kept trying to figure out how Montgomery had done the opening shot, where he gets off the bus and goes into the bus station, then back outside again. Scorsese said, “There was no Steadicam. I don’t see tracking. How did he do it?” So look for that! There’s sentimentality in Montgomery’s directing that contrasts with hard-boiled Lucky Gagin and that gives the film heart.
Dorothy B. Hughes is the author of the books that both Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place are based on. These stories have something in common. A violent man is changed by the innocent love of a woman. In In a Lonely Place, he changes too late and loses the girl. In Ride the Pink Horse, Gagin is a solitary and cynical figure. Even while Pila is helping him, he derides her with all kinds of racist remarks. Yet she is his savior and continues to help him. It’s the oddball nature of their relationship that hooks you. He’s so powerful, such a tough guy, yet he needs this child to help him. She in turn is drawn to him. They can’t be together romantically, but there is love between them. She saves his life and his soul by her intervention.
In a Lonely Place
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
One of the great lines of this story, again based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. I have recommended this movie to many a brooding actor, one of whom called me the next day only to admonish me, “Why did you think I needed to see this film?” I’m a dame, so don’t crawl all over me, but I think men like this film because they can watch it and be tormented, with a glass of scotch in hand, and think about all the dames who ruined them.
In a Lonely Place asks: Can violence be romantic? Are all men violent by nature? Do women drive men to be violent toward them? Do women sometimes desire men to be violent? The film touches disturbingly on the psychology of physical abuse, so women, beware. It seems to say: I beat you because I love you, because I can’t live without you. And if I can’t have you, if you want to leave me, I may have to kill you. The fact that a love-hate relationship was going on during the making of the film between the people who made it—director Nicholas Ray and Ray’s then wife, star Gloria Grahame—only gives it an added dimension. It’s interesting to note that In a Lonely Place was made during a time when that sort of behavior toward women was more acceptable, was even considered love. Read up on Bogart’s third marriage, to actress Mayo Methot. They nearly killed each other but, while married, were affectionately referred to as “the battling Bogarts.”
Humphrey Bogart always played a tough guy on-screen. He had an inner violence that escaped in a knowing snarl, or a slap or two for poor Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. This Bogart is pretty ugly. Was he playing himself? He’s the producer here, so it seems obvious he wanted to expose himself within the confines of the story. Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up, once-famous screenwriter. He’s a loner, he’s an alcoholic, and he’s also quite the snappy dresser—which I thought was a great touch. It’s a signal that he sets himself apart. He’s better than everyone else. He doesn’t have to follow the rules. He has his own code of behavior, and if you don’t like it, he’ll smash your face in.
He’s someone who seems so far removed from his own actions that it’s hard to even root for him. Although he is a violent drunk, he never sees it that way. He’s noble. There’s some kind of masculine honor in Dix that Bogart and Ray seem to say is lacking in every other man in Hollywood. Ah, when men were men, and you could booze and brawl all night.
Every sadist needs a masochist, and no one plays sexy-doomed better than Gloria Grahame. Her suffering was usually some sort of retribution. Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face in The Big Heat. She becomes a prostitute in the nightmare vision of Bedford Falls, Pottersville, in It’s a Wonderful Life. She dies in a plane crash after cheating on Dick Powell in The Bad and the Beautiful. She shines here. And could someone explain to me the undercurrent of her relationship with her female masseuse? “She beats me black and blue.” Hmmm . . . In In a Lonely Place, she is the wrong girl who moved into the wrong place and got hooked up with the wrong guy while running away from another wrong guy. Laurel Gray. Wonder if they took the name from Laurel Canyon, a winding road in LA. She’s never going to find happiness, especially with a man like Dix, and you know that from the minute you see her. The original ending of In a Lonely Place has Laurel strangled by Dix in the heat of their last argument as she attempts to leave him. He then calmly finishes his screenplay as the police come to arrest him. That’s Hollywood. In spite of killing his girlfriend, he finishes his screenplay. I would have preferred that, because I think that’s a reflection of what Ray and Bogart really felt. Instead, Ray got cold feet, and the ending, though tragic, lets Dix off the hook, leaving us to believe he will forever be in that lonely place. He’s the victim. Is there nobility in that?
Maybe Ray was looking for his own happy ending. He and Grahame divorced in 1952. In 1956, Ray made Bigger Than Life, another film I love that explores a man driven to almost killing his wife.
I begin and end with road-trip movies. Easy Rider was a cultural phenomenon. It depicted the rise of hippie culture, condemned the establishment, harkened back to a mythical America that was being shot in the head metaphorically, and many people, including my own father, so identified with the main characters, Captain America and Billy, that they sought to emulate the values not only of the film but of the filmmakers, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. I wrote about the transformative power Easy Rider had in my life in my book, I Blame Dennis Hopper, and let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it. The years went by; I became an actress, worked with Dennis Hopper, then Peter Fonda, deemed them both mystics, and thought: Yeah, I need to reinvestigate this film. So cue up the sixties soundtrack: Get your motor running . . .
Easy Rider is mainly a road-trip movie about two alienated and rootless hippie bikers who travel on their choppers to make a drug deal, but somewhere along the broken road, Hopper and Fonda reveal themselves in an existential way. For instance, there’s a touching bit of autobiographical improv about the death of Fonda’s mother that Hopper apparently made him shoot. Watching Easy Rider, you never forget that Peter Fonda is the son of Henry Fonda—and that’s pretty existential too! It’s like he’s cinematically rebelling against the very American roles his father played—especially Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Which, if you think about it, is also a road-trip movie about a broken America. Apparently, Henry Fonda came out of Easy Rider not understanding any of it. I’ve always loved the idea that while Peter was shooting Easy Rider and changing the world, Henry was shooting Yours, Mine and Ours, a Hollywood generation-gap movie, with Lucille Ball.
Hopper had his finger on the pulse of the times when he made this film, and not just the peace movement. He came out of the studio system, acting in films like Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, and starred in countless television shows. His work as a director and an actor has been overshadowed by his wild lifestyle, and that’s a shame. Two films you should check out: Hoosiers, in which Hopper acted, and Colors, which he directed.
Hopper literally began the independent film movement with this film. He probably also cursed us with hundreds of road-trip movies too—but here is the original. The tagline of Easy Rider was “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere . . .,” and that message still resonates, especially in the character of George Hanson, played so beautifully by Jack Nicholson.
Let’s just say the casting of Nicholson as an alcoholic ACLU lawyer was a stroke of luck and genius. His performance opposite Hopper and Fonda, maybe because they were all buddies, is the heart of the film. Every road movie owes a debt to this scene, because every road movie since then seems to have a bonding scene like it, where all the characters reveal their inner hopes, fears, and dreams over a joint or two. They sit around the campfire smoking pot, and Hopper rationalizes that people hate him because he has long hair and is a hippie. Nicholson says, no, they hate you because you’re free. Cut to the thousands of folks who saw this film, quit their jobs, and became hippies!
Easy Rider represented a time when freedom meant freedom from material things, freedom from driving in six lanes of traffic to work twelve hours a day at a job you hate. Freedom in 1969 was the land, the land of the free and the brave. Freedom was peace and love. The word freedom has been co-opted. Today, freedom means freedom to be selfish, freedom to carry guns. Freedom to hurt the land and its inhabitants for the sake of commerce. Easy Rider reminds us how far we have strayed from that journey.
Ramin Bahrani’s Top 10
Iranian-American writer and director Ramin Bahrani’s feature films include: Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), 99 Homes (2014), and Fahrenheit 451 (2018).