Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sumo Wrestlers and Katharine Hepburn

I drove down to Palo Alto twice in November.

I had my maiden encounter with the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival when I saw A Matter of Size.

A Matter of Size starring Itzik Cohen, Irit Kaplan & Togo Igawa; Hebrew and some Japaense with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

A Matter of Size is a relatively old film. I believe it's scored the hat trick of Bay Area Jewish Film Festivals. It played at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the 2010 East Bay International Jewish Film Festival but I missed the film both time. Not only that but A Matter of Size screened at the 2010 SVJFF. It was with some surprise I saw it on the program for the 2011 Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Typically, a film festival won't screen a film it screened the previous year nor at two other local festivals in the past two years. I was eager to see the film at previous screenings but my schedule wouldn't cooperate so I marked my calendar early for the November 17th screening.

The venue was the theater at the Cubberley Community Center on Middlefied. Cubberley is a massive facility including Foothill College, extensive sports facilities, a library, a day care center, etc. The theater looked state of the art and was suitable for stage productions. That's appropriate because A Matter of Size was preceded by a sumo wrestling demonstration. Prior to the event, I was not aware that there was organized sumo wrestling outside of Japan. It turns out there is a US Sumo Wrestling Championship. The demonstration at Cubberley featured the first and second place finishers in the 2011 Men's Heavyweight Division. Did you know there were weight classes or a women's division? US Champion Byambajav Ulambayar (known as Byamba) and runner-up Siosifa Isamau (known as Big Joe) showed some moves. There was an emcee who looked as though he could be a sumo wrestler because he was very knowledgeable and large but I cannot recall his name.

After the entertaining demonstration and photo op, the film started. A Matter of Size deals with a group of obese men and women who gather at a dysfunctional Weight Watchers type group in Israel. The group facilitator is belitting Herzl (Itzik Cohen) for his weight gains. Having lost his job and leaving the obesity help group in huff, Herzl gets a job a Japanese restaurant. He discovers that the Japanese employees at the restaurant are fanatical about sumo wrestling and look upon Herzl as having the ideal physique for the sport. Not only that but the restaurant manager, Kitano (Togo Igawa), is a former sumo trainer. Herzl convinces his overweight friends to form a sumo wrestling group and have Kitano train them. The group includes a closeted gay man, a TV news cameraman, a plumber who suspects his wife is cheating and Zehava, the lone woman, who is counselor in women's prison and is sweet on Herzl.

I won't give away to many of the plot twists but the laughs come fast and furious as A Matter of Size mines for fat jokes, relationship jokes, gay jokes and fish out of water jokes. At one point, Kitano tells Herzl he is too small to be a sumo wrestler which is the first time anyone has ever told him that.

Cohen as Herzl is pretty much the straight man as his fellow heavyweights and typically Jewish mother get most of the funny lines. I thought the relationship between Herzl and Zehava (a surprisingly sexy Irit Kaplan) elevated the film to something more than a one trick pony. Kaplan was awarded Best Actress by the Israeli Film Academy for her performance. The interplay between Herzl and Zehava made me care about them whereas the directors could have gone for cheap laughs.

Togo Igawa, who appeared in the French language The Hedgehog appears here and speaks Hebrew. His performance in The Hedgehog leads me to believe he speaks French. I'm not so sure about Hebrew based on A Matter of Size. However, his role is fairly small.

I greatly enjoyed A Matter of Size although it was a bit lowbrow at times but if you burn off all the fat, it's a heartwarming romantic comedy. Big, fat guys wrestling while 98% naked is just a bonus.


I went to the Stanford Theater earlier this week to see a Katharine Hepburn double feature.

A Bill of Divorcement starring Katharine Hepburn, John Barrymore & Billie Burke; directed by George Cukor; (1932)
Morning Glory starring Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou & Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; directed by Lowell Sherman; (1933)

I've never seen the word "divorcement" before. It means the same thing as divorce. Perhaps in the 1930s, divorcement was the common term and as the years progressed, so many people ended their marriage that they shortened it, colloquially, to divorce.

A Bill of Divorcement was clearly based on a play because the entire film takes place in a large, English manor. Two rooms are used extensively. In addition, the dialog sounds like some parody of theater speak; like Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian. Hepburn as the headstrong daughter and Barrymore as the crazy-but-cured father deliver their lines in affected manner. Billie Burke, who I am appreciating more and more as I see her in non-Wizard of Oz roles, is the only one who delivers a performance which doesn't look archaic. Although her performance is not archaic, her character's motivation is.

In nutshell, Sydney Fairfield (Hepburn) is a unruly, young woman who is madly in love. Her mother (Burke) has divorced her father (Barrymore) and is engaged to be married in a few days. Sydney has never met her father as he has spent her entire life in an insane assylum. Out of the blue, Hilary (you know it is a British play if a male character is named Leslie, Hilary, Carol, etc.) shows up at the manor and unaware of his divorcement, expects to resume his marital relations. The rest of the film shows how the family deal with the Hilary's return.

A Bill of Divorcement was Hepburn's screen debut. She was 25 years old and coming off a hit Broadway play (The Warrior's Husband). Hepburn already had "the voice" but she looks impossibly young. Seeing her in the later films (even e Philadelphia Story), one forget how sexy she was as a younger woman. She's tall, lithe, has angular features and a natural confidence which is incredibly sexy. Then she speaks in that much imitated voice and it ruins the appeal. How wonderful it would have been to be introduced to Hepburn on screen for the first...before she became a legend.


For her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, Hepburn won her first Academy Award. Morning Glory looks like it originated as a screenplay but it is set in the world of Broadway theaters. It is essentially a three act play. Act 1 - Lovelace arrives in New York, naive but full of confidence. Act 2 - Lovelace has some of the air knocked from her sails as she experiences the hardships of being a working actor and swimming with the sharks but remains confident in her skills. Act 3 - Lovelace gets her breaks and makes the most of it although the ending is left ambiguous as to whether or not success will spoil Eva Lovelace.

Morning Glory is a prototypical Broadway story. In it, you see traces of future films like All About Eve and The Producers. Although Hepburn is the star of the film, she is helped immeasurably by her supporting actors. Adophe Menjou plays the cynical Broadway producer, C. Aubrey Smith plays the veteran actor who takes Lovelace under his wing and Mary Duncan (in her final film credit) plays the Broadway superstar with just the right combination of vanity, arrogance, insecurity and bitchiness. After seeing Duncan, I wondered what else she has been in. I was disappointed so see she stopped making films in 1993 after marrying a wealthy, polo-playing industrialist.

Hepburn thought the role of Lovelace was a perfect match for her. Her acting looks contrived 80 years later but the plot is so strong that it makes up for it. At one point, she recites the soliloquy William Shakespeare's Hamlet (To be or not to be...). The characters in the film thought her performance to be stupendous but it left me unimpressed. Also, for some reason, Hepburn seemed to be doing a Betty Boop impersonation in the first act. Later in the film, Hepburn's lilting but gravelly voice makes it familiar and expected appearance.


When I left the Stanford Theater, I got lost trying to get onto El Camino Real. It took me three tries to correctly navigate that Caltrain station underpass on University Ave. On one pass, I drove down Emerson Street and saw the Landmark Aquarius. It's just around the corner from the Stanford which is on University between Emerson and Ramona. I never knew it was so close. When the Varsity Theater (most recently a Borders Books) was in operation, there were a lot of rep house/art house choices in the downtown Palo Alto area. It's highly ironic that a bookstore moved into a failed single screen movie theater. Maybe the site was a buggy whip factory before the Varsity opened.

As I mentioned, the Balboa will be having a fundraiser on December 13. The tickets start at $35 per person. Starting at the $75 level, the tickets include a copy of Theaters of San Francisco by Jack Tillmany. I remember seeing Tillmany's Theaters of the San Francisco Peninsula on sale at the Stanford when Dennis James performed there a few months ago.

I remember reading a San Francisco Chronicle article many years ago about all the movie theaters on Mission Street. They were all closed or repurposed. The article had this great photo of several marquees which showed how densely located the theaters were. I drove Mission St. out to Daly City of few weeks afterwards and was amazed by how many theater were on that street. At the time, I didn't see as many movies as I do now. I regret not seeing a film at the Alhambra, the Royal or other old time movie houses.

Since then, I'm always attuned to movie marquees while driving, riding or walking down a street. Books like Theaters of... provide history and context for a neighborhood. Looking narrowly through the prism of old movie theaters, I satisfy my wide ranging natural curiosity and indulge in my hobby.

I think I'm going to go with a $75 VIP ticket for the Balboa benefit. I can buy the Theaters of San Francisco for $21.99 at Arcadia Publishing but I feel like I should help the Balboa out. I'm usually too pragmatic to do something like that. I like my charitable donation backed up by written acknowledgement so I can deduct them from my income taxes.

In addition to the December 13 event, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation has announced a Sponsor A Seat and a Second Century Capital Campaign fundraising drives for the Balboa and Vogue Theaters.

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