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Area native relished making film about West Aliquippa boy

| Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004

It's touching that Caitlin Clarke, who died Sept. 9 of ovarian cancer, had returned to Sewickley for the final three years or so of her mere 52. She knew she was ill when she came home.

Clarke, a talent and a beauty, was a native of Shadyside but moved to Sewickley with her family when she was 10.

For all of the plays, movies and TV she did in London, Hollywood and New York, she seemed to get a special kick out of making a small-budget picture in West Aliquippa and Mt. Washington in 1986.

It was "The Kid Brother," later called "Kenny," about Kenny Easterday, a real-life legless boy who lived in the section of West Aliquippa where much of it was shot.

Clarke remembered at the time working with the legendary Ralph Richardson in the film "Dragonslayer." On the first day of filming, new young director Matthew Robbins made a suggestion about how the scene should be played.

Richardson rose, paced the room deliberately, then advised Robbins that only subtler direction would be acceptable. Once rapports were established, she said, Richardson not only ceased to be daunting but was devilish on the set.

Ebb: Kander and candor

Fred Ebb, who died Sept. 11 at age 76 (although sources vary), was the lyricist-partner of composer John Kander, with whom he had huge success with such scores as "Chicago," "Cabaret," "New York, New York" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

"Chicago" looks as though it will live forever. The original 1975 production ran a hefty 936 performances but was dwarfed by the blockbuster "A Chorus Line," which opened the same season.

But "Chicago's" fortunes have reversed. The film of "A Chorus Line" flopped, whereas Rob Marshall's movie of "Chicago" became a blockbuster that won the 2002 Oscar for best picture.

And incredibly, the current Broadway revival of "Chicago" plays its 3,267th performance today, not counting 25 previews. Truly, the material grew in stature.

We talked once in Ebb's high-ceilinged 14th-floor Central Park West apartment.

Ebb, who looked as if he could be Paul Lynde's brother, was thoughtful throughout, addressing disappointments as well as successes.

"I think the only way to go in there is to say: This is the business I'm in, and the business I'm in is a crapshoot. You play it as it lays, and whatever happens happens. This is the system in which you agree to work, and if it's too hot, then you shouldn't be writing."

When the Oscar nominations for 1977 movies were announced, not only was all of the Bee Gees' music from "Saturday Night Fever" overlooked but so were the score and songs from "New York, New York."

Kander and Ebb's title song, sung in the movie by Liza Minnelli and turned into a metropolitan anthem by Frank Sinatra, inexplicably was overlooked.

"There is no way of logically explaining why that happened," Ebb said in 1993. "But it's another case of 'if it's too hot in the kitchen ... .' Inequities happen all the time. Things that break your heart happen all the time.

"I guess because you know it happens to people more worthy than you, it helps you to understand when it happens to you."

'Sugar Babies' papa

Another recent loss is Ralph G. Allen, who died Sept. 9 at age 70. Allen, who was director of theater at the University of Pittsburgh from the early to mid-1960s, conceived and wrote the blockbuster Broadway burlesque musical-comedy "Sugar Babies," which starred Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.

The show ran for 1,208 performances from 1979 through '82.

'Dominick' returns briefly

While the movie "10th and Wolf" is filming in locations here that include the South Side, a South Side-set picture is making a reappearance.

"Dominick and Eugene," one of the best films made locally, will be shown at 2 p.m. today at Sewickley Public Library, 500 Thorn St., Sewickley.Tom Hulce plays a learning-impaired young man who contributes his earnings as a garbage collector to pay for brother Ray Liotta's medical school education. Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Liotta's girlfriend.

The screening is free and will be followed by a discussion. Actor Bob Scott, president of Carnegie Screenwriters Group, will moderate.

A 'Godfather' offer

"The Godfather" (1972) will return to the Cheswick Theater for four showings: 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sept. 26. Tickets will be sold for $5 and will be available at the box office within three days of each showing.

Tucked inside Sony

So, it's official. Sony has purchased MGM.

If you're old enough to remember when MGM -- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- was king of the Hollywood studios, "with more stars than there are in the heavens," you've already been disheartened by the company's lowly status within the movie industry for the past 30 to 35 years.

Also that of United Artists, which never really existed as a hunk of real estate with acres of backlot, but which made more high-quality movies from about 1955 through '69 than any other company.

United Artists' Oscar-winning best pictures alone during that 15-year period were "Marty," "Around the World in 80 Days," "The Apartment," "West Side Story," "Tom Jones," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Midnight Cowboy."

MGM and United Artists have co-existed for more than two decades as corporately related stepchildren of an industry that had moved on. Most of their assets were sold, even though one big franchise, the James Bond series, went on yielding a blockbuster every two or three years.

Lately almost everything MGM has released has crashed and turned to ash. "De-Lovely" was a modest arthouse hit, but "Wicker Park," "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Sleepover," "Saved!" and "Soul Plane" fell like tin soldiers, one after another.

The company didn't even bother to screen here "Code 46," which opened Friday.

When MGM ruled for half a century starting in the 1920s, Columbia Pictures was one of the lesser major studios -- counting for less than Paramount, Warner Bros. or 20th Century Fox but existing more on a plain with RKO Radio (which distributed Disney movies for several years) and Universal-International.

How fortunes have reversed. Sony, which has owned Columbia for many years, took over MGM's Culver City lot in 1986. Now it must decide what to do with the dozen-plus MGM films that were scheduled for release between now and Christmas 2005.

Working with champs

For years, the biggest female stars in the business rotated through movies starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro.

The guys with the golden galaxy of prestige female co-stars now seem to be Jude Law and Giovanni Ribisi.

Both actors made "Cold Mountain" with Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for "The Hours" while they were in production, and Renee Zellweger, who later won an Oscar for "Cold Mountain."

The guys also teamed for the current "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," which features a pair of Oscar-winning actresses, Gwyneth Paltrow of "Shakespeare in Love" and Angelina Jolie of "Girl, Interrupted."

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