Conceived by movie stars, killed by “Heaven’s Gate” and resurrected by Tom Cruise, United Artists has arguably the most bizarre, turbulent history of any American movie studio.
By the same token, the brainchild of silent era legends Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith also boasts one of the most impressive archives in Hollywood — James Bond, The Pink Panther and Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns all sprang into America’s pop culture consciousness because of UA stewardship.
Starting today , the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe will host a weeklong series honoring the 90th anniversary of the on-again, off-again studio. And the saga isn’t over yet. Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, recently acquired a minority stake in the company and will use it as an audience-friendly brand for their film projects.
Here’s a primer for the seven UA classics. Each day features multiple screenings; find movie times at getoutaz.com/movies.
Friday: “West Side Story” (1961). Robert Wise’s big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical featuring New York City street gangs in a “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired story of star-crossed love won the Oscar for best picture and featured Natalie Wood at the zenith of her career. Fun fact: Wise originally wanted Elvis Presley to play the male lead, Tony.
Saturday: “In the Heat of the Night” (1968). Another best picture winner, this segregation-era crime drama about a black detective (Sidney Poitier) investigating a murder in a racist Southern town was one of the last great movies distributed by UA before the company’s disastrous sale to insurance giant Transamerica.
Sunday: “Some Like it Hot” (1959). Learned people have called it “the funniest movie ever made.” You’ll get no argument here. Master craftsman Billy Wilder serves up a rowdy, drunken porridge of gangsters, bombshells and cross-dressing musicians on the lam (played by Oscar winner Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis). Best movie-ending line ever: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Monday: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). Simultaneously timeless and riotously dated (Eli Wallach as a Mexican outlaw?!), this Leone-directed monster pumped the staid Western genre full of hot lead and survives as the most operatic, purely entertaining film of Clint Eastwood’s career.
Tuesday: “Rain Man” (1988). Did the Oscar go to the right guy? Dustin Hoffman scored the statuette for his oft-parroted performance as the autistic Raymond Babbitt, but it was Cruise, playing the morally uncertain younger brother, who reeled in audiences for Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. Cruise’s best work.
Wednesday: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). Simply the butchest movie of all time. Go ahead, name another. “The Dirty Dozen”? Ha. Souffle eaters. “The Wild One”? I saw that jacket once in a disco. “The Seven Samurai”? Well, you might have me there. But I’m still obliged to take Charles Bronson over Toshiro Mifune in the tough-guy department.
Thursday: “Raging Bull” (1980). The Transamerica era wasn’t an unqualified disaster. On the same year that Michael Cimino’s Old West boondoggle “Heaven’s Gate” essentially bankrupted the studio, the studio released Martin Scorsese’s savage remembrance of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Fact: All that blood in the fight scenes? Hershey’s chocolate.