Monday, June 29, 2009

The Fate of Jackson's Children

I have to wonder how Michael Jackson would feel about this.

Granted, Jackson's behavior was weird, but it has seemed to me, for a long time, that a lot of the blame for that belongs to his father, Joe Jackson. Michael Jackson said publicly, starting in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1993, that his father abused him and his brothers when they were growing up. His father confirmed the allegations in 2003.

So, here we are, less than a week after Michael Jackson's death, and a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has granted temporary guardianship of his three children to his mother, Katherine Jackson.

Michael Jackson's parents live together. They've been married for nearly 60 years. If Michael Jackson's children will be living with their grandmother, it follows that they will also be living with their grandfather.

Joe Jackson is 80 years old now. Maybe he won't be inclined to abuse his grandchildren, particularly if he isn't trying to mold them into a lucrative performing act.

But who knows what may be going through Joe Jackson's mind? He addressed the subject of his son's children while answering questions about plans for a funeral/memorial service (there are no such plans as of yet), and he insisted that "We love those kids, too. We'll give them the education they're supposed to have."

But, truthfully, he seemed more interested in talking about a recording company venture of which he is a part.

Noo-ku-lar Combat, Toe to Toe with the Rooskies

Today would have been the 90th birthday of Slim Pickens.

He was born Louis Burton Lindley Jr. He apparently took his stage name after being told, as a young adult working in the rodeo, that rodeo work would be "slim pickings" — which was probably applicable to quite a few occupations in the days of the Great Depression — but he became a fairly successful rodeo clown before he gravitated to movies.

On the big screen, he was primarily a supporting actor, appearing with the likes of John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston and Errol Flynn.

But I guess most movie viewers associate him with a couple of roles — the gung–ho Major Kong in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" and the thuggish Taggart in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles."

Personally, I always think of "Dr. Strangelove" when I think of Pickens — but that shouldn't be too surprising, since I have long admired Kubrick's films. In fact, Pickens was offered a role in Kubrick's film version of "The Shining." He turned it down, though, because working with Kubrick on "Dr. Strangelove" had been too much of an ordeal for him, and the role went instead to Scatman Crothers.

Pickens' performance in "Dr. Strangelove" was memorable mainly for three parts — his speech to his crew after receiving the order to bomb a Russian target; his final scene, in which he rides an H–bomb like a bronco in a rodeo; and his recitation of the contents of the survival kits.

By the way, after reviewing the contents of the survival kits, Pickens originally said, "[S]hoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff," but the line had to be changed after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. When the film was shown in theaters, Pickens' character said "Vegas" instead of "Dallas," but watch his lips in the attached clip.

Pickens died in 1983 at the age of 64 following surgery for a brain tumor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

All Michael, All the Time

Today's autopsy on Michael Jackson appears to have been inconclusive.

There was no sign of external trauma or indication of foul play, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office so toxicology, neuropathology and pulmonary tests have been requested. As a result, it seems likely to be several weeks before a cause of death is determined.

That, along with the release of the recording of the 911 call, is pretty much the extent of today's developments.

But don't worry that you might miss something. More than 24 hours after his death — and with apparently no other news to report — all the news websites are full of Michael coverage.

In some ways and at some sites, I expected that. I mean, take the Gary, Ind., newspaper, the Post–Tribune, for example. Michael Jackson is probably the most significant person to come out of Gary. I would have been surprised if he wasn't the focus of attention.

And, considering that Jackson died in Los Angeles and his autopsy was conducted there, I would have been surprised if he wasn't the top story in the Los Angeles Times.

But the apparent absence of much real news didn't keep USA Today from making Jackson its above–the–fold story.

Even the Washington Post has not been immune. I would have thought that the Post, being in the nation's capital, would have a few other things on which to shine its spotlight — the economy, the revolution in Iran, health care reform, even Mark Sanford.

Well, in life, Jackson sure sold a lot of papers.

And, in his death in the digital age, he's driving a lot of internet traffic.

Speaking of which, CNN is saying that there was a time yesterday when the online traffic seeking news of Jackson's condition nearly brought down the internet.

Hang on tight. With his funeral/memorial service and the revelation of the cause of death yet to come, it's shaping up to be a bumpy ride.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Dies at 50

Across the country this afternoon, news departments were preparing tributes to Farrah Fawcett, who lost her three–year battle with cancer earlier in the day.

Then, abruptly, plans changed as word spread that the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson, had collapsed following cardiac arrest, lapsed into a coma and died this afternoon.

There was still considerable uncertainty about Jackson as I prepared to leave for the monthly Communications Commission meeting at my church a few hours ago. The Los Angeles Times was reporting that Jackson had died, but it was not basing its report on anything that had been said by someone connected to UCLA Medical Center, where Jackson was taken. CNN, apparently, was still waiting for that confirmation and would say only this for certain — Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest and was in a coma.

But now, a few minutes after my return from the meeting, it seems to be official. CNN, along with all the other media outlets, is no longer hedging.

Michael Jackson is dead.

I must confess that I'm not sure how to respond to this news. As I am sure it is with millions of others my age and younger, it often seems to me there has never been a time when Jackson was not a part of the entertainment scene.

And not just part of it. At times, Michael Jackson seemed to be the entertainment scene.

As Brooks Barnes writes in the New York Times, "As with Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it is impossible to calculate the full effect he had on the world of music. At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums."

In my case, the truth is that I was never a Michael Jackson fan. For a time, when I was a child, I considered myself a fan of the Jackson Five. I used to listen to a collection of 45 rpm records of the group's top singles. But when Jackson embarked on a solo career, my interest began to go in a different direction.

And, when everyone else was buying "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad," I was buying albums by other performers — Dire Straits, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, ZZ Top. But I knew Jackson's music. It was everywhere. You couldn't miss it. When you drove your car, it was on the radio. When you switched on your TV, you stood a good chance of seeing Jackson doing his moon walk. When you visited a friend's home, "Thriller" was likely to be the record that was already on the turntable. When you went into a store, you would probably hear "Billie Jean" on the P.A. system.

That, it seems to me, is how you tell if someone has left a large impression on a nation and the world. And everything Michael Jackson did, he did in a big way, whether it was selling albums or constructing Neverland or going on a concert tour.

In the days to come, I'm sure there will be those who will write of how Jackson's legal troubles late in his life ushered in his decline, strangling his creativity. Well, they said the same thing about Lenny Bruce. Different factors but the gist was the same.

The entertainers of my generation are disappearing in rapid–fire sequence lately. In a few short days, we've lost Ed McMahon, Fawcett and Jackson. When I was in the newspaper business, the accepted truism was that these things came in threes. If that really is how it works, I guess others in the entertainment field can relax a little now. They dodged that third bullet. Well, for now.

But how are the rest of us supposed to feel after losing Johnny's sidekick, the most popular of "Charlie's Angels" and the guy who sang "Beat It," all in the space of three days?

Death of an 'Angel'

Only minutes ago, it was announced that 1970s TV icon Farrah Fawcett has died of anal cancer at the age of 62.

I don't think the news will come as a surprise to anyone. She has been struggling with cancer off and on for the last three years. Last month, her longtime partner, Ryan O'Neal, suggested, in an interview with People, that the end was near. Recent reports indicated she was back in the hospital and was not doing well. But, in spite of all the advance warning, I think the news of her death will be met with sadness from anyone who is old enough to remember her incredibly popular poster or her breakout role on "Charlie's Angels."

I was a teenage boy in the '70s. I had a copy of her poster on my wall. Like many of the boys my age, I was taken — if not taken in — by her looks. But there always was more to Fawcett than her tousled hair and shapely figure.

Fawcett herself spoke of the mixed blessing that her popularity was. It opened doors for her, but, at the same time, it obscured her talent as an actress, which can be seen in the films she made and TV programs on which she appeared.

Cancer, as O'Neal told People, is an "insidious enemy." Truer words were never spoken. I've seen cancer claim my friends, and I've seen it take famous people I admired. It is true that we have made strides against it in my lifetime, but there is still so much to be done.

Today, I doubt that we will conquer cancer in my lifetime. Indeed, I wonder if we will ever conquer it. But, if you are in a position to contribute to the effort in any way, please visit the American Cancer Society's website.

About the only thing I have left to say is this:

Rest in peace, Farrah.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oscar Expansion Makes Sense

Next year, the Academy Awards will expand the nominees for Best Picture.

Since 1944, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has limited the number of nominees for Best Picture to five. But, in 2010, that number will double, and the same number of films will be nominated for Best Picture as were nominated the year "Casablanca" took home the gold statuette.

The maximum number of nominees in all the other categories will remain at five.

I think it is a smart move. I mean, you can make a case that perhaps only five actors or five actresses should be nominated for the acting awards, that only five directors should be nominated, and so on.

But expanding the number of nominees for Best Picture allows more bases to be covered. Films that have been primarily recognized for technical achievement now can be considered along with films that had great acting or great directing or great writing — but little in the way of special effects.

Most probably will not win, but they will be considered.

Fans of genres that have been overlooked in the past will be drawn to the telecast now. I definitely anticipate a ratings boost for next year's Oscars.

Want to get a glimpse into what the future might hold? Associated Press movie critic Christy Lemire speculates about what the Best Picture field for 2008 might have looked like if the 10–nominee restriction had been in effect.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ed McMahon Dies

For 30 years, Ed McMahon was Johnny Carson's sidekick on "The Tonight Show."

Of all the memorable teams in television — or show business in general, for that matter — few could match Carson and McMahon. Carson, who was introduced each night by McMahon's trademark "Heeeeeeerre's Johnny!" pitch, passed away four years ago, and now, McMahon has died as well.

I'm not sure what the official cause of death will be, but McMahon, 86, had suffered from several health problems in recent years.

What does seem certain is that Carson and McMahon shared a close friendship that went beyond their professional relationship. Carson spoke about it in his final "Tonight Show" program, and McMahon wrote about it.

In his 1998 memoir "For Laughing Out Loud," McMahon recalled an incident that illustrated the unique nature of their association. One of McMahon's jobs with the show was to do live advertisements for sponsors. For one of the show's regular sponsors, Alpo dog food, McMahon would talk about the good qualities of the product while a dog ate it on camera. But, on one occasion, the dog that was normally used wasn't available, and the substitute wasn't hungry.
"Then I saw Johnny come into my little commercial area. He got down on his hands and knees and came over to me. ... I started to pet Johnny. Nice boss, I was thinking as I pet him on the head, nice boss. By this point the audience was hysterical. ... I just kept going. I was going to get my commercial done. 'The next time you're looking at the canned dog food ...' — he rubbed his cheek against my leg — '... reach for the can that contains real beef.' Johnny got up on his knees and started begging for more. I started petting him again ... and then he licked my hand."

You can see that moment in the attached clip.

Some people may point out how appropriate it is that McMahon should pass away at this time — on the day that many famous show business people were born (June Carter Cash, Bob Fosse, Frances McDormand) or died (Maureen O'Sullivan, Aaron Spelling) — or, for that matter, the day after the first anniversary of the death of George Carlin, who was one of the most frequent guest hosts during Carson's absences from the show.

(Carlin, by the way, died on the anniversary of the deaths of Judy Garland, David O. Selznick and Fred Astaire.)

But I'll just say this:

Goodbye, Ed. Thanks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Summer Blockbuster Enters Middle Age

You may not realize it, but the concept of the "summer blockbuster" was born 34 years ago — on June 20, 1975, when Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" made its much–heralded debut.

Its opening weekend earned an eye–popping (for those days) $7 million — a figure that is dwarfed by the hundreds of millions that movies like "The Dark Knight" or "Spider–Man" are capable of drawing today.

Of course, a ticket to a movie cost a lot less in those days than it does today, and common sense would tell you that higher ticket prices mean higher box office receipts. But, even so, the earnings of some of today's motion pictures really are astonishing.

Still, that doesn't take anything away from those early "blockbusters."

But I have to wonder why no one figured out until 1975 that summer was a lucrative time to bring out movies that were likely to attract a lot of attention. The biggest box–office draws before "Jaws" came out typically were released around the Christmas holidays. The record–holder — even after the "Jaws" frenzy of '75 — was "The Godfather: Part II," which was released in December 1974.

And the movies that didn't quite earn what "Jaws" did in its opening weekend — "Magnum Force" (1973), "The Jungle Book" (1967), "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) — were not released in the summer. A noteworthy exception, I suppose, was "Psycho," which was released in June 1960.

Even two years later, when "Star Wars" caught everyone by surprise in the summer of 1977 and earned nearly $17 million in its opening weekend, the "blockbuster" marketing concept was not an accepted part of the movie business.

But that, too, has changed. For the last 30 years, the top moneymaking movies have been released in time to capitalize on the summer months — when young people have had time on their hands and money in their pockets.

Will the horrid economy affect the anticipated blockbusters this summer? It's hard to say. So far, only one of the top 10 moneymakers of 2009 — "Up" — has been released since Memorial Day.

I suppose we'll get something of an answer to that when the next "Harry Potter" film is released next month.

Remembering George Carlin

It was one year ago today that George Carlin died of heart failure. He was 71.

I mentioned that to my brother during our Father's Day lunch with our father yesterday. He, too, was a Carlin fan, but I could tell from how he looked at me that he was wondering how I knew today was the anniversary, even though he never said so.

I don't really know. I've always had a good memory for dates, but how does one explain things like remembering the dates that famous people died? I remember when Princess Di was killed, too. I also remember what I was doing when I heard that Pope John Paul II had died or when Ronald Reagan died.

And I remember when John Lennon was killed.

In my mind, Carlin was the equal of each of them when it came to his public stature.

There have been many times in the last year when I have wished Carlin was still around.

We've had an economic meltdown, terrorist attacks in India, voting irregularities in Iran, the nomination of a Republican woman for vice president and the election of a black president, not to mention countless other things — hurricanes, earthquakes, bailouts, philandering politicians, an airplane making an emergency landing in the Hudson River — that would have provided considerable grist for Carlin's mental mill.

I've enjoyed many comedians over the years, but, for my money, Carlin was the best.

His insights are missed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Different Kind of Twilight Zone Marathon

I don't get too worked up about most TV "marathons."

Some stations, like TVLand or Nick at Nite, are always doing them, but they show episodes of series they're adding to their regular schedule. It's a marketing tool. Those episodes will be repeated frequently in the months to come so there isn't anything special about them. There's no sense of urgency. If you miss one, who cares?

But several years ago, I recall, TVLand did weekend marathons of shows that weren't usually part of their regular schedules. I always enjoyed them because they were viewing treats.

Well, the Sci–Fi Channel has just such a treat in store for us in a couple of weeks.

Twice a year, the Sci–FI Channel has a marathon of "Twilight Zone" episodes — around New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. In the past, these marathons have consisted exclusively of the black–and–white Rod Serling episodes from the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the show has had several incarnations in recent years, and, in this year's marathon, Sci–Fi is going to show some episodes from the second incarnation from the mid–1980s, which made its debut about 10 years after Serling died.

From 7 a.m. (Central) on Thursday, July 2, when the marathon begins with one of the best episodes from the second series, "Nightcrawlers," until 3:30 p.m. (Central) on Friday, July 3, when the mid–1980s portion of the marathon concludes with another one of the best episodes from that time period, "The Toys of Caliban," you can see stories that did a fine job of maintaining Serling's standards — at least, in my opinion.

You can judge for yourself, because the marathon picks up with the original episodes from the late '50s and early '60s at 4 p.m. (Central) on Friday and continues to show those vintage programs through Saturday, July 4.

I know that some fans panned the show in the mid–1980s, but I didn't. And I consider myself a fan of the original "Twilight Zone."

In the second generation of the "Twilight Zone" series, the show was an hour long, but it generally consisted of two 30–minute stories. A few of the stories were an hour long, though, and a couple of them are scheduled to be shown on Thursday — "Her Pilgrim Soul" from 1:30–2:30 p.m. (Central) and "A Message From Charity" from 3:30–4:30 p.m. (Central).

My recollection is that both of those episodes also were good — but I haven't seen them in more than 20 years.

In those days, I was working the night shift on the copy desk of a daily newspaper. I remember setting my video recorder to tape the show when it was on and then watching it when I got home later that night. But I generally watched each episode once and then taped over the recording. So I'm relying on a limited memory.

But I'm looking forward to this year's marathon because it will give me the chance to see some shows I haven't seen in a long time.

And who knows when I may see them again?

'Come and Listen to My Story ...'

On this date in 1914, Lester Flatt was born in rural Overton County, Tenn.

I guess most people recognize the name when it is combined with his longtime performing partner, Earl Scruggs. For 20 years, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys were probably the most popular bluegrass performers around.

By the time of his death in May 1979, Flatt had compiled a collection of acoustic compositions of which just about any musician would be envious. But even casual fans could recognize his voice. Honestly, do you know anyone who has never heard the "Ballad of Jed Clampett," which is known as the theme of "The Beverly Hillbillies?"

That's not Lester Flatt singing the song on the TV show. But he and Scruggs performed it many times for delighted audiences. And their recording of the song went to #1 on the country music charts.

Flatt and Scruggs recorded the song in 1962 and released it in 1963. It was actually composed by TV writer/producer Paul Henning, who played a major role in the development of that series as well as "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction," but that takes nothing away from the musical accomplishments Flatt enjoyed in his life.

And, three decades after his death, Flatt still lives, if briefly, whenever fans watch "The Beverly Hillbillies" and hear that iconic theme song.

Of course, Flatt and Scruggs made a few appearances on the show as friends of the Clampetts. Acting wasn't really their thing — music was.

But their backwoods country style was a natural fit for the show.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The 'Curse' of Superman

Fifty years ago today, actor George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head.

Reeves was known for his portrayal of Superman in a popular TV series, one of TV's early hits in the 1950s, but the show went off the air in 1958 and Reeves struggled to find work, apparently reaching the conclusion that he had been typecast.

By June 1959, things seemed to be looking up for Reeves. The TV series was poised for a renewal in 1960, and Reeves was about to marry. But, in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, after allegedly participating in an evening of dining and drinking with friends, Reeves was killed by a single gunshot to his head. His naked body was found sprawled on his bed.

In the decades that have passed since then, it has been debated whether Reeves killed himself or was killed by someone else. The issue has never been satisfactorily resolved, but it's clear from the evidence from the scene that he did not, as the urban legend suggested, die because he leaped off a building to see if he really could fly.

Nor does it seem likely that there is a "curse" on the role of Superman — an idea that took root, I believe, when the actor who played Superman in four movies in the 1970s and 1980s, Christopher Reeve, was paralyzed in an equestrian accident in 1995 and then died of cardiac arrest in 2004 at the age of 52.

I guess the rumors of such a curse stemmed, in part, from the similarity of the actors' surnames — but that, actually, is misleading.

George Reeves' birth name was George Keefer Brewer. His parents separated not long after his birth; his mother later married a man named Frank Bessolo, who adopted George. Apparently, he took Reeves as his professional name, although I have no idea why, and the burial marker in the mausoleum that houses his remains reads "George Bessolo Reeves."

In the case of Christopher Reeve, the surname is apparently his birth name.

Even so, it might be wise for any actors with the surname of "Reeves" or "Reeve" who are approached to star in a remake of "Superman," whether for television or the big screen, to think long and hard before accepting such an offer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Helen Hunt's Birthday

When Helen Hunt was 13, she appeared on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as the daughter of TV news writer Murray Slaughter.

In the episode, pompous news anchor Ted Baxter pays Murray to write an article for him, with the condition that no one is to know that Ted didn't do the writing himself. Murray keeps his end of the bargain, even though he longs to take credit for his work — particularly when he hears his daughter speak admiringly of Ted's writing.

I don't think that was the first time Hunt appeared on TV. But it was the first time I had seen her. I was 17. And I was smitten.

I was still smitten when I saw her several years later as the co–star on the popular TV series, "Mad About You." Not just because of her beauty but because of her talent.

My admiration for her talent continued to grow. I admired her work in "As Good As It Gets," "Twister" and "Cast Away." With the possible exception of "As Good As It Gets," I don't think she has appeared in a film that has earned lasting recognition as a movie classic. But she has brought an honest and touching quality to every character she has played, and that has made her film and TV appearances rich and memorable.

I know I'm not the only one who recognizes, as Jack Nicholson's character said in "As Good As It Gets," that Hunt is "the greatest woman on earth." In fact, I'm sure there are others who are worthy of that title.

But, as Nicholson's character went on to say, "The fact that I get it makes me feel good about me."

And that is part of Hunt's charm.

Today is her 46th birthday. I hope we will see much more from this beautiful and talented actress in the years to come.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Fortune Cookie

Here in Dallas today, the temperature is 95° and the heat index is a brutal 108°.

When it is that hot outside, nothing makes me feel cooler than thoughts of a football game.

No games are being played today, so I'm going to stay inside tonight and watch "The Fortune Cookie" on Turner Classic Movies at 7 p.m. (Central).

It's one of my all–time favorite movies. Walter Matthau plays Whiplash Willie, a lawyer who represents his brother–in–law, Jack Lemmon, in a million–dollar lawsuit after Lemmon, a TV cameraman, is run over while covering a pro football game. Even though the fans in the stadium, not to mention the TV audience, saw the whole thing, the defendants in the lawsuit are convinced that it is a hoax, and they make every effort to catch Lemmon and Matthau in the act before the suit can come to court — or before they have to agree to a costly settlement.

The film, which was directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, was made a couple of years before "The Odd Couple" and many years before "Grumpy Old Men." In fact, I believe it was the very first pairing of Lemmon and Matthau.

Even if it wasn't, though, it was hilarious. Everyone should see it.

Settle in and watch it tonight.

The Beatles' Final Number 1 Hit

Sometimes it may be difficult to imagine — particularly if you're under 50 — that there was ever a time when the Beatles were not a part of the musical landscape.

Many of their songs are so familiar to just about everyone that they've become fixtures in the rather bland soundtracks that play on elevators and in lobbies and waiting rooms.

But there was a beginning for the Beatles' global popularity.

And, while the three Beatles who survived John Lennon released two songs in the 1990s that combined tracks that Lennon recorded before his death in 1980 with tracks the others recorded later, there was a song that was the last one recorded by all four Beatles that reached the top of the charts.

That final Number 1 hit was "The Long and Winding Road," which was part of the Beatles' final studio album, "Let It Be." It reached Number 1 on this date in 1970.

It was a ballad written by Paul McCartney, but, per his long–standing agreement with Lennon, it was credited to the Lennon–McCartney song–writing team.

As lovely as most people feel the recording is, the post–production treatment of the song by Phil Spector upset McCartney so that he cited it as one of the reasons for the breakup of the Beatles. McCartney envisioned a simple piano ballad, not the Spector version with orchestral and choral embellishment.

The breakup of the Beatles may well have happened even if Spector hadn't done anything to the song. McCartney cited five other reasons for the group's split.

But one can only wonder what else — if anything — might have been recorded by the Beatles if Spector hadn't meddled.

Friday, June 05, 2009

True Stories

Recently, I came across a 2004 movie on cable that told a true story (with a few minor alterations).

The movie was called "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." It starred Sean Penn, who did not play Nixon but rather a man named Samuel Byck who tried to hijack a plane in 1974 and fly it into the White House, and it made me think of other historical films I've seen in my life.

History has been an interest of mine since I was a little boy, and I've always been intrigued by movies that told the stories of real events. But "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" differed from most historical films in the sense that it did not tell an uplifting story or contribute to greater understanding of an historic event — or, at the very least, it did not teach the audience a valuable lesson based on an actual event.

In the movie, as in real life, a depressed and paranoid Byck shot an airport security policeman, stormed aboard the plane and shot both pilots before being shot through the plane door window by a police officer. He died a few minutes later. The plane never left the ground and Nixon's schedule for the day was unaffected.

I don't recall hearing much about the attempted hijacking at the time, and it was never mentioned in the years that followed. Perhaps that was a media attempt to prevent "copycat" crimes — but the only similar crime I know of occurred nearly 30 years later, when Islamic terrorists hijacked four planes on Sept. 11, 2001. More than half of those hijackers were born after Byck's failed attempt — including at least two of the pilots — and, although the incident received a brief mention in the 9/11 Commission's report, it did not suggest that the relatively obscure event inspired the attacks, only that it had been mentioned more than a year before the attacks in a 34–page Justice Department memo that warned about the possibility that airplanes could be used in such a way.

Since watching the movie, though, I've been thinking about historical films that I thought were good or unique or contributed to greater understanding. I've divided them into the following categories — sports films, biographies, historic events/periods — and I've listed my top five in each category.

Before presenting my top fives, I want to point out that I have purposely omitted religious films. My reasoning is that debate persists as to whether holy texts are literal histories, and I want my lists to focus on people and events that are easily verifiable. Films like "The Passion of the Christ" may be true to the accounts in the texts, but they can't meet my verification standard.

First, sports films:
  1. "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) — This is probably my favorite sports history film because Lou Gehrig's bravery always struck me as being so inspirational. A few liberties were taken with the story, and the details of Gehrig's career as a baseball player didn't get the attention they deserved, but the tale was mostly factual and undeniably inspirational.

  2. "Miracle" (2004) — I saw the U.S.–U.S.S.R. hockey game in the 1980 Olympics, and I was skeptical that a film could do justice to the event. I still wonder if anyone who wasn't alive in those days — or was too young to understand it at the time — can comprehend what an astonishing accomplishment that victory was for the Americans. But the film did a great job of telling the story, and I felt as if I had been transported back to 1980. America could use that kind of shot in the arm again today. I know I could.

  3. "Brian's Song" (1971) — I remember reading the book about Brian Piccolo's brief life, "Brian Piccolo: A Short Season," when I was about 12 or 13. I remember having his football card when I was a few years younger. And I remember being moved by the TV production. It remains one of the best made–for–TV films I've ever seen, thanks to the performances of James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. I'll admit that I didn't watch the remake in 2001. I simply figured you couldn't improve on perfection.

  4. "Hoosiers" (1986) — I'm really not much of a basketball fan, and the film isn't strictly the story of a small–town basketball team that wins it all in 1952, but it was inspired by the real story of a small school that won the Indiana high school basketball championship in 1954. There were differences between the movie story about "Hickory" and the real–life story of the Milan, Ind., basketball team, but the depiction of the championship game closely resembled the one Milan won, right down to the last–second, game–winning shot. And anyone who wasn't stirred by Dennis Hopper's performance must have ice water in his/her veins.

  5. "Eight Men Out" (1988) — This dramatization of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal was an authentic re–telling of the story. As far as I could tell, no names were changed. And the performances were superb.

    I thought it was a brilliant production, even though it told perhaps the saddest story in baseball history.

    But it's an important story for modern ballplayers to know. Too bad Pete Rose didn't pay attention to the cautionary tale it told. He might be in Cooperstown today if he had — instead of being on the outside looking in with the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

  6. Honorable Mention: "Raging Bull" (1980) — Martin Scorsese's film about Jake LaMotta got mixed reviews. It is undeniably violent, as boxing films are apt to be, and the material is upsetting, but how can a film that is directed by Scorsese and stars Rober De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty go wrong?
And now, biographies:
  1. "Gandhi" (1982) — Richard Attenborough's film opens with a bit of a disclaimer ("No man's life can be encompassed in one telling ... least of all Gandhi's, whose passage through life was so entwined with his nation's struggle for freedom") and then proceeds to do about as good a job of telling the story of Gandhi's life as anyone could. The film was mostly accurate, and the characters were real, not fictitious or composites. The complaints I've read (and there weren't many) focused on minor points.

  2. "Amadeus" (1984) — I'm not exactly sure whether to include this, since this film

    • seems to be more about Salieri than it is about Mozart, and

    • much of the story seems to be speculative.

    But I want to include it, for several reasons. It has an 18th century appeal to it, in its costumes and music and its general ambiance, that certainly suggests that, if the story is mostly a fantasy, it's a plausible one.

    And, aside from the uncertainty surrounding the Salieri–killing–Mozart tale, the rest of it seems authentic enough.

  3. "Nixon" (1995) — Oliver Stone's film intrigued me. It contained a lot of biographical information, virtually all of the characters were real people, as were the events that were re–created, but some parts were clearly fictional or composite accounts. Was it pure biography? Well, not in a strictly literal sense. But it's biography in the way that many of Shakespeare's plays were considered biographies.

    And Nixon's life got a richly deserved Shakespearean treatment in Stone's hands. And why shouldn't it? Nixon was a man who achieved his heart's desire, only to see it slip through his fingers and crash on the floor.

  4. "Wilson" (1944) — Often overlooked, it was a box–office flop in spite of the fact that critics gave it generally good reviews and it won Oscars for editing, writing, cinematography, art direction and sound.

    It told Woodrow Wilson's story honestly and well. And, frankly, I've always thought the star, Alexander Knox, bore a resemblance to William Christopher, the actor who played "Father Mulcahy" in "M*A*S*H."

    But that isn't the important part. What is important is the film's depiction of the major events that occurred during Wilson's presidency and his reactions to them. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was a great admirer of Wilson. If the film wasn't the legendary achievement Zanuck hoped it would be, it was still a great film that, unfortunately, has yet to be released on DVD. Fortunately, it is still shown, from time to time, on cable.

  5. "Patton" (1970) — George C. Scott gave a masterful performance as Gen. George Patton. It was a performance that won him an Oscar that he returned to the Academy with a note that said he didn't feel he was in competition with other actors.

    The story seems to be authentic, and it contributes greatly to an understanding of World War II. It may contribute even more to an understanding of Patton himself.

    Honorable Mention: "Monster" (2003) — Charlize Theron won an Oscar for Best Actress, and deservedly so, for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

    The story is apparently an accurate telling of Wuornos' adult life, but tells little about her childhood. It is a very disturbing story that lives up to its title.
And, finally, films about specific historic events/periods:
  1. "Gettysburg" (1993) — I could have chosen several films for the top spot on this list, but I chose "Gettysburg" because it is a faithful re–telling of the story of the epic three–day battle that ultimately decided the outcome of the Civil War.

    It has a great cast — Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Richard Jordan (in his final role). The film is adapted from Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel "The Killer Angels."

    Of the many remarkable facts about the film, perhaps the most remarkable is that the National Park Service permitted a film crew to film scenes on the Gettysburg Battlefield. That was a first.

  2. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) — Other films have been made about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but none were as faithful to the facts (at least, those that were known in 1970) as this one.

    It is said that the cast was made up largely of actors who were not box–office stars so as not to detract from the story. To a great extent, I think that is true, although I would argue that people like Jason Robards (who won a couple of Best Supporting Actor Oscars later in the decade) were on the brink of stardom while others, like Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam and E.G. Marshall, had already made their marks and were approaching the twilights of their careers. As far as big box–office names were concerned, though, the cast had none.

    The film contained some minor flaws that would only be noticeable to people with detailed knowledge of planes and ships from that era. The most serious shortcoming, I feel, is the somewhat sparse treatment the film gave to the torpedo modification used by the Japanese. The film mentioned the absence of water depth in the harbor and the need for torpedoes that would not strike the bottom of the harbor when dropped from the planes. But it never discussed the solution that was used, which was key to the success of the attack.

  3. "Mississippi Burning" (1988) — Although the film was loosely based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and wasn't a strict re–telling of the story, perhaps no other film tells the tale of the segregated South as well.

    When it was released, the film was criticized as a "cinematic lynching" of history, portraying the FBI and the Justice Department as being more heroic and protective than they actually were, but testimony from a contract killer for a crime family suggested that the film version may well have been closer to the truth than originally believed.

    The details of the period are authentic — at least, as far as I can recall. I grew up in neighboring Arkansas, and I was 4 years old at the time the civil rights workers were murdered. But the movie's presentation of small–town Mississippi reminds me of the small town in Arkansas where I grew up.

  4. "The Right Stuff" (1983) — Manned space travel may seem routine today, but this movie accurately depicts the dangers that were involved in early space exploration.

    It really wasn't possible, I suppose, to devote as much time and attention to the training and missions of the Mercury Seven as they deserved, but for a three–hour film, I thought it did pretty well.

    The film presented many elements of the story with which modern audiences — even those at the time the film was released — were unfamiliar. But there was much more to tell, so much more that actor Tom Hanks mused a few years ago about producing a miniseries that would give more detailed information.

  5. "Apollo 13" (1995) — Mostly technically precise, the film took a few liberties with the facts, creating more tension between the crew members than there actually was.

    Almost all of the dialogue was taken verbatim from transcripts and recordings. Most notably, though, the line "Houston, we have a problem," is not exactly what was said. During the ill–fated mission, the statement was made in the past tense — "we've had a problem here" — instead of the present tense, for dramatic effect.

    As a side note: Director Ron Howard said that a member of the film's first test preview audience complained on a comment card that it was a "typical Hollywood" ending, that the crew never would have survived. But that wasn't a Hollywood ending. That was the people at NASA doing their jobs so well that it merely looked like a Hollywood ending when committed to film a quarter–century later.

    Honorable Mention: "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) — It's only right, I suppose, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of D–Day, to mention this film.

    It isn't strictly about D–Day. For that, I would recommend "The Longest Day." It's mostly a dramatized account of the story of Frederick Niland, one of four brothers who served in World War II.

    But I would recommend watching it even if you only watch the dramatization of the Normandy landing, which is perhaps the most realistic depiction of warfare I have ever seen.

    I also considered "JFK" (1991) for my list. But, while the costumes are authentic and the characters are accurate, the story is still mostly speculative. What is true is that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Who was really behind it is something that may never be known.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Happy Birthday, Marilyn ... and Andy ... and ...

For some, it may seem impossible to imagine, but Marilyn Monroe would have been 83 years old today.

Actually, Andy Griffith is 83 years old today. Pat Boone is 75. Morgan Freeman is 72. Many folks from the entertainment world were born on June 1.

I don't know if someone who will ultimately be famous was born a year ago today, but a three–alarm fire destroyed part of the backlot of Universal Studios in southern California on June 1, 2008. "Courthouse Square," which was featured in the original "Back to the Future," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Inherit the Wind," sustained significant damage.

It's probably easier for me to imagine the movie courthouse reduced to smoldering rubble than it is for me to comprehend Marilyn Monroe at 83. In my mind, she is always in her 30s — or younger — which is understandable, since she was 36 when she died.

Of course, if she had lived, she might have had a long film career with a variety of roles, like Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman. I believe Marilyn had a great gift. She was a much better actress than she or her critics gave her credit for.

But if you need a reminder of her appeal, you can see a collection of unpublished photos of Monroe, taken when she was in her 20s. The long–lost photos were discovered in the archives of

Her death at the age of 36 truly was our loss.

Ironic Anniversary

It is ironic — at least, in my opinion — that an Air France plane en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean and presumably crashed into the sea today.

I find it ironic because it was on this date in 1943 that the Nazis shot down BOAC Flight 777, killing actor Leslie Howard when the plane crashed into the Bay of Biscay, off the coasts of Spain and France.

More than 65 years after the plane was shot down, there are still several theories why it happened. Some people think the Nazis believed (mistakenly) that Winston Churchill was on board. Others believe that Howard and some of the other passengers had been involved in spying activities for the British. It's even possible that Howard was targeted because he was Jewish.

The reason for the incident probably isn't important at this point. What is important is that Howard was really at the height of his career, just a few years removed from his performance as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind" and with several other successful movie performances in his portfolio.

Howard's death was an occasion for intense public grieving in the midst of a war that went on to claim millions of lives.