Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bicentennial of Haydn's Death

This year has been noteworthy for historians, not only because it brought the inauguration of the first black president but also because it marked the bicentennial of the births of many famous people.

So far in 2009, we've seen the 200th birthdays of Edgar Allan Poe, Felix Mendelssohn, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin with others still to come.

But 2009 is also the bicentennial of the deaths of some important people, and perhaps the most significant is the one who died 200 years ago today, Joseph Haydn.

Haydn is often called the most significant composer of the classical period. He was a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and he was Ludwig van Beethoven's teacher.

He has been called the "Father of the Symphony" and the "Father of the String Quartet." He also played key roles in the developments of the piano trio and the sonata.

Many people made contributions to classical music, but it's hard to imagine anyone who had more of an influence than Haydn. It is entirely appropriate for us to remember him on this day.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Leno Calls it a Night

Jay Leno wrapped up 17 years of hosting "The Tonight Show" last night.

I don't know what the ratings were, but I didn't watch the show — in part because I just never embraced Leno as the host after Johnny Carson left in 1992, and I just never watched the show but also because I know that this isn't the end for Leno. He'll be back in the fall — in prime time.

I suppose it's a milestone for young viewers who have no memory of the days when Carson was the undisputed king of late night TV. But expecting someone like me, who remembers TV's really significant final acts — like the final episode of "M*A*S*H" or Carson's last "Tonight Show" after three decades — to get choked up about Leno's last show is as unrealistic as expecting me to get worked up about the last episode of "Friends." I know it means something to some people. It just doesn't mean anything to me.

I wish Leno well. But, honestly, how does his final show compare with Carson's?

See what I mean?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Wayne's Birthday

It was 102 years ago today that John Wayne was born.

I haven't found any scheduled showings of any of his movies to mark the occasion, but Turner Classic Movies will be showing one of his best films, "Angel and the Badman," tomorrow night at 7 p.m. (Central).

I guess it's kind of risky to proclaim any of John Wayne's movies as one of his best. The Duke still has some devoted fans, nearly 30 years after his death, and each has very definite ideas about what makes a John Wayne movie special.

Some of his fans will tell you his best movie was the one for which he won his only Oscar — "True Grit." Others would say 1939's "Stagecoach," John Ford's classic that says "quickly became a template for all movie Westerns to come."

Wayne was the subject of some controversy in the 1940s. Many movie stars enlisted to fight in World War II, but Wayne did not. His film career, thanks in part to "Stagecoach," was blooming in the early 1940s, and, while there were reports of his inquiries about enlisting in spite of the exemption he received because of his age and family status, apparently he never followed up on those inquiries, That may have been because the studio that had him under contract, Republic Studios, allegedly threatened to sue Wayne if he enlisted — although, logically, it seems very unlikely that a studio would sue its most bankable star for choosing to go to war.

Anyway, while other movie stars interrupted their careers to fight the Germans and the Japanese, Wayne remained stateside and made several war–oriented films. I suppose there are some of his fans who would choose movies he made during this period as being among his best, but I'm inclined to think that most of his best films came after the war ended — "Fort Apache" and "Red River" in 1948, "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" in 1949, "The Quiet Man" in 1952, "The Searchers" in 1956, "Rio Bravo" in 1959, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" in 1962.

I'm glad that TCM will be showing "Angel and the Badman" this week because I think it illustrates something I have always believed — that Wayne's best films were not necessarily shoot–'em–up Westerns or war flicks but stories about love and redemption. And that is what this film is about. Wayne plays a wounded outlaw who finds shelter with a Quaker family. His character evolves, thanks to the influence of the family's daughter (Gail Russell), but he still wants to kill the man who killed his foster father.

Most people probably wouldn't rate it as one of his best, but I have no problem putting it up there with classics like "Stagecoach" and "The Quiet Man."

Wayne wasn't a great example in his personal life. He was married three times, and his second wife was convinced that he and Russell had an affair during the filming of "Angel and the Badman." A chain–smoker from young adulthood, Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and had his left lung and four ribs removed. He encouraged people to get examinations, which was good, but he was chewing tobacco and smoking cigars within a few years of his surgery, which wasn't.

He was often criticized for his right–wing politics, and he claimed to have played a role in the blacklisting of "High Noon" screenwriter Carl Foreman.

But his best movies gave us characters and storylines that focus on qualities that most people find admirable.

That, I think, is his enduring gift.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day Movies

I knew that Turner Classic Movies would have a weekend–long Memorial Day salute, but I was disappointed, after looking at the schedule, to find that the most recent film in the lineup is 1970's "Kelly's Heroes" at 4:30 p.m. (Central) on Monday.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think "Kelly's Heroes" has some impressive performances, although it wasn't quite up to the standards of the films to which it was compared, "M*A*S*H" and "Catch–22."

And I really don't think there is anything wrong with the films that were chosen for TCM's 72–hour film marathon. It's hard for me to criticize a lineup that includes "Sergeant York," "Action in the North Atlantic" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," as well as several other classic films that pay homage to those who have served and continue to serve.

But I felt, when I saw the schedule, that it needed a film that gave a realistic portrayal of war for today's generation. The movies on this weekend's schedule are good, but they seem almost sugar–coated in an era of roadside bombs and hijacked planes crashing into buildings.

There are battle sequences galore in this movie marathon, but they're Hollywood battle sequences.

If we are going to have a day that is set aside for remembering the sacrifices that have been made, we need to show films that give an unflinching glimpse into what war is really like. My thinking is that, if we do that, future Americans, from the president on down, will be less indifferent about taking actions that can lead to war.

My choice would have been something like "Schindler's List," a great Steven Spielberg film that shows how blithely the Nazis often applied violence even before the mass executions had begun — and also shows that people don't have to be perfect to be heroes — just heroic.

Unfortunately, that film isn't on the TCM schedule in the near future, but a week from next Friday — June 5 — on the night before the 65th anniversary of the D–Day landing, TCM will show another great Spielberg film, "Saving Private Ryan."

And, I guess, if you're only going to show that movie once, the time to show it is on the D–Day anniversary, not on Memorial Day. I have attached a clip from the movie showing the landing at Omaha Beach. It is truly horrific, and it tells the story of what being under enemy fire is like.

Watch the clip, but watch the whole movie as well. It's on at 8:30 p.m. (Central) on Friday, June 5.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kris Allen Wins

I don't think it is an overstatement to say that this is probably the biggest night in the history of my hometown.

I wasn't living in Conway, Ark. — in fact, I wasn't even living in Arkansas — on the night in 1992 when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States.

I did meet Clinton on a couple of occasions when I was living in Conway. Clinton made some appearances at his Faulkner County campaign headquarters during his gubernatorial races, and I still have a political button that Clinton himself gave me during one of his appearances. But he never lived in Conway, to my knowledge.

As big as that night in 1992 was for the state of Arkansas, tonight is bound to be even bigger for Conway.

Because Kris Allen won the "American Idol" competition. If you've been watching the show, you know that Allen lived, for a time, in Conway, which happens to be my hometown.

His victory was announced only a matter of minutes ago. It is already being considered an upset.

I can't tell you whether I think it was an upset or not. I haven't been watching the show, although I knew that a young man who lived in Conway was a finalist. And I've been reading articles about him on the Conway newspaper's website.

Earlier this month, thousands of people turned out for a rally for Allen in Conway. I'm sure there will be a huge welcome–home rally for him when he returns to Arkansas after his "American Idol" triumph.

Well, congratulations, Kris. I hope you enjoy your moment in the spotlight. I know Conway will.

By the way, have you heard the phrase "kick awesome?" Apparently, that is a phrase Allen came up with. I have no doubt some bright marketer in the Conway area will be selling bumper stickers and T–shirts with that phrase.

It might even show up on the "Home of Kris Allen" signs that I'm sure will be erected on the city limits — if they haven't been installed already.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oh, To Be Home Tonight ...

I grew up in Conway, Ark.

Does the name of the town sound familiar? If it does — and if you don't happen to be a product of the place — you've probably heard of Conway because that is where "American Idol" finalist Kris Allen lived while he was in college. Maybe he still lives there. I honestly don't know.

I lived in Conway for most of the first 20 years of my life. Allen, who is 23, hadn't even been born when I left Conway.

Truth is, we probably lived in entirely different places. Same name. Different places.

The Conway I lived in didn't even reach 20,000 in population. In fact, I think there were fewer than 10,000 people there when I enrolled in first grade. Most of the time that I lived there, there was one movie theater in town, the old–fashioned, single–screen type downtown with a big marquee out front. I have vivid memories of going there as a child. When our family went to the movie, we stopped at the drug store on the corner and bought candy bars to eat instead of paying the higher prices for snacks at the theater. My mother would then smuggle them into the theater in her purse and hand them out to my father, my brother and me when we got to our seats.

In the summers, the local merchants sponsored free movies for kids. Each week, the mothers in my neighborhood took turns driving the kids in to see the movie, and the mothers got a few free hours to do with as they pleased.

A two–screen theater opened when I was in junior high, and the old theater downtown went out of business. A Wal–Mart and a McDonald's also opened around that time. Folks thought Conway was really becoming cosmopolitan.

In 2006, Conway had more than 57,000 residents. That means it is probably around five times the size it was when I was in elementary school.

Conway has had its moments in the spotlight. When I was a kid, one of our neighbors was one of the top Democrats in the state. In fact, when I was in third grade, he ran for the Senate and his wife ran for governor. Neither won.

Before he won NBA championships with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen played college basketball at the University of Central Arkansas, which is located in Conway. When I was growing up, the school was known as State College of Arkansas, but many of the locals waged a successful campaign for it to be given university status.

I remember the current mayor as a fairly ordinary kid who was a year or two behind me in school. Speaking of which, the building where I attended high school (which seemed new and very state of the art at the time) is still being used, but the enrollment in grades 9–12 has grown so much that they now have grades 9 and 10 on one campus and grades 11 and 12 on another.

The mascot is still the Wampus Cat. You don't know what that is? Well, it's a six–legged cat with "four to run with the speed of light and two to fight with all its might."

Doesn't that sound positively "It's a Wonderful Life?"

Actually, it did seem like a pretty good place to grow up. At least, it seemed that way to me. I grew up outside the city limits on a manmade lake. Summers were wonderful there. We swam in the lake. We camped out. We went fishing.

It was like being Huck Finn with an air–conditioned home in which to sleep. And Conway was always hot and humid in the summer so you thanked whatever higher power made air conditioning possible.

There wasn't much traffic so we could ride our bikes in the middle of the road if we wanted to.

And, in the winter, a fresh snowfall would turn those rustic woods into a winter wonderland.

I'm sure a lot of things about Conway are different now.

And I don't know how much of his life has been spent there. Allen was born in nearby Jacksonville. I don't know if he attended Conway High at any point, but he didn't graduate from CHS. He's a worship leader in his church in Maumelle.

But I think Allen went to school at UCA, and the city has adopted him as its own. From what I've read on the website for the town's newspaper, they're having "watch parties" around Conway, and folks have been snapping up official Kris Allen T–shirts.

This week, he's in the finals of "American Idol." The winner will be revealed tomorrow night.

You can bet they'll be watching in Conway.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I'm Still Bewitched

There isn't much that I remember from 14 years ago.

My mother died in a flash flood on May 5, 1995, and just about everything else from that year is shrouded in a fog for me. I'm constantly being reminded of things that happened that year, and I find myself asking, "Really?" as if the event in question just happened.

I do vaguely remember O.J. Simpson being acquitted of the murders of his ex–wife and her friend. And I remember Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig's mark for consecutive games played. But most of the events from 1995 — especially the second half of that year — escaped my personal radar.

But I remember hearing the news, on May 18, 1995, of Elizabeth Montgomery's death. She died of colorectal cancer.

Actually, her story is something of a cautionary tale. She ignored the symptoms of her illness while she was finishing the filming of her last made–for–TV movie. By the time she sought medical attention, it was too late.

I guess those two women, Mom and Elizabeth Montgomery, were unique in their significance in my life. A mother is always unique to her child, I suppose, but Montgomery was truly my first love. I was merely a child when she came into our home every week as Samantha on "Bewitched," and perhaps I regarded her as something of a mother figure. But I felt a very definite attraction to her that was quite different from a mother–child relationship.

Montgomery was close to my mother's age. Mom was born in August 1931. Montgomery was born in April 1933. And I always felt there was a physical resemblance that she and my mother shared. So maybe there was a certain amount of transference that was going on in my young psyche.

I don't know. I guess I would need to be a psychiatrist to make that kind of assertion.

Did I feel as if I had lost my mother again when I heard the news 14 years ago today? No. It was more a sense of losing my first love.

I never met Elizabeth Montgomery. But she will always be my first love. And, whenever I see a sitcom episode or a made–for–TV movie with her in it, I remember that 7–year–old boy with the crush on Samantha.

Others — both personal acquaintances and women who were worshiped from afar — took her place over the years. But she was the first and will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Even though she never knew who I was.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

He-e-e-e-ere's Johnny!

It was nearly 17 years ago that Johnny Carson made his final appearance as host of "The Tonight Show."

But that was not his absolute final television appearance.

That came 15 years ago today, when he made a brief appearance on "The David Letterman Show" on Friday, May 13, 1994.

It was the last time — to my knowledge — that Carson appeared on any TV program — and he never spoke a word to the audience. He later claimed that he was suffering from acute laryngitis.

Carson died of respiratory arrest stemming from emphysema more than 10 years later, on Jan. 23, 2005.

It probably isn't necessary to say that Carson was a special talent. For me, late night TV hasn't been the same since he left.

Oh, and by the way — on the day Carson appeared on Letterman's show, Carrie Prejean, the Miss California who has been in the news lately because of her views on marriage, marked her seventh birthday.

Monday, May 11, 2009

If It Weren't For Bad Luck ...

These days, there are probably a lot of people who can sympathize with the old expression, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

Recently, I happened to see an episode of "Frasier" that was the embodiment of that sentiment.

In the episode, Frasier had recently lost his job and his 30th high school reunion was coming up. Frasier was leaning toward not going because, every time that a high school reunion came up, it coincided with a time in his life when something was amiss — one year, his wife had just divorced him; another time, he had been left at the altar; still another time, as he told his brother, "I fell face first into the poison ivy!"

Frasier was convinced that he was cursed, that "destiny's plan" was for him to go to the reunion and be the "class loser" who winds up taking a seat with "the most pathetic people there" — the chess club's barbershop quartet, The Checkmates — and join them in a round of "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby."

His brother tells him he is a man of science who should know that curses don't exist. To persuade him, Frasier's brother observes that there were explanations for the bad things that happened prior to the previous reunions — he tripped and fell into the poison ivy, his radio station changed formats (leading to his job loss), his wife didn't love him (leading to his divorce). "If this is a pep talk," Frasier replies, "would you kindly segue to the peppy part?"

Frasier fluctuates over whether to go to the reunion, asking Roz to be his date but then deciding, after she has already gone to great lengths to get a babysitter and get herself all dolled up for the occasion, not to go after all. Then, when one of his classmates mistakes him for a street person, he changes his mind again and gives Roz a last–minute phone call. He catches her in the bathtub with a pint of Häagen–Dazs, but she comes through like a trouper.

However, after Roz shows up, Niles talks Frasier out of attending the reunion and Roz storms angrily out of the apartment, justifiably upset about being "stood up twice" for the same event. At that point, Frasier's father tries to help by making up a job offer to make Frasier feel better, and Frasier leaves, solo, for the reunion, ready to gloat.

Apparently, Frasier learns, after arriving at the reunion, that the job offer was nonexistent, although the viewing audience never sees that part. It seems the curse won, after all, and he proceeds to take his seat with The Checkmates.

I can understand how Frasier felt. Last summer, my high school class held its 30th reunion. I had been hearing rumors of cutbacks at my place of employment for several weeks, so I chose to stay in Dallas and work at home, hoping to avoid what turned out to be inevitable.

I didn't label it a curse, as Frasier did, but, in hindsight, I'm not so sure.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Mother's Day Movie

Just out of curiosity, if you were planning to show a movie about a mother on Mother's Day, which movie would you choose?

Would you choose "Forrest Gump," which shows the close relationship between a mother (played by Sally Field) and her mentally challenged son (Tom Hanks)?

Would you choose a move about an overprotective mother, like "Butterflies Are Free," the film for which Eileen Heckart won an Oscar?

Would you choose a movie about an abusive mother, like "Mommie Dearest," in which Faye Dunaway played the allegedly monstrous mother, Joan Crawford?

There are many movies that explore the relationship between a mother and her child(ren). There are even movies that explore the relationship between a stepmother and her child(ren).

But the movie that Turner Classic Movies has chosen for its primetime spotlight tomorrow night, "Bunny Lake Is Missing," probes a relationship that may not even exist — because the child may not exist.

In the movie, Carol Lynley plays a single woman who relocates from America to England where she and her 4–year–old daughter, "Bunny," will live with her brother. Lynley's character drops Bunny off for her first day of nursery school, but when she returns to pick her up later that day, no one at the school can recall ever seeing the child.

For that matter, movie viewers haven't seen her, either.

Thus begins a harrowing tale of a police investigation for a possibly nonexistent child. Laurence Olivier plays the police superintendent, Noël Coward (in one of his final film roles) plays a sadomasochist who lets himself into the Lakes' apartment as he wishes and Keir Dullea (perhaps best remembered for his role as "Dave" in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey") plays Lynley's brother.

The movie has a surprise ending, which I won't give away here. I will only encourage you to watch it. It has become something of a cult favorite since it made its debut in 1965.

The film is directed by one of my favorite directors, Otto Preminger, who also made one of my favorite courtroom films, "Anatomy of a Murder." He also directed one of my favorite political films, "Advise and Consent."

The movie will be shown at 7 p.m. (Central).

Friday, May 08, 2009

Outlook Appears Grim for Farrah

If you were a teenage boy in the 1970s — as I was — there can be little dispute that Farrah Fawcett was perhaps the most desired woman in the entertainment industry. Most boys my age had a copy of her famous poster on the wall. It sold 12 million copies, a figure that remains unsurpassed.

But Farrah, with her tousled hair, perfect teeth and slender build, was more than a pretty face. She proved over the years that she was a talented actress, earning Emmy nominations for performances in TV movies based on the true stories of a battered wife and a predatory and narcissistic mother.

Next week, she will be featured in what may be the most important film of her life — a two–hour documentary on her battle with cancer.

According to recent reports, it may be miraculous if she lives to see the airing of the documentary a week from today — although, based on comments made by her longtime partner and current caretaker Ryan O'Neal in an interview with People magazine, she spends much of her time asleep these days. She might not be awake to watch it.

Reports suggest that Farrah is in the final stages of her cancer, and she seems to have reached a level of acceptance. Her weight is said to be between 86 and 101 pounds, and she seems to be taking most, if not all, of her nourishment via IV. O'Neal says her treatments have ended and her famous hair is gone now, and her appearance has been described as "hauntingly gaunt."

Farrah is to be commended for her courage in filming her fight with cancer and allowing it to be shown. Many people might consider it an intrusion to be filmed at such a time, but Farrah has put personal considerations on the shelf, choosing to show as realistically as possible what people facing cancer must endure.

If your life hasn't been touched by cancer, all I can say is that you are fortunate. I have seen the ravages of what O'Neal calls an "insidious enemy" in my own life.

I wish Farrah the best. I pray for a cure. But I probably will not watch the documentary.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dom DeLuise Dies

Comic actor Dom DeLuise has died at 75.

Although it has been awhile since DeLuise appeared in a film, his passing is a considerable loss for the entertainment industry.

His first film, according to All Movie Guide, was in 1958's "Tom Thumb," when DeLuise was in his mid–20s. I've never seen it, but it must have been a small part because AMG doesn't even list a name for his character in that film.

Six years later, he appeared in another film, "Diary of a Bachelor," which doesn't seem to have earned stellar reviews. But he had another small role in another film that year that did receive strong reviews — "Fail–Safe," a Cold War drama about a bomber squadron that, through misguided electronic transmissions, is accidentally sent on a mission to bomb Moscow.

In that film, DeLuise played an uncharacteristically dramatic role as a sergeant who must share with the Soviets — as a way of demonstrating the Americans' good intentions — the secrets for shooting down the elusive American bombers. His performance can be seen in the attached clip.

A couple of his co–stars in that movie also had some experience in comedies — Walter Matthau, who played a scientist, spent most of his film career getting laughs, and Larry Hagman, who played an interpreter, probably appeared in more dramas than DeLuise and Matthau combined, but there are those who will always think of "I Dream of Jeannie" whenever his name is mentioned.

Anyway, after "Fail–Safe," DeLuise settled into the kind of movies and TV roles that brought him fame and fortune.

He was a favorite of Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds, appearing in several of their films. He also made numerous TV appearances.

It's almost impossible to pick his best performance. Personally, I always liked his appearance in Reynolds' "The End," playing Reynolds' fellow mental patient, who tries to help Reynolds' character commit suicide.

But I enjoyed many of his performances.

And I shall miss him.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Audrey's 80th Birthday

I think this clip from "Always," Hepburn's final film, is poignant.
Hepburn's character, an angel named Hap, gives advice to
Richard Dreyfuss, whose character is recently deceased.

Today would have been actress Audrey Hepburn's 80th birthday, but she died of appendiceal cancer on Jan. 20, 1993.

Hepburn — like that other actress named Hepburn — was a unique talent. In fact, she is one of only nine people to win the four major entertainment awards in American show business — a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. The Grammy and the Emmy were awarded posthumously.

Unlike that other Hepburn, however, Audrey Hepburn's life was much too short. She was only 63 when she died. But she lived her life well, winning an Academy Award for her performance in 1953's "Roman Holiday" and earning four more nominations (for "Sabrina," "The Nun's Story," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Wait Until Dark").

Like her life, Hepburn's acting career was abbreviated. After her Oscar–nominated performance in 1967's "Wait Until Dark," in which she played a blind woman who was targeted by three criminals looking for heroin hidden in a doll, she appeared sporadically in films. She returned to the screen in 1976's "Robin and Marian," co–starring Sean Connery, then appeared in 1979's "Bloodline" (her only R–rated film) and 1981's "They All Laughed," her final starring role.

Her last film appearance was in 1989's "Always," in a cameo performance as the angel Hap. It was Steven Spielberg's remake of the 1943 film "A Guy Named Joe."

In addition to her acting work, Hepburn did extensive work for UNICEF and was named a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF shortly after finishing her work on "Always." She had very definite opinions about the human condition.

"The 'Third World' is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world," she said. "I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering."

In April 1989, after visiting civil war–torn Sudan, where food supply lines from aid agencies had been severed, she said, "I saw but one glaring truth: These are not natural disasters but man–made tragedies for which there is only one man–made solution — peace."


In fact, you could write a book about Hepburn's life and several have. You certainly can't do justice to her life and career in a single blog post.

But we can be thankful she was among us.