Friday, August 14, 2009

Auteur Watch - Kenny Ortega

Ah, NOW we're talking. Here's a perfect example of how Hollywood does occasionally reward a few people who keep their heads down to the grindstone, keep their damn mouths shut and just do the damn work. And while Kenny Ortega surely longs for the days of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Busby Berkeley, he's nevertheless forced to embrace the new age while carrying on the traditions of old, inserting homages wherever and whenever he can. Why, to all the young people he's working with now, he might as well BE Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers! Both on some days. ¶ Born in the industry's backyard, he started off as a choreographer on such cinematic historical milestones as Xanadu, One from the Heart, and Shag (1989). But somehow, making dancers' lives miserable just wasn't enough, and directing seemed to be the next best step up for him. But he quickly learned to leave his R-rated ways behind and stick with the TV work he was getting. Doing TV work is pretty cool, incidentally: it's like watching dailies, except the whole world can watch 'em too!

But while he toiled in the TV directing sulfur mines, fate was about to intervene, and apparently an opportunity presented itself. And it was a big one, too: why, what self-respecting member of the DGA WOULDN'T want to take on an old fashioned movie musical? ...darn! The IMDb doesn't have any juicy gossip about all the directors that passed on Newsies before Ortega took it. Looks like just studio talking points. Well, it says Mike Finnell was one of the producers, so all I can assume is that Joe Dante must've dropped out. No, they lucked out with Ortega: not only does he direct, but he of course doubles here as ... yep! You guessed it! Choreographer! Boo-yah. He knows how the game is played. That's what killed Hornaday's career: he thought he'd never have to go back to the day job. But our man in Amsterdam knew better than that. And with the smashing success of Newsies under his dance belt, Kenny Ortega knew this was his big chance to write his own ticket. Would he take that Swing Kids gig after all? No, of course not. What are you, crazy? Not wanting to be typecast just yet, Ortega would expand his directorial horzions, if only a little, and go on to do some blatant holiday higgledy-piggledy called Hocus Pocus. And when even THAT didn't fool enough people into the theaters, it was back to TV work for him full time, and double time even. But I will say that Hocus Pocus still has, for my money, one of the best scenes of fingers getting severed by a manhole cover that gets run over by a car, like, maybe ever! Well, that and Old Yeller, of course.

And so, it's back to the TV work full time. Hard to say how those dynamics work in TV director hell. I mean, when you do a hit show, does it help or hurt your career? I mean, he didn't end up on E.R., but he did the next best thing: Chicago Hope. That's good, right? Ally McBeal? Oh, even better! Ortega was going strong in 2000 at the nifty age of 50. Most people are thinking about retirement by then, and their subsequent emeritus years, but ol' Kenny's just getting warmed up. And always ready with a Jack Lemmon-style birthday bash at his house, right? Who knows. And then, something called The XIX Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony came along. Sounds nice. Sounds like one of those Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat knock-offs. And suddenly, he was a veritable TV kingmaker, sticking with the Golden Girls... I mean, Gilmore Girls. And I'm sure a rabid fan of that show will tell you that Mr. Ortega directed some of the series' better episodes: back when the show was hip and fresh, and the cast and crew were lean and hungry and yearning for success, and the storylines weren't getting too weird. Yes, like the Simpsons, I'll concede that point.

From there, the gods at Disney must've been crazy, or maybe they saw something the rest of us didn't, and Ortega's slate was wiped clean once again. All this working with the young people was about to pay off some nice quarterly dividends, and he'd get to KEEP working with young people. Not young people like Larry Clark works with, mind you. Young people like The Cheetah Girls, and the cast of the high school musical High School Musical, eventually culminating in the spectacular box office performance of the theatrical release of High School Musical 3... I remember that! I remember it as though it were yesteryear. Oh, thank God I do these weekly box office reports! But he wasn't about to let success go to his head. No, he found the time in his newly packed schedule to do some pro bono work, in the form of the Michael Jackson Memorial which aired on July 7th of this year, thereby bringing closure to the non-stop news coverage of a grieving nation, and ushering in the non-stop news coverage of MJ conspiracy theories: is he dead? Is he alive? Where's the body? Was it ... MURDER?!!! ... I don't get it! Where's George Schlatter? I thought for sure he'd have a hand in this! ..I mean, the TV memorial, of course.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn't pro bono work at all! Why, look! Look what's apparently getting a theatrical release later this year. This Is It. ...that's the title of it, incidentally. Yes, now it seems like some kind of an awful ruse. The dead are still dead, man! What gives? No one's going to the re-release of The Wiz. What makes you think THIS is going to sell?

But then again, what do I know. It's just the jealousy talking, Ortega. Incidentally, in other exciting Ortega news, he's at last getting his revenge for being excluded from the original Footloose and inscribing his name forever into the book of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with the 2010 Footloose reboot. Then again, does it still count if Bacon's not in the remake? Maybe Kev could play the crusty old dean this time. He is at that age, after all, even though he still looks quite boyish. Plus, he got screwed by Bernie Madoff so he could use the work. Anyway, we'll all be waiting patiently for that Footloose remake. Ironically, Kenny Loggins wants no part of it this time. Maybe HE could play the crusty old dean!

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