Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Active Afterlife

"I'm the ghost with the most, babe."

Michael Keaton

Other folks would have their own nominee for most quirky movie direcrtor, I'm sure, but I think I would be safe in picking Tim Burton.

Burton's had some mainstream hits, like 1989's "Batman," but mostly he has directed movies that could best be described as "quirky."

Let me be clear. I have nothing against quirky. I didn't particularly care for his first effort "Pee–wee's Big Adventure" in 1985, but I know people who liked it very much.

"Beetlejuice," the movie that made its debut 25 years ago today, was his next directorial project. And I liked it very much. It was just good offbeat fun.

The plot was centered on a young recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) haunting the home they occupied before their deaths. Their objective is to frighten the folks who have bought the house and are making changes that the former occupants find intolerable.

Doing his best to throw a monkeywrench into the works was Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a bio–exorcist who appeared to be aiding the young couple but, in fact, was motivated by his desire for the daughter (Winona Ryder) of the house's new owners. She could see the ghosts, but her father couldn't and neither could her stepmother.

She was also — shall we say — a bit goth. Well, more than a bit.

Lydia (Winona Ryder): "My whole life is a dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room."

Beetlejuice's offensive behavior created a wedge between him and the couple, and he proceeded to pursue Ryder's somewhat naive character, with no regard for Davis or Baldwin.

Beetlejuice could not be trusted.

And no one could have played that role better than Keaton.

I've seen him in several movies now. I guess the first movie I saw that featured Keaton was "Night Shift," in which he and Henry Winkler (then best known as the Fonz from Happy Days) played night–shift attendants in a morgue.

Keaton was probably about 30 when he appeared in that movie. He was closer to 40 when he appeared in "Beetlejuice," and he had persuaded me, by that time, that he was capable of a wide range of movie roles, not just comedic ones.

But I guess I've mostly thought of him as a comedic actor.

Everyone knows his famous line, "I'm the ghost with the most," and I do think of that line when I think of Keaton playing Beetlejuice — but I think of other lines, too.

Like ... "Go ahead ... make my millenium." A nice Clint Eastwood allusion there.

Or ... "It's showtime!" after Ryder's character recited his name the requisite three times. Conjuring memories of Roy Scheider in "All That Jazz."

But my absolute favorite is when Beetlejuice is asked for his qualifications, and he replies ...

"I attended Julliard. I'm a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I've seen the EXORCIST ABOUT 167 TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT ... NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT YOU'RE TALKING TO A DEAD GUY ... NOW WHAT DO YOU THINK? You think I'm qualified?"

I liked Davis since I first saw her in a small role in "Tootsie" a few years earlier, and she played another likeable character in "Beetlejuice." Baldwin was another matter. I've seen him in some good things since "Beetlejuice" was released, but I wasn't overly impressed with his performance, and I don't think I had seen him in anything else before "Beetlejuice."

Sylvia Sidney was, well, a different matter entirely. In her late 70s in 1988, most of Sidney's film work was before my time when, apparently, she was in some demand as a leading lady. My memory of her is spotty — and mostly of her in supporting, not leading, roles. When I saw her in other movies, I recognized the face but could rarely recall her name.

As Juno the afterlife counselor, though, she made quite an impression on me with her deadpan delivery. She didn't win Best Supporting Actress for her peformance — she wasn't even nominated — but "Beetlejuice" co–star Geena Davis did win it for "The Accidental Tourist."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Christie's Least Favorite Novel

"I saw a particular personage and I threatened him — yes, Mademoiselle, I, Hercule Poirot, threatened him."

"With the police?"

"No," said Poirot drily, "with the press — a much more deadly weapon."

Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

On this day in 1928, Agatha Christie was a rising young writer of 38.

She had published seven novels since 1920 — including some that are still considered among her best — but she didn't have much regard for the one that was published on this date in 1928, "The Mystery of the Blue Train."

Christie called it "easily the worst book I ever wrote," although she acknowledged that "many people, I'm sorry to say, like it." Count me among them.

I guess it was irresistible for me. I read it a year or two after I first saw "Murder on the Orient Express" — and read the book upon which it was based (which, as I understand it, was one of her favorites) — and I guess I had something of a weakness for a mystery that takes place on a train.

Before I say any more, let me say a few words about writing.

I've been writing most of my life, and I've always prided myself on being able to write about many different topics. But I've admired the ability to focus on a specific niche. I've always had too many interests, I suppose, which may well mean that, when I worked as a general assignment reporter, I was in the job for which I was best suited.

But it seems to me that the writers who find a specific niche are the ones who also find the greatest success in this business. Not so much the nonfiction writers. The nature of their work requires them to be curious about many things.

A niche is particularly important, I suppose, for writers of fiction, and when one discusses the writing career of Agatha Christie, it is hard to avoid certain conclusions.

Obviously, her niche was the detective novel, but she did write other things. Not many, but a few. Nevertheless, she is still known, more than 35 years after her death, as a crime writer — odds are, she always will be.

Within that genre, she focused on Britain's well–to–do, and her plot device frequently was to have her detective (more often than not, that was Hercule Poirot — although Miss Marple was another detective who was familiar to Christie's fans) either stumble onto a murder (or, on occasion, several murders) or be asked by an old friend/colleague to investigate an existing case that was baffling others.

That detective proceeded to question each of the suspects, which supposedly provided all the clues the reader would need to solve the crime. I say "supposedly" because there have been some who have suggested that prominent mystery writers have pulled some fast ones. Among those dissenters is playwright Neil Simon, who alleged, in "Murder By Death," that some of the greatest fictional detectives of all time deceived their readers with clues and suspects that didn't appear in the books until the final pages, if at all.

That wasn't entirely fair.

Quite often, Christie's stories would have another character killed near the end — but that was usually because that character had discovered something crucial and was silenced by the original guilty party. Furthermore, those characters weren't introduced in the final chapter. They had been around for awhile.

Christie wrote more than five dozen novels, many of which were made into movies or TV adaptations. Nearly a dozen of her books have inspired video games. Most of this has come since her death in 1976.

Not bad.

But "The Mystery of the Blue Train" has not been turned into a movie. It was an adaptation on the British TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot" in 2005 — more than 75 years after it was published.

But that's it, and I find that surprising.

I'll grant you, I didn't think "The Mystery of the Blue Train" was her best book. But I wouldn't go as far in the other direction as Christie herself did. Neither would fellow English crime writer Robert Barnard, who has said that Christie is his favorite crime writer. Despite modest criticism, Barnard wrote in 1980 that "there are several fruitier candidates for the title of 'worst Christie'."

The victim in "The Mystery of the Blue Train" is a young heiress who is traveling to the French Riviera by train. She is found strangled in her compartment and a valuable piece of jewelry is determined to be missing.

Poirot just happens to be on the train and is approached by the victim's father and his secretary to investigate.

As usual, there were some modest differences between the book and the TV adaptation — and I say "modest" because, as far as I am concerned, they did not make significant changes in the story, only cosmetic ones designed to appeal to viewers in the early 21st century rather than readers in the early 20th century.

I'm inclined to think Christie would have approved.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

For The Birds

As I have written here before, I am a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock's work.

It's something I picked up from my parents. They were Hitchcock fans, too, and they introduced me to many of his best movies.

And a lifetime of watching Hitchcock movies has convinced me that you can learn a lot about a person based on which Hitchcock movie is his/her favorite.

But I'll be darned if I know what it is.

Personally, I'm torn. I really like 'em all, but my very favorites are "North By Northwest" and "Psycho." I can, however, make a case for "Vertigo" or "Rear Window" or "Strangers On A Train." Depending on my mood, I can even make a case for "To Catch A Thief."

Well, I told you I'm a Hitchcock fan!

I know several people who would tell you that the Hitchcock movie that premiered 50 years ago today — "The Birds" — is their favorite.

It's never been my personal favorite. I watched it for the first time when I was about 20, and I thought it was good, but, if anyone had asked me at the time, I would have said that I preferred maybe half a dozen Hitchcock films to that one.

My opinion hasn't really changed over the years, and I have often wondered about why that is so. Here is what I have concluded:

"The Birds" is the only Hitchcock movie I can think of in which the villain is not a human.

That's an important distinction for me. You see, however bizarre their behavior may have been, anything that birds do falls under the heading of natural phenomena in my book.

It is not a conscious choice. Blaming animals for behavior that leads to the loss of human life makes as much sense as blaming a tornado or an earthquake.

Human behavior, on the other hand, frequently is the result of a conscious choice — at some point and on some level.

Well, that's the distinction. And I think it does say something about those who pick "The Birds" as their favorite Hitchcock movie.

But, as I say, I'll be darned if I know what it is.

I do know, however, that animals and suspense movies are an effective combination.

The shark in "Jaws," after all, was named to the list of the movies' greatest villains by the American Film Institute. "Snakes on a Plane" provided considerable chills for moviegoers as did the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park."

But those creatures were always menacing in those movies. The only time they were not threatening was when they appeared to be confined.

The birds in "The Birds," though, were docile at the beginning of the movie — and at the end, even when they seemed to have congregated in one spot.

The official story I heard was that "The Birds" was inspired by a novel, and I don't doubt that, but I am inclined to think the reason why Hitchcock was drawn to a story about birds gone wild is because, for the most part, birds are seen as nonthreatening creatures. The same cannot be said of sharks or snakes or even dinosaurs (although dinosaurs disappeared long before man came along).

Nonthreatening creatures that suddenly become threatening seem to be more frightening. Maybe that's because we are taught from an early age that dogs and cats — and birds — are friendly creatures whereas sharks and snakes and bears are hostile. We don't expect dogs or cats — or birds — to be hostile; when they are, we don't know how to react.

I suppose that is particularly true of birds.

As I was writing this, a flock of birds flew past my window. Under ordinary circumstances, I probably wouldn't think twice about that.

But I've been writing about Hitchcock's "The Birds."


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It Takes One to Know One

There have been several characters in television series who were known to be either crazy or putting on a really good show at being crazy.

But none were ever any better at it than Jamie Farr, who spent 11 years portraying Corporal Klinger, a draftee in the Korean War who tried for a long time to persuade enough people that he was crazy to be discharged under the infamous "Section Eight" — also known as a psycho.

Corporal Klinger wasn't really crazy, but the episode of M*A*S*H that first aired on this night in 1978 ("Major Topper") was a pretty effective argument that, well, it takes one to know one.

Klinger had studied crazy people for awhile. That much was clear from all the earlier episodes, and he was still bucking for a discharge in 1978. It wasn't until later, I guess, that Gary Burghoff left the show, and Farr's character took over as company clerk, a position in which he tried to be more military in his appearance — but, on this day in 1978, he was still openly trying to be Nutsy Fagan.

In this episode, Klinger was put in charge of another corporal, Boots Miller (Hamilton Camp), who gave names to and spoke to his socks and shoes and treated ladles as if they were microphones, among other things. Most of his antics were relatively harmless, but one was not — his tendency to fire not–so–make–believe guns (armed with definitely not make–believe bullets) at imaginary enemy gliders.

When Boots tried to shoot down some gliders in Col. Potter's presence, it was enough to persuade Potter to fill out the paperwork to have Boots discharged.

Klinger, understandably, felt a bit miffed. After all, he had been bucking for a Section Eight all along but hadn't received one. Boots, meanwhile, sashayed into camp, took a few shots at imaginary gliders and got a ticket home.

But Klinger had the last laugh. Some time later, after Boots had returned to the States, he sent a letter to the 4077th explaining that he had been a success in the children's toys business but needed the help of his former colleagues on a new toy idea — Enemy Glider — but he had no photos of the gliders he shot down while in Korea or their pilots, and he wanted to know if the folks in the camp could help him with photos — or whatever else they might have.

Camp appeared on another episode of M*A*S*H as an entirely different (although every bit as unbalanced) character — but his performance as Boots Miller was the better one. Even Klinger had to admit that Boots was Looney Tunes"and th–th–th–that's all, folks."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Traditional Agatha Christie Tale

"Men always tell such silly lies."

Agatha Christie
Funerals Are Fatal (1953)

The concept of a remake is hardly an alien one in the 21st century.

There are frequent remakes — or re–imaginings, as they are sometimes called — in the movies and on TV. Cover versions of old hit songs become hits themselves.

In fact, as I recall, remakes weren't new even in the late 20th century.
But, although it was before my time, it seems to me that remakes were far more rare in the mid–20th century — when Agatha Christie published "Funerals Are Fatal."

"Funerals Are Fatal" was published in the United States 60 years ago — in March of 1953 — and it was something of a remake in the sense that it was Christie's return to the formula that made her so popular in the '30s and '40s — a sprawling Victorian mansion with a sprawling Victorian family and lots of money up for grabs following the death of the eldest sibling.

And a butler.

I am not the Agatha Christie aficionado that my mother was, but one of the things that stood out for me when I read "Funerals Are Fatal" was the presence of the butler.

As long as I can remember, "the butler did it" is a cliche that inevitably is dragged out whenever a murder mystery is the subject of conversation. Almost without exception, all the murder mysteries that I read that were published after about the mid–1900s had no butlers.

In fact, in my lifetime, it seems that, whenever a butler has shown up in a book or a movie about a fictional murder, it has been as the setup for jokes based on the cliche.

"Funerals Are Fatal" actually did have a butler, but he was a rather minor character in the story. He had been the butler of the mansion when the now–deceased head of the house was bringing up his orphaned siblings, but the butler was a very old man by the time of the story so he was never a very plausible suspect as a multiple murderer.

And that, essentially, was what Hercule Poirot, Christie's most famous (and most lucrative) detective, faced in this story.

First, the eldest sibling died suddenly but apparently from natural causes, causing the scattered family to be summoned for a reading of the will — at which the dead man's only surviving sister ponders, "but he was murdered, wasn't he?"

Initially, that point wasn't clear — but what was clear was that the dead man's sister was herself murdered — in her own bed the day after her brother's funeral.

And then her paid companion nearly died from arsenic poisoning from a sliver of wedding cake. The niece of the dead man had declined to share the cake with her.

(Paid companion seemed, on the surface, to refer more to a business relationship, but as one so often had to do with Christie's works, it was necessary to read between the lines. I haven't read all of Christie's works, but it sees to me this was the first of her books — at least, it is the earliest one in which Poirot was a character — that mentioned lesbianism, even indirectly.)

In the course of his investigation, Poirot encountered the usual assortment of red herrings tossed in his way by Christie. All part of the formula.

Another part of the Christie formula involved having Poirot gather all the principal characters together for observation, and that happened in this book, too, but then there was a twist. The widow of the dead man's brother was struck on the head as she was about to reveal by telephone what she found odd on the day of her brother–in–law's funeral.

Two dead, two others who appeared to have dodged a bullet.

In typical Christie fashion, the explanation for everything was complex, but that must have been what longtime Christie readers liked about it. It had all the elements of the traditional Christie tale that her fans loved so much.

As I say, it was a remake — or, perhaps more accurately, a rehash — of the things that had worked for Christie in the past.

So it is ironic, I suppose, that very few screen adaptations of the story have been made.

Ten years after the book was published, a movie that was based on it was made — but the movie was called "Murder at the Gallop," and the detective was not Poirot but Miss Marple, Christie's second most popular detective (but her personal favorite).

More than 40 years later, a TV adaptation was made, but it, too, had numerous character and plot changes.

To date, no adaptation of "Funerals Are Fatal" that is true to the story has been made — not even under the original title Christie gave it, "After the Funeral," under which it was published in the United Kingdom in May 1953.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Planning to Fail

Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder): Actors are not animals! They're human beings!

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

A few years ago, the movie "The Producers" was remade.

I didn't see it at the theater. I saw it on TV.

And I was glad I didn't spend any money on a ticket to see it on the big screen. Frankly, it was a disappointment to me, and I didn't think I would have been more favorably disposed to it if I had seen it on the big screen.

Given a choice, I would much rather watch the original, which first appeared in theaters 45 years ago today, on the big screen. Unfortunately, I have only seen it on TV as well.

I have enjoyed many Mel Brooks movies over the years. "The Producers" wasn't the first Brooks–directed movie I ever saw. But it was Brooks' big–screen directorial debut — and, seeing it when I did, with the benefit of the hindsight that came from seeing "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "Blazing Saddles" and "History of the World Part I" first, I could see clear indications of what movie audiences could expect in the years ahead.

It wasn't Gene Wilder's movie debut. That came a year earlier with a small role in "Bonnie and Clyde." But his performance in "The Producers" was his first major big–screen role, and he gave movie audiences a generous glance into the future.

I didn't need one. Wilder was already one of my favorite comic actors by the time I saw "The Producers" — kind of my generation's Peter Sellers.

When I saw him first in "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles," though, I missed watching him evolve from "The Producers," in which he played Leo Bloom, a remarkably timid accountant. He apparently stumbled onto the inspiration for a scheme when he observed that a producer could make more on a flop than a hit — because no investor would expect to receive any kind of return on a production that failed.

Producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) seized upon the idea, and thus the plot of the movie was born. Wilder and Mostel would find the worst script imaginable, hire the worst director possible and cast each role with absolutely the worst actors they could find to guarantee a flop that might not even survive opening night — then they would split for South America with the investors' money.

Well, that was the plan. But, hey, you know what they say about the best–laid schemes of mice and men.

What went awry in this particular, seemingly foolproof scheme was simple. The audience didn't hate the production. In fact, the theatergoers loved it — once they persuaded themselves that "Springtime for Hitler" was a farce and not an homage to Hitler.

It was a hit. And there wasn't anything that Wilder and Mostel could do about it — least of all pay the investors.

Wilder's blueprint for the manic victims he would later play was unveiled in his performance as Leo Bloom in "The Producers." Wilder hasn't always been a manic victim, but it's been a staple of his career.

Dick Shawn, I suppose, was another matter.

Shawn was a manic comedian who appeared in about two dozen movies, one of which was "The Producers." He played Lorenzo St. DuBois (aka LSD), a flamboyant actor who was cast as Adolf Hitler in the play that Bialystock and Bloom were producing.

"It's practically a love letter to Hitler!" Mostel's character exclaimed after reading it.

"This won't run a week," Wilder's character replied.

"A week?" Mostel said. "Are you nuts? This play's gotta close on Page 4!"

And when the audience saw Shawn, there could be no doubt.

But, as I said, the best–laid plans ...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Evolution of Rape on TV

Edith (Jean Stapleton): There were two things that my father taught me: One, don't ever order a hamburger from the drugstore, and the other thing had something to do with knees.

Television has come a long way in 40 years.

An excellent example of that is the episode of All in the Family that aired on this date in 1973 — "Gloria the Victim."

It was about rape, a topic that was seldom mentioned on TV in those days, and the writers for All in the Family deserved credit for being willing to accept the challenge, but they chickened out when it came to the actual sexual assault.

So it was a near rape. No penetration. Remember, this was network television in the early 1970s. Norman Lear, the developer of the series, took on a lot of subjects in those days that TV had never really taken on, but network TV really wasn't ready for something like rape in 1973 so it was necessary for Gloria not to be violated.

With that kind of a history, is it any wonder that the subject of rape is still a bit ticklish for many Americans? Was it really any surprise that some candidates for political office ran into problems last year when they tried to articulate their thoughts on the topic?

Gloria (Sally Struthers) told her family that she had fainted, and she assumed that had frightened her attacker because he left. And everyone was relieved.

But I knew a young woman in college who watched a rerun of that episode with me, and we started talking about it afterward. Somehow, the topic of Gloria not being penetrated came up, and this woman observed, "Well, she told them that she wasn't penetrated. She might not have told the truth."

That thought had never occurred to me, and I asked her about it. Gloria might have wanted to avoid any number of things, this woman replied. She might not have wanted to go through the kind of physical exam that is required of rape victims. She might not have wanted to endure the kind of questioning to which rape victims are subjected in open court.

She might have wanted to avoid the kind of reactions she was sure an admission of violation would elicit from the men in her life.

And, too, it was still a time when too many women were discouraged from telling the authorities everything because society tended to blame the rape victim. She was asking for it, society said, by dressing too provocatively or behaving in a way that was interpreted as flirtatious.

(That never really made a lot of sense to me. I couldn't see how blaming the victim of a crime furthered the cause of truth and justice.)

OK, it is still that way in places, but I believe things really began to change on that night 40 years ago.

Attitudes certainly seemed to be changing the following year when Elizabeth Montgomery starred in a made–for–TV movie called "A Case of Rape."

Montgomery's character was raped twice by the same man, and she had to navigate a minefield of legal traps to take her attacker to court. It was all handled very realistically, but I have often doubted it would have been made at all if All in the Family had not done the episode it did 40 years ago.

Also in 1974, Linda Blair (who was not far removed from her attention–grabbing role in "The Exorcist") starred in another TV movie that dealt with a different kind of sexual assault. In "Born Innocent," Blair played a frequent runaway who was sent to a girls' juvenile detention center and was savagely raped in the shower by a group of girls using a plunger handle.

The scene was not explicit, but it was powerful — and very controversial, in large part because Americans were still squeamish about confronting the subject of rape. Not as squeamish as they were before Gloria's assault, but still squeamish.

All in the Family revisited the rape theme a few years later when Edith (Jean Stapleton) was attacked, and the show's writers proved that they had grown. Like her daughter, Edith wasn't sexually violated, but viewers saw her fight back against her attacker. In that respect, Edith was a strong role model for the girls and young women who watched that night.

But however admirable her character was in that episode, she had her problems. Long after she escaped from her attacker, she still suffered from the trauma of the experience.

Edith was fearful and suspicious, withdrawing from everything. That episode had a much harder edge than the one that aired in 1973 — although I'm sure the episode in which Gloria was the victim shocked a lot of people.

Rape just wasn't something that polite people talked about in 1973. It was something, as Gloria learned from conversations with a detective, that was frequently used against the victim, and that knowledge often discouraged victims from pursuing justice.

To an extent, that had changed when Edith was attacked.

But it took Gloria's special brand of tough love to bring Edith out of hiding.

Edith had been refusing to identify her attacker, and Gloria called her "selfish."

"You're not my mother!" Gloria yelled at a visibly stunned and speechless Edith. Her mother, Gloria continued, never refused to help others, and, by identifying her attacker, she would keep him from hurting others. But Edith wouldn't do that.

And Edith slapped her — and then burst into tears and embraced her daughter in a way that only a repentant parent can, apologizing over and over.

"It's all right, Ma," Gloria said with a knowing, been–there kind of expression on her face, and Edith left to go to the police station. She had mustered the courage to overcome her fears.

In a wonderful example of comic relief, Gloria smiled at her mother as she walked out the door, then turned and looked at her husband, touched her hand to the cheek her mother had slapped and began her trademark wailing cry. (I guess that was inspired by Lucille Ball. Whenever Gloria began to wail, I was always reminded, however fleetingly, of Lucy.)

That was so typical of All in the Family. Viewers often found it hard to determine which had been bigger, the laughs or the lumps in the throat.

Within the life of the All in the Family series, the writers had matured. That could be seen in their initial handling of the issue of rape and their revisiting of it a few years later.

Gloria had matured, too, from the girl who was nearly raped to a strong young woman. Her transformation began 40 years ago tonight.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mr. Everyday People

In recent years, I've observed the 70th birthdays of all sorts of people who were young, rising stars when I was a child, and that truly is an eerie feeling.

Talk about feeling old!

Most of the time, I don't feel particularly old when I hear of such things — but I really did feel old when I heard that Sly Stone was turning 70 today.

The Newport News, Va., Daily Press wryly observes that Stone's milestone is "a concept that seems so improbable because (a.) he will always be locked in our minds at a much younger age, and (b.) nobody ever thought he would live that long."

Rather like Keith Richard, I suspect. About a year ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that observed that Keith Richard had outlived Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Elvis. "Betcha didn't see that coming" was the punchline.

A talented and creative song writer, Stone penned and recorded songs in the late '60s and early '70s that combined a genuine social consciousness with the fun of popular music. He formed a band that was a celebration of diversity long before diversity was a popular buzzword.

But abuse of and addiction to particularly potent drugs like PCP and cocaine hastened the decline of the Family Stone.

And with the roster of deceased performers from that era, it was hard for even the most optimistic of observers to visualize a scenario in which he would live to the age of 70.

But he has. Happy birthday.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

'Jezebel' Was Bette Davis' Show

I suspected the truth about "Jezebel" (which premiered 75 years ago today) long before I learned what the truth was.

Bette Davis, like many other famous actresses of that time, was passed over when the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" was cast. The role of Jezebel (the character's name was Julie), I suspected, was Warner Bros.' way of making it up to her.

It was a pretty good consolation prize. William Wyler (who later directed cinema classics like "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben–Hur" and "Ronan Holiday") was the director, and Henry Fonda and George Brent were her co–stars.

Scarlett and Julie weren't very different, I guess (other than the fact that "Gone With the Wind" was a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner).

Both were tough Southern gals. I have known several real–life Scarletts and Julies in my life. They were seldom, if ever, as affluent as Scarlett and Julie, but they were every bit as headstrong.

There were many other similarities, as well as some significant differences. Scarlett, of course, was from Georgia. Julie hailed from New Orleans.

And Scarlett's story was played out against the backdrop of the Civil War whereas Julie's story took place several years before the war broke out. I'll leave it to individual viewers to ascertain which setting was more dramatic, but both roles were undeniably dramatic.

I guess nearly everyone has seen "Gone With the Wind" so I won't go into much more detail about the character of Scarlett O'Hara. I'll just tell you a little more — and you can decide if there is any resemblance.

Scarlett, of course, was in love with Ashley, but she never married him. Julie had a fiancee whom she lost because she was stubborn, willful, prideful and vain. Sound familiar?

Julie's fiancee was played by Fonda — and I honestly can't think of any other role that Fonda played in his long, distinguished career that was more wooden than Preston Dillard. In fact, I've often wondered if Fonda wouldn't have had more to work with if he had been cast as Ashley.

For all his shortcomings, at least Ashley's character was multidimensional.

I guess that was OK, though. "Jezebel" was about Bette Davis.

But that's just my opinion.

You can take my word for it. Or, better still, you can watch it and judge for yourself. "Jezebel" will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, March 15.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Room Service

It's difficult for me to list my absolute favorite Frasier episodes because there are so many that I like — and never fail to quote when the opportunity presents itself.

But the episode that aired 15 years ago tonight — "Room Service" — certainly would be near the top of such a list.

Most of the time, the thing that I like the most about Frasier is its writing. Being a writer myself, I guess that isn't too surprising. I enjoy the double meanings and the allusions. Witty wordplay has always appealed to me.

But there is often a healthy dose of slapstick in Frasier.

"Room Service" had it all.

For example, Frasier's ex–wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) was in town with rather startling news. Her new husband had run off with the male contractor who had been doing some work on their home.

"Ironic, isn't it?" Lilith asked. "No sooner do I get the closet of my dreams than my husband comes out of it!"

Consequently, Lilith was very depressed, which Frasier found irresistible. He enlisted Niles' assistance in helping him resist the temptation, and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) succeeded — but wound up in bed with Lilith himself.

Niles, it should be noted, had been struggling with his own demons — in the form of the lawyers handling his divorce from the never–seen but often discussed Maris. His way of coping with the stress was bouts of narcolepsy that left him dozing off in the middle of conversations.

A night of passion (which was "instantly regretted," Niles told Daphne in a later episode) did wonders for both Niles and Lilith, but Frasier had his own issues with which to deal, and, in the end, he forged an uneasy truce with his brother.

"We're an odd little family, aren't we?" Niles asked his brother at the end of the episode.

Frasier never answered that one, but viewers of the show certainly could.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Four Decades on the Dark Side of the Moon

On this day in 1973, Pink Floyd released "Dark Side of the Moon," which became one of the best–selling albums in music history.

It spent only a week at the top of the U.S. Billboard's charts, but it remained on Billboard's charts for more than 14 years.

I didn't get it when it first came out. I was still kind of young and still interested in many things that I liked as a child — my list of interests did not include Pink Floyd until several years later.

But I more than made up for it after I discovered Pink Floyd. "Dark Side of the Moon" has been in my music collection for a long time now.

I guess I always knew that the track "Brain Damage" was inspired by the experiences of Syd Barrett, founding member of the band who went into seclusion to battle his demons. It was just one of the themes of the album, along with the passage of time and greed, but the inspiration for that particular song was always clear to me.

Thus, it came as no surprise to me when Roger Waters, also a founding member, confirmed in an interview that "Brain Damage" was inspired by Barrett's tragic tale of drug abuse.

"Brain Damage" was a good song, as were the two hits from the album — "Time" and "Money" — but if I had to pick my absolute favorite, it would probably be "Us and Them."

"Dark Side of the Moon" doesn't necessarily lend itself to the discussion of favorite tracks. To me, each song on the album is a jewel, perfect in its own right.

They are not now and never were in competition with each other.