Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Just Enough 'Rope' ...

There is an art to fine film making. Sadly, it seems to me, it is a rapidly disappearing art.

I teach in the local community college system. I teach writing in general, journalism in particular, not film appreciation or anything like that. But I speak with my students about things — and I overhear more of their conversations with each other than they think I do — and I have seen more interest in flash than substance among young people.

That may well change as they grow older — and I'm certainly not speaking about all young people, only of a tendency I have seen in a majority of them.

Perhaps it is always this way, to whatever extent technology has advanced. But it seems to have gone to a new extreme of late. There has been much angst in recent months about what connection, if any, there may be between violent video games and violent acts committed in public places.

If there is such a link, it may have existed all along. The only difference would be that the catalyst was not as high tech as it is today.

I have often heard it asked: Doesn't modern technology make it easier to encourage violent acts — by dehumanizing victims and virtually eliminating individual responsibility? And doesn't technology raise the bar when it comes to impressing and motivating the young?

If all that is true, how can one explain the thrill killing of a teenager by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the 1920s? Movies were decidedly less flashy then than they are today. In fact, movies at the time of the Leopold and Loeb murder case didn't even have sound, and they weren't in color. It's hard to imagine young people being inspired by that level of technology — and, in fact, I have seen no evidence that they were.

But, clearly, some young people were doing that sort of thing nearly a century ago, and I would argue that it has been going on longer than that. Indeed, if you speak to someone who believes in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that person will tell you that young people murdering others goes back to the dawn of recorded time.

I have mixed feelings about portions of the Bible, but I can't help but think such a trait has been with us all along. Until recently, though, it may have been harder to make a convincing case that technology was the prime culprit in violent crimes.

I'm sure it must have been even more difficult 65 years ago today, when Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" premiered. It was inspired by a play that had been inspired, in due course, by the Leopold and Loeb case, which was quite sensational in its day but was more than 20 years old when Hitchcock made his movie.

As a how–to for committing murder, "Rope" was practically worthless. The victim was seen for only a few seconds, and I do not recall hearing him speak any lines. In fact, I think the only time his voice was heard was in the trailer that you can see attached to this post.

The rest of "Rope" really was psychological. There was none of the blood and gore to which modern moviegoers are accustomed — although, to be honest, there rarely was anything of a graphic nature in Hitchcock's movies (not even in the infamous shower scene in "Psycho" — there were no lingering shots, and even if one freezes frames on a DVD, it still is not possible to see anything that is truly graphic).

Audiences heard more — much more — about the murder than saw it.

"Rope," as I say, was psychological. I saw "Rope" for the first time when I was a teenager. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I always liked it because it was such a psychological exercise. The partners in the crime, played by John Dall and Farley Granger (who is probably better remembered for his role in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" a few years later), were inspired to commit the "perfect murder" by the words of a mentor (Jimmy Stewart, who was already familiar to film audiences, in the first of four movies he made with Hitchcock).

One of the two was decidedly more enthusiastic about the murder and went to great pains to make it a "masterpiece" by hosting a dinner party to which the mentor and the victim's father, aunt and fiancee had been invited. The party was held in the murderers' apartment, and the victim's body was hidden in the same room where the guests would be eating.

With the exception of some initial excitement and, perhaps, nervousness, Dall's character was sailing along at the party, but Granger's character made no real attempt to hide the fact that he was upset (only Dall's character knew why). He drank too much and appeared to be experiencing remorse, but the guests, having no knowledge of what had happened, could not figure out why.

Stewart's character did put two and two together, but the rest of the guests were increasingly alarmed by the fact that the victim had not arrived and had not called. If this movie were to be remade today, that is something that would have to be addressed. The guests in the 1948 movie fretted that they did not know where to reach the victim because he had not called. In the 21st century, they all would have cell phones, and each probably would have made at least one attempt to call and/or text him.

But time probably would not alter the greater theme — that young people are easily influenced by their elders. Role models do wield considerable clout.

And that is something else that, as an adjunct professor, I try to keep in mind. I try not to be careless with my word choices. I try to be aware that whether I think that something I say or do is of significance isn't nearly as important as whether my students think it is.

I don't want to say anything that could be misinterpreted — especially if it could lead to someone's death.

Jimmy Stewart's character in "Rope" probably felt the same way — if somewhat belatedly.

(By the way, you can see "Rope" on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday at 11 a.m. [Central]).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Offbeat Love Story

Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn): I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's MOST unusual.

I have written here before that I consider Audrey Hepburn one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the big screen.

The movie for which she won her only Best Actress Oscar — William Wyler's "Roman Holiday" — was released on this date in 1953. It wasn't her first appearance in a movie; it wasn't even her first lead role.

But, in a career that included several great performances, this one stands out, even today, more than two decades after Hepburn's death.

It isn't because Gregory Peck was her co–star. She appeared with many of the top leading men of her day.

It isn't because she won an Oscar — she was nominated four other times but lost each time.

So what was it about "Roman Holiday" that made it Hepburn's defining role in the opinions of so many?

In large part, I have to think it was because Hepburn was at her most charming and most naive in "Roman Holiday" — although I personally think of "Wait Until Dark," in which she played a very different kind of role, whenever I hear her name, not "Roman Holiday."

Still, she always seemed delicate, no matter the role she was playing. She was that kind of female, sort of frail (but not in an old lady kind of way, more in the helpless female, damsel in distress kind of way, thin and willowy) and I often think that was what made her — and Grace Kelly — stand out in an era that was dominated by shapely, well–endowed bombshells.

But I can't rule out the incredible setting of Rome for the movie, either.

In the 21st century, the public has grown accustomed to the idea that a movie will be filmed on location, no matter how exotic or remote it may be, but I gather from what I have read that, unless a movie was filmed domestically, that was a rare occurrence 60 years ago.

Nevertheless, most of "Roman Holiday" was, indeed, filmed in Rome, and it is hard to imagine anyone putting the city to better use as a movie set than Wyler did.

And that, in turn, seemed to get the best out of the cast.

Hepburn, of course, played a very appealing character, a young princess who craved fun and anonymity. Peck, of course, was always magnetic but rarely was he as charismatic as he was in "Roman Holiday," playing a reporter who wants to scoop the competition but falls under Hepburn's spell.

And then there was Eddie Albert — the same Eddie Albert who entertained TV audiences a decade later as the lawyer–turned–farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas in Green Acres. Many folks of my generation may not know until they see "Roman Holiday" that Albert had a career on the big screen.

But the truth is that he made lots of movies before and after "Roman Holiday." Some were quite good; most were average at best. But none was as good.

How good? The American Film Institute rates it #4 among all romantic comedies.

But a few more words about Albert ...

He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Frank Sinatra for "From Here to Eternity." Frankly, that was a pretty tough category that year. Just being nominated really was an honor. I know that is a cliche, but it is true.

I always thought his character, a photographer named Irving who never lost sight of the career implications of his association with the princess (unlike Peck's character), kept the story grounded in reality. For example, when Peck started wavering on whether to profit from the opportunity to sell a candid story (with photos) about the AWOL princess, Irving reminded him that "[i]t's always open season on princesses."

Irving's presence was a much–needed reality check — not to mention a breath of fresh air — that elevated the tale to something more than an offbeat love story.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Voice Is Silenced

There were few female singers who had more influence on my teenage years than Linda Ronstadt.

If there was a soundtrack to that time in my life — and, in an age when it is possible for people to burn their own CDs with the music they choose, I guess it could be done — it wouldn't be exclusively Ronstadt's stuff.

But a lot of it would be hers.

Not all of it would be her by herself, either. She collaborated with the likes of Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Gram Parsons, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and others. After she had risen to the top of the rock world, she worked in an entirely different musical style with orchestra leader Nelson Riddle.

But she didn't have to collaborate with someone else.

Of course, as a healthy adolescent male, I was also attracted to Ronstadt's beauty. There were other talented female singers on the scene at that time, but there weren't many whose looks could compare to Ronstadt's.

Well, maybe Olivia Newton–John. But she was probably the only one.

And I never thought her voice could compete with Ronstadt's.

Ronstadt had been making music for years when she finally reached the top of the charts with "You're No Good" and followed that with "When Will I Be Loved?" The Top 10 hits came fast and furious then — with "Heat Wave," "Blue Bayou," "It's So Easy," "Ooh Baby Baby," "Hurt So Bad" — and then there were the near misses, the songs that almost made the Top 10 but not quite — like "That'll Be The Day" and "Back in the U.S.A."

And that isn't all.

There were other songs that got lots of airplay and sold lots of copies but just didn't crack the Top 20 — "The Tracks of My Tears," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Just One Look."

Ronstadt retired in 2011 and, in an interview with her hometown newspaper, gave Riddle all the credit for her "legacy."

That was an exaggeration. Her most successful recording with Riddle may have been "I've Got a Crush On You" from the first of three albums she made with him.

It was good, but its sales couldn't compare to her earlier hits.

Don't get me wrong. Her recordings with Riddle were exceptional, but so were the things she did in the 1970s.

And now we learn that Ronstadt has Parkinson's disease, which apparently has taken her ability to sing.

Well, I don't know enough about Parkinson's to say definitively whether it has physically taken her ability to sing or if she can still sing but the condition makes it more difficult. What I do know is what she has said.

"No one can sing with Parkinson's disease," she said. "No matter how hard you try."

Beyond that, she said she walks with poles on uneven ground and travels with a wheelchair.

The fact that she won't sing in public again may not mean much. Ronstadt, as I say, is retired. Even without the diagnosis of Parkinson's, she might never have performed in public again.

But the possibility always existed that she might be persuaded to make an occasional appearance, and now we know that we will never hear Ronstadt sing again — except through the recordings she made.

Here's hoping future generations continue to discover her music and that it will contribute to the soundtracks of many more lives.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Meaning of 'Angie'

"With no loving in our souls
And no money in our coats
You can't say we're satisfied
But Angie, Angie,
You can't say we never tried."

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

My life followed an unusual pattern in 1973 — well, it was an out–of–the–ordinary pattern for me, to say the least.

That summer, my parents decided to take part in a program in which the college where my father taught was a participant.

Under this arrangement, students could enroll in summer college courses being offered at the University of Graz in Graz, Austria. My parents could receive significant discounts on airfare and accommodations if they took classes as well, which they did, but they didn't seem to take their classes seriously. It was mostly a low–cost way for the family to take a trip to Europe.

Faculty members from other schools did the same thing. I remember becoming friends that summer with a couple of boys my age whose fathers were teachers in Nebraska. I even visited them in Nebraska once after we returned to the United States.

Speaking of which, we returned to America in early to mid–August, as I recall, and my family had to pack our things quickly because my father was about to begin a four–month sabbatical in Nashville, and we had little time to get everything ready for our move.

Consequently, August of 1973 is a blur for me now. But all I have to do is hear a song that was on the radio in those days, and I am instantly transported back to that time.

And one of the most prominent songs was released on this day in 1973 — "Angie" by the Rolling Stones.

It was on the Stones' "Goats Head Soup" album. No other song on the album could compete with it as far as public popularity was concerned. "Angie" raced to the top of the Billboard charts; "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," its closest competition from the album, made it to #15 the following year.

I remember at the time there was considerable speculation about the subject of the song. Was it about David Bowie's first wife, whose name was Angela? Was it about actress Angie Dickinson? Or was it about bandmate Keith Richards' newborn daughter (whose name was Dandelion Angela)?

(Personally, whenever I heard "Angie," I thought of a beautiful classmate of mine whose name was Angela — and who inspired my earliest adolescent fantasies. Matter of fact, I still think of her when I hear it — and I have seen a few recent pictures of her on Facebook. She's still capable of inspiring fantasies — or song lyrics.)

Richards wrote nearly all of the song, and he said it was about heroin and his attempts to stop using it.

Kind of a reverse twist on the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" explanation, huh? In case you aren't familiar with it, speculation held that that title was a play on the abbreviation LSD, and it was a drug–inspired song.

John Lennon popped that balloon, though, by explaining that the title came from a piece of artwork done by his young son at school.

That's the way the '60s and early '70s were, though. Everyone was looking for hidden meanings in everything — and the speculation was almost always wrong. (That observation never fails to remind me of a line that George Carlin used when doing his disc jockey act — "In a few minutes, we'll be listening to the new John Lennon single, which, if you play it backwards at slow speed, it screws up your needle ...")

I suppose, though, like most songs, "Angie" means whatever the listener thinks it means.

Personally, I never attached any special meaning to "Angie," other than a little harmless fantasizing about my classmate Angela, but I had a friend in college who always thought of her mother when she heard it (she thought of her father, a truck driver, whenever she heard Elton John's "Rocket Man").

To each his own, I guess.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Answering the Musical Question, 'Who Are You?'

The school year was about to begin when The Who released their album "Who Are You" in 1978, and that is what I think of first when I think of that album.

It was the musical backdrop for the new school year. Whenever one switched on the radio, it wouldn't be long before the title track came on.

For those who liked The Who, it was a decidedly mixed time. It was a transitional time, and perhaps that was necessary because the Who sound that energized listeners in the '60s and '70s was fading and being replaced by synthesizers and strings.

That was quite a different sound from the rebellious, trash–your–guitar–onstage sound The Who cultivated in the early years. It was a shift that simply could not be accomplished overnight.

And I've never been convinced that it was an improvement.

I think it was becoming obvious by 1978 that The Who was experiencing a kind of burnout. After all, it must be hard to maintain that level of energetic rage that seemed to permeate the group's early stuff.

They could still play their music very well; it was the quality of the material that wasn't what it had been. In that sense, I suppose, the title of the album was appropriate for a band that seemed to be losing its musical identity.
More significant, though, was drummer Keith Moon's death nearly three weeks after the album's release.

Moon had been taking a prescription sedative to help him with his alcohol withdrawal, and, although he had a history of prescription sedative abuse, he was instructed to take one whenever he felt a craving for alcohol — but he was to take no more than three pills a day.

That was simply impossible for Moon. On the day of his death, he consumed nearly three dozen of the sedatives and apparently died in his sleep.

The following year, tragedy struck the surviving Who members when, at a concert in Cincinnati in December, nearly a dozen concertgoers were killed and more than two dozen were injured after, mistaking the group's sound check for the start of the concert, thousands of people began pushing toward the still–locked gates leading into the stadium.

At the time, I remember hearing talk that The Who was jinxed, and the jinx began with the release of "Who Are You."

I guess all that was going on with The Who at that time gave a special poignancy to the song "Music Must Change," which, frankly, I regard as one of Pete Townshend's best, albeit unacknowledged, compositions.

And I never bought that jinx talk, either. But there was no doubt that The Who's music would have to change after Moon's death. After all, Moon was the second–greatest drummer of all time, according to Rolling Stone.

To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with "Who Are You" apart from a few songs. The title track was good, and "Sister Disco" was OK, but otherwise I just wasn't enthusiastic about the album.

I preferred "Who's Next" or "The Who by Numbers," the latter being an example of Townshend's soaring songwriting. Ironic, I suppose, given that some diehard Who fans have called that album "Pete Townshend's suicide note."

Obviously, it was no such thing. "The Who by Numbers" came out nearly 40 years ago when Townshend was about 30. He is 68 now.

Even if that label is meant metaphorically, Townshend continued to compose for many years. His compositions may not have been as good as they were in the early years, but his creativity didn't die.

Writing about "Who Are You" for AllMusic, Richie Unterberger observed that "it was the last reasonably interesting Who record."

I'm inclined to agree.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Young Stars Left Their Mark in 'American Graffiti'

As I have mentioned here before, my father was a college professor when I was growing up.

He was rather young compared to others on the faculty, and I guess he always had a more informal relationship with his students than many of his colleagues did. I never really stopped to think about it. All I knew was that many of his students came to our house when I was a child.

The young men in my father's classes frequently came to help with the landscaping that my father often did around our property. Their girlfriends — well, I guess I assumed that was what they were — chatted with my mother and helped her make lemonade for the men to drink when they took breaks from their labor.

Other occasions appeared to be extensions of my father's classes. I remember times when many students came to our house, apparently for prearranged group discussions. My point is that my father had a friendly relationship with his students.

Anyway, we were kind of in a hurry in August of 1973. My family had spent about six or eight weeks in Austria that summer, and not long after our return, we had to move to Nashville where my father was going to be on sabbatical for the rest of the calendar year.

When "American Graffiti" premiered on this day 40 years ago, we probably hadn't returned to the United States yet, and, when we did, we didn't have time for movies. Fact is, I don't think we went to a single movie while we were in Nashville.

After Dad's sabbatical was over, my family returned to my hometown, and Dad resumed his teaching duties at the college where he had been employed for as long as I could remember. And not long after classes resumed following the Christmas break, I remember being in his office one afternoon, and a group of his students were there.

They were all chatting about a movie that had been in the theaters for some six months but was just getting to my hometown theater, and they were all excited about it.

(Actually, that was pretty quick for my hometown. As I have mentioned here before, it typically took movies a year or more to come to my hometown when I was a child.)

The movie was "American Graffiti," and its advertisements asked a simple question: "Where were you in '62?"

One of the students had seen the movie while she was home for Christmas, and she told the other students, "If you can remember the '60s, you'll love this movie."

And on the basis of that remark, my father decided to take my mother to see it. They were reasonably young, younger than most of my father's faculty colleagues, and I guess my father figured they could relate to the same things his students could.

But the truth was that my parents were a bit older than the characters played in the movie by Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Cindy Williams. My father's students were a bit younger, but they were influenced by the same things.

So they could relate to what they saw in "American Graffiti," but my parents really couldn't. They had already been shaped by other experiences by 1962, and I think that was when they realized that their lives were at a different point than my father's students.

I couldn't really relate to it, either. It was before my time. Wolfman Jack, an important albeit minor character in the movie, was a pioneer D.J. to my father's students; to me, he was an occasional host of The Midnight Special on Friday nights in the '70s.

And, while I can't speak for my father's students or anyone else, I remember the night before I started my college years, and it was nothing like what was depicted in "American Graffiti."

Well, it was a different time.

What's really interesting for me today when I watch "American Graffiti" is to think about where all these people are now and what they've done with their lives in the last 40 years. "American Graffiti" was a big break for many of them.

Howard, of course, needed no break. He started out as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, and he starred in another hit sitcom, Happy Days, not long after appearing in "American Graffiti." Then he moved on to directing.

Dreyfuss has had a distinguished career, which included an uncredited part in "The Graduate" several years before he was in "American Graffiti," but his best, most successful — and, in one case, Oscar–winning — roles came after he was in "American Graffiti."

(In hindsight, success may have come a bit too quickly for Dreyfuss. He was, at 29, the youngest Best Actor winner, and he struggled for awhile with drug issues.)

Ford was in several movies before he made "American Graffiti," but it seemed to open a lot of doors for him. He's made a lot of movies in his life, but he is probably best known for playing Han Solo in the first "Star Wars" trilogy, and Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the other Indiana Jones movies, all of which came along after "American Graffiti."

Williams is probably best known for starring in a TV series that was a spinoff from Happy Days — although she also appeared with Ford and Gene Hackman in "The Conversation" the next year. She had mostly forgotten TV roles in the years before "American Graffiti;" people remembered her after the movie was a hit.

Even Suzanne Somers, who played the mysterious (and silent) girl in the white T–bird, enjoyed success that may have been due, at least in part, to her role in "American Graffiti." A few years later, she was a co–star on a smash hit TV sitcom, Three's Company.

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Special Magic of Music

"Look out any window
Look out any open door
Look out any window
See what's going on
In the world around you."

Bruce and Jonathan Hornsby

Twenty–five years ago today, I started working for a midsized daily newspaper in north Texas.

That sentence really doesn't do justice to the wide range of emotions I was experiencing on this day in 1988. Some background information probably is in order.

I grew up in Arkansas, went to school there, and I had been working there ever since finishing my schooling (or so I thought). My life was there. My friends were there. And, by 1988, I felt like I had a few things going for me — not everything I had hoped for but some things. I was working for the newspaper I had dreamed of working for since I was a boy. It didn't pay as well as I guess I had hoped it would, and I had been looking for alternatives in 1988, but that didn't change the fact that I was proud to be a part of that organization.

My parents, both natives of Texas, had moved back there a few years earlier, and my mother was helping me in any way she could think of to find a more significant job. She offered suggestions, which were of little help, frankly, from a distance — but her ideas did help me stay focused.

Mom was better at identifying options in her own territory, and she encouraged me to move to Texas. If a better job could not be found, I could go to graduate school and find some sort of temporary job to make ends meet.

By the summer of 1988, I had been accepted by the University of North Texas' graduate program, and I had been offered a job at the Denton newspaper. It felt like the planets were moving into line.

I didn't really have a long–term plan in mind. If I had, I would have realized that about the only thing you can do with a master's in journalism is teach, and teaching was not my long–term objective in those days. Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed working with students, sharing with them the things I have learned over the years. I hope it will make them better journalists.

But, even though I have now been teaching for close to one–eighth of my life, I'm not sure if that is where my future — or what is left of it — lies. Consequently, that degree may not have much real value in my life. I don't know yet.

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge for grad school. I gave my two weeks' notice in mid–July, and I made the move on August 7. In between, I picked up a few albums, and I listened to them a few times before my move, but I didn't really listen to them until after the move was behind me.

I wasn't sure at the time if I was doing the right thing. I guess it's normal to have such doubts. I had a vague idea of what I was getting. I would be living close to my parents and my brother for the first time since I was in school (and, ironically, I would be going back to school at about the same time that I moved so close to my family) and in an area with which I was pretty familiar. After all, I'd been visiting Dallas all my life. It seemed like my best option.

But, fairly quickly, I discovered that, for many reasons, living someplace is not the same as visiting the same place. After the move was over, I could look around my apartment and see all kinds of things that were familiar — but they were in new surroundings, and those surroundings didn't include my friends back in Little Rock.

My life had changed, and there were many times when I thought it wasn't for the better. I wanted free time in the evenings, which I had, but my friends were more than 300 miles away. When school started up a few weeks later, I discovered that my evenings would be taken up with an entirely new preoccupation — graduate school and the demands of each class.

My job was the same and yet different, too. I was doing the same work for the newspaper that I had done before — but my new job was at an afternoon newspaper whereas I had spent the last 4½ years working for a morning newspaper.

The difference between them was, literally, night and day.

For the latter, I worked nights; the hours changed a bit over the years, but typically I went to work around 3 p.m., and my shift ended around midnight. On high school and college football nights, it was not unusual for my shift to go on until 2 or 3 in the morning.

For the former, I had to be at work by 5 a.m. in order to finish putting together that afternoon's newspaper. Trying to function for the first month or so was like trying to cope with a never–ending case of jet lag. I would find myself at home in the afternoons, totally uncertain what I should be doing. Half of me said I should be getting ready for work, and the other half reminded me that I had already been to work.

It was during this time that I listened — really listened — to the records I had purchased in the weeks before my move. (In hindsight, I probably should have waited until after my move to purchase those records. Those vinyl LPs were pretty heavy, and I didn't need the additional bulk.)

The most prominent probably was "Scenes From the Southside," Bruce Hornsby's followup to his Grammy–winning debut album, "The Way It Is."

It's hard to describe my mindset at that time. Somewhere in my mind, I think I always expected to move back to Arkansas. I had never imagined my life being anywhere else. I guess I figured my exile to Texas would be temporary.

And, too, I think I was in kind of a state of disbelief. I had left behind what had always been my dream job for a very uncertain future.

Well, here I am, 25 years later, and I haven't been back to Arkansas except for visits. I haven't lived in Texas the whole time, either — I lived in Oklahoma for four years — but my exile has lasted a lot longer than I dreamed it would.

Most of the time, I suppose, that doesn't bother me, but there are times when it does ... like football Saturdays and occasions when my thoughts return, either through reverie or by force, to the days of the past.

And today, on the 25th anniversary. I remember how I felt on that first day — anxious, exhilarated and then totally astonished to be finished with my work by 2 in the afternoon! Then I went home, stretched out on my couch and fell asleep!

Heck, I had been up since shortly before 4 a.m.

When I woke up, I listened to that Bruce Hornsby album, especially the track titled "Look Out Any Window." I listened to it over and over. I thought of the friends I had left behind, some of whom are deceased now, and I thought of the future, much of which has now played out in my life. I can only hope there is more to come before I check out.

Life goes on within you and without you, George Harrison wrote. I never really knew what that meant until 25 years ago today.

That is the special magic, the special power of music.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Not-So-Sunny Side of the Street

Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift): A man don't go his own way, he's nothing.

Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster): Maybe back in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way, but today you got to play ball.

If you want to see a faithful re–creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I recommend seeing "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

But if you want to see a well–acted drama set against the backdrop of Pearl Harbor, "From Here to Eternity" — which premiered 60 years ago today — is the clear choice.

There was a lot of hype for this movie, I've been told, and I can believe it. It was based on one of the best–selling novels of the previous decade, which, I must confess, I haven't read. I'm sure that, as is usually the case, the movie wasn't as good as the book that inspired it, but I haven't a clue where the movie came up short unless there were parts of the story that, given the times, could not be mentioned.

When I saw it — and that was several decades after it was released — I felt it delivered on every level. The acting was brilliant in a story that was ostensibly about war but really was about life and how unfair it can be.

The movie followed three American soldiers — played by Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra — who were stationed at Pearl Harbor in the months leading up to the attack. Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed were the love interests.

Although separated by about 45 years, I thought "From Here to Eternity" was a lot like "Titanic" — the audience knew something big was going to happen, but it kind of got lost in the love story.

By the time the something big happened, it almost took the audience by surprise. That's an indication of superior filmmaking, I suppose.

Ironically, that was clearly the intention of 2001's "Pearl Harbor" — but it failed to get the audience to care about the love story.

"From Here to Eternity" didn't have that problem, especially with the principals, Lancaster and Kerr, who shared a passionate kiss on the beach in their iconic scene. Kerr's character was married, but audiences could forgive her that because she had been abused by her philandering husband, a thoroughly unlikeable sort played by Philip Ober (who may be best known for having been married to Vivian Vance at one time).

It was easy for audiences to not like him, and I have no doubt that was the plan. If the spouse is a reprehensible human being, it is easy to excuse the aggrieved spouse for behavior of which most people wouldn't approve. And most people probably would not approve of an extramarital affair.

Likewise, most people probably wouldn't condone prostitution, but Reed's character endeared herself to the audience with her selfless claim that she wanted to make enough money to go home to the mainland and buy a house for her mother.

Both Lancaster and Kerr were nominated for Oscars, but it was supporting performances by Sinatra as a soldier who is killed while in the stockade and Reed, whose performance as a prostitute can only be seen as completely against type, that earned Oscars for acting.

Sinatra, of course, was primarily a singer. While I haven't seen all of Reed's movie performances, her performance in "From Here to Eternity" may have been her most sincere and candid.

Director Fred Zinnemann won an Oscar as well, and the movie won Best Picture. Out of 13 nominations, "From Here to Eternity" took home eight awards.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Remembering Eileen Brennan

Actress Eileen Brennan passed away a few days ago at the age of 80.

I didn't hear about it until a few minutes ago, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not say a few words. For the record, she actually died on Sunday; her death from bladder cancer was confirmed on Tuesday.

I think of many things when I think of Eileen Brennan.

Most folks probably think of her role in "Private Benjamin" — primarily the 1980 movie but also the TV show on which it was based — and I think of that one, too, but I think of other things as well.

I don't know when I first saw her in something. She was in a lot of TV shows early in her career so it may well have been there that I saw her — in Rowan & Martin's Laugh–In, perhaps. She was something of a regular on Laugh–In, and I used to watch it all the time.

But I have only general memories of her in Laugh–In. The first show I specifically remember seeing her in was an episode of All in the Family. She was trapped in an elevator with Carroll O'Connor, Roscoe Lee Browne and Hector Elizondo.

Up to that point, she had been seen almost exclusively on TV, but after she appeared on All in the Family, doors seemed to open for her in movies, and the next thing I remember seeing her in was the Oscar–winning film "The Sting."

Paul Newman and Robert Redford were the main attractions in that one, but Brennan provided essential support. Unfortunately, she wasn't even recognized for her work with an Oscar nomination.

For that matter, she wasn't nominated for her performance in "The Last Picture Show," either — which I did not see until I was older. Cloris Leachman, her co–star, was nominated, and she won.

But I did see "The Sting" when it was showing at the theaters — saw it more than once, in fact. As anyone who saw it will tell you, you just about have to see it twice. Too many things slip past you on the first go–around.

Brennan played an up–front kind of gal named Billie, the madam of a whorehouse, and I really liked her brief conversation with the investigator, Lt. Snyder (played by Charles Durning):
Billie: Who told you this guy was in here?

Lt. Snyder: Nobody, I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joy houses 'til I find him.

Billie: Oh, well, maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name.

Lt. Snyder: I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?

Billie: Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

Lt. Snyder: What you are going to do, call the cops?

Billie: I won't have to. You'll be busting in on the chief of police just up the hall.

In the years after "The Sting," Brennan remained largely a TV performer. She wasn't a regular on any one show, but she made guest appearances on many and appeared in a few made–for–TV movies.

But then she appeared in one of my favorite comedies — "Murder By Death" — a Neil Simon spoof on popular mystery writers and movie detectives. Brennan shared the spotlight with the likes of Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Truman Capote, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith and others.

She didn't have many lines as Tess Skeffington, the girlfriend of Sam Diamond (Falk), a parody of Sam Spade, but they were memorable.
Lionel Twain (Capote): I'm the greatest! I'm #1!

Sam Diamond: To me, you look like #2, know what I mean?

Dora Charleston (Smith): What DOES he mean, Miss Skeffington?

Tess Skeffington: I'll tell you later. It's disgusting.

She had an earthy quality, and she was a tough old bird, too.

A year or two after "Private Benjamin" was released, Brennan stepped into the path of an oncoming car and suffered several injuries that led to an addiction to prescription pain killers, which, in turn, led to dependence on antidepressants and antianxiety medication.

She beat them all, as well as breast cancer, and she was willing to talk about the experience, to share her insights with others. But eventually she was brought down by bladder cancer.

She will be missed.