July 12, 2015

Five Elegant Men

Circumstances have kept me away from my blog, so that up to now I haven't been able to note the passage of three sterling British actors who passed on in June. A few days ago, a fourth unfortunately joined their ranks. But first we must note the death of an actor who was probably the most famous ever to come from the Arab world.

If Peter O'Toole had one of the greatest star debuts ever in "Lawrence of Arabia," then Omar Sharif had one of the greatest screen entrances ever in that same film.

First, a single gunshot rings out from nowhere, killing Lawrence's guide.

Then, a dot on the landscape appears, approaching Lawrence's encampment. With excruciating slowness, it trots through the hazy desert heat, becoming first a shadow, then a mirage, then--finally--a man on a camel. That man was Omar Sharif, and he will be remembered as long as "Lawrence of Arabia" is shown anywhere in the world.

With his dark, well-chiseled features and charismatic grace, Sharif insinuated his way into the imaginations of moviegoers with a string of hits in the 1960s that included "Doctor Zhivago" and "Funny Girl." His career sagged after that decade, in a welter of low-profile movies and high-profile gambling debts. However, in later films such as "Monsieur Ibrahim," he proved he never lost the skill and presence of a major star.

Sharif was one in a sad necrology that also included Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Patrick Macnee, and--now--Roger Rees. Between them, the four British actors stand as exemplars of the glories of British Rep.

It was the misfortune of Lee, Moody and Macnee to suffer at least somewhat from typecasting, though Moody's Fagin in "Oliver!" and Macnee's John Steed in "The Avengers" are two of the happiest memories of my youth. Moody's giddy, funny/sinister performance of such songs as "Get Out and Pick a Pocket or Two" and "I'm Reviewing the Situation" revealed a musical comedy star par excellence. Macnee's unflappable, bowlered-and-brollied Steed was simultaneously a parody and an apotheosis of the eternal heroic Englishman.

Lee often lamented his typecasting as horror villains. But few screen Draculas ever matched his menacing panache, his Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was an exemplar of authoritative evil, and in films such as "The Wicker Man" he practiced a more nuanced, complex form of menace. He was also not above parodying himself, as when he hosted "Saturday Night Live" in its first glorious years. It is especially poignant to think of his playing the Grim Reaper in an SNL sketch, comforting a little girl (played by Laraine Newman) whose dog he had just claimed. We can all use a little comfort himself after losing Christopher Lee.

The same can be said about the loss of Roger Rees, an actor who never suffered from typecasting. Everyone knew and loved Lord John Marbury, the eccentric, chain-smoking British ambassador on "The West Wing," but there was also his Nicholas Nickleby, his Fred Holywell (Scrooge's nephew) in the 1984 George C. Scott version of "A Chirstmas Carol," his role as Malcolm opposite Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in "Macbeth," and any number of roles encompassing everything from Proust to "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties." Rees was one of those actors who showed up everywhere, did everything, and brought an elegant, convincing gravitas to everything he did. As Fred Holywell might have said, God bless him..


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May 30, 2015

A few belated thoughts on Dave and Don

In the past few weeks, TV viewers bade farewell to two famous, and in some ways archetypal, Americans--David Letterman, a real person (albeit one highly stylized for TV), and Don Draper, a/k/a/ Dick Whitman, a fictional character disguised within a fictional character.

Some commentators have insisted on calling Letterman a "loser," because he never achieved his ambition to become host of "The Tonight Show." I disagree. Though I was never a regular viewer of "Late Night with David Letterman," I admired the imaginative and edgy wit he brought to late-night television. The nightly "Top Ten" lists were marvels of ever-renewing comic invention, and Dave's revolving group of sidekicks--most famously Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott and Calvert De Forest, a/k/a/ Larry "Bud" Melman--kept viewers delightfully off-balance during the nearly 35 years of the show's run.

In the end, however, and as it had to be, Letterman himself was the show's real draw.
The smirking, ironic persona he created--it was anyone's guess to what extent the persona was the real man--kept us laughing and beguiled both within the show and outside it, adding spice to the sometimes bizarre events in Letterman's real life--i.e. the stalker who pretended to be Mrs. Letterman.

However, the final show showed us much that was unironically likable about David Letterman. From the parade of celebrities who came to present the final "Top Ten" list to Letterman's obviously heartfelt expressions of appreciation for Shaffer and the rest of the "Late Night" staff, Letterman's farewell represented just how much esteem his colleagues and his viewers had for him. David Letterman didn't need "The Tonight Show" to succeed; he was--and is--David Letterman. That is something rare and glorious indeed.

As for Don Draper--the character a tribute to both the creative genius of Matthew Weiner and the interpretive genius of Jon Hamm--he was the linchpin for the most complex and fascinating group of characters ever to appear on American television. It was the hallmark of "Mad Men" that our perceptions of the characters shifted from episode to episode; none was always likable, none always hateful, and all had the power to startle us, but never in a way that triggered our disbelief. That was especially true of the enigmatic Don. During the "Mad Men" marathon that led up to the series' finale. AMC ran a commercial that showed all of the show's major characters--Betty, Megan, Sally, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Peter, Bert--telling off Don at various points, and in no uncertain terms. Don deserved it every time, and yet I always felt badly for Don each time it happened. As a viewer privy to secrets and nuances could not be expected to know, I always felt that if they could see the lonely, mistreated boy underneath the smug, chain-smoking exterior, they wouldn't be so harsh.

Of course, Don misprized them as much as they misprized him. That was another aspects of the genius of "Mad Men:" its awareness of the impossibility of completely knowing another human being, and of divining someone else's motives. There are so many instances of this throughout the show's history that it is impossible to enumerate them in an article of less than book length. One, however, stands out for me at this moment: the story arc in which Don, meeting Conrad Hilton, thinks he has hooked Hilton both as a client and a buddy, only to lose him at the crucial moment. Roger, of course, is incensed: himself a tycoon, Roger knows how to cater to a tycoon, and would have avoided the imperceptible errors Don made. Don, the dreamer and parvenu, thought talent and bonhomie were enough to clinch the deal with Hilton. "Your work is good," Hilton tells a dumbfounded Don at the end. "But when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon."

At least for us humble viewers, when Don Draper and his circle were on screen, the moon was ours. "Mad Men," though it sometimes puzzled us as to where it was headed, always left us with characters and situations that fascinated and beguiled us. I don't think it was an accident on Matthew Weiner's part that Don Draper's real surname was the same as that of the greatest dreamer and self-mythologizer of American literature. Like his namesake, Dick Whitman/Don Draper was large, and contained multitudes. In his fictional story, he created his own myth, just as David Letterman, in his factual but highly joked-up story, created his. There is a great American tradition of self-creation; Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby exemplify it, as do their authors. To that list we may add David Letterman and Don Draper--both legends, and both quintessentially American.


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February 28, 2015

He Lived Long and He Prospered

In both its TV and movie versions, "Star Trek" has been been part of almost everyone's mental landscape for the past fifty years. There have been many iterations of the franchise, depicting interplanetary life both before and after the crew of the USS Enterprise boldly went where no one had gone before.

Fans--whether they classify themselves as Trekkies, Trekkers, or just plain fans--discuss their favorite characters at length. My feeling is that, if someone asks you your favorite Star Trek character, from any of the Star Trek franchises, and you don't automatically say, "Mr. Spock," you're either lying or have a secret agenda.

Leonard Nimoy embodied Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared half-man, half-Vulcan who epitomized a reasonable, logical, but never cold approach to the many anomalies and perils faced by himself and his crewmates. Some critics over the years accused Nimoy of being wooden, but the vast majority realized that Nimoy gave an impeccable portrayal of a being ruled by his head. Everyone knew, as Captain Kirk did, that Spock was the strongest, kindest, most loyal friend you could ever have, even if he did look upon your strongest emotions as an interesting case study. And of course, as every Star Trek fan knows, there were the moments in which Mr. Spock became passionate himself. As Gene Roddenberry remarked, he deliberately made Spock half-human because no mere human could create a totally logical character.

Nimoy's passing seems impossible, so firmly planted is his image in our minds. He rebelled against his typecasting, but eventually made peace with it, The titles of his autobiographies--"I Am Not Spock" and "I Am Spock"--tell us as much. He assayed other roles; I have fond memories of the first Broadway play I ever saw--"Equus," with Nimoy ;starring as the tormented psychiatrist. He also directed plays and films, including--surprisingly enough--"3 Men and a Baby." But it was his fate to be Spock in the collective mind of his time, and he was forever welcome in that guise. In J.J. Abrams' two Star Trek films, the transcendent moments were always when the young Spock, played by Zachary Quinto, confronts Nimoy as his older, wiser self. It is sad to think that we will have no more moments like that in any other Star Trek movie.

Throughout his life Nimoy supported progressive causes, and also his fellow actors; his generosity to Symphony Space, a vibrant center on New York's Upper West Side for new theater, music and film, will be one of his permanent legacies. He was a superb raconteur; in one of his stories, he spoke of how the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute came from the benedictions given at his boyhood synagogue.

Although eighty-three is no longer considered a great age, Leonard Nimoy lived long enough that we can justifiably say he lived long and he prospered. That is a good thing to say of anyone, and in Nimoy's case we are all the richer for it.

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A Disappointing Oscar Night

Is it over yet? It's been almost a week, yet I swear the broadcast of the 87th annual Academy Awards still seems to be ongoing, like a public TV pledge drive centered around a "Lawrence Welk Show" marathon.

I don't plan to write much about the show itself. Instead, I will refer you to the review by Gina Loukareas in the online magazine "Dame." She expresses virtually all my own thoughts about the broadcast, both good and bad, with a tart, succinct wit I could never hope to match. I will quote Loukareas on the host, Neil Patrick Harris: "Few people in history have been more simultaneously self-aware and oblivious as Patrick was last night." This is particularly disappointing, because everyone had high hopes for Harris, a sparkling song-and-dance man who has virtually succeeded Bob Hope as America's Toastmaster General. His performance as Oscar host, alas, called up memories of other previous hosts named Franco and McFarlane. One could blame the ineptitude of the scripted bits, except that the host's ad-libs were just as painful.

Just as with the show, the actual awards left me feeling slightly deflated. Of course this is just my personal taste, but though I thought "Birdman" was very good and in many ways brilliant, it was still my fifth favorite out of the eight nominated movies, behind "Boyhood," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Selma," and "Whiplash," in both alphabetical order and order of preference. (I agreed with Jon Stewart's comment on "The Daily Show:" "They didn't even give Best Picture to the best picture!" he said beside a projected poster for "Boyhood.") I also don't understand how, in the general sweep for "Birdman," Michael Keaton did not win Best Actor. Eddie Redmayne was superb, to be sure, but it seems particularly sad that Keaton, in a role that represents a veritable retrospective of his career, did not take home the trophy. It was 1950 and Judy Holliday over Bette Davis, all over again.

On the other hand, as Loukareas points out in her review, there was a great deal of warmth and humanity in the speeches of the winners. Fox News may have been scandalized, but in 2015 I and almost everyone else can only cheer along with Meryl Streep at heartfelt pleas from the dais for women's rights, or civil rights, or immigrants' rights, or victims of Alzheimer's disease, or children at risk of suicide, or even--for crying out loud--just calling your mom.

Meanwhile, Gina Loukareas' article can be found at http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/02/23/dear-oscar-your-hosts-flipness-was-birds.
Enjoy.

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February 14, 2015

Two-and-a-Half Newsmen

I can't get over the irony of the sudden deaths of two renowned reporters--Bob Simon of CBS News and David Carr of The New York Times--so soon after the public embarrassment of NBC News anchorman Brian Williams. The passing of Simon on Feb. 11, and of Carr the following day, were ironic enough without Williams entering the equation. Simon famously courted danger throughout his 47-year career at CBS, including 40 days of imprisonment and torture by Saddam Hussein's troops, only to be killed when his driver lost control on the West Side Highway. Carr overcame dangers of a different sort--drug addiction, alcoholism, Hodgkin's lymphoma--to become the most important and insightful media columnist of his time. He probably lived longer than anyone might have predicted a quarter-century ago, but still was far too young when he dropped dead in the Times newsroom.

Simon and Carr were different sorts of men, but they were alike in their indomitable courage, their tireless quests for truth, and the forthrightness of their characters. With both Simon and Carr, what you saw was what you got. This is exactly the way it should be with a news reporter.

This is what makes Williams' predicament all the more incredible. By all appearances the most affable and decent of men, Williams crossed an invisible line when he chose to embellish his exploits in the field. It is a line that he cannot uncross. When a reporter's veracity, in any aspect of his or her life, becomes suspect, that reporter becomes useless. Period. From now on, any and all subjects of unflattering news stories can point to Williams and say, "How can you believe this about me, when HE's the reporter?"

The only question now is why Williams chose to do it. Did he really think that no one would find out, or bother to check the details? Did he see himself as untouchable? Or did he always see himself, or come to see himself, more as an entertainer than a reporter?

One thinks of James L. Brooks' film "Broadcast News," in which the news anchor played by William Hurt gains promotions by faking his reactions on camera. What Brian Williams did was just as bad, if not worse, and unfortunately the network news culture he inhabits may have encouraged him to do it. I don't entirely agree with Bill Maher's comment--"It's not that Williams lied, but that network news sucks"--but he has a point when he says that news programs on traditional broadcast networks are too often concerned with entertainment value, rather than giving viewers the truly important news. I liked Diane Sawyer on ABC News, and I like her successor, David Muir. But I also feel the need to listen to Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff on PBS, or Katty Kay and Laura Trevelyan on the BBC. On those networks is where I find the real, hard news.

It's difficult not to feel sympathy for Brian Williams, but it's equally difficult to see how he can continue as an anchorman, or even as a reporter. The passing of Bob Simon and David Carr--two reporters who always lived up to the highest standards of their profession--only adds to the pain of his fall.

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February 1, 2015

Three Weeks to Oscar Night

After the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild ceremonies, I don't really think there's much to deduce about the outcome of the 87th Academy Award ceremonies. Richard Linklater, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons may as well as clear space on their mantelpieces right now. There's a bit of a race between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, but with his SAG win, Redmayne seems to hold the edge.

The real Oscar controversy this year surrounds the Best Picture award, particularly two of the nominees in that category: "Selma," because it received so few nominations, and "American Sniper," because it received so many. Some commentators argued that one film or the other deserved no nominations at all.. I have seen "Selma," and thought it one of the year's few masterpieces; I haven't seen "American Sniper," but plan to very soon. There is some buzz that the controversy may sway the Best Picture race away from "Boyhood," the otherwise presumptive winner, or "Birdman," the otherwise presumptive spoiler, toward either "Selma" or "American Sniper." We shall see, three weeks from tonight.

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January 17, 2015

Je suis Charlie, et je suis Ahmed

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out from the same door where in I went.
--The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald

The massacre of 17 people in Paris by fanatics is an appalling tragedy, but all the worse for the way it intersects with innumerable incidents of bloodshed, grief, and hatred. Everyone has expressed an opinion about the massacre--in print, on Facebook, on Twitter--and almost everyone has been inundated in turn by commenters who say they have missed the point, or are part of the problem. The various sides can't even agree on how to communicate. The cartoon on the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo--a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, saying, "Tout est pardonne" ("All is forgiven"), was obviously meant to be conciliatory, at least to Westerners. To most Muslims in the Middle East, however, the cartoon was just one more intolerable insult against their faith.

Yasmine Bahrani, a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai, made the Muslim perspective clear in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. It was incomprehensible to Muslims, Bahrani wrote, that world leaders should rally in Paris to mourn the Charlie Hebdo dead, while giving scant notice to the thousands of Muslims killed in Africa and the Middle East by fellow Muslims.

The 132 schoolchildren murdered in Pakistan last month by the Taliban are a case in point, according to Bahrani. "To Muslims, it is bad enough that these children's deaths appear to be taken less seriously in the West," she wrote. "But now cartoonists who drew purposefully offensive drawings are being hailed as heroes."

This is not lost on Bahrani's students, and neither are the growing anti-Muslim demonstrations and attacks in Europe. They believe as a matter of course, she wrote, that many if not most Western anti-terrorist actions against Muslims are frame-ups. "Nobody in my classroom believes that Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty," she wrote. "My students are convinced he is being set up. I explain that there appears to be a great deal of evidence against the young man, but they will have none of it."

I have no idea what to do when the various sides simply cannot or will not believe each other. Nor am I certain that anyone else does. Mutual incomprehension between different cultures has been a fact throughout recorded history. In this instance, at least we can start by acknowledging there are many sides, not just two. In fact, it would be helpful to simply acknowledge this as a general rule. ISIS does not speak for all Muslims, any more than Marine Le Pen speaks for all Westerners.

Ideally, there should be as many religions as there are people, all persons approaching and interpreting their faiths in their own way. Malala Yousufzai, a devout Muslim who dares to question those who would be dictators of her faith, is one of the world's great heroes. Those who shot Malala are a constant danger; so are those who applaud the shooters, or are indifferent to Malala's fate, or see no difference between Malala and her assailants.

I mourn for the editors of Charlie Hebdo; I also mourn for Ahmed, the Muslim policeman who died trying to save them. And I mourn for the Pakistani schoolchildren, and for the Nigerian villagers slaughtered by Boko Haram, and for all those who die because others believe they have the right to kill them.

I have no answers for the mutual incomprehension that governs the world. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, the sea is just as unplumbed, salt, and estranging as it ever was. The only lessons I can draw are those that have always existed: Love everyone. Mourn everyone. Think for yourself, and speak freely. And, above all, this: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

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November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols

For the past 37 years, I have received knowing smirks from everyone I meet--and Mike Nichols is to blame. Whenever I tell strangers that I am Washington reporter for "Rubber & Plastics News," their lips curl into a mocking grin, and one word explodes from their lips: "PLASTICS!"

I could blame Dustin Hoffman just as much, but Nichols was the genius behind "The Graduate," his second film, which won him an Oscar and remained the signature work of his career. Given the fecundity of that career, it's actually rather amazing that "The Graduate" maintained its high place in his resume. Nichols' first film was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", which won Elizabeth Taylor her second Oscar, and after "The Graduate" he went on to direct a glorious roll call of hits including "Catch-22," "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood," "Heartburn," "Working Girl," "Biloxi Blues," "The Birdcage," "Primary Colors," "Charlie Wilson's War" and the HBO version of "Angels in America." His stage career was, if anything, even more distinguished, beginning with the original production of "Barefoot in the Park" and continuing through the 2012 revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Yet "The Graduate" can honestly be said to encapsulate everything that made Mike Nichols great. Even more than capturing the spirit of its times, "The Graduate" presented, like all of Nichols' best work, the tragicomic absurdity of existence. All you need to remember to confirm that is the final image of "The Graduate," with Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross sitting in the back of the bus--Ross still in the wedding dress she wore to marry someone else. They are elated, victorious, terrified, and wondering what the hell they are going to do next.

This same absurdity is rampant in the work Nichols did with his longtime writing and performing partner, Elaine May. (I'm old enough to remember the animated commercials Nichols and May voiced for the now-defunct Wiedemann Beer brand; I would love to know if they are available anywhere.) Their classic "$65 Funeral Sketch"--in which the grieving Nichols is eventually broken down by the maddeningly, inappropriately efficient funeral home secretary played by May--is a perfect and hilarious snapshot of how the exigencies of business co-opt EVERYTHING. (John Cleese and Graham Chapman ramped up the gruesomeness in their own, later funeral sketch, but they owed an obvious debt to Nichols and May.)

In a 2012 NPR interview, Nichols explained his attitude toward directing. It isn't enough to have the actors speak the words, he said; they have to express the meaning behind the words. The greatest plays, he added, can never be exhausted for the meaning behind the words. Mike Nichols lived by that idea, and his body of work is proof of that. He was one of the greats, and he will be sorely missed.

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August 17, 2014

Lauren Bacall

It was one of the most spectacular debuts in cinematic history. Betty Joan Perske, a 19-year-old girl from the Bronx, became in one film--Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not"--the sexiest, most glamorous actress in Hollywood, Lauren Bacall. She had that sultry, sidelong glance--created, she said later, because she was too shy to look straight into the camera--and that incredibly sexy, smoky contralto, which took her months of coaching to cultivate. That glance and that voice were put to magnificent use in her big seduction scene with Humphrey Bogart: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow."

That was enough to convince every man who saw :"To Have and Have Not" that Lauren Bacall was the most desirable woman in the world. It certainly convinced Humphrey Bogart, who married her the next year. And Bacall was only marginally less sexy when she repeated those lines for James Lipton on "In the Actors' Studio" more than six decades later.

Bogart and Bacall are so much part of our collective memory that it's easy to forget just how fragile their union must have seemed to even their closest friends in 1945. Bogart was more than twice Bacall's age, a hot-tempered, hard-drinking type whose three previous marriages had ended explosively. But Bacall, it turned out, was his perfect mate, sticking with him for 12 years and three more movies. As their close friend David Niven recalled, Bacall could bring Bogart to heel with a single shout of "HUMPHREY!" He also remembered her fierce loyalty to him in his final, horrible illness: at five every night she would bring him downstairs in his wheelchair, give him a sherry (the only alcohol he could still tolerate), and have him greet the assembled guests. Those who wept or gasped at Bogart's apperance were not asked back; and those who stayed away were written off, henceforth and forever. (Niven, Alistair Cooke and Truman Capote were among those who came repeatedly.)

Lauren Bacall was a unique, charismatic talent, one who reinvented herself often in a 70-year career while remaining recognizably herself. Unlike some actresses of her generation, she kept up with the times: she had roles in Lars von Trier's "Dogville and "Manderlay," and one of her last appearances was in a voice role on "Family Guy." She had guts, she had optimism, she did not suffer fools or backbiters gladly, and she was unmovably loyal to friends and fans alike. And, above all, she had elegance and beauty. She will be remembered with admiration and love.

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Robin Williams

Robin Williams hanged himself. The very idea seems nonsensical. Why would a man so dazzlingly talented and universally beloved do such a thing?

There are countless testimonies from those who knew Williams regarding his decency and kind heart. No one needs to testify about his abilities as an actor, clown and wit. To listen to him for thirty seconds in "Good Morning Vietnam" or "Aladdin," or see his modern-dance spoof in "The Birdcage," or watch his earnest talk to Matt Damon on a Boston Commons bench in "Good Will Hunting" is to realize that Williams' talents were unique, astonishing and virtually limitless. Even knowing that he suffered most of his adult life from severe depression, murderous chemical dependencies and (according to some sources) bipolar disorder, it is scarcely credible that a man who had been given so much in life would want to end it. But the revelation from Williams' widow that her husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease makes it more believable. It was one affliction too far.

Williams had any number of people around him--and who knows how many millions of fans--who would, to borrow a phrase from "Good Will Hunting," have laid down in traffic for him. Now, we can only be haunted by another image from "Good Will Hunting"--if we could have stood in front of him, looked him in the eyes, and repeated, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault." .

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July 25, 2014

Two of the All-Time Greats

We've lost a lot of illustrious and brilliant people recently--Nadine Gordimer, Lorin Maazel, Johnny Winter, Paul Mazursky. The losses that affected me most personally were those of James Garner and Elaine Stritch. They have both received many eulogies, all more than deserved; this will be more of a personal musing, beginning with my disappointment that they never worked together, at least according to the Oracle of Bacon at the University of Virginia (a search engine that can tell you instantly who has worked with whom in movies and TV). I could see them in a Y2K-vintage sitcom, playing the Bickersons-style grandparents of one of the regular characters. Or a late-70s crime drama, with Garner as a wry, sly private eye and Stritch as a bitchy grande dame who isn't about to reveal what she knows. Or a Fifties Western, with Garner as a wry, sly cowboy and Stritch as a seen-it-all, done-it-all showgirl. But none of it ever happened, and the world is poorer for it, even as it is immeasurably richer for having had James Garner and Elaine Stritch.

For both performers, I have a favorite screen moment, one that sums up their particular strength and appeal in a nutshell. For Garner, it's a moment in "Support Your Local Sheriff," a delightful and underrated comic Western (and one of my father's favorites, incidentally). Garner, as a peace-loving sheriff determined to clean up his town with as little gunplay as possible, is facing down a black-hatted, black-hearted gunslinger.

"Draw!" the gunslinger says.

"Go to hell!" Garner replies, and starts throwing the rocks he had in his pockets, chasing the nonplussed gunslinger out of town. This, for me, sums up Garner's unique charm: he could handle himself in any situation, in ways that perhaps looked ridiculous on their face, but in fact called for considerable resourcefulness, panache, and cojones, to go multilingual on you. In all the history of movies, only Cary Grant was Garner's equal in this regard. But Garner's drily folksy charisma was all his own.

For me, Stritch's crystallizing moment was during her guest appearance as a defense attorney on "Law and Order," for which she won a richly deserved Emmy. In the moment she discovers her client is a liar, she speaks this line: "I am an officer of the court. I cannot and will not perpetrate a fraud upon it."

Not a memorable line, perhaps, except for the way Stritch delivers it. Into those seventeen words, she packs the world-weariness of someone who has seen every possible permutation of human depravity and perversity, combined with a moral and ethical clarity that informs a steely refusal to give in to depravity.

Elaine Stritch saw it all and did it all, told us what she had seen and done, and told of it with an honesty and decency that signified she was someone we could trust and admire at all times. It's hard to think of anything better you can say about anybody.

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July 24, 2014

A battle of mockingbirds

I received an advance copy of Marja Mills' "The Mockingbird Next Door" in the mail a couple of months ago, my choice from the Amazon Vine Program, which allows frequent reviewers to read and review books in advance. It was a fairly short book, a quick and easy read. But for anyone interested in Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was a momentous event--the very first time, according to the book's publicity, that the notoriously reclusive Lee had agreed to speak publicly to an author in fifty years. "I'll talk to anybody," Lee once told a friend. "Just not for publication." To journalists who contacted her for an interview, her reply was standard: "Not just no, but hell, no."

According to Mills, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she got to know Lee (always Nelle, never Harper, to her intimates) and her sister Alice while researching an article about the Chicago Public Library's designation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" as its first choice in its Free-for-All reading program. The friendship grew, Mills said, to the point that Nelle and Alice helped her rent the house next door to theirs in Monroeville, Ala., and agreed to sit for hours of informal talks about themselves, largely to counter the lies and half-truths told about them by others.

I found "The Mockingbird Next Door" to be a pleasant and mostly satisfying book. It was definitely the work of a journalist, not a formal biographer or literary scholar. I gave my advance copy to a friend, so I can quote the book only from memory. Most of the book consisted of the placid rounds of Nelle and Alice's lives--feeding ducks in the park, meeting friends for coffee, fishing for catfish, going to services at the Methodist church they attended from childhood, and reading, reading, reading. It was somewhat annoying that Mills kept referring to the great stories the Lee sisters told her, but herself repeated very few if any of them. Still, the book painted a persuasive picture of the sisters--Alice calm and steady, Nelle more mercurial but still likable--even if, in the end, it was more of a snapshot than a full portrait. I assumed Mills was keeping the Lee sisters' stories in an archive for future biographers. I gave the book five stars on Amazon, not because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because I thought it was a valuable source of information for anyone interested in Lee and her only, much beloved, novel.

I did not hear of Lee's disavowal of "The Mockingbird Next Door" until the book's formal release in mid-July, though apparently Lee signed statements as early as 2011 declaring the book a fraud. Newspapers across the English-speaking world have published news articles and essays about the scandal--generally sneering at "The Mockingbird Next Door," which in my opinion is deserved only if Mills is a liar. Lee has gone so far as to say that she left town immediately whenever she heard Mills was coming. Alice has countered her sister's statements, saying that the book and the information inside it are genuine. Nelle pointed out that her sister was 100 in 2011, but others have pointed out that Alice practiced law until she was 102.

If Nelle Harper Lee is telling the truth, this wouldn't be the first time a writer claimed greater friendship with his or her subject than actually existed. (This doesn't seem to be a case of Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes, but Solomon Volkov and Dmitri Shostakovich come to mind.) But it would still be sad and dispiriting, to say the least. One way Mills could dispel the controversy would be to produce the notes and tapes of her talks with the Lee sisters--sooner rather than later.

But what if Lee herself is lying? Then the abyss opens up, and Lee is cast as an unpleasant control freak, if not a monster of willfulness. This is not what we want to think of the woman who wrote one of the loveliest, most touching books of the past century.

What is saddest of all to think is that the key to the controversy is Lee's current, vulnerable state: she has been confined to a wheelchair and a nursing home since 2007, when she suffered a massive stroke, Mills herself refers to Lee's decline at the end of "The Mockingbird Next Door;" There will be a special circle of Hell just for her if she is in any way exploiting it. But is there someone else who is exploiting Lee--someone who might have put a paper in front of her to sign, disavowing Mills' book, for purposes known only to them but which almost certainly have something to do with money?

We may never know the whole truth, and the speculation is saddening in any case. I prefer to hold in my mind the image I gleaned from Mills' book: two elderly sisters, sharing a book-crammed house in the town in which they grew up, living lives that are calm, dignified, and happy.

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June 4, 2014

A Face from Tiananmen

She is outraged to be dead.
In her demon's mask,
her eyes cross with hate. Her plump
void of a mouth
freezes forever on a curse.
Blood paints the creases of her face.

What she accomplished with her death
is not yet known. The dead
have graves of earth, no faces. The living
have graves of brick and iron, no faces.
Eternal Mao, the One True Face,
still beams over Tiananmen.

(From The Bears of Paris by Miles David Moore, Word Works, 1995.
In honor of the martyrs of Tiananmen Square, on the 25th anniversary of the uprising.)

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May 26, 2014

Remember the Fallen

Today is Memorial Day, and this morning I found a post on Facebook from my friend Kevin Pachas: "An actor dies from a drug overdose. All over the news. A soldier dies protecting our freedoms. Not even mentioned."

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I've written plenty in this blog about Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and other actors who died because of drugs. I am not ashamed of writing about Ledger or Hoffman, who were great actors who deserve to be remembered. But I do most bitterly regret having said nothing up to now about those hundreds of thousands of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so that people like me can write their blogs and have their comfortable lives.

I never served in the military; the Vietnam draft effectively ended six weeks before my eighteenth birthday, and although I registered, I was never called. Had I been called, I would have gone, because that's what boys from Sugar Grove, Ohio, did. I know myself well enough to know I probably wouldn't have lasted two weeks In Country. But as the son of Staff Sgt. Russell E. Moore, who fought in the Battle of Okinawa, and 1st Lt. Dorothy L. Camp, who landed on Utah Beach as part of the 108th Evacuation Hospital, I would have gone.

Mom and Dad came home, married, raised my three sisters and me, spent 53 years together. Dad was a post commander of both the American Legion and the V.F.W.; Mom came to Washington for the dedication of the Women in the Military for America Memorial. Neither ever talked much about the war; that was typical of World War II veterans. The enormity of the conflict they fought in, and the memory of the brethren they left behind, stilled their tongues.

Newspapers and news broadcasts list the names and show the pictures of those killed in action. Except for those we knew personally, or those who died in an unusually well-documented attack, it is difficult to remember each name. But seeing that parade of strong, resolute young faces, and knowing the sacrifice each has made, reminds me there are some debts I can never repay. Nor can this country.

Seeing the post from Kevin--who is a veteran of the First Persian Gulf War, and was a first responder at the Pentagon on 9/11--brought it all home to me today. What is required of us is simple and heartbreaking: Remember the Fallen.

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May 3, 2014

Bob Hoskins

One of the greatest joys of moving from Akron, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., in 1980 was the ready access to foreign and indie movies--movies that wouldn't necessarily reach Midwestern multiplexes. (Note to younger readers: this was LONG before streaming, DVDs or even VHS.) One of the very first foreign movies I saw in Washington was a then-new British gangster film, "The Long Good Friday." I knew Helen Mirren, the film's leading actress, from a couple of Masterpiece Theatre productions, but the lead actor, Bob Hoskins, was totally unknown to me.

By the time I finished watching the movie, Hoskins had become one of my favorite actors. I had never seen any actor quite like him before: squat, bullet-headed, with an accent that made Bill Sikes sound posh, Hoskins projected an overwhelming, terrifying power as Harold Shand, a London crime boss who suddenly finds his organization attacked by persons unknown. But along with that was a vulnerability that was strangely coherent with the more brutal side of his character. Harold could tenderly embrace his mistress Victoria (Mirren) in one scene, then cut a man to pieces with a broken bottle shortly after. The only remotely comparable performances before that, at least in my experience, was James Cagney in "Public Enemy" and "White Heat." (I woiuldn't be at all surprised if James Gandolfini watched "The Long Good Friday" a few times before playing Tony Soprano.)

For weeks after seeing "The Long Good Friday," I annoyed friends and family with my imitations of Hoskins' Cockney accent, delivering some of Harold's best lines"

"Lads--try to be discreet, eh?"

"The only decent grass is the grass that grasses to me!"

"Poor Mother--she went to church to say her prayers, not to get blown up!"

"Diabolical naivete!"

Though Bob Hoskins had more famous roles--including his Oscar-nominated, Cannes-winning performance in "Mona Lisa" and his delightful clowning opposite Roger Rabbit--"The Long Good Friday" was for me his masterpiece, indeed one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. His final scene in that movie--in which, finally cornered by his enemies, he seems to go through the seven stages of grief in less than two minutes--deserves to be screened forever in every acting class in the world. It is pleasant to think of this performance as the accomplishment of a kind and genial man, universally beloved by his colleagues, who loved life and lived it to the fullest. It is unbearably sad that his life ended far too soon.

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April 11, 2014

A durable "Raisin"

"Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' may or may not be a great play, but it's a profoundly fair one." So begins Hilton Als' excellent essay/review on the new Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun" in the April 14 "New Yorker," Als' article contains much that puts Hansberry's work and life in context--not least that her father, Carl Hansberry, was a successful Chicago real estate developer. Carl Hansberry fought and won a Supreme Court case against a Chicago city covenant barring blacks from buying homes in a white neighborhood; however, the case left him despairing that blacks could live in a racist America, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Mexico while making plans to move his family there.

Als' essay is fascinating and informative, but it the full measure of "A Raisin in the Sun" that the new production at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater doesn't need the subtext Als provides to be fully enjoyed. The story of the Youngers--a poor black family living in a cramped apartment in the South Side of Chicago--and the injustice of the society that put them there were crystal-clear from the time of the play's first production fifty-five years ago.

Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred"--the poem from which Lorraine Hansberry took the title of her play--is emblazoned on the theater curtain in the current production directed by Kenny Leon. This might sound like an affectation, but it is completely appropriate in this production, in which the disparate dreams of the Younger family are so achingly at war. Walter Lee Younger (Denzel Washington) goes so far as to accuse his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) not only of having no dreams, but of trying to destroy his. "Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby!" Walter Lee tells her at the beginning of the play. "And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work." Actually, Ruth has dreams, but they have less to do with Walter Lee's pie-in-the-sky and more to do with finding some measure of comfort and stability,.Her dreams are similar to those of Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson), Walter Lee's mother, but the strain of two strong-willed women living together in a small household is apparent. And Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose),seeks fulfillment by studying for a medical degree and immersing herself in African culture with the help of a handsome Nigerian, Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas).

The crux of the play is the ten-thousand-dollar life insurance check Lena receives for the death of her husband. Everyone in the family has hopes for the money, but Walter Lee makes peremptory claims on it. Walter Lee dreams of being a big man like the white business tycoon he drives around; at the play's beginning, he grandiloquently gives his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) fifty cents to spend at school, then is forced to ask Ruth for carfare. Out of love, Lena gives Walter Lee the bulk of the money, with disastrous results. ("That money is made out of my father's flesh!" Walter Lee cries when he learns the worst.) .Two questions remain: whether the family can survive this catastrophe, and whether Walter Lee can regain his family's respect.

The great strength of "A Raisin in the Sun," besides the universality of its characters and its story, is that it remains optimistic for the Youngers and their future, even as Hansberry remains completely clear-eyed about the obstacles they face. "I hope you know what you're getting into," says Karl Lindner (David Cromer), the play's representative of white racism, to the Youngers at the play's end, as the family packs up to move to the lily-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. We can guess they know exactly what they're getting into, but it is still a big step forward from what they have. The very last moment of the play--in which Lena makes a simple, hopeful act--is a harbinger for better times for the Youngers, and the fulfillment of at least some of their dreams.

The ensemble cast in this production may fairly be described as a dream cast. Of course Washington is the big draw, and his performance--which combines swagger, anger and vulnerability in exactly the right proportions--is worth the hefty ticket price. Yet the ensemble is so fine that Washington doesn't stand out. The performer who moved me the most was Latanya Richardson Jackson, exuding strength and dignity as Lena. I also loved Anika Noni Rose, who brings a sassy,thoughtful charisma to the role of Beneatha.

"A Raisin in the Sun" is a portrait of a very specific family at a very specific time in American history, and as such imparts a timeless message of human aspiration. If it isn't a great play, it is certainly a touching and durable one. After three Broadway productions, four film and TV versions and a musical version, it remains a commanding portrait of a family in trouble, struggling toward the light. Lorraine Hansberry's vision has lasted 55 years, and it seems it will last at least 155 more.

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April 10, 2014

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney was the ultimate show-business survivor. A working actor for 91 of his 93 years, Rooney was a household name for at least 80 of those years, despite multiple career downturns, multiple bad marriages, constant bad publicity, a longtime battle with alcoholism and a generally messy life. Even at his death, he was embroiled in an ugly financial battle with his eighth wife and two of her sons from a previous marriage, in which all the participants seemed to be at each other's throats. Yet when you compare his history with that of his close friend and frequent co-star Judy Garland, you realize that Rooney was not only luckier, but had much more stamina.

Part of it was the incredible, almost feral depth of his talent, even if at times that talent wasn't accompanied by good taste. Some of his performances were just embarrassing, such as his portrayal of Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." But at his best, throughout his long career, Rooney never lost his power to delight and astonish. My two favorite performances of his both came from TV--as Sammy Hogarth, a sadistic star comic in 1957's "The Comedian," and Bill Sackter, a developmentally disabled man in 1981's "Bill." He was nominated for an Emmy for both performances, and won for the second. Aside from Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi" and "Sexy Beast," it's hard to think of an actor who gave such magnificent performances in two such disparate roles.

Throughout his life, Mickey Rooney took a childlike joy in performing. He often spoke of his delight in being a grown man who gets to play dress-up, and said he always tried to make sure all his projects were "in the key of fun." For all his tribulations--many of them self-inflicted--Rooney seems to have taken Andy Hardy's smiling optimism to heart. One can only grieve that other performers in Rooney's situation could not find the inner happiness that he did.

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March 19, 2014

From the Department of Corrections

In his March 2014 Scene4 review, Mr. Moore stated that "Nebraska" was the first major film since "The Artist" to be filmed in black-and-white--thus forgetting his own, highly laudatory review in the September 2013 issue of Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," which was also shot in black-and-white. A pox on Mr. Moore for a clumsy lout, and his apologies to Mr. Whedon, for forgetting "Much Ado About Nothing" and implying (completely inadvertently) that it was not a major film. Anyway, rent "Much Ado About Nothing" if you haven't seen it yet. The same goes for "Nebraska" and "The Artist.",

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March 3, 2014

A Momentous Oscar Broadcast

The 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone, and as Oscar broadcasts go it was one of the better ones. First of all, there was a host whom the audience didn't want to beat up in the parking lot. Ellen DeGeneres treated the whole event as a big party, and appropriately she introduced some party games--mass selfies with superstars, a pizza delivery in the middle of the show. She was pleasant and charming, as she always is. Even her one moderately unkind remark, to and about Liza Minnelli, was taken in stride.

There were no surprises among the winners in the major categories. "!2 Years a Slave," Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto all won as expected, and all deserved to. The nominated songs were better than usual, and the performances of them were sparkling (though how could John Travolta mangle Idina Menzel's name so badly?). The annual "In Memoriam" montage was more of a gut-punch than usual, beginning with James Gandolfini and ending with Philip Seymour Hoffman, though the others seemed fairly pointless, at least to me.

The most inexplicable set piece, if you think about it, was the 75th-anniversary tribute to "The Wizard of Oz." It doesn't seem so weird to have a tribute to a movie as beloved as "Oz," except when you remember the very famous, very successful film that beat "Oz" for Best Picture--"Gone With the Wind."

It probably wasn't politic to mention "GWTW"--a 20th-Century white Southern woman's fantasy of the Civil War, however entertaining it is--the same year as "12 Years a Slave," an unvarnished tale of slavery written by a man who experienced it firsthand. It probably isn't tactful, either, to speculate that Scarlett O'Hara probably wouldn't have been much nicer to her servants than Edwin Epps was. Or that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, as kindhearted and high-minded as they were, would have been largely analogous to William Ford and his wife.

It has to be taken as an irony of historic proportions that "12 Years a Slave" won Best Picture exactly 75 years after "Gone With the Wind." Adding to the irony is that "12 Years a Slave" is the first film ever directed by a black director to win Best Picture. To top it all off, Lupita Nyong'o became the first black African to win an Oscar for playing a horribly mistreated slave exactly 75 years after Hattie McDaniel won for playing Mammy. McDaniel, of course, was a fine actress trapped by the prejudice of her time. (Her role in "The Great Lie," made two years after "GWTW," as written makes Mammy look positively progressive.)

"12 Years a Slave" doesn't exactly transform "Gone With the Wind" into "Birth of a Nation 2," but it does underline the comforting little (and big) lies white Americans have always told themselves about race relations. It will be interesting to see where Hollywood goes from here, and what the cinematic offspring of "12 Years a Slave" will be.


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February 28, 2014

A Miscellany for the end of February

Considering the abominable weather this winter, it seems that millions of people will be stuck in their homes this coming Sunday night watching the Academy Awards broadcast (provided, of course, they still have power then). Little has changed in my predictions since I posted them a few weeks ago: Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in for Best Actress, likewise Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director and Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor. Matthew McConaughey is the likely Best Actor winner, though Leonardo DiCaprio or Chiwetel Ejiofor might still squeak past him. Best Supporting Actress is a two-woman race between Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence; I'm guessing Nyong'o will win, because her role was so harrowing and also because Lawrence won Best Actress last year. Best Picture, again, boils down to either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, though American Hustle--the nominee that gave audiences the most pure enjoyment--can't be counted out. In two days, all will be history.

Speaking of history, the last few weeks have seen the passing of stars who will be sorely missed. Shirley Temple went from being the most important child star in history to a woman who served her country's diplomatic mission with skill and dignity. My colleague Kathi Wolfe has an excellent eulogy to Temple in the March Scene4; I cannot add to it in any way. Sid Caesar was one of the brightest comic lights of early television; it was his misfortune to see his star dim while so many of his "Your Show of Shows" colleagues--Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen--soared past him. "Your Show of Shows" was a little before my time; I will remember Caesar best for his supporting performances in such movies as Brooks' "Silent Movie." The scene with Caesar in the hospital, transformed into a blinking, jerking puppet when Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise start playing Pong with his EKG machine, is testimony to Caesar's enormous gifts as a comic mime.

The two performers whose passing means the most to me personally are Ralph Waite and Harold Ramis. Waite was one of the greatest TV dads ever; as John Walton Sr. on "The Waltons," he projected a combination of strength and gentleness as potent and moving as any performer in TV history. John Walton and his family could be said to be the ideal audience for Shirley Temple; faced with adversity in the middle of the Depression, they heard the curly-haired girl's message of joy and hope, and felt it in their own lives.

Just as surely, Harold Ramis was a true thespian descendant of Sid Caesar. Caesar pioneered the sort of sketch comedy at which Ramis excelled, first as a member of the Second City troupe and then as a co-creator of "SCTV," for my money the best comedy sketch show ever televised. From "SCTV" Ramis went on to become a memorable comic writer and performer in such movies as "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes." However, it was as the writer-director of "Groundhog Day" that he made his greatest contribution. From the absurd, surrealistic notion of a man (played magnificently by Bill Murray) living the same day over and over for years, Ramis drove home this message: to achieve true happiness, all of us have to look within ourselves, and explore what we are made of. That was a message Shirley Temple and the Walton family could endorse, and it was as fine a valedictory message as anyone could hope to leave for posterity.

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