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February 2016 Archives

February 6, 2016

Mr. White, Mr. Elliott and Mr. Finlay

The past week has brought more sad news. The rock-and-roll world continues to reel from a succession of losses, the latest being Maurice White, leader and creative genius of the best funk band ever, Earth, Wind & Fire. And comedy lost a quirky giant in Bob Elliott, purveyor of deadpan surrealist humor first with his late partner, Ray Goulding, and later with his son, Chris Elliott.

The loss that hit me the hardest, however, was Frank Finlay. Finlay had a long and incredibly varied career; the Internet Movie Database lists 137 credits for Finlay, including an Oscar-nominated performance as Iago opposite Olivier's Othello; Casanova in a scandalous (for its time) miniseries; and a much-cherished Porthos in Richard Lester's version of "The Three Musketeers." Finlay is also one of the few actors who played both Hitler (in a TV movie) and a Holocaust victim (in "The Pianist").

However, there is one performance by Finlay that remains one of my all-time favorites: that of Marley's Ghost in the 1984 version of "A Christmas Carol," His face and costume a ghostly, sodden gray, Finlay made the most of his five minutes of screen time, conveying both the physical and spiritual torture of Marley with the grand panache that only a master of British Rep can bring off. There are few screen actors who have ever matched the declamatory anguish with which Finlay told Scott's Scrooge of the chain he had already forged for himself when Marley entered the Great Beyond. "You have labored on it since!" Finlay says, his face bearing the stamp of unspeakable horror. "IT IS A PONDEROUS CHAIN!"

Versatile and commanding, Frank Finlay brought distinction to every role he played. We can all trust that his afterlife will be infinitely happier than that of Jacob Marley.


February 21, 2016

Two Giants Take Their Leave

To the sad necrology that has consumed the first two months of 2016, we can add two more names: Umberto Eco, the immensely learned Italian novelist, philosopher and semiotician, and Harper Lee, the Alabama novelist who with one book became one of the most beloved authors in American history. "The Name of the Rose" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are two titles whose fame seems certain to outlast our era.

I will leave further comment about Mr. Eco's significance to those who are more familiar with his work than I. As for Ms. Lee, my thoughts about her sad, debilitated last years have not changed appreciably since my blog piece from July 2014, "A battle of mockingbirds." Of those who surrounded her in those last years--especially after the death of her sister Alice--who had her best interests at heart, and who were scavengers? To what extent, if any, was Marja Mills' book about the Lee sisters, "The Mockingbird Next Door," a genuine and authorized work? And to what extent, if any, was the publication of "Go Set a Watchman," Ms. Lee's apprentice novel, her own uninfluenced wish?

I prefer to think of both Mr. Eco and Ms. Lee in the happiest possible context: the world they shared--the world of books. A number of people have posted on Facebook a section from a documentary about Mr. Eco, in which he walks through his long, narrow apartment, the walls of every room and passageway crammed with books. This gibes nicely with Marja Mills' description of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee's tiny house in Monroeville, Ala.--one part of the book that feels absolutely true--with books piled high on every shelf and tabletop, even in an unused stove. Like any writers worth their salt, Mr. Eco and Ms. Lee had a lifelong love affair with the printed page; the life of the mind was the life they sought, and achieved. The readers they left behind can only thank them for the indelible contributions they made to that life.

February 27, 2016

An Unusual Oscar Night

I will be in an airplane on Oscar night. This will be the first time I will not be watching at least part of the Oscar ceremony. That many others will not be watching, for a starkly different reason, is already well-known to anyone with any access at all to the media.

I have nothing startlingly original to say about the controversy--which, since I'm a 60-year-old white guy, should surprise nobody. So I will make these points:

1. It is strange, to say the least, that there have been no black nominees in the two years since "12 Years a Slave" won Best Picture. (The many egregious omissions include--but are not limited to--Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay, Carmen Ejogo, Idris Elba, and F. Gary Gray, just to mention some great talents who have never been nominated for an Oscar in any year.)

2. As many commentators have pointed out, the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon is emblematic of a larger, and sadly ancient, malaise in American society. Ann Hornaday made an astute observation in the Washington Post: "(A)s a microcosm of a disproportionately white and male industry, its (the Academy's) members not only fail to hire and promote filmmakers who don't fit their own description, they also literally don't see them--or, more crucially, their work." I hope the Academy's moves to diversify its membership and expand the number of nominees in acting categories will alleviate the problem. But how many other industries face similar problems?

3. The funniest and most trenchant commentary I have seen on this issue was the segment on the Feb. 21 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: "Hollywood Whitewashing: How is THIS Still a Thing?" It is available both On Demand and on YouTube, and it is wonderful.

That said, all the performances I have seen among the actors who WERE nominated are eminently deserving of their nominations. Ever since the Academy extended the number of nominations for Best Picture, I have felt the same should be done for the Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories. There is never such a thing as the five best performances in a year, or even ten. In any case, every precaution should be taken to ensure that excellent performances aren't ignored because a bunch of old white guys don't bother to see them.

As for the nominations themselves, it seems apparent that Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson and Sylvester Stallone should have started rehearsing their acceptance speeches long before this. (DiCaprio and Stallone should have had the opportunity to make acceptance speeches years ago, but those are other stories altogether.) Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress are much harder to read, with several plausible winners in each category. Alicia Vikander, Kate Winslet and Rooney Mara seem to be in a photo finish for Best Supporting Actress, while the Best Picture race seems to be a toss-up between four films: The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road. Alejandro G. Inarritu seems likely, though not certain, to win the Best Director Oscar for the second year in a row; there also seems to be a lot of sentiment for George Miller. I'm old-fashioned, and I want to see the director of my favorite film of the year win the award, which for me is Tom McCarthy and Spotlight.

In any case, I'm sure Chris Rock will have lots of fun holding the Academy's feet to the fire when he hosts the Oscar ceremony tomorrow night. I'm sure the same will be true of his brother Tony, hosting the All Def Movie Awards, organized by Russell Simmons, the same night. Too bad I'll miss them.

About February 2016

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in February 2016. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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