March 11, 2017

Robert Osborne

Robert Osborne was both the historian and the toastmaster of Hollywood. A longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the author of an authoritative history of the Academy Awards, Osborne was best known as the on-air host for Turner Classic Movies from the time the network made its premiere in 1994. Genial and polished, Osborne was the perfect host to introduce thousands of movies, the stars of which were more often than not his personal friends. Lucille Ball, his earliest mentor, was the one who advised him to switch from acting to writing. Bette Davis asked him to accompany her to at least one Oscar ceremony, and gave him the Sarah Siddons statuette from All About Eve. Every Sunday, he and Olivia de Havilland phoned each other.

Osborne knew the actor's life from a journeyman's viewpoint--as an actor, he never rose higher than guest spots on sitcoms and a few commercials. That knowledge was evident in his interviews with stars such as Jack Lemmon, Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Ernest Borgnine and Angela Lansbury. He understood their lives, and they trusted him implicitly. One can only guess at the secrets he knew. Roddy McDowall, another historian of Hollywood as well as an actor of note, said he would take his friends' secrets to the grave, and that he did. Osborne certainly did the same.

Osborne himself was a very private man. He came of age in the 1950s, and therefore it is no surprise to learn that for 20 years he kept private his love relationship with David Staller, a theater director and expert on the works of Shaw.

Throughout his life, Osborne behaved with dignity and elegance. He spoke often of growing up in a farm town in Washington State, finding joy and identity in the movies that came to his local theater. As another movie-struck gay kid from a small town, I salute him.

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March 4, 2017

Bill Paxton

It was a tragic irony that Bill Paxton died just before the Academy Awards ceremony this year. By all rights, based strictly on his talent, he should have had an Oscar or at least a nomination during his career. But even when he appeared in a big movie, such as "Titanic," he didn't generally get the roles that would make the Academy take notice. It is indicative of his career as a whole that his one major award--a Screen Actors Guild award--was as being part of the ensemble for "Apollo 13." Even when Paxton was the above-the-title star, it tended to be in shows where he was one of many--"Big Love" and "The Hatfields and McCoys" are cases in point. In the acting world, Paxton was the ultimate team player.

Paxton was such a regular guy in appearance and demeanor that it was easy to forget just how talented he was. For me, the high point of his career was "Frailty," the 2001 thriller he directed and starred in. In "Frailty," Paxton played "Dad" Meiks, an easygoing Texas auto mechanic who, suddenly one night, tells his young sons they are on a mission from God to kill the human devils in their midst. Paxton's friendly, aw-shucks persona provides the appropriate frisson against the ever-bloodier mayhem he commits, and provides just enough indirection to leave the audience gasping at the radical twist the story takes at the end. If Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper had ever collaborated on a movie, and brought in Jorge Luis Borges on the sly for help with the screenplay, the result would have been much like "Frailty." Paxton directed very little after that. I wish he had, because he was a director of formidable gifts.

Bill Paxton died much too young, and having just started a new TV series, "Training Day." It is very odd, and very sad, to think he is no more.


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March 1, 2017

Oscar with a Twist

Somebody at PriceWaterhouse Coopers has been busted down to the mail room.

That's the only conceivable reaction to the kerfuffle that ended an otherwise smooth but overlong Academy Awards broadcast Feb. 26. I'm not sure who I felt sorrier for: the makers of "La La Land," for having their hopes dashed; the makers of "Moonlight" for having their big moment trampled on; or Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Jimmy Kimmel for being made to look foolish in a mixup that was not their fault.

That said, I'm glad that "Moonlight," a delicate masterpiece, beat "La La Land," a well-made and tuneful commercial film. Both films, of course, did very well that night. But "Moonlight" is one of those highly personal, lyrical films that too often get lost in the shuffle. It wasn't my favorite film this year--that was "Hell or High Water"--but it is a totally deserving winner.

Some things that were revealed after the ceremony were more dispiriting. Casey Affleck's Best Actor victory for "Manchester by the Sea" unleashed a spate of new articles describing exactly what he was accused of saying and doing in the two sexual harassment suits filed against him in 2010. I never saw those details until now. I want to think they are untrue, or at least exaggerated--but how can I? I still think Affleck's performance was magnificent, but my happiness at his winning is now, shall we say, mitigated.

Though this is a lesser issue, I was also saddened to read about how Theodore Melfi, director and co-screenwriter of Best Picture nominee "Hidden Figures," changed the details of the story. Everyone who has seen the movie knows about how Katherine Johnson was forced to walk a half-mile to the only "colored" women's restroom at NASA, until her supervisor Al Harrison took action on her behalf. However, Margot Lee Shetterly's book tells the real story--that Johnson simply defied the rules and used the white women's restroom, a courageous and dangerous act in the segregated South. It isn't uncommon for movies based on true stories to change the facts. But, as the author of the article I read pointed out, no black screenwriter or director would have made that change.

In any case, Oscar season is over for another year, and we await what Hollywood will bring us in 2017, for good or ill.

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February 20, 2017

2017: Another Roiled Oscar Year

#OscarsSoWhite has been thrown on the trash heap, at least for this year. Three of the nine Best Picture nominees and three of the five Best Documentary nominees have specific African-American themes. Of the twenty acting nominees, four are African-American and two are black women of European nationality. When you add "Lion" and its Indian star, Dev Patel, it is apparent the Oscars demonstrate much more diversity this year than last.

The question, of course, is whether this is merely a fluke. It is no secret that opportunities for black filmmakers and actors continue to lag behind those available to whites, The Oscars themselves cannot alleviate that, but they do serve as an indicator. There has been some controversy over the treatment accorded Casey Affleck, Best Actor nominee for "Manchester by the Sea," versus that given Nate Parker, whose film "Birth of a Nation" was ignored by the Academy. I do not care to rehash that controversy; if you are unfamiliar with it, David Ives of "The Atlantic" wrote an excellent article about it, which you can find at https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/why-the-allegations-against-casey-affleck-should-stand-alone/512234/.

That said, this seems to be a typical Oscar year as far as the outlook for winners. Some have it in the bag: Viola Davis for "Fences" and Mahershala Ali for "Midnight" should start rehearsing their acceptance speeches immediately. Natalie Portman for "Jackie" also looks like a presumptive favorite; however, I think this category could take an odd bounce this year. The popularity of "La La Land" suggests to me that Emma Stone can't be counted out, and everyone remembers when Meryl Streep won for "The Iron Lady," beating whom everyone thought was the sure bet for the prize, Viola Davis for "The Help."

With Casey Affleck winning the Golden Globe and Denzel Washington the Screen Actors Guild award, we now have true competition in the Best Actor category. I have no idea whether any lingering controversy is hurting Affleck's chances. I do know that he and Washington gave two of the greatest performances I have ever seen. If Affleck wins, I will be disappointed that Washington didn't; if Washington wins, I will be disappointed that Affleck didn't. I will REALLY be disappointed if they split the vote and another nominee wins. (The others were excellent, but not in the same class as Affleck and Washington.) The only really satisfactory outcome would be if Affleck and Washington tied. Fredric March and Wallace Beery did in 1932; so did Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand in 1968. The Academy is overdue for another tie.

It would be unjust not to mention the performers who got robbed this year. Topping this sad list for me are Annette Bening for "20th Century Women," Ben Foster for "Hell or High Water," Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland for "Moonlight," and Mykelti Williamson for "Fences." When the Academy increased the number of Best Picture nominees, it should have done the same for the acting categories. I will keep saying this until it does.

As for Best Picture, "La La Land" and "Moonlight" were the big winners at the Golden Globes, and must be considered the favorites going into the final vote. My preference is for "Moonlight," one of my three favorite movies of the last year, but it's hard to see how the Academy, a sucker for homages to itself, will pass up "La La Land." (My other two favorite movies, "Manchester by the Sea" and "Hell or High Water," are also nominated, but I think their chances are slim.) The popularity of "Hidden Figures" and the magnificent acting of "Fences" would argue in their favor, but Theodore Melfi and Denzel Washington were not nominated for Best Director.

It will be interesting to see if, or how, the election of a president unpopular in Hollywood will affect the voting. It has already affected the Golden Globe and SAG broadcasts, and we can only expect more of that at the Oscars. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, a previous Foreign Language Film Oscar winner for "A Separation" and a nominee this year for "The Salesman," felt constrained to stay away from the Oscars this year because of the currently contested immigration and travel ban against Iran and six other countries. You can bet that will be mentioned during the ceremony. And much else.

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January 29, 2017

The Passing Scene

Once again, the obituaries in the entertainment world have surpassed my ability to note them. I will note with sorrow the passing of Mike Connors and Barbara Hale, a/k/a Joe Mannix and Della Street, two much-loved stalwarts of the TV of my youth, and then move on

1. The morning before "Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher" aired on HBO, the Washington Post ran a review of the documentary with a picture of the young Debbie hugging Baby Carrie. I almost burst out crying, and I suspect most of the people who saw it did too.

The documentary wasn't supposed to be an elegy to mother and daughter. It was a presentation of their daily lives, living next door to each other in a family compound in Beverly Hills. The portrait was of two women who loved each other deeply, despite their inevitable conflicts. When Debbie lamented that she didn't do more to help Carrie beat her addictions, or when Carrie wept openly over her mother's failing health, it was unbearably poignant. It was even more so when Carrie, browsing through a London gift shop and coming across a plaque bearing a blessing on the order of, "May you meet God in Heaven," asked, "When?"

It goes without saying, yet I feel compelled to say it anyway, that Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher do not deserve to be remembered for the tragedy that ended their lives. Both of them were can-do people, even if Carrie placed a more ironic twist on her life than her mother. It is no stretch at all to think of Debbie as the Unsinkable Molly Brown and Carrie as Princess Leia, two characters who confronted every outrageous thing life hurled at them and still stood on their own two feet at the end. That doesn't even cover Debbie's magnificent career in such films as "Singin' in the Rain," or Carrie's as a much-admired novelist, screenwriter and script doctor. They deserve our happy thoughts. At the very least, they deserve to be remembered in connection with Carrie's couplet, quoted by her friend Meryl Streep: "Take your broken heart/And make a work of art."

2. The obituary page makes strange fellows, and so it did with Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt dying two days apart. They were two of the most extravagantly talented performers of their generation, and yet it is diificult to imagine the movie, play or TV program that could comfortably accommodate both of them. They were each other's antithesis.

Mary Tyler Moore showed us the strength in normality. She was perfectly capable of playing cold-hearted characters, as she demonstrated in "Ordinary People." But it is as Laura Petrie and particularly Mary Richards that we rightly cherish her. Even more than Molly Brown or Princess Leia, Laura Petrie and Mary Richards were can-do characters with great hearts and even better backbones. Laura chose to be married, Mary chose not to be, but they were both independent-minded women who always acted according to their best instincts. Often that got them into trouble--these were comedies, after all--but they deserved, and earned, the love and respect of all. Many writers more qualified than I have written of Mary Tyler Moore's positive impact on feminism. I will only add that she had a positive effect, not only on feminism, but on humanity.

John Hurt, on the other hand, specialized in finding the sympathy for the most extreme characters imaginable. He could claim a positive effect on gay rights with his lovable portrayal of Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant," or on the rights of the disabled with his superb Joseph Merrick (misnamed John) in "The Elephant Man." Yet he could even make us feel a perverse sympathy for his Caligula in "I, Claudius," a murderous madman who unfortunately had the power of life and death over everyone in the Roman Empire. His uncanny, surgically precise line-readings--a testament to the training of actors in British Rep--showed us the fear and vulnerability behind the character's sadism. (If you've never seen "I, Claudius," you should, and if you have, you should see it again. The scenes between Hurt, Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips should be required viewing in every acting school in the world.)

OK, maybe there could have a been a movie starring Mary Tyler Moore as a much-put-upon college administrator and John Hurt as an eccentric genius professor. The movie would have them start out as enemies and eventually become friends, perhaps even lovers. I don't know how this would have worked out. I only know that Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt could have made us believe it.

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December 14, 2016

Words Fail Me

John Glenn is dead, and Donald Trump is president-elect. I cannot think of a better metaphor for the state of the union.

Driving home from a friend's house in the southern portion of Alexandria, where we watched the election returns together, I drove past Mount Vernon. Those who see that as affirmation rather than irony can stop reading right now.

A Facebook friend, whom I also thought of as a true friend, posted before the election: "I AM VOTING FOR TRUMP FOR THE SAKE OF MY GRANDCHILDREN!" I unfriended her on the spot, because I thought of my parents, who fought a war to ensure that their grandchildren would never be ruled by someone like Trump. Meanwhile, one month after his election, Trump has given us a Secretary of Education who believes public education is evil, an EPA administrator best known for his lawsuits against the EPA, a Secretary of Energy who once ran for the presidency on a promise to abolish the Department of Energy, a Secretary of Labor who wants to bust the unions, an Attorney General who was rejected for a federal judgeship because of his racism, and a Secretary of State who has received awards from a grateful Vladimir Putin. This, apparently, is exactly what my ex-FB friend wanted. I'm sure her grandchildren will bless her name.

Where do I go from here? Well, I obviously can't sit back and expect the federal government to protect my interests. I have sent money to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Human Rights Watch; those are baby steps in what I perceive is the right direction. It will be an interesting 2017. What are your plans?

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October 30, 2016

Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor, and the Wrong Judges

By now just about everybody has weighed in on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Personally, I am delighted about it, but a lot of my friends are going to stop speaking to me once they read that I am. There is enormous disagreement in my circle about Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate. One friend posted on Facebook, "Fuck the Nobel Prize Committee." Another not only applauded the award to Dylan, but said he hoped the Nobel Prize Committee would give the award to Bruce Springsteen in the near future. I am in agreement with him on this point.

Of the nay-sayers in the literary community, one of the most prominent is Garrison Keillor, who wrote a column, "Bob Dylan, Donald Trump, and the Wrong Prizes" for a recent issue of the Washington Post. Between taking a dig at Dylan and his silence on the Nobel ("We Minnesotans know about unworthiness") and going on to cite Donald Trump's lack of qualifications for the presidency, Keillor took a rest to comment on the inappropriateness of giving the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, named after one of our greatest writers, to actors and stand-up comedians. "Giving a prize named for the author of Innocents Abroad to Bill Murray is like awarding the Heisman Trophy to a bowler," he said.

I understand Keillor's point, but I am much more concerned about another recent Washington Post article about the Chinese government's announced plans to gather data on every Chinese citizen to measure their "trustworthiness."

A high-level report released last September, according to reporter Simon Denyer, outlines the Chinese government's plans as well as the sanctions it will levy against citizens, as early as 2020, who do not conform to its model of deportment. "If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere," the government said with Orwellian serenity.

"In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to filing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points," Denyer wrote. "And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are--determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools, or travel abroad; whether you can get room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant--or even just get a date."

What's my point? Just that we should be thankful we can disagree vehemently on who wins what prize--and have the freedom to disagree, for now. Anyone who has ever written anything for the Internet knows that you can be excoriated for any opinion--whether Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize, whether rocky road ice cream is better than butter pecan, or whether Donald Trump should be the Overlord of the Universe.

We should be thankful that in this country no one is talking about the government becoming the unanswerable judges of our opinions. We should especially be thankful that no one is locking up our Bob Dylans, Bill Murrays, Garrison Keillors--or Mark Twains--while honoring members of the American Politburo for their encomiums to each other.

I grant Mr. Keillor all his caveats--especially those about Trump--and I am thankful for our ability to agree to disagree, without anyone punishing us for it. As long as that is true, I won't even mind someone getting the Heisman for making a 7-10 split.


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September 19, 2016

Edward Albee

"I hate restful art," Edward Albee once said, and in his six-decade career as a playwright Albee never gave audiences a restful moment. From the rants of the crazed Jerry in "The Zoo Story," to George and Martha's boozy all-night verbal brawl in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," to the man having an affair with a goat in "Who is Sylvia?" Albee staged a prolonged assault on the cozy presuppositions of audiences. The other great twentieth-century American playwrights--Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller--expertly tied granny knots in their audiences' security blankets, but Albee thrust them into a world where the rituals of polite society were Band-Aids over a miasma of hatred and unreason. "A Delicate Balance," in which an already troubled family is roiled by the sudden arrival of old friends who say they are too frightened to stay in their own house, is one of Albee's most representative plays. Albee takes Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" and raises the stakes exponentially higher.

It is too easy to attribute Albee's ferocity to his upbringing.: Abandoned at birth, he was adopted by wealthy theater owners who gave him every physical advantage but mocked and belittled him, and eventually disowned him. "Three Tall Women" is the only play that addresses Albee's poisonous relationship with his adoptive mother, However, an early play, "Everything in the Garden," also shows the scars Albee bore from his childhood. The father in the play, having discovered his wife is prostituting herself, takes out all his rage on his early-teenage son.

In the end, however, the rage came from Albee himself, and also the tenderness. Precisely where they came from is a question for Albee scholars. A quote from Jerry's monologue in "The Zoo Story" could serve as an epigraph to all of Albee's work: "I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves, and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion." We all remember the fumbled rapprochements at the ends of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "A Delicate Balance," with characters who both loathe and need each other, and we understand that these are the teaching emotions.

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September 2, 2016

Gene Wilder

A few nights ago, Mel Brooks told Jimmy Fallon about the first time he met Gene Wilder. Wilder was playing the Chaplain in a New York production of "Mother Courage." which featured Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft in the lead. During intermission, Wilder groused about not understanding why the audience was laughing at him.

"I pointed to the mirror and said, 'Look in the mirror! Blame it on God!'" Mel said.

I first met Gene Wilder, so to speak, when I was thirteen and saw "The Producers" It was love at first sight. I still think the "Blue Blanket" scene near the beginning of that film is the most brilliant exhibition of comic frenzy from any performer in memory. If any actor was born to play frustration, it was Gene Wilder, and that was why Mel Brooks cast him. In Wilder's Washington Post obituary, Brooks was quoted as calling Wilder "an Everyman with all the vulnerability showing. One day, God said, 'Let there be prey,' and he created pigeons, rabbits, lambs and Gene Wilder."

Yet Wilder--who looked like a cross between Harpo Marx and the Angel Gabriel--was perfectly capable of being more than just prey. His performance as the title character in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" had a delightful frisson of danger as, with a quietly crazed look in his eye, he led the Golden Ticket children into a series of sweet but sinister wonders. Mel Brooks sensed the calm in the eye of Wilder's storm when he cast him as the Waco Kid in "Blazing Saddles," shooting the guns out of outlaws' hands without uncrossing his arms. Sometimes Wilder could be predator and prey all at once, as he was as Frederick Frankenstein (or Frodrick Fronkensteen, if you prefer) in "Young Frankenstein." Or he could just be an average Joe in a ridiculous situation, as he was in "Silver Streak," forced to accept Richard Pryor's tutelage on how to be black.

Gene Wilder had his share of tragedy: the early death of his mother, the early death from cancer of his wife Gilda Radner, his own bouts with lymphoma and the Alzheimer's Disease that eventually killed him. But his fourth wife--a speech therapist who helped him learn lip reading for the movie, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil"--and a large extended family provided him love and support. After his death, his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he never revealed his Alzheimer's because he didn't want to disappoint the children who saw him as Willy Wonka.

"He simply couldn't bear the thought of one less smile in the world," Walker-Pearlman said. That is a fitting epitaph for such a funny, gentle, dignified man.

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July 10, 2016

"You Have Rainbows in Your Heart"

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Patrick Zammaripa. Michael Krol. Brent Thompson. Michael Smith. Lorne Ahrens. Men who were deeply loved, and who strove to lead honorable lives. They should not be dead, but they are.

Many people have written, often brilliantly, about the events of the past week. I recommend their writings to you. But they all agree that no solutions are in sight to death on the streets. The Sunday Washington Post contains a review of the new book about the Kent State Massacre in 1970. How can that not seem like the harbinger of a return to those evil days?

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter will continue, because it must. Blue Lives Matter will continue, because it must. The National Rifle Association will continue to express deep anguish about those who die while perpetuating the culture that facilitates their dying.

If I have any solution to offer, it is contained in the letter written to Philahdo Castile after his death by a heartbroken child who attends the school where Castile worked. "You have rainbows in your heart," the child wrote. That's all I want--more rainbows in more hearts, and that someone would have the wisdom to put them there.

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July 4, 2016

Two Birthdays and a Funeral

After writing so many obituaries this year, it is pleasant to record major birthday milestones for beloved and important show business figures: Mel Brooks, who turned 90 on June 28, and Olivia de Havilland, who made her full century on July 1.

Brooks' career, of course, has been one long explosion of raucous and invigorating joy. It's virtually impossible to list all the memorable moments he has given us as performer, writer and director, but it is interesting to think about how many of those moments, for a man not primarily considered a musician, have been musical: the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence, one of the single funniest scenes in the history of movies, in both the original and musical versions of "The Producers;" Madeline Kahn doing her best Dietrich impression in "Blazing Saddles" as she vamps through that masterpiece of double entendre, "I'm Tired;" Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle, as Frederick Fronkensteen and his monster in "Young Frankenstein,", dodging the rotten vegetables thrown by the learned scientists watching them dance to "Puttin' on the Ritz." Music has always been in Mel Brooks' head, and that music has always been happy. A recent picture that circulated on Facebook showed Brooks with his nonagenarian friends Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke. The caption--"270 Years of Funny"--is one that can all make us happy.

Olivia de Havilland probably resonates less with younger audiences than Brooks; her great period as an actress ranged from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, and she has been a private citizen for many years. It is both sad and bewildering to think that none of her "Gone with the Wind" co-stars--Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel--lived to see 60, and the last of them, Leigh, has been gone nearly a half-century. "Gone with the Wind," long the most popular and celebrated movie ever made, has lost some of its luster as audiences turned against the racial attitudes it presents. (Again, it's interesting to note that many years later De Havilland appeared in "Roots--the Second Generation," playing the mother of a young man who gives up everything to marry the African-American woman he loves.) However, De Havilland made an indelible impression as Melanie, the perfect flower of gentle Southern womanhood, and that performance was the harbinger of many great ones to come. One of the greatest performances by any actor, in my opinion, was hers in "The Heiress," William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square." De Havilland's Catherine Sloper, a mousy young woman squeezed between her dictatorial father and a mercenary suitor, is a miracle of subtle transformation from victim to victimizer.

In noting the birthdays of two great figures, we must still note the passing of an even greater one: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, prolific writer, Nobel Prize winner, global defender of human rights. Wiesel spent his life as a witness to slaughter, fighting the forces of hatred; again, it is interesting to think of Mel Brooks using laughter to fight those very same forces.

I love the quote from Wiesel that a friend posted on Facebook: "To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. I couldn't prevent that first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death." In 2016, as we still reel from the horrible loss of life in Orlando and Istanbul and Baghdad and brace ourselves for more carnage, Wiesel;'s words unfortunately are more meaningful than ever. We must stand as witnesses to the slaughter of the innocents, and never let the world forget them.


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June 18, 2016

Goodbye to two neighbors

In the horrors of the last several days, TV viewers may not have noticed that two of their neighbors moved on, both on June 14: Corabeth Walton Godsey and Mildred Helper, known in real life as Ronnie Claire Edwards and Ann Morgan Guilbert.

Along with William Schallert, who passed on earlier this year, Edwards and Guilbert held honorable places among Hollywood character actors--those who are not stars, but whose contributions are always skillful and distinctive. Occasionally a Kathy Bates or J.K. Simmons will break out of the pack to genuine stardom. Edwards and Guilbert were never that fortunate, but anyone who ever watched "The Waltons" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show" will remember them with pleasure.

Edwards and Guilbert were two of the most memorable performers in television's "Crazy Neighbor" genre. Corabeth was a cousin to John Walton and the wife of general store proprietor Ike Godsey; she was a pretentious fussbudget who stood somewhere on the TV character line between Mrs. Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie": and Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) on "Keeping Up Appearances." Millie, more amiable but also more madcap than Corabeth, was the wife of dentist Jerry Helper and next-door neighbor to Rob and Laura Petrie. A variant of Ethel Mertz, Millie had show-business ambitions that outstripped her actual talent, as she amply demonstrated when she sang her masterpiece, "A Sentimental Love Song a/k/a My Heart Got a Smash in the Face." (The song also contained the matchless line, "But first I'll kill myself/I'm funny that way.")

Edwards and Guilbert had other roles--Edwards in the Clint Eastwood movie "The Dead Pool," Guilbert in "The Nanny" and Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give"--but it is as Corabeth and Millie that they will be remembered. May they both have a happy eternity borrowing cups of sugar from their neighbors in Elysium.

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June 16, 2016

After Orlando, What?

I feel compelled to write about the horrors of the past few days, yet so few of my thoughts are coherent. So much of the worst the world has to offer is spewing out. I find myself obsessing on the deaths in Orlando that bookended the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub: a young singer shot to death after a concert by an obsessed fan, and a toddler attacked and killed by an alligator in--of all places in the world where children should be absolutely safe--Disney World. And now, an ocean away from Orlando, a Member of Parliament who championed the rights of refugees has been murdered by a thug who shouted "Britain First!" as he shot and stabbed her.

Is that all there is to learn from this? That you're just as dead if you're killed in Leeds as if you are killed in Orlando? And you're just as dead if an alligator kills you as if a madman does?

So we have another homegrown killer--one who belongs in the company not of Mohammed Atta, but of Tim McVeigh, Adam Lanza and Dylan Klebold. Omar Mateen's motives are still being pieced together, but the story at first glance sounds familiar: a self-hating gay who couldn't stand seeing other gay people whose lives had meaning and joy, and who chose to wrap his heinous acts in the cloak of religion. I'm sure Dan White and Fred Phelps are welcoming Omar into their fetid little corner of Hell right now.

To judge from the statements of some so-called Christians, you would think Mateen was some sort of saint. Roger Jimenez, the pastor of a church in Sacramento, certainly seems to think so; in a sermon, Jimenez said he felt safer knowing that fifty pedophiles were dead--compounding his hatred with the lie that gays are predators against children.

And Bryan Fischer, president of the so-called American Family Association, said Anderson Cooper and other gay reporters should be disqualified from reporting about the Orlando massacre because of their lack of objectivity. Oh--and should New Yorkers have been banned from reporting on 9/11? (On the other hand, Chick-Fil-A--which has contributed in the past to the American Family Association--donated free food to people in Orlando who gave blood to the shooting victims. To quote a famous gay man, the truth is rarely plain and never simple.)

We have seen President Obama appear calm and statesmanlike in response to the shootings, and Hillary Clinton do the same. We have seen Donald Trump repeat his call for a total ban on Muslim immigration, and add a call to force American citizens to spy on their neighbors on threat of prison. Colonel Drumpf of the Stasi. (I wonder what Trump and his shock troops would do to Imran Yousuf, the Muslim ex-Marine credited with saving as many as 70 people at the Pulse nightclub.)

The mass shootings get closer and closer. One of my sisters is a retired Red Cross nurse in Oregon. She regularly led blood drives throughout the state, and one place where she often went for blood drives was Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, where a gunman killed 10 people in October 2015. She was already retired, and I don't think there was a blood drive that day. Still...

I do not see how any sane person could oppose the renewal of a total ban on the sale and ownership of assault weapons. I thought Sandy Hook would have brought back the ban, but I did not count on the mendacity of the National Rifle Association and the venality of Congress. I realize the situation is complicated. I grew up in a village where any student who wanted the first day of deer season as a vacation day got it. There were many families in that area for whom shooting a deer made an enormous difference as to what kind of winter they would have. Wayne LaPierre has built his fortune on the idea that if assault weapons are banned one day, deer rifles will be banned the next. I will make myself clear: I have no objection to hunting for meat, and I do not seek to ban anyone's deer rifles. I just do not want my family, my friends and my neighbors to be hunted.

It is ironic that the funeral for the most famous Muslim in American history--a man known not only as a champion boxer but also as a champion of peace, famous for his many public and private acts of charity--occurred so soon before the Orlando shooting. He said that public service is the rent you pay for living in the world. It is good to remember that. It is also good to remember what a famous Christian, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said: "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."


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April 24, 2016

To the Purple Born

"We are only four months in, but it's already been a dark, dark 2016," opined an article on the BBC News website, and who can disagree? Celebrity deaths have come with mind-numbing regularity since Natalie Cole passed away on New Year's Eve. The list of writers, actors and musicians we have lost--many of them appallingly young--grows longer and more depressing by the week. There was Merle Haggard, the king of authentic, down-and-dirty country music. There was Garry Shandling, who reinvented the sitcom in ways that made possible the careers of a whole generation of comedians, from Jerry Seinfeld to Lena Dunham. There was Patty Duke, a phenomenal child actress who fought her way back from bipolar disorder to become a staunch advocate for the mentally ill. There was Doris Roberts, the archetypal annoying-but-loving mom, and Ken Howard, a magnificent Thomas Jefferson in "1776." There was Jim Harrison, poet and novelist most famous for "Legends of the Fall," known as much for his fond appreciation of food and wine as for his bracing stories of the wilderness, the most underrated man of letters of the past half-century. There were Pat Conroy and Earl Hamner Jr., creators of vastly different but complementary portraits of the American South, which were in turn complementary to that of Harper Lee, who passed just before them.

And now, there is Prince.

Prince can be compared with another artist who died just a few months before him, David Bowie. Both were brilliant musicians and consummate showmen, capable of whipping even the most skeptical crowd into a screaming frenzy. But Prince stood out simply by virtue of his astonishing musical gifts, which can be said, appropriately and without irony, to verge on the Mozartean. His first album, released when he was still a teenager, featured 27 instruments--all played by Prince himself. Countless videos making the rounds of YouTube and Facebook attest to his incredible accomplishments and thorough command of his art. (One Facebook posting tells of a reporter asking Eric Clapton what is was like to be the greatest guitarist in the world. "I don't know," Clapton reportedly answered. "Ask Prince.")

Prince and Bowie were different in another way. Both men were constantly reinventing themselves on stage. When Bowie reinvented himself, he was a brilliant actor trying out new roles. When Prince reinvented himself, he was simultaneously a poet, psychologist and playwright, exploring and expressing new aspects of his mind and soul. No matter how outrageous Prince got, audiences always knew they were getting the real man. That is why affectations that would have been unbearable in another artist--such as changing his name to a combined male-female symbol, or titling an album "Lovesexy" and adorning the cover with a naked picture of himself--were taken in stride with him.

Bowie was Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet; Prince WAS Hamlet, an authentic, tortured prince of his own making. The spontaneous worldwide outpouring of grief over Prince's passing is both deeply moving and absolutely appropriate. Just as the world grieved for a princess nearly two decades ago, now it grieves, with even more justification, for a Prince.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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January 31, 2016

Abe Vigoda

As with Mark Twain, most of the reports of Abe Vigoda's death were greatly exaggerated, starting with a People Magazine story in 1982 that referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." On Jan. 26, alas, the report of Vigoda's death was true. Tall and lanky with the face of a dyspeptic bloodhound, Vigoda had two claims to fame as an actor: as Sal Tessio, the treacherous Corleone family underboss in "The Godfather," and as Phil Fish, the perpetually disenchanted member of Barney Miller's detective squad. Unfortunately, his "Barney Miller" spinoff series, "Fish," was a flop, and many of his credits on the Internet Movie Database consist of things such as "Death Car on the Freeway." But he was always a welcome presence, as his many self-deprecating appearances on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's shows demonstrated. He had impeccable comic timing, and he could take a joke. It was always a joy to see him, and it is sad that we shall see him no more.

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January 24, 2016

Glenn Frey

It's one of the legendary stories of the rock era. Jackson Browne came to his friend Glenn Frey for help with the second verse of a new song. All Browne could come up with was, "Well I'm a-standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona." Frey added this:

Well I'm a-standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,
And such a fine sight to see;
It's a girl, my Lord
In a flatbed Ford,
Slowin' down to take a look at me.

The resulting song, "Take It Easy," was a work of country-rock genius. Browne made an excellent recording of it, but it was Frey--singing lead with the Eagles, that contentious band of equals--who made the classic version, and achieved immortality because of it.

Glenn Frey died a week ago at 67, suffering from so many illnesses that it was anyone's guess which one would kill him first. The documentary "History of the Eagles"--readily available on Netflix--helps explain how Frey became a physical wreck at such a young age. "It was the Seventies," Frey says at one point. "Drugs were everywhere." Along with the Hotel California lifestyle came an increasingly toxic atmosphere among the bandmates that guaranteed the band's ultimate breakup. The Eagles became something of a cautionary tale about what can happen to a band and its members.

Nevertheless, there are few bands in rock history that had as many memorable songs as The Eagles, and Frey--along with Don Henley--was the driving force of The Eagles. I know that whenever I hear "Take It Easy," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Take It to the Limit," "Lyin' Eyes," "Desperado," or any of a dozen other songs, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and listen. The documentary tells us a lot about Frey's early influences growing up in Detroit, the atomic effect of his first Beatles concert (including a girl falling backward into his arms), and the incredibly rich Southern California music scene of the Sixties and Seventies, where Frey came of age and found his voice.

Frey also had a strong solo career, and an acting career that encompassed "Miami Vice" and the too-little-remembered "Wiseguy." But it is his association with The Eagles that will ensure Frey remains a household name.

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January 18, 2016

Mr. Bowie and Mr. Rickman

The new year of 2016 began, as most years do, with a sad necrology in its first two weeks:the distinguished stage and screen actor Brian Bedford, the brilliant poet C.D. Wright, the beloved "Grizzly Adams" star Dan Haggerty.

Most of the public mourning, however, was directed at two men who died within three days of each other, at the same premature age.

Others are far better equipped than I to assess the impact of David Bowie on music and popular culture. But you don't have to be a rock critic to appreciate Bowie's daring, panache, and resilience as he reinvented himself countless times, yet always remained completely, recognizably himself. Eulogies from various sources, as well as numerous clips from interviews, attest to Bowie's keen intelligence and self-deprecating sense of humor. The release of his final album, "Black Star," just two days before his death attest to his determination and courage. But it was his music that made him important, and David Bowie changed our aural landscape in a way few other rock musicians have. And there are not many among the succeeding generations of rock musicians who don't owe an enormous debt to David Bowie.

Bowie seemed as if he would always be among us, So did Alan Rickman, a star character actor whose sepulchral voice and ravenlike presence made him unique and unforgettable. Rickman was the natural heir of James Mason in portraying elegant villains, as he proved beyond doubt in "Die Hard," "Sweeney Todd," and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." (The mantle now passes to Ralph Fiennes, Rickman's "Harry Potter" co-star, and to Benedict Cumberbatch.) Like the aforementioned actors, Rickman also was a persuasive good guy, as he showed in "Sense and Sensibility" and "Truly, Madly, Deeply." My own favorite Rickman performances, however, were those in which he played equivocal, ironic characters, basically good but with obvious flaws and a generally disenchanted view of life. There were many such characters in Rickman's filmography: the long-married man wistfully considering an affair in "Love, Actually;" the actor forever typecast as an alien in "Galaxy Quest;" the wine seller trying to drum up business by hosting a California-vs.-France tasting in "Bottle Shock." For succeeding generations of filmgoers, of course, he will always be Severus Snape, whose angry and sinister demeanor was inextricable from his romantic, heroic heart.

There are many testimonials, from Rickman's co-stars and others, about his kind heart, generous spirit and thoughtful, philosophical approach to life. It seems impossible to imagine that he is no longer among us; that is the supreme accolade for any performer.

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