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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November 16, 2015

Adel Termos and Florent Groberg

Adel Termos is not a name that is well-known to Americans, but it deserves to be. On Nov. 12, 2015, Termos was walking through an open-air market in his native Beirut with his small daughter. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the crowd: a suicide bomber had detonated his pack of explosives. Seeing a second bomber, Termos threw himself on him, saving the lives of his daughter and who knows how many dozens of people.

Forty-one people died in that market, including Termos. The news of that bombing was wiped off Western news by the horrific series of terrorist attacks in Paris the next evening. But, in the honor roll of heroes, the name of Adel Termos must be inscribed.

Termos' action was virtually identical to that of Capt. Florent Groberg, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor last week by President Obama. Groberg was luckier than Termos, although he needed 33 operations simply to walk again. But Groberg said he would gladly have forgone the Medal of Honor, and even the remainder of his own life, to bring back the comrades he could not save. It is a sad bit of serendipity, in light of the Paris attacks, to know that Groberg is the son of French immigrants.

Considering the heroism of Termos and Groberg, we can only stand as best we can in solidarity with the victims of terrorism everywhere. We can also marvel at the kindness and courage of ordinary Parisians, who opened their homes to those fleeing the carnage, just as New Yorkers did on Sept. 11, 2001. The message is clear: Love everyone. Mourn everyone. Pray for everyone. Fight for everyone.

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October 25, 2015

Maureen O'Hara

It was Maureen O'Hara's destiny that, despite a long and varied career, she would be best remembered by far for being John Wayne's romantic screen partner. It was the second of her five collaborations with Wayne--and also, not incidentally, her third with John Ford, after "How Green Was My Valley" and "Rio Grande"--that became the iconic film of her career: "The Quiet Man." Everybody remembers the scene in a ruined Irish cottage, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, in which she answers Wayne's soul kiss with a roundhouse swing. Even if you've never seen "The Quiet Man" itself, you saw Steven Spielberg quote that scene in "E.T." But for me it's her first scene in "The Quiet Man" that is her iconic image. Wayne, as disillusioned prizefighter Sean Thornton, has just returned to the village where he was born, and his first sight is that of a flame-haired shepherdess leading her flock into a wood. That shepherdess is Mary Kate Danaher, played by O'Hara; in the moment she turns around to look at Thornton, we know that Mary Kate symbolizes everything he hopes to find, and regain, in Ireland.

"The Quiet Man" may have been O'Hara's greatest film--"How Green was My Valley," her first collaboration with Ford, was probably its only real rival in her filmography. But she had many other unforgettable moments. Her role as Doris Walker in "Miracle on 34th Street," earnestly trying to persuade her daughter (Natalie Wood) that there is no Santa Claus while Edmund Gwenn is claiming to be Santa in the flesh, has become a Christmas classic. And no one who ever saw her Hollywood debut, as Esmeralda to Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame, could fail to be enchanted by her. Her late career turn, as John Candy's smothering mom in "Only the Lonely," was a genial comic performance in which she showed a great and unexpected rapport with her co-star. O'Hara's screen persona seemed very much like how the real woman appeared to be: scaldingly honest, generous, good-hearted, and the scourge of anyone who dared to belittle her or test her will. She had many talents--among them a lovely singing voice--that Hollywood failed to capitalize on. But what Maureen O'Hara was, and what she achieved, were glorious.

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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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