Thursday, December 29, 2011

Love Is All Around ...

They just don't make 'em like Mary Tyler Moore anymore.

And, yes, I actually do mean that in two ways.

In no particular order:
  • They certainly don't make sitcoms like the ones that featured Mary Tyler Moore in the 1960s and 1970s.

    She first came to people's attention as Laura Petrie, the wife of Dick Van Dyke in the show that bore his name. Only 23 when she was cast in the role, she won two Emmys for her work and confided that she was convinced "this will never happen again."

    But it did — three more times as the star of her own series, the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show in which she played a single career girl, the associate producer of a Minneapolis TV station's evening news.

  • And they don't make people like Mary Tyler Moore anymore. Anyone who remembers watching her in the 1970s will tell you that.

    The Mary Tyler Moore Show was really an ensemble production with some truly talented people in the original cast — Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight. Others were added to it later on — Betty White and Georgia Engel.

    But it seemed to reflect Moore's personality. She never produced a local news show, but the series really seemed to be her story. Some series are like that. The actor or actress is so perfect for the role that the audience can't tell where reality and fantasy part ways.

    Maybe it was different for people who were old enough to remember when Laura Petrie was on primetime, but I never felt that her story was Moore's. I had no trouble at all with Mary Richards, though.
Moore, who celebrated her 75th birthday today, was nominated for an Academy Award after she and the cast of her TV series voluntarily ended it while it was still riding high in the ratings in 1977. She has appeared in numerous movies since the show went off the air, and she has even made some appearances on TV.

But nothing she has done since — and nothing she is likely to do in the future — really compares to her work on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She really made it seem effortless, as if the series really did tell her story. As if Mary Richards' strengths and weaknesses were Moore's as well.

The audience was never certain if that was true, but there was one thing that was undeniable. Mary Richards had spunk.

And television in the 1970s was better because of it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Trading Places

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Edmund Gwenn

Most TV series don't last for a decade, and the few that do usually start to run out of gas long before their 10th seasons.

M*A*S*H was always the exception to the rule.

In its 1981–82 season, the series' 10th, it did have its share of weak episodes, but it also enjoyed some high moments. M*A*S*H probably didn't air any episodes that season that are remembered as being among the series' Top 10, but that would have been hard to do. More than 200 episodes had already been aired — including many that are regarded as classics today.

Nevertheless, M*A*S*H reached its usual level of impeccable quality on this night 30 years ago, and it did so in what may be the most challenging of circumstances for a TV series — a holiday season episode.

The inspiration for the episode came from the traditional practice, in most European countries, of observing Boxing Day on the day after Christmas.

Boxing Day is sort of a second Christmas holiday. There is no consensus on the origin of the name — except that everyone agrees it has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. Based on my understanding of it, Boxing Day was intended to be a legal holiday for workers and to encourage charitable activity.

In the M*A*S*H story, it was explained that the tradition on Boxing Day is for the employer to trade places with the employee for a day — kind of an intriguing twist to ponder in an age rife with allegations of class warfare — and it was decided that medical unit would have its own Boxing Day.

The officers would trade places with the enlisted men — which made for some interesting role reversals:
  • Klinger traded places with his boss, Col. Potter. For one day, Klinger — who earned his reputation in the series for constantly trying to get out of the Army — was one of the brass.

  • As one of his first executive decisions, Klinger decided that allowing Hawkeye and B.J. to be together was just begging for trouble so he decided to split them up.

    Hawkeye was assigned to be an orderly with Father Mulcahy. B.J. was put to work on KP duty with Hot Lips — who protested that she "didn't go into a kitchen when I was married!"

  • The actual cooking would be done by the aristocratic Charles, who opposed the Boxing Day idea from the start. Nevertheless, Charles welcomed the opportunity to cook for Sgt. Pernelli (Val Bisoglio) "if only to teach you that soup is not a solid object."
Well, the underlings were enjoying their 24–hour promotions, getting lots of chuckles at the expense of the temporarily deposed officers, when things turned serious.

A patient had to be evacuated, but a blizzard was interfering with everything, including a shipment of much–needed fuel. A temporary reversal of the role reversal was necessary.

The episode wrapped up nicely — with everyone, the enlisted as well as the officers, coming away with a new appreciation for what their colleagues did every day to keep the unit functioning.

Not a bad Christmas lesson.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Staying Out of the Draft

When I was growing up, there was probably no other issue that drove as many wedges between friends and relatives as the war in Vietnam.

It was the time of the infamous "generation gap," and you can trust me when I tell you that was no exaggeration. There really was a gap between the generations in those days. Most people above a certain age bought the whole "domino theory" argument and believed containing communism in southeast Asia was critical to our survival, and most people below a certain age thought it was rubbish and that they were being sent to die for nothing.

There were exceptions to both rules, of course. It was hardly unanimous. There were older people who opposed the war, and there were younger people who supported it.

And there were other issues that ripped people apart, of course — race, sex, religion.

But that's business as usual, isn't it? Humans have been dealing with those issues since time began. The real dividing line in America in those days was the war. It was bigger than anything else, and it played a prominent role in every aspect of American life, even its entertainment.

During the war — and for years after U.S. involvement ended — Vietnam was like this open, bleeding wound in American life that no one would even mention, much less treat. It never really surprised me that the Vietnam vets suffered as much as they did after they returned. They were treated as pariahs, blamed for a long and painful war for which they were not responsible.

It must have been especially shocking for any vets who fantasized about being greeted the way their fathers and uncles were welcomed home after World War II.

Those who avoided military service by going to Canada were treated no better. They may have been motivated by principle, but they were treated as cowards. That was some choice. If you went to Vietnam, you were spat upon when you came home. And if you avoided going to Vietnam, ostensibly because you felt the same way about the war as those who spat on the vets, you were spat upon when you came home — if you did.

Coming home, even briefly, from Canada when you were a fugitive from justice meant exposing yourself to the possibility of arrest, trial and conviction.

American television rarely dealt as directly and honestly with the war and the devastating effect it had on people as it did 35 years ago tonight in a holiday episode of All in the Family.

All in the Family didn't always have a holiday–oriented episode, but it was a groundbreaking series from the beginning so, when it did have a holiday episode, it was typically thought provoking.

It was Christmas Day in the Bunker home, and two special guests were there to share Christmas dinner — Pinky (Eugene Roche), Archie's friend who lost his son in Vietnam, and David (Renny Temple), Mike's friend who dodged the draft and was living in Canada.

Archie (Carroll O'Connor) wasn't supposed to know that David was a draft dodger, and the rest of the family did a pretty good job of concealing it from him — but David himself finally spilled the beans.
Archie: What the hell ya got in Canada that you ain't got here? ... Huh? What's the answer?

David: Freedom.

Archie: Did you say 'freedom?' "

David: Yes, sir. Freedom.

Archie: Come on, will ya? You got more freedom in the U.S. of A. than you got any place else in the world. This here is the land of the free. Didn't you never hear of that?

David: Mr. Bunker, for some of us, America is not free.

This exchange bewildered Archie, as I am sure it bewildered countless Archie types all across the country in those days.

It angered him, too — and I'm equally sure that it angered the Archies in America.

Their belief system could be summed up in a bumper sticker — "America: Love it or leave it."

That belief system was being challenged. And Archie was in full defense mode.

But, in a finish that neatly emphasized the spirit of Christmas, Pinky, the Gold Star father, accepted David the draft dodger.

"I understand how you feel, Arch," Pinky said. "My kid hated the war, too, but he did what he thought he had to do, and David here did what he thought he had to do. But David's alive to share Christmas dinner with us. And if Steve were here, he'd want to sit down with him, and that's what I want to do."

Such an act of generosity surely was in the best tradition of O. Henry.

The Morning After the Night Before

Jane Fonda has always been something of an enigma for me.

For example, she has been an often passionate advocate and defender of women yet she has not hesitated to lend her name (if not more) to projects like "Barbarella" that brazenly exploited women — when she wasn't exploiting, for personal profit, the desire that most of them have to be young and beautiful even after they have ceased to be either.

Most of the time, I guess, I just never thought she was terribly original — unlike her father. Even when she made what were said to be groundbreaking films, I always seemed to have the sensation that I had seen it done before — and better — by someone else.

When I first saw "The Morning After" — which premiered 25 years ago today — my first thought was that I must have walked into the wrong viewing room, that I was seeing some sort of parody of "The Godfather."

Do you remember the scene in "The Godfather" in which the movie director woke up in bed with the head of his beloved horse — and in a pool of the animal's blood? That's how "The Morning After" began — with Fonda (playing an alcoholic actress) waking up in bed with a man — and no memory of how she got there or what had happened when she did.

Then, when she withdrew one of her hands from beneath the sheets, she found it was covered in blood. She then discovered that her bedmate was dead with a knife sticking in his back.

She couldn't be sure whether she was responsible for the death or not, but she set about to thoroughly clean the apartment and rid it of any trace that she had been there — quite a task considering that she could not remember what she may have touched the night before.

(It occurred to me many years later that the story would require a drastic rewriting after the development of DNA evidence gathering and analysis. It was a nascent technology in the mid–1980s, but its forensic application changed things.)

In spite of her best (and rather frenzied) efforts, the evidence incriminating her began to pile up. But she was determined to prove that she was not guilty, and she enlisted the help of Jeff Bridges (a bigoted ex–cop).

As I observed when Lumet died earlier this year, he wasn't given to relying on splashy special effects — and "The Morning After" was a good example. His style was more psychological than that — reminiscent of Hitchcock in the way that the camera sort of nonchalantly nudged the viewer's attention in the direction of things that the characters in the film didn't see.

But eventually everything — like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle — came together for all to see, even the characters in the movie.

It was clear that the characters of both Fonda and Bridges were deeply flawed. At times, Fonda reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight," uncertain of what was true and what was fantasy, not sure if she could trust her own memories and observations.

Bridges' character was harder for me to pin down. In spite of his bigotry, he had a clear sense of right and wrong — and he would stand on the side he had concluded was right, even if that meant standing alone.

He wasn't so different from other characters I had admired in Lumet's movies — Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men," Dan O'Herlihy in "Fail–Safe," Bill Holden in "Network." All were flawed in their own ways.

Bridges' tenacity contributed to a somewhat surprising conclusion — and less surprising (as far as I was concerned) complications with Fonda's character. And, to be fair, the movie did generate more suspense than I expected.

In the realm of her suspense thriller flicks, I prefer Fonda's Oscar–winning turn in "Klute" — but "The Morning After" came close to matching that. Fonda was nominated for an Oscar, but she lost to Marlee Matlin.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Search for the Truth

X (Donald Sutherland): Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. And the truth is on your side, Bubba.

I had a lot of things on my mind in December 1991.

I was about to receive my master's degree in journalism from the University of North Texas.

That alone would have been enough to warrant most of my attention, but, earlier in the year, I learned that an old friend of mine in Arkansas had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive variant of cancer, and I put my academic plans on hold while he waged a losing battle with that disease.

Mercifully for him, I guess, that battle was over rather quickly. I drove back to Arkansas to be a pallbearer at his funeral that August, and I resumed work on my master's a few weeks later. I took the final class for which I needed credit, and I took the comprehensive exam, clearing all the remaining hurdles before receiving my degree on December 14.

That night, I attended a post–graduation party that was given by some younger people who had received their B.A.s that day — and who had been my students when I worked as a teaching assistant.

At the party, I remember discussing with several people the approaching premiere of Oliver Stone's newest film, "JFK."

I cannot remember a time in my life when I was ever too preoccupied to talk about the Kennedy assassination.

Like many people, I have long been fascinated by the Kennedy assassination — especially, I suppose, because it happened in Dallas, where my parents grew up, where my grandparents lived most of their lives and where I have observed many of the milestones in my life.

That's part of what I have tried for many years to reconcile — the fact that a city that holds so many valued memories for me could have been the scene of one of the greatest tragedies in American history. I guess it makes the Kennedy assassination that much more personal for me.

And, like most Americans, I want to know the truth. I don't believe I have been told the truth, and I would like to know what the truth is before I die.

Perhaps L. Fletcher Prouty, the former Air Force colonel who served the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Kennedy, could have told us the truth. He was the inspiration for the character of X, the informant who met with Kevin Costner in "JFK."

X seemed to know more than he was telling — even though he told Costner quite a bit. And, in his life, there were certainly times when Prouty seemed to know more than he was saying.

My impression of Prouty, who has been deceased for 10½ years, is that he believed (whether he had evidence to support it or not) that participation in the Kennedy assassination and/or its coverup was consistent with a pattern of behavior that he witnessed within the intelligence community.

The existence of the "Secret Team," as he called it in one of his books, combined with his stated belief that the Kennedy assassination was a coup d'etat, may well have made it possible for other secret groups (i.e., Nixon's "Plumbers" in the 1970s and Oliver North's covert sale of weapons to Iran and diversion of the profits to Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s) to do things in the future that Congress had not authorized them to do — things that, frequently, were not only outside congressional oversight but outside the law as well.

I fear I am nearing my limit of major mystery resolutions, though. I was a teenager during the Watergate era, and I always wanted to know the actual identity of Deep Throat. The truth about that became known several years ago.

There are other mysteries that I would like to see resolved before I die, and the Kennedy assassination is one of them, perhaps the most prominent one. But I am increasingly skeptical that it will ever be satisfactorily resolved.

Like the fates of D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa, it is tumbling into the dustbin of history.

What I really liked about "JFK" was that Stone tried to put all the questions that had been raised over the years — in articles, books, documentaries — into a single coherent package. And, to be fair, a few have been answered.

But many, many more have been raised.

"What is past is prologue" appeared on the screen at the end of the film.

That is a line from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which was written about 400 years ago. It is engraved on the National Archives Building and, in the modern interpretation, it means that history influences the present.

But in Shakespeare's day, it had a somewhat different meaning — the past had led the characters to the verge of a murder. It suggests that those who commit heinous acts are fulfilling destinies over which they are powerless.

I have never believed that we were powerless to learn the truth about what happened here nearly 50 years ago.

But, as the search for truth has gone on these last 20 years, I have wondered if that truth will ever be fully revealed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bringing Middle Earth to the Big Screen

Aragorn: Gentlemen, we do not stop 'til nightfall.

Pippin: What about breakfast?

Aragorn: You've already had it.

Pippin: We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?

Merry: I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.

Pippin: What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?

Merry: I wouldn't count on it.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

"The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" made me wish that my mother had lived to see J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy brought to the silver screen.

Actually, I felt that way about all three of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies. It was a thought that kept weaving its way through my brain as I watched them in the theaters. It's a thought that still goes through my mind when I watch them on DVD.

Mom woulda loved this.

Mom was a reader. She liked all kinds of books, really, but she particularly liked fantasy stories.

I remember, for example, one summer when my brother and I were little, and our family went on a car trip somewhere. To keep us entertained, my mother read to us from the first book in the Narnia series, and she kept reading those books to us after we got back from our trip — until we had finished every book in that series.

Mom didn't read the Tolkien books to us. We read them on our own. Or, at least, I did — and I assume my brother did, too.

Mom must have read them, too, because I remember when an animated version of the "Lord of the Rings" prequel, "The Hobbit," was made, and she was as excited about it as anyone.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that animation was the only way Tolkien's books could be brought to the screen — and that seems to have repulsed some of the more prominent directors. When United Artists acquired the film rights to the books, Stanley Kubrick, who never did much (if anything) in animation (and whose "A Clockwork Orange," ironically, debuted on this date in 1971), was approached about directing the Beatles in a film based on them.

But Kubrick rejected the offer. The story could not be filmed, he reportedly told John Lennon.

Things changed in the next 30 years, though. Advances in filmmaking that were unimagined in 1970 enabled Peter Jackson to make his remarkable "Lord of the Rings," the first installment of which made its debut 10 years ago today.

When that occurred, I thought a lot about Mom. She had been gone for several years by that time so it was only natural, I suppose, for me to see it with my brother. We heard about long lines and decided to wait a few weeks to avoid the crowd — and then, for one reason and another, we wound up being delayed even more by some unforeseen circumstances.

By the time we saw it, it was near the end of its theatrical run — and the "crowd" we had wanted to avoid turned out to be nonexistent. I'm sure the theater was packed at the start of the movie's run, just like any other theater in the country, but the place was practically empty when we went to see it.

That was just fine, though, because it was like having a private screening room. We could speak to each other in a nearly normal tone of voice and not have to worry about disturbing anyone. My memory is that there was only one other person in the theater, and he was sitting a fair distance from us.

Whenever amazing things happened on the screen — and, in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, amazing things were always happening — we could chat about them above a whisper.

I guess it never occurred to me when I was reading the trilogy how difficult it would be to turn it into a movie — but, even with the advances in filmmaking techniques and some prudent whittling of the story, it took about nine hours of screen time spread out over three movies in three years to accomplish.

The movie that premiered 10 years ago today set the stage for what was to come — as did the book that inspired it. It introduced the audience to all the characters of Middle Earth, a not–inconsequential task but a necessary one, given the story that still had to be told.

A Clockwork Orange

Alex (Malcolm McDowell): It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.

Here's a little–known fact about "A Clockwork Orange."

Malcolm McDowell was 27 when he made that movie, but his character was 15.

I knew he was older than the character he played — but I never realized he was nearly twice as old — until recently.

Well, anyway ...

Director Stanley Kubrick said "A Clockwork Orange," which premiered 40 years ago today, was a "social satire," and I suppose that is true. By definition, I guess, a satire is something that is obviously exaggerated, and "A Clockwork Orange" was grossly exaggerated in parts.

But it was also a very disturbing movie — disturbing precisely because there was just enough truth in it to make it plausible — in addition to the fact that it featured a lot of violence, including a rape, whether they were plausibly presented or not.

I guess it was no surprise it got mixed reviews. As much as modern folks are inclined to complain about violence in movies and on TV, I'm sure it would get negative reviews if it was released today.

And that is kind of ironic, considering that many of the people in today's audiences were brought up on films like "Natural Born Killers," "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2."

"A Clockwork Orange" still inspires strong feelings from viewers, even after four decades. Earlier this month, NPR published a list of cult classics and asked its audience to "weigh in on what was there and what was missing."

It should have come as no real surprise that several readers pointed out that "A Clockwork Orange" was missing. In the words of one reader, "Without that, the list is illegitimate."

No doubt, many people — including myself — would agree.

I guess a lot of that has to do with the utterly repugnant nature of the depravity depicted in the movie — the rape scenes, the savage beatings, the generally brutish activity of Alex (McDowell) and his Droogs. It simply wasn't acceptable, no matter how one might try to excuse it.

You could try to rationalize the violence — as some people did — by saying it was the inevitable result of life in a socialist state, one that was clearly modeled after the Soviet Union or perhaps one of its satellites.

Or you could rationalize it in several other ways.

But, eventually, you had to come back to the realization that Alex and his Droogs deliberately inflicted pain and suffering on those who were weak and vulnerable.

And that is clearly contrary to (at the very least) the implied guidelines of a civilized society — which must have come as something of a shock to audiences of that day. Their most recent exposure to Kubrick had been a few years earlier, in "2001: A Space Odyssey," which had some violence but, in general, offered an uplifting vision of the future with its fantastic glimpses of technological advances and human nature.

Alex's incarceration — and the experimental effort at behavior modification — went awry almost from the start. In an effort to make violence and forced sex unpleasant, the doctors who sought to rehabilitate Alex inadvertently conditioned him to have the same response upon hearing the music of his beloved Ludwig van Beethoven.
Alex: No. No! NO! Stop it! Stop it, please! I beg you! This is sin! This is sin! This is sin! It's a sin, it's a sin, it's a sin!

Dr. Brodsky: Sin? What's all this about sin?

Alex: That! Using Ludwig van like that! He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music!

Dr. Branom: Are you referring to the background score?

Alex: Yes.

Dr. Branom: You've heard Beethoven before?

Alex: Yes!

Dr. Brodsky: So, you're keen on music?

Alex: YES!

Dr. Brodsky: Can't be helped. Here's the punishment element perhaps.

Then, in what was a delicious twist of fate, the rehabilitated Alex, whose physical well being depended upon maintaining harmonious relationships with those around him, was released to the not–so–tender mercies of the outside world.

"A Clockwork Orange" was controversial at the time, and Kubrick voluntarily withdrew it from British theaters after learning that it was being blamed for copycat crimes.

Kubrick is often mentioned as a primary influence on film directors even though he only directed about a dozen films in his lifetime, and each was quite different from the rest, but there are some generalizations that can be made about his directorial career, the most significant of which (I believe) is this:

Before "A Clockwork Orange," it could fairly be said that most of his movies offered a more upbeat presentation of humanity; the general mood of his films (if not the themes themselves) grew much darker after "A Clockwork Orange."

But if one must find similarities between a film and its director's other works, then I would have to say this about "A Clockwork Orange." Of all the films Kubrick made, it probably had the most in common with "Dr. Strangelove," which was made nearly a decade earlier.

It's hard to pick a favorite from Kubrick's films. His body of work was diverse and included the first attempt to bring "Lolita" to the screen, "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "The Shining," and "Full Metal Jacket."

Being asked to choose a favorite Kubrick film — as far as I am concerned — isn't even like being asked to pick between peaches and apples. It's more like being asked to pick between But I think I would choose "Dr. Strangelove" as my favorite, and "Clockwork." much like "Strangelove," was a fascinating tap dance between really terrifying violence and ethical ambiguity.

In fact, if he had been considerably younger when "Clockwork" was made, I could see Peter Sellers (a star of both "Strangelove" and "Lolita") in McDowell's role. But, by 1971, he was too old (45) to plausibly play a teenager.

One could argue, I guess, that "Clockwork" was the logical next step in Kubrick's departure from comedy. But I don't think he ever left comedy. His comedy just took on a darker edge that could be seen in his later films.

I guess there were times when you really had to look for it, but it was always there.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Neighborly Gestures

Vic (Dan Aykroyd): We might have had a wonderful relationship. But then, as Arthur Bremer once said, 'How many things go right in this crazy world?'

We've all had them, I guess — neighbors who thoughtlessly impose themselves on us, interrupting us at the most inopportune times with a lot of noise or, worse yet, burdening us with their actual physical presence and the up–close–and–personal of their lives.

And all around us, it may seem, there is an ongoing conspiracy. It may be an accidental conspiracy, and we may be the only ones aware of its existence — but that doesn't mean it isn't legitimate.

That was Earl's dilemma, I suppose. At first, Earl (John Belushi) appeared to be a mild—mannered middle–class type, leading a fairly quiet middle–class life until Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) moved in next door.

Then, suddenly, everything in Earl's comfortable, predictable life went haywire — but no one, other than Earl, seemed to realize it.

In "Neighbors," Belushi was certainly cast against type — or, at least, against image. In his Saturday Night Live days — and when he was making "National Lampoon's Animal House" — he had a reputation for being something of a party animal — while, if anything, Aykroyd was perceived as being more strait laced, more reserved.

In "Neighbors," the two really reversed roles. Based on existing public expectations, Belushi should have played the role of Vic and Aykroyd should have played the role of Earl.

But I always thought it was funnier the way it was done. Viewed from the perspective of 30 years later, when memories of Belushi are rather faded for most who are old enough to remember him, "Neighbors" is striking evidence of Belushi's diverse talent.

All one needs to do is watch "Animal House" or the original "Blues Brothers" — and then watch "Neighbors" — to see that Belushi was equally adept at playing both extremes.

It is often said of great actors that they lose themselves in a role, that they become the part they are playing. I don't know if Belushi was a great actor — a great talent, definitely — but that always seemed to be the case with Belushi's Earl. Sometime when I was watching "Neighbors" for the first time, I forgot that I was watching Belushi.

He was Earl.

His partnership with Aykroyd, on both the small and large screens, may have been the best since Martin and Lewis or the early days of Matthau and Lemmon. It was tragic that it was as brief as it was. Belushi died only a few months after "Neighbors" was released.

It was the last movie they made together.

Most people probably think only of "The Blues Brothers" when they think of the Belushi–Aykroyd film partnership — and that is a good one, to be sure. But there were two others — "Neighbors" and "1941," which, in hindsight, really should have done better than it did (but that is another story).

But it is "Neighbors" that I think of most when I think of Aykroyd and Belushi — unless I think of their work on Saturday Night Live.

And it was precisely because they veered so dramatically from type in "Neighbors" that it is the one that springs to my mind.

Makes me regret there wasn't more.

Rebels With a Cause

Chicago Sun–Times film critic Roger Ebert compared "Taps" to "Lord of the Flies," and I always felt that was a pretty good comparison.

William Golding's book about a group of boys trying — and failing — to govern themselves on a deserted island also was the story of "Taps," in which a group of boys from a military school — metaphorically stranded in the deserted island of the extensively walled campus — tried to function while under siege from outside influences.

Without giving away too much of the story, the school's commander (authoritatively played by George C. Scott) announced during an end–of–year parade/review that the school would be closed at the end of the next academic year. A real estate company had other plans for the property.

For awhile, hope that the school could be saved prevailed, but conflict soon reared its ugly head.

During a post–commencement dance at the school, a fight broke out between the cadets and some local boys. Scott's character tried to break up the fight, and his handgun was grabbed by one of the locals. It discharged, killing another local boy, and Scott's character was taken into custody under suspicion of manslaughter.

It was announced that the school would be shut down immediately, and the cadets closed ranks.

Conditions weren't quite as primitive for the cadets as they were for Golding's boys — at least, not at first. But, as the siege wore on, things got worse. The cadets ran short of food, then the water and the electricity were shut off.

The resourceful cadets, under the leadership of Timothy Hutton, attempted to restore electricity with an old generator, but the gas they were using ignited and one of the cadets was seriously injured. That led to a temporary truce so the cadet could be taken to the local hospital.

Hutton's character offered to end the standoff if asked to do so by Scott's character, but then he learned that Scott, who had suffered a heart attack after being arrested, had died.

The death of Scott's character seemed to break the resolve of many of the cadets; several had already chosen to leave when given the opportunity, and most of the ones who remained seemed to be too young to be dealing with combat–related issues.

Eventually, Hutton decided to end the occupation, but some diehards remained — including Tom Cruise (appearing in only his second movie), who opened fire on the National Guardsmen assembled outside the gate. Hutton and Sean Penn tried to stop him, but Hutton (along with Cruise) died when the Guardsmen returned the fire.

The movie came to an end with a flashback, but, as I recall, there was a clear sense that the surviving cadets would surrender, and the conflict would come to a peaceful conclusion.

To be honest, I was never really sure what the lesson of the story was. I gathered that it was some kind of cautionary or morality tale, but, whereas "Lord of the Flies" had some valuable things to say about topics like human nature, "Taps" never really seemed to make any statements or useful observations.

It seemed more inclined to criticize the military culture than praise it, which wasn't unusual at that time. The Vietnam experience was still fresh in the public's mind, and returning soldiers were greeted with derision and ridicule — a far cry from today.

The fact that the soldiers' reception after returning home has changed for the better is certainly a good thing, but it is important to remember that it had not changed that much when "Taps" was made. Ronald Reagan, after all, had just been elected president in a campaign in which his assertion that the mission in Vietnam had been a "noble cause" came under heavy fire.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the military was viewed with considerable suspicion by many — even though the draft no longer existed (registration did, however), and the nation was being defended by an all–volunteer Army.

If "Taps" was being remade today, three decades later, I believe the story would have to be drastically rewritten. I'm not entirely sure that would be possible, either.

"Taps" may only have been possible at the time it was made.

And that makes it a unique story.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

James Cagney, Cold Warrior

"On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with — REAL SHIFTY."

James Cagney
One Two Three (1961)

I suppose New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was right.

Crowther — who did have something of a reputation for writing mean reviews at times — wrote that James Cagney was "a good 50 percent" of the movie "One Two Three," which premiered 50 years ago today.

"With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good," Crowther wrote, "the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney ... Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him — but he sure makes you laugh with him. And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh — with its own impudence toward foreign crises — while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes."

Other critics of the time used words like "fast–paced" and "frenetic" to describe a film that, more than anything else that was being made in those years, exemplified the best of the old screwball comedies of the 1930s — with a generous helping of international political intrigue.

In fact, writer/director Billy Wilder even acknowledged that he lifted portions of the plot from the classic 1939 screwball comedy "Ninotchka," which clearly had a political subtext. (Wilder had been its co–writer.)

But "One Two Three" was no rehashed remake. It was very much a film of its time, set in Berlin during the Cold War. Wilder and his cast and crew were in Berlin filming the movie when construction began on the Berlin Wall in August 1961, forcing them to relocate to Munich — and inspiring Wilder to write a brand–new introduction, which was narrated by Cagney.

In that monologue, Cagney decried the Communists as "real shifty."

That seemed an apt description, coming from Cagney's character, a Coca–Cola executive in postwar Berlin, where he had been assigned after an unfortunate episode in the Middle East. Viewers learned about that only through dialogue, but Cagney's character clearly carried some baggage on it.

Nevertheless, he seemed to be adjusting. While finagling to be assigned to London, he was busily learning German from his secretary/mistress (Liselotte Pulver), and he worked out a lucrative deal for Coke with the Soviet Union — then he got a call from his boss back in Atlanta.

The boss' daughter (Pamela Tiffin) was coming to Berlin, and Cagney's boss wanted her to stay with him. Cagney agreed — only to discover that Miss Scarlett Hazeltine was no Georgia peach — more like a Southern firecracker.

She was a hot–blooded teenager who wound up marrying an East German communist (Horst Buchholz). That was enough of a headache for Cagney — but then the heiress and her spouse decided they were going to move to Moscow at precisely the time when her parents were coming to Berlin to retrieve her.

Fearing a repeat of the Middle East experience, Cagney arranged to frame Buchholz as a closet capitalist, leading to his expulsion from East Germany. After that, he could clean the young man up and make him presentable for his in–laws.

But Cagney's character learned that, while you may take the young man from the communist state, you can't as easily take the communist state from the young man — so he engaged in some brainwashing of his own, dressing Buccholz like an affluent capitalist and giving him a crash course in the ways of the breed.

Like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion," Cagney succeeded in transforming his Cockney flower girl into a lady.

And, in the end, it appeared that Cagney's character had earned his promotion from Berlin.

In Billy Wilder's hands, it was an uproarious story.

And James Cagney was the perfect choice to pitch it.

The Funniest Pink Panther Movie of Them All

When I was growing up, my family did a lot of things together.

But no experience compared to that of seeing a funny movie with my parents.

Sometimes we would watch funny movies on TV because they had been out of the theaters for years, and TV was the only place you could see them. Most of the time, my parents had seen those movies before, and they knew when their favorites moments were coming up.

But sometimes we caught the movies at the theaters. They were new to my parents on those occasions, and Mom and Dad had no idea when the funniest moments would occur.

Whether we were watching the TV in our living room or the big screen at a theater, I always knew when my father thought something was genuinely funny. He had a laugh that seemed to roll its way up his windpipe, gathering momentum as it did, and then exploded from his mouth — as if there was simply no way he could contain it.

I tended to judge a supposedly funny movie by how many laughs like that it could coax from him.

On many occasions, a movie might get one such laugh from him. The rest of the time, he might give a polite laugh or two when something was supposed to be humorous, but, for the most part, those movies were not genuinely funny.

The more belly laughs a movie could prod from him, the funnier it was.

"The Pink Panther Strikes Again" — which made its debut on this day in 1976 — had him laughing from start to finish.

It was genuinely funny.

Actually, all of the "Pink Panther" movies were family favorites. My mother, as I have said before, was a huge Peter Sellers fan, and both of my parents were devotees of detective fiction.

That made the "Pink Panther" movies naturals — and, for my money, the one that premiered on this day 35 years ago was the funniest of them all.

It was a spoof of everything — from the running gags in the previous "Pink Panther" flicks (we all got a kick out of Clouseau's man servant, Cato, ambushing his employer in his cavernous apartment to keep him on his toes) to the jokes that abounded at the time about then–President Ford's legendary pratfalls and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's thick German accent.

Most of the humor in the movie derived from the former chief inspector (Herbert Lom) who had escaped from the asylum to which he was sent after Clouseau's idiocy drove him over the edge.

After his escape, the former chief inspector assembled a gang of the world's greatest criminals whose sole objective would be to kill Clouseau — and it became Clouseau's objective to stop him.

Thus, the wheels were set in motion for what may have been the most wildly improbable detective story ever. Even now, I am hesitant to reveal any more of the details — because if you haven't seen it, you should.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend seeing it without seeing the others first. It simply won't be as funny otherwise.

So go ahead and do that.

We'll resume the discussion when the case is solv–ed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Young at Art

"Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children."

George Bernard Shaw

There probably isn't much of a reason for modern people to think about — or even remember at all — Anna Mary Robertson Moses.

For that matter, there wasn't much of a reason for her contemporaries to think about her through most of her life.

She was born a couple of months before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and she died 50 years ago today, less than a year after John F. Kennedy became president. For most of her adult life, she was an ordinary wife and mother; she gave birth to 10 children in the late 19th century and early 20th century, half of whom did not live past infancy.

As she was raising her children, Anna Moses often showed signs of the creativity that would blossom in her later years, but that creativity usually was expressed through embroidery. As she got older, arthritis made that too arduous for her, and her sister suggested painting.

"It was this pivotal suggestion," says the Orlando (Fla.) Museum of Art's website, "that spurred Grandma Moses' painting career in her late 70s."

Well, that was what her sister said.

Grandma Moses said she took up painting because she wanted to give the postman a Christmas gift, and she concluded that painting was easier for her than baking.

Whichever version was correct — and, for all I know, there may have been elements of truth in both — it was truly fortunate that Grandma Moses made the decision she did.

Her style was primitive. That was the art community's word for it, depicting rural scenes and giving the appearance of having been painted by someone much younger.

That was really the essence of Grandma Moses' art and life. If her work suggested a young and innocent artist, it was because her mind really was young and innocent even if it occupied an elderly body.

And she became something of a poster child for those who were young at heart.

When I was growing up, I often heard someone referred to as a "real Grandma Moses" because he or she had embarked on something new at an advanced age. Rarely, if ever, was it something as consequential as taking on the challenge of an entirely new career — but I don't really think Grandma Moses intended her painting to be a career move.

At least, not right away.

Eventually, I am told, Grandma Moses produced more than 3,500 pieces of art. They fill museum galleries across the nation.

But, originally, she made paintings to give as gifts — not only to the postman but also to friends and relatives with whom she had stayed on her travels. She charged a few dollars for others — paltry sums by modern standards but not insignificant for that time.

The price for one of her paintings went up considerably after the rest of the world discovered her in the late 1930s, and she became an inspiration — almost a patron saint — for those who embark on a new career late in life.

She was inspirational in other ways, too. Fans of the Beverly Hillbillies TV series may recall that the seldom–used name for the character of Granny was Daisy Moses — an homage to the real Grandma Moses, who died shortly before the series went on the air.

But it was more than an homage. The Granny character dabbled in several things — medicine, music and art — in that series, taking on the stereotype of an elderly, mentally and physically disengaged person.

Granny continued to make soap for her family, as she had probably done for decades. She did all the cooking and cleaning — and she still found time to do some recreational painting, utilizing barn paint.

That was a particularly nice touch because Grandma Moses was known for taking seemingly useless items and creating something useful from them. She made quilts from scraps of cloth, and I've heard that she even used leftover barn paint in some of her earliest works.

The artistic applications of such apparently useless items became known as "hobby art" nearly two decades after Grandma Moses died.

For a "primitive" artist, she was truly ahead of her time.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Every person is, of course, an individual, with unique personal experiences.

But some experiences, especially the ones from childhood, are universal. We all have them — eating ice cream cones on hot summer days, watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, going to school with the other children our age, learning to read and write and add and subtract — and looking forward to being allowed to go outside for recess on a sunny spring day.

And most parents read stories to their children. You know the stuff I'm talking about — "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," anything by Dr. Suess.

J.M Barrie's story about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys of Neverland certainly belongs on that list.

There is, of course, the traditional story that Barrie wrote — nearly everyone must have heard that one — but that story has been re–told in many ways over the years, perhaps none quite as cleverly as the film version that premiered on this day in 1991.

In director Steven Spielberg's hands, the story was given a new twist.

At least, I thought so.

The movie focused not so much on the children but on their father (Robin Williams), who, it turns out, was once Peter Pan but was adopted and raised by an American couple — and forgot all about Neverland.

He was forced to confront his past when his old nemesis, Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), kidnapped his two children and took them to Neverland. With the help of Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts), Peter returned to Neverland to save them.

Like just about everything else Spielberg has done, "Hook" was enormously successful at the box office, but many critics complained that the movie failed "to find something new, fresh or urgent to do with the Peter Pan myth."

I disagreed.

It might have come as a surprise to the critics of 20 years ago, but Barrie apparently did conceive of something similar. In 2003, Andrew Birkin wrote that Barrie wrote some notes on the idea of a story in which Peter Pan grew up — but the idea never got past the note stage.

Spielberg apparently knew nothing of that when he made "Hook." His idea had its roots, he said, in his childhood when his mother read the original story to him. At the age of 11, he directed a school production of the story. You might say it's part of his DNA.

"I have always felt like Peter Pan," he once said. "I still feel like Peter Pan. It has been very hard for me to grow up."

Considering all the wonderful cinematic rides on which he has taken his audiences over the years, that's a good thing for the rest of us.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Rest in Peace, Colonel Potter

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of actor Harry Morgan.

It really wasn't a surprise that he passed away. He was 96 years old, after all.

But it was another of those reminders that time is marching on.

Morgan had a long and mostly successful career that went back to the 1930s and included dozens of roles on the stage and the silver screen, but he is mostly remembered for his television work. He appeared in 11 different series and was a regular on several of them.

My family had only had a TV set for about a year when Morgan appeared on TV's Dragnet in one of the first TV roles with which he will always be linked, that of Officer Bill Gannon, Joe Friday's sidekick.

I didn't watch that show too much, but my father did, and I can't think of it without thinking of him. In my mind's eye, I can see my father sitting in the family living room, smoking his pipe and watching Dragnet. For me, it is as American an image as any from a Norman Rockwell painting.

A few years later, Morgan took on the role for which he will be remembered the most, I suppose — Col. Potter on M*A*S*H.

I have many great memories of watching M*A*S*H — including the evening in 1983 when M*A*S*H concluded its 11–year run with a 2½–hour episode that still ranks as the most–watched TV episode in history.

There will never be another M*A*S*H, he said at the time. And he was right.

But I also remember the movies I saw in which he appeared — "Inherit the Wind," "High Noon," "The Ox–Bow Incident" and so many others.

I don't remember how old I was when I saw each for the first time. The only thing I am sure of is that I saw them all on TV. Somehow, that is where Harry Morgan seemed to be most at home, not in the vast space of the silver screen but in the comfortable confines of the TV screen.

He inspired me in all of his movie roles, even when his character was a little on the quiet side. Take his role in ""The Ox–Bow Incident." Henry Fonda had the dramatic lines, but Morgan added a silent eloquence that, in my opinion, made that movie even more powerful.

Morgan was in his late 20s when he made "The Ox–Bow Incident." Neither he nor his audiences could have realized the influence he would have on American movies and television in the next half century.

He almost didn't go into acting at all. Originally, he planned to study law. But he sort of stumbled into acting, found success in it and became a lifer.

How fortunate for the rest of us.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Toys of Caliban

When I was off at college, my mother and younger brother developed a shared appreciation for Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell in TV's Soap.

It always seemed to me that they were discovering Mulligan as if Soap was the first professional acting he had ever done — even though he had been around for a long time.

I had been familiar with Mulligan's work on the big screen for quite awhile at that time. For instance, I enjoyed his performance as George Armstrong Custer in "Little Big Man."

And I enjoyed the work he did in later years — his role as a mental patient posing as a substitute teacher in "Teachers" stands out in my memory.

But Mulligan probably is mostly remembered for the work he did on the small screen — and his finest may have been the work he did on the reincarnation of The Twilight Zone in the mid–1980s.

In the first season of the series, he provided a fresh spin on a part that became iconic in the hands of Art Carney a quarter of a century earlier. He starred as an alcoholic department store Santa Claus whose bag of toys began dispensing everyone's heart's desire.

And in the second season — in an episode that was shown for the first time 25 years ago tonight — Mulligan played more of a supporting role — as the father of an unusual little boy named Toby.

Well, Toby wasn't so little. He was played by David Greenlee, who was in his mid–20s, but mentally he gave every appearance of being severely impaired (the first time I saw the episode, I thought he might have Down syndrome).

And Toby had a special talent that wasn't so little, either.

He could summon things he saw in pictures by saying the word "Bring!" For example, he had a childlike fondness for doughnuts, and, early in the episode, he became sick from eating too many doughnuts that he had summoned.

That was the event that alerted people outside Toby's intimate family circle that he was not like other children. He wasn't like other retarded children, either. But all the outsiders knew was that he was different — and that he was treated differently by his parents.

What the outsiders didn't realize — couldn't have known — was that Toby's parents were motivated by a desire to protect both Toby and the other children from Toby himself.

Toby's talent had its drawbacks, the kind of drawbacks a retarded person could not fully comprehend. Once, when he was looking at a picture of a human heart, he accidentally caused the death of his mother (Anne Haney), attracting renewed scrutiny from child protective services.

Toby's father was determined to continue raising his son as he and his wife had done before, but he was forced to reveal the family secret to a nosy social worker who threatened to remove Toby from the home.

The social worker was finally persuaded to leave but insisted she would back.

Meanwhile, Toby, distraught by the confrontation between his father and the social worker, desired the reassuring presence of his mother and used a picture to bring her corpse back from the grave. It appeared in a chair — but as a decomposing corpse, not a living person.

Mulligan shielded his son from the horrifying vision, insisting that the corpse wasn't Toby's mother. He then went about burying the body in the backyard, after which he stood next to the grave and spoke to his wife's spirit, telling her that it was "time."

He then sat down with his son and showed him a picture of a blazing fire. "Bring!" he instructed Toby, and Toby brought the inferno to the house.

In the final scene, the social worker arrived at the house with police officers. No words were spoken; perhaps she hoped to save Toby, but the house was engulfed in flames.

Unlike most Twilight Zone episodes — either the ones from the 1960s or the ones from the 1980s — "The Toys of Caliban" had none of the series' trademark opening and closing narration.

I suppose, when the final scene is of the burning ruins of a rather modest home, there really isn't anything to say.

Golden Performances

"Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember he's doing the best he can. He's just trying to find his way, just like you."

Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn)

I always admired Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

And it was a treat to see the two of them together, finally.

You know, when you consider their lengthy Hollywood careers and their many mutual acquaintances, it really is astonishing that they had never made a film together until "On Golden Pond."

When they did, though, they made movie magic.

I thought of this recently when I was watching "On Golden Pond" for what may be the 10th time in the last 30 years. I saw it when it was at the theaters, and I have seen it several times on TV. And I realized, as I watched it, that it is the kind of film that still speaks to people in all phases of life — even 30 years after it was released.

It even mirrored the relationship between Fonda and his own children.

I guess I was a little older than the actor who played Billy, the young boy whose character was left with Hepburn and Fonda for the summer while Fonda's real–life daughter Jane and her boyfriend in the movie (played by Dabney Coleman) went to Europe together. Consequently, I guess, I related more to his responses to things.

But, during more recent viewings, I have related more to Jane Fonda, who was probably in her 40s at the time, and her relationship with her father. And, I presume, if I live long enough, there will come a time when I will watch it and relate more to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn than to the others.

I don't know if "On Golden Pond" was the best film either Hepburn or the elder Fonda ever made. They both won Oscars for it. That was not a new experience for Hepburn. She had been nominated 11 times before, and she had gone home with the statuette on three of those occasions. But it was the only time Fonda won, even though he had been nominated once before.

Really, Fonda should have been nominated more often. I don't think anyone could look at the body of his work and not conclude that he got short–changed by the Academy on several occasions.

That other nomination was in recognition of his work in "The Grapes of Wrath," which was a great movie, but what about "12 Angry Men?" Or "The Lady Eve?" Or "The Ox–Bow Incident?" Or "Mister Roberts?" Or "Fail–Safe?"

Or any of more than 100 brilliant performances over the years?

Perhaps the folks who voted for the Oscars in the early 1980s realized that Fonda had been overlooked, taken for granted. He had been a steady, reliable actor for decades — and he was dying. His health had been failing, and "On Golden Pond" seemed likely to be his final film — which it was.

Consequently, when he received the Oscar for his performance in the spring of 1982, it was seen by many as the Academy's way of rewarding him for a lifetime of brilliant performances — although some saw it as recognition for a singularly great performance.

Either way, it was well deserved. Unfortunately, Fonda was too ill to attend the ceremony, but Jane accepted his award for him — and later acknowledged that "it came just in the nick [of time]." Her father died a few months later.

But on that spring evening in 1982, I remember watching her accept that award and feeling deeply moved in a way that I have seldom felt.

Clearly astonished, Jane Fonda made her way to the stage, where Sissy Spacek gave her the statuette for her father, and Fonda looked directly into the camera and said, "Oh, Dad, I'm so happy and proud for you."

Fonda went on to say that she was sure her father's first reaction, upon hearing the news, had been " 'Ain't I lucky?' As if luck had anything to do with it. ... He has tremendous respect for the other actors who were nominated and has always felt a little strange about these things, these competitions, because it's like comparing apples and oranges. He feels very proud to have been among such a wonderful group."

As anyone who ever saw even one of his performances knows, Fonda was pretty special himself.

Roger Ebert said the experience of watching "On Golden Pond" was "something rare and valuable," and he attributed much of that to the acting. I can't argue with that.

What made the acting as great as it was? Its realistic portrayal of the stages of life.

Hepburn, of course, was her great self. Her character was the glue that held her family together, and that was something to which just about everyone could relate — because there is one of those in darn near every family.

Likewise, Henry Fonda's character tended to be a bit distant, a bit standoffish, perhaps a little rough, but you always suspected it was more a defense mechanism, intended to keep others from discovering the truth — which, in Fonda's case, was the realization that he was gradually losing his grip on his mental and physical health. Many families have at least one of those, too.

Jane Fonda played their adult daughter who had to confront issues that went back to her childhood. Those issues were complicated by the fact that Billy, in the space of a month, had forged the kind of relationship with her father that had eluded her for decades.

"Don't you think everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something?" Hepburn asked her at one point. "It doesn't have to ruin your life."

That's good, honest writing — but it takes good, honest acting to bring it to life and make it meaningful for the audience.

"On Golden Pond" had an abundance of talented actors, right down to young Doug McKeon, whose character felt abandoned by his father when he was left in the care of Hepburn and the elder Fonda and frequently spoke of "bullshit" — perhaps for the shock value, perhaps because it really expressed what he felt. I never felt the audience could be sure, and I wasn't really sure it mattered.

But I enjoyed an exchange he had with Henry Fonda after saying that fishing was "bullshit."

"You like that word, don't you?" Fonda asked. "Bullshit."

"Yeah," McKeon replied, almost defiantly.

Fonda nodded. "It's a good word."

Henry Fonda and McKeon bonded on the screen and may have had the best dialogue exchanges.

When they first met, McKeon observed that Fonda's character was marking his 80th birthday. "Man, that's really old," the teenager said.

"You should meet my father," Fonda said.

"Your father is still alive?" McKeon asked incredulously.

"No," Fonda said, "but you should meet him."

Ironically, Fonda didn't live to see his 80th birthday, but just about everyone who saw him in "On Golden Pond" must have felt that they knew him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten Years Without George Harrison

Nearly a year ago, a friend of mine asked me to write something about George Harrison.

I knew we were coming up on the 10th anniversary of Harrison's death so I promised her that I would. And this is the fulfillment of that promise.

But I've really been fulfilling the promise incrementally over the year.

Since she made that request, I have written other pieces that mentioned Harrison — specifically, in connection with "Taxman" and when I wrote about his musical tribute to former Beatles bandmate John Lennon and when I wrote of the anniversaries of the benefit concerts for Bangladesh and the release of the Beatles album "Revolver."

All of that has reminded me how much modern music owes the "quiet Beatle." I haven't seen Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary about Harrison, but I have heard that it is an important step in giving him the recognition he never really seemed to get during his life.

If that is so, then I applaud it.

Because I have learned things about Harrison as I have worked on this article since making my promise — perhaps I re–learned some of them.

There were lots of things about Harrison that I already knew or thought I knew.

I knew Harrison was a seeker. He was easily the most spiritual of the four Beatles. And that has its place, I suppose. It may be the single quality that people mention most about Harrison.

There are worse ways to be remembered.

But I always felt there was more to him than that. Harrison possessed a sensitivity that Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr did not — at least not to the extent that Harrison did.

That sensitivity could be seen in the passion he had for humanitarian causes. That wasn't something he did because it was fashionable. He was involved in humanitarian issues all along, but he was more visible after the Beatles split up.

His role with the Beatles was always limited. He always existed in the overwhelming shadow of the Lennon–McCartney partnership, but that role, thankfully, expanded in the later years, and the world was allowed to see more of his talent in songs like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "Something" and "Within You Without You."

Harrison's most significant contributions were musical, but that doesn't mean his musical talent and his spirituality were kept separate from each other; far from it. The two often converged — as when Harrison's acceptance of Indian Hinduism led to the introduction of sitar music to Western listeners.

"In his most obvious contribution to music as lead guitarist for the Beatles, George Harrison provided the band with a lyrical style of playing in which every note mattered," wrote Bruce Eder for

"Later on, as a songwriter with the Beatles and subsequently as a solo artist, Harrison used his celebrity and his musical sensibilities to try and raise the awareness of millions of listeners about issues much bigger than music."

That's probably what sticks out in my memory of George Harrison. His music always had an other–worldly aura to it. Sometimes it was subtle, other times it wasn't so subtle. But it was always about things that were bigger than the music alone.

Music was where Harrison found his sense of purpose. He perceived, as many do, that his true mission in life was to seek a higher power, and I feel that, ultimately, he believed he had reached it through his music.

But there was, as I say, the humanitarian side of Harrison that really got its chance to blossom when the Beatles broke up.

Do spirituality and sensitivity exist as separate entities? That is a different argument — and one in which I prefer not to engage on this occasion.

But I will say this: As much as I admired Lennon and as much respect as I have for what McCartney has done musically, Harrison truly distinguished himself post–Beatlemania — apart from writing and recording popular songs and beyond anything the other three did.

Harrison was, as John Donne wrote centuries ago, "involved in mankind."

He was really the first to organize a benefit concert featuring several big–name performers, a pioneer whose experiences still serve as useful guides for what to do and what not to do. His concerts for Bangladesh truly blazed a trail for others to follow.

I sensed a certain amount of peace in the last years of his life — peace that may have been missing when he was young and his pursuit of the spiritual world often seemed to be at odds with the people and things that surrounded him.

That pursuit didn't get any easier as he got older. In 1999, he was stabbed by an intruder in his home, an ironic turn of events, considering that, in the 19 years since Lennon's murder, Harrison may have been the most reclusive of the surviving Beatles, avoiding most public appearances and probably taking more security precautions than McCartney or Starr.

He had been diagnosed with throat cancer a couple of years earlier, but it seemed to have been successfully treated and nothing more was heard about that until 2001, when it was revealed, in successive months, that he had been treated for lung cancer and a brain tumor.

The final months of his life were hardly peaceful. There were reports that his death was near, even when it turned out not to be true.

And then there was the report that was true. In mid– to late November, it was reported that George Harrison was expected to die within days.

And so he did.

Maybe age — as it has long been rumored to do — brought him peace and wisdom even though he was only 58 when he died.

Both were well earned.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mass(achusetts) Hysteria

On this day in 1996, Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" made its second big–screen appearance since it premiered on the stage in 1953.

"The Crucible" was inspired by — but not necessarily a literal history of — the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th century.

I'm not a full–fledged historian — really more of an amateur one who minored in history in college and has always had an interest in the subject — but I think that is an important distinction to make.

Miller wrote it as an allegory of McCarthyism. If one recognizes that fact, it is easier to understand what is said and done in the play.

And, while those events do have something of a basis in fact, it is not, as I said before, a literal history. It is a dramatization.

Miller, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman," was fascinated by the witch trials and did extensive research in Salem, Mass. As nearly as I can tell, many of the characters in the play (and movie) were real — and I know there were witch trials in Salem in 1692, resulting in 29 convictions, 19 hangings, one case of a man being crushed under heavy stones when authorities tried to coerce him into entering a plea and at least five other deaths of people while they were in prison.

It's just that some of the details were inaccurate.

That is understandable, though, considering that few of the written records that have survived from the time offer much in the way of clues about the personalities of the people who were involved.

But that wouldn't have meant much to Miller, anyway. His play used the witch trials to inspire, not inform. He made no pretense that he was being historically accurate in his portrayals.

Characteristics of several real people were merged into one — a judge, a witness, a defendant — to be representative of the people and the attitudes of late 17th century America.

Even if the people were real, facts were altered to fit the needs of the story. The antagonist of the story, Abigail Williams (played by Winona Ryder in the movie), was a real person, one of the accusers — but in reality she was 11 years old. Miller made her 17 in the play so she could be the lover of the story's portagonist, a real farmer named John Proctor (played by Miller's son–in–law, Daniel Day–Lewis) — thus providing her with the motivation to accuse Proctor's wife (played by Joan Allen) of witchery, a crime that was punishable by execution.

There is no reason to believe that such a clandestine relationship ever existed. It was created to fit Miller's needs, and that made it necessary to play around with the characters' ages.

Williams, as I said, was 11 years old at the time, but her age was elevated to 17 to make the relationship seem more plausible, and Proctor was 60, but his character in the play and movie was about half that — again, to make the affair more palatable for mainstream audiences.

Other changes were modest, even understandable. In reality, the number of girls involved was far greater than it was in the play, but Miller wisely cut many of those minor characters. I suppose, if one wanted to pick nits, one could quibble over the exclusion of some and/or the inclusion of others.

In fairness to Miller, though, I must say that many of the other characters and circumstances appear to be legitimately represented. The dialogue is what one would expect from people of that time — i.e., the use of Goody as an abbreviated form of Goodwife, the customary colloquialism for a female spouse.

Miller wrote the adapted screenplay for the 1996 movie and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, the only one he ever received.

I could not help wondering, as I watched the 1996 version again recently, if Miller (who died in 2005) might have seen "The Crucible" as an allegory for the War on Terrorism and the use of waterboarding to coerce information from witnesses — and if he might have made adjustments to the story to make it appropriate for 21st century audiences.

For example, early in the 1996 movie, several girls — including Aibgail — gathered in the woods at night to perform a ritual with a slave named Tituba. The ritual involved a dead chicken, the drinking of its blood and dancing around a fire — and it was witnessed from a distance by the town's Puritan minister, Samuel Parris (played by Bruce Davison).

That event was only mentioned in conversations in the original play. Moviegoers in 1996 saw it acted out.

The minister was alarmed when two of the girls who participated in the ritual fell into unconsciousness and would not awaken. and he sought to find a cause. Fearful of being punished, Abigail pointed the finger at the slave, claiming that she had been working with the devil. Tituba denied the charge but eventually confessed to being a witch after a savage beating.

And that was the catalyst for everything else.

A slave woman named Tituba did live in Salem in those days, She was one of the first to be accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem and denied it initially — but she was coerced into confessing that she had had conversations with the devil.

In 17th–century Salem, that was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.

The extensive waterboarding by CIA operatives of Al–Qaeda suspects occurred in 2002 and 2003, which was before Miller's death, but it wasn't publicly revealed until after his death at the age of 89.

He was probably too old to have written an adaptation by then, anyway. But he might have collaborated with someone.

Who knows what that might have yielded?

Looking Into the Future

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Howard Beale (Peter Finch)
Network (1976)

I guess everyone knows that speech — if folks don't know it by heart, at least they know the catch phrase — "I'm as made as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

That speech by actor Peter Finch in the 1976 movie "Network" has achieved an iconic status in the annals of memorable movie lines — alongside Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" and Vito Corleone's "offer you can't refuse" and all the others that have become virtual cliches.

It isn't necessary to be old enough to remember when the movie was showing at the theaters for someone to be familiar with the line and the context in which it was said.

When Woody Allen quoted (or misquoted, actually) Humphrey Bogart in the title of a movie ("Play It Again, Sam"), it wasn't necessary to tell people that the line came from a movie that was made three decades earlier. Everyone already knew.

But there was really so much more to "Network" than Finch's rage — and some of it has taken years to emerge. Maybe you do need to be old enough to remember the movie to appreciate how much has changed.

When "Network" made its debut 35 years ago today, cable and internet may have existed, but they were technological toddlers. They are much larger, much more mature today, and those who have known no other probably cannot appreciate how prescient Paddy Chayefsky's story really was.

When I watch it today — and I have probably watched it a dozen times or more since I first saw it on the big screen — I marvel at all the things he anticipated. Maybe you need to be able to remember a world that had no cell phones or personal computers/laptops — no instant information or communication — to comprehend just how on target Chayefsky was.

His story anticipated things like reality TV — albeit in a much more extreme form than anything we have seen in real life — and "news" anchors whose personalities are more important than the news.

His script warned us just how shallow our role models would be in the years to come, how many would resort to exploitation to raise their ratings, how they would be driven by little more than those ratings (which are designed to measure the quantity of the audience and not the quality of the programming).

It was all tongue in cheek, I'm sure. Chayefsky wrote his story to entertain. I don't think for a second that he believed he was being prophetic.

It just turned out that — in many unexpected ways — he was.

Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade

"Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a Kaiser blade."

Sling Blade (1996)

There's a very understated — but, at the same time, very telling — moment during the 1996 movie "Sling Blade."

Well, actually, there are several such moments in that movie, which premiered 15 years ago today. But, first, let's briefly recap the plot.

When the story begins, Karl, a mildly retarded man played by Billy Bob Thornton (who also wrote the story), has been released from the mental hospital where he has been held since he killed his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old. The powers that be have determined that he is no longer a threat to himself or anyone else.

He returns to his childhood home, where he gets a job fixing small machinery, and he befriends a boy and his widowed mother.

The boy's mother has a boyfriend who generally abuses everyone but seems to have particular malevolence in store for those closest to him. One gets the impression that he has — shall we say? — intimacy issues. This leads to some ugly — and revealing — moments for all concerned.

Anyway ...

Following one especially brutal interlude, Karl, in his simple, almost Forrest Gump–like way, tried to ease the tension by telling her a joke he heard from the guys at the fix–it shop.

It was a simple joke, really, a joke that I laughed at in grade school, which meant it was just about on Karl's mental level, but he still didn't get it right when he tried to tell it.

Here's the way Karl heard it the first time, when his employer told it:
"There were these two ol' boys, and they hung their peckers off a bridge to piss. One ol' boy from California, the other from Arkansas. The ol' boy from California says, 'Boy, this water's cold,' and the ol' boy from Arkansas says, 'Yeah, and it's deep, too.' Get it? "

But Karl told it this way:
"There were these two fellers standin' on a bridge, a–goin' to the bathroom. One feller said, 'The water's cold,' and the other feller said, 'The water's deep.' I believe one feller come from Arkansas. Get it?"

Karl had a very endearing way of rationalizing things so they made sense to him. In that regard, he kind of reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies. In the context of their experiences, anything that seemed foreign eventually made sense. (That's how a swimming pool became a "cement pond" and a billiard room became a "fancy eatin' room.")

If Karl's internal compass wasn't always in sync with others', there was no problem with his sense of right and wrong. He might not be able to verbalize it too well, but it's kind of like the famous judicial ruling regarding pornography.

He knew right (and wrong) when he saw it. And he acted accordingly. (Not always legally. But accordingly.)

In the film's closing minutes, Karl had conversations with the boy's mother, the boy and the mother's gay friend (played by John Ritter), then had a climactic conversation with the mother's abusive boyfriend.

Even in his limited mental capacity, only Karl knew the significance of the conversations — although all the people with whom he spoke seemed to get an inkling, at least, at the very last minute, of what might be about to happen.

And that made "Sling Blade" the only film I can recall in which the last word said by all the main characters (except Thornton's) was the same: "Karl?" It wasn't spoken in unison but in four separate scenes and in four separate contexts.

In hindsight, all four had relevance to each other although Karl may have been the only one to perceive that — perhaps because Karl was the only one who could really bring peace to that troubled house.

So he did — the only way he knew how.