Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan — what the hell happened to those two?
The last time I saw Meg Ryan was opposite William H. Macy in 2008’s The Deal — and I do mean opposite. Their scenes “together” could have been shot in different studios on different continents, for all the chemistry they shared. The movie was a pale imitation of The Player, with Macy as a desperate producer trying to get financing for an historical drama about Benjamin Disraeli. The catch is that he has to cast a popular action star (L.L. Cool J) in the role. There’s some promise in the premise, and Macy tried his best, but I stopped watching early on.
Speaking of miscasting, Meg Ryan played the super-bitchy studio executive/love interest. But she’d had so much work done to her face that it was impossible to believe her as anything other than a background character in the Star Wars cantina. I gave up on the movie when Macy was required by the script to make doe eyes at Ryan, despite her having a demeanor that was meaner and uglier than anything surgeons had ever done to the poor woman’s face. Macy really did try — he’s one of the most reliable character actors around — but it was never going to work.
And Alec Baldwin? Once upon a time he was an actor’s actor. After getting a well-deserved blockbuster role as Jack Ryan in 1990’s eagerly awaited film version of The Hunt for Red October, he dropped out of the sequel. The reason? So he could return to the stage and star in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Baldwin got great reviews, too, with Frank Rich raving that “his Stanley is the first I’ve seen that doesn’t leave one longing for Mr. Brando.”
For about the last 15 years though, Baldwin has been playing Phil Hartman playing Alec Baldwin playing Blake from a sitcom reboot of Glengarry Glen Ross. He shows up with the hair and wearing the suit, does his Alec Baldwin schtick, then collects a big paycheck. Nice work if you can get it, but I miss the actor.
While still at the height of their talents, Ryan and Baldwin starred together in 1992’s offbeat Prelude to a Kiss.
I call it “offbeat” not because it’s one of those precious little movies, but because while it looked like a romcom and was sold like a romcom, it was not a romcom. As a result, critics and audiences alike were split on the picture. People expecting the next When Harry Met Sally… or The Marrying Man almost certainly left disappointed.
But given a proper chance, Prelude is a seductively low-key exploration into the nature of attraction, love, aging, and death. No spoilers, but there’s also a magical element which is never explained or defined, and would have ruined the movie if they had tried to. Director Norman René presented scriptwriter Craig Lucas’s strange premise without any unnecessary fireworks, and counted on the actors to make it work.
For me, it worked in such a lovely, gentle way that I find myself going back to it every few years — and I hope you’ll give Prelude a shot. Or give it another shot if you were disappointed the first time around.
But what worked even better than the film was the title song.
“Prelude To A Kiss” was composed by Duke Ellington in 1938, with a lyric added just weeks later by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills. The song was never much of a hit, despite being recorded by jazz vocal giants like Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Herself. Ellington’s music sweeps and ebbs like a four-minute symphony, and the lyric might be The Two Irvings best effort ever.
“A Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch,” indeed.
The song hooked me from the start of the movie. That vocalist, whoever she was, played her voice like lead sax in an instrumental recording. I had to know who she was, but this was 1992 — I couldn’t just reach for my iPhone and ask Siri to ID the song for me. Instead, I had to wait for the end of the film, and try and read the VHS-quality credits on a 13-inch budget-model Zenith TV. I had to pause, squint, and back the tape up a couple times, and…
“DEBBIE HARRY? Blondie’s Debby Harry? Debbie Freaking Harry can sing like THAT?”
I had no idea. I mean, I knew she was good — but… wow.
This is a big arrangement with lush strings and all the rest, yet she never gets lost in it. Every Mariah Whitney Ke$ha Dion in the world needs to take lessons from Debbie on phrasing, on subtlety, and even just technical details like breath control. And they need to pay special attention to how Harry invests herself in the meaning and the melody. “Sinatra-esque” might be the best way to describe her performance here.
(Don’t forget Toots Thielemans on the harmonica — he carries this record perhaps as much as Harry does.)
But on the off chance you think I’ve led you wrong on the movie, I know you’re still going to love the song.