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Viewer Guide: Ali and Jane Austen Book Club

May 17, 2019 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | ALI

This week’s classic is Ali, the 2001 biopic on the early career of Muhammad Ali, directed by Michael Mann.

One of the most popular yet polarizing figures in the arena of mid-century American sports, Muhammad Ali simultaneously delighted and divided a nation that was convulsing from the social unrest of the Civil Rights era and the escalating protest of the Vietnam War. A born entertainer with a brilliant instinct for capturing media attention, Ali was also a bellwether for a new generation of African Americans, unapologetic and uncompromising in his refusal to submit to the racist expectations of white society. Director Michael Mann’s film biography spans the key decade in Ali’s early career beginning with his ascension to World Heavyweight Champion in 1964, and concluding with the 1974 “rumble in the jungle” to regain the Heavyweight title. Despite Ali’s rapid rise to becoming the Heavyweight champ at the age of 22, his meteoric success was soon stalled—and almost ended—by his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War and refusal to be drafted, leading to a three-year exile from boxing during what should have been his career prime, until his draft-dodging conviction was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. In addition, Mann’s richly atmospheric account also chronicles Ali’s complex relationship with both Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

Will Smith stars as Ali in an Oscar-nominated performance that captures “The Greatest” in all the swaggering self-confidence of his early years. Also featured are Jamie Foxx and Ron Silver as Ali’s trainers Bundini Brown and Angelo Dundee, with Jeffrey Wright as photographer Howard Bingham, Mykelti Williamson as Don King, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X and a virtually unrecognizable Jon Voight in another Oscar-nominated performance as legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell. Ali’s first three wives are portrayed by Jada Pinkett Smith as Sonji Roi, Nona Gaye as Belinda Boyd and Michael Michele as Veronica Porche. And to confront Ali in the ring, the film assembled an all-star roster of boxing challengers, played by actual boxing champs Michael Bentt as Sonny Liston, James Toney as Joe Frazier, and Charles Shufford as George Foreman.

An official film biography of Muhammad Ali had been in the works since 1992, originating with advertising executive Paul Ardaji, who had worked with Ali as a Toyota spokesperson in the Persian Gulf area. Visiting with the boxing legend on his 50th birthday, Ardaji convinced Ali to give him the rights to his life story. Eventually the project made its way to producer Jon Peters at Columbia Pictures, cycling through various screenwriters and directors over the next few years before eventually being greenlit with Will Smith to star and Michael Mann to direct shortly after Mann’s Oscar-nominated success with The Insider in 1999. To prepare for the role, Smith immersed himself in all things Ali for an entire year, including a grueling regime of training as a boxer and a crash course in Islamic Studies. Smith actually did all his own boxing with the boxers portraying Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the only limitation being with Charles Shufford as Foreman, who was asked to please not knock out the star. At the 74th annual Academy Awards ceremony in 2002, both Smith and Jon Voight were honored for their outstanding performances with nominations for Best Actor and Supporting Actor.

REEL 13 INDIE | JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB

This week’s indie is The Jane Austen Book Club, a 2012 comedy-drama written and directed by Robin Swicord.

Despite the relatively modest literary output of her brief lifetime, since the advent of the movies Jane Austen’s six primary novels have proven to be a prolific source for film and television adaptation—an appropriately Austen-esque “happy marriage” that entered a major resurgence in the mid-1990s. New interpretations of Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma flooded on to film and TV screens and were eagerly devoured by a passionate new generation fascinated by Austen’s prescient Georgian-era romantic comedies. But with so few actual Austen books to adapt, Hollywood had to get creative to continue satisfying the renewed demand.

Karen Joy Fowler’s best-selling 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club provided a plum contemporary opportunity with its tale of an Austen book club formed by five women living in the Sacramento area, with each club member echoing the traits of a different Austen heroine. In Robin Swicord’s film adaptation, Kathy Baker plays Bernadette, a six-time divorcee who is the club’s founder. Mary Bello co-stars as Jocelyn, a self-professed happily single woman who purportedly joins the club to help her newly divorced friend Sylvia, played by Amy Brenneman, take her mind off the end of her 25-year marriage to Daniel, played by Jimmy Smits. Emily Blunt plays the aptly named Prudie, a prim high school French teacher whose faltering marriage leaves her vulnerable to the seductive attentions of one of her rakish students. Completing the book club is Allegra, Sylvia and Daniel’s 20-something daughter played by Maggie Grace, and Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the group’s only male member, a Silicon Valley made-man who Jocelyn sees as the perfect antidote to Sylvia’s post-divorce blues. And rounding out the cast in a memorable cameo performance is Lynn Redgrave as Prudie’s aging hippie mother, “Mama Sky.” As you’ll soon see, Swicord does an impressive job of weaving all these disparate, very contemporary planets and comets into a familiar Austenian universe.

Perhaps the ultimate subject of self-reflective works such as The Jane Austen Book Club is the tendency for life to imitate art. Each of the film’s characters seems to be living out passages from the Austen universe, yet finally have to confront the fact that their lives aren’t as precisely scripted as the lives of their literary avatars.

In addition to contemporary reboots of Jane Austen novels like Clueless and the TV series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, once Hollywood had exhausted the Austen literary catalog, other Austen-inspired projects like The Jane Austen Book Club began popping up on movie screens, including 2007’s Becoming Jane starring Anne Hathaway, as well as queasy genre mash-ups like Death Comes to Pemberley and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—for those who always thought that what was clearly missing from Austin’s remarkable canon was a touch of gore. And in 2016, director Whit Stillman returned to the Austen canon to transform her posthumously published novella Lady Susan into Love & Friendship, a well-received indie hit starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny.

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