Monday, September 30, 2013

Generational Clash in the Old West

Simms Reeves (Hank Worden): Plantin' and readin', plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full o' lead, stick him in the ground an' then read words on him. Why, when you've killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

For the most part, John Wayne was an heroic figure.

But, occasionally, he lapsed into a darker character. He didn't explore that side of his movie persona too often, which is too bad, really, because it was an opportunity to see him as a flawed and imperfect man. Far too frequently, his movie roles portrayed him as some kind of western Superman.

He was far from that in the movie that premiered 65 years ago today — Howard Hawks' "Red River." Unlike the sort of character he was known for playing, Wayne's character in "Red River" was an unsympathetic one, clinging to old ways in spite of changing dynamics.

Set in the mid–19th century, Wayne played a frontiersman who craved the life of a Texas cattleman, and he abandoned a wagon train to pursue his dream, accompanied by Walter Brennan. His fiancee was part of the wagon train, which was targeted in an Indian raid shortly thereafter. The only survivor of the raid was a young boy who was informally adopted by Wayne.

Together, they built one of the wealthiest cattle ranches in Texas — only to see its value reduced to nothing following the Civil War.

His fiancee's death had left Wayne's character embittered and destroyed any hope that he could find happiness in his new life.

Most westerns up to this time — and, certainly, most of Wayne's movies — had an inspirational quality to them. "Red River" had a sharp edge, a gritty quality to it.

I've heard "Red River" described as a "Mutiny on the Bounty" set in Big Sky country, and that isn't a bad comparison.

Upon the return of his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift, from the war, Wayne's character decided to move his cattle about 1,000 miles to the north, to Missouri where beef markets could be found, but en route to Missouri there were gangs and Indians.

Wayne was able to keep his men in line as long as Clift backed him up, but there came a time when Wayne stepped over the line and Clift challenged him.

It was the familiar clash between the old generation and the new. Clift represented a willingness to embrace change while Wayne resisted.

It's a conflict that has been played out countless times on the big screen and in real life.

Clift seized the herd and made for Kansas, where there was a new railroad to Missouri.

If it wasn't the first time Wayne played against type, it was one of the first times — and it wouldn't be the last. I'm sure it must have been a bit of a shock for moviegoers who weren't accustomed to seeing Wayne in that kind of role.

In many ways, though, the role Wayne played in "Red River" was the perfect preparation for the role he would play in John Ford's "The Searchers" eight years later.

Reading Other People's Minds

Dr. Michael Anthony Brace (Christopher Walken): Why do you have to die to let go?

Natalie Wood was finishing the movie "Brainstorm" when she died in November 1981.

As a result, much of the movie had to be rewritten and earlier footage had to be used.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that "Brainstorm" would be promoted in the media, when it was finally released 30 years ago today, as Natalie Wood's last film — even though the character she played was, at best, a supporting character.

The star was actually Christopher Walken, who was a hot box–office draw by that time, having appeared in some of the best movies of the '70s and early '80s ("Annie Hall," "The Deer Hunter," "Pennies From Heaven"). Walken was a scientist who experimented with a device that could read a person's thoughts and transfer them to video tape.

One of Walken's colleagues, Louise Fletcher, had a heart attack while by herself. Figuring (apparently correctly) that help could not reach her in time, she put the device on her head and allowed it to record the experience of her death.

When he tried to play back the recording of Fletcher's character's death, Walken's character nearly died as he realized that not only could the device record experiences visually but it could also make the viewer have the same physical experience the wearer had.

Kind of a twist on the old 3–D effect, wouldn't you say?

In the case of Fletcher's tape, that meant the viewer would experience the physical sensation of a heart attack.

Of course, there were other kinds of experiences that were candidates for abuse when committed to this futuristic tape. What was a brave new world in the early '80s has, in many ways, come to pass today.

In fact, I have often thought in recent years that it was practically prescient the way "Brainstorm" anticipated things like artificial intelligence and virtual experiences.

In the movie, one member of the research team had sex with his girlfriend while wearing the device. An older team member, seeking to re–capture his youth, got the tape that had been made and spliced the lovemaking segment to run continuously, nearly killing him.

Thus the potential for misuse/abuse of this technology was established.

I've been an admirer of Natalie Wood for a long time, and I was kind of sorry that this was her final movie. It isn't that I didn't care for the subject matter. On the contrary, I thought it was almost visionary, even at the time but certainly as the years have passed.

No, the thing I regretted was that Wood was a supporting character. Nothing wrong with that. I've known of many great actors and actresses who were supporting actors. But Wood was a leading lady. She always gave great performances, and sometimes they were in supporting roles, but she was mostly a star as an adult, yet she played Walken's estranged wife. Fletcher, as Walken's like–minded research colleague, had more of a presence in the film, as did Cliff Robertson as CEO of the research team.

Otherwise, it probably was an appropriate capper to Wood's career. She was too young to die, and the circumstances surrounding her death were as baffling as they come, but that fed into the plotline pretty well.

Of course, some of it had to be redone after Wood died, but I felt the writers deserved credit for, as they say in this part of the country, "making chicken salad out of chicken s**t."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Time Mister Ed Met the Dodgers

Mr. Ed was aired before my time, really, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy watching reruns of those shows.

One of my favorites was first broadcast 50 years ago tonight — perhaps it is one of my favorites because I am a Dodgers fan, and Mr. Ed was a Dodgers fan, too. Anyway, in the episode that aired 50 years ago tonight, he paid a visit to the Dodgers and their then–manager Leo Durocher, who is often credited with saying "Nice guys finish last."

(I don't know if Durocher ever actually said it — or if he was the first to say it. I just know that I often hear it said that he said it, and sometimes I hear it said that he was the first to say it.)

Alan Young, who played Wilbur Post, was about the only series regular — other than Mister Ed himself — who was featured in the episode. I don't think Connie Hines, who played Carol Post, was in that episode. If she was, she didn't have much of a presence in it.

But she never did have much of a presence in the series, to be honest. Ed only spoke face to face to Wilbur — sometimes, he spoke to people on the phone or when there was some kind of barrier between them, like a wall — and their conversations were the foundation for the show.

The actor who played Wilbur's neighbor died a month earlier, and his character had not been replaced. His wife was still on the show for awhile, but she had a diminished role. She usually only showed up when Carol was around, but if Carol wasn't featured in this episode, there probably wouldn't have been much of a reason for her to be seen, either.

The episode was the revival of a dormant theme in the series. In the second season (1961–1962), Mister Ed "met" George Burns and Clint Eastwood. Then, in the 1963–1964 season premiere, he got to meet Durocher and some of the players for his favorite baseball team.

It's been awhile since I've seen the episode, but, as I recall, Ed was watching a Dodgers game on TV, and he noticed some things that the Dodgers were doing wrong — on the mound, at the plate, in the field — and placed a phone call to the Dodgers to offer some tips (giving his name as Wilbur Post). Come to think of it, I think he made a series of such calls.

Durocher took his advice, it worked, and the Dodgers (who actually did win the National League pennant and swept the New York Yankees in the World Series that year) went on a wild winning streak. In gratitude, Durocher invited Wilbur to visit the team — and maybe provide a few more helpful pointers.

Wilbur, accompanied by Ed, who was his "good luck charm," went to Dodger Stadium. He even got to take a little batting practice.

Really, I believe it's one of the truly funny scenes in American sitcom history. Holding the bat handle in his teeth, Ed stood (on the right side of the plate) while Sandy Koufax delivered the pitch, and Ed drove it into the outfield.

Ed went charging around the bases; none of the infielders challenged him. He turned the corner at third base and headed for home.

"Slide, Ed, slide!" Wilbur shouted out — and, by golly, Mister Ed slid. The terrified catcher climbed halfway up the backstop.

An astonished Durocher said, "That's the smartest horse I ever saw."

"He's not so smart," Wilbur replied. "He forgot to touch second base."

As I say, it's been awhile since I have seen this episode, but, whenever I have seen it, it's been the same for me as it is with a movie I've seen many times before.

I know that scene is coming. But it always makes me laugh, anyway. It makes me laugh in anticipation of it. It makes me laugh when I see it. And I continue to laugh after I've seen it.

It even makes me laugh to think about it when I'm not watching it and I haven't seen it for awhile. Now, that's funny!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chillin' With the Gang

Michael (Jeff Goldblum): Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.

It's a funny thing about "The Big Chill" — which made its theatrical debut 30 years ago today.

I can't remember seeing it at a theater, although I am certain that is where I first saw it. And I can't remember watching it when it came to cable about a year later, although I know I did — several times.

What I remember about "The Big Chill" is not an occasion when I saw it. It is an occasion when I thought about it a great deal.

It was sometime in the spring of 1991, about 7½ years after the movie made its theatrical debut. The occasion was a phone conversation I had with someone back in my home state of Arkansas. Funny, but I can't remember with whom I had the conversation. I can only remember the subject — a mutual friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My thoughts were drawn to "The Big Chill" and its tale of friends who came together for the funeral of a mutual friend from college, the most talented of the bunch, who had committed suicide.

I didn't go to college with my friend, but I did meet him through friends I made in college in that way that friendship networks often evolve. And I don't know if he would have been considered the most talented member of our group.

He certainly didn't commit suicide.

But there were so many moments in "The Big Chill" that seemed to fit our situation. I guess it had to do with the fact that we were young, like the group of friends in "The Big Chill," and we were dealing with the premature loss of a member of our group.

After my phone conversation was over, I remember sitting in silence in my apartment — for how long, I do not know — thinking about "The Big Chill." I thought of other things, too — memories of happier times — but I did think about "The Big Chill" quite a lot.

The next day, in the newsroom where I worked, I was telling a couple of co–workers about my phone conversation. The managing editor was standing nearby and listening. When I finished telling the story of the phone conversation, the M.E. said, "Did you think about 'The Big Chill?' "

I didn't answer. I didn't know what to say.

But it was on my mind.

My circle of friends was never as prosperous as the ones in "The Big Chill," but when we gathered for our friend's funeral, it was a lot like the movie. That was what struck me about it.

The surroundings weren't the same. The movie took place in a kind of rambling, antebellum Southern home; our gathering was in an apartment. It was in the South, but that was the only surface similarity.

The emotions were certainly the same for us, though, and we sought some meaning in what had happened.

The folks in "The Big Chill" watched a football game to renew their bonds. We watched a movie.

We even had our equivalent of Meg Tilly's character — younger than the rest of us, a bit naive and really unacquainted with the person for whom we were grieving.

(Tilly's character actually was acquainted with the deceased — played in an obviously nonspeaking role by Kevin Costner. Our tangential character never met our friend and constantly sought to cheer us up — as if we had all taken the same chemistry test and done poorly on it.

(Tilly wasn't quite that removed. She had been the deceased's girlfriend prior to his suicide — but some of the similarities were, well, spooky.)

"The Big Chill" managed to walk a fine line between humor and drama, and Tilly's character was a perfect blend of both. Sometimes, admittedly, it was hard to take her seriously, but then she would say something that would knock you off your feet.

Like when she and the other characters were talking about happiness and happy people, and the group looked to her for some insight.

"I don't know very many happy people," she protested.

That was the conundrum that the baby boomers — played by Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place and William Hurt — faced. Their futures didn't seem to be living up to the expectations of their pasts — even if, on the surface, everything seemed to be on track.

That isn't unique to the baby boomer generation, of course, but it still seems to come as something of a shock to every generation.

They hadn't been together in quite awhile so there was a lot of catching up to do — and, apparently, some unresolved issues and unrequited loves that made for interesting, and sometimes poignant, subplots. My group hadn't been apart nearly as long, and there wasn't nearly as much drama, but there was a similar longing to recapture the past in some way — or at least rewrite some of the episodes.

It's been my experience that most people, at some point in their lives, attempt to relive the past or evaluate it in some way, and "The Big Chill" was an excellent study of characters of the baby boom generation staring into the abyss of middle age — and, for the most part, not caring for what they saw.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Picking a Pocket or Two

Nancy (Shani Wallis): I thieved for you when I was half his age and it's your dirty work I've been doing ever since.

Bill (Oliver Reed): Well if you have it's a living ain't it?

Fagin (Ron Moody): Yes, a living is a living.

Nancy: Some living, Lord help me, some living!

Some movies are so linked in my memory to particular places or people or times in my life that it is impossible for me to separate them.

"Oliver!" is like that for me — several times over.

As was so often the case in my family in those days, we made frequent trips to Dallas to visit my grandparents — and we always seemed to go to movies a lot during those visits. There was a movie theater just a few blocks up the street from my grandmother's house, and it always seemed to be showing the latest hit movies.

And I have a clear memory in my mind of seeing "Oliver!" at that theater — more than once.

(Sometimes a movie stayed at that theater indefinitely. In the days before the multiplexes and home video, theaters like the one up the street from my grandmother's home only had one screen so the successful ones booked the popular movies and kept them there indefinitely. "Oliver!" was like that. I don't know how many times I saw it, but it was more than once, and each time was at that same theater.)

"Oliver!" premiered on this date in 1968. Most likely, my family wasn't in Dallas at this time of the year — the school where my father taught was on a trimester system in those days, and the fall term typically began in late September. His presence on campus — for teachers' meetings, freshman orientation activities and all that other stuff — would have been required.

It was probably Thanksgiving — or perhaps Christmas — when we came to Dallas and saw "Oliver!"

When I see it now, I enjoy the musical adaptation of a familiar story by Charles Dickens, but, at the time, I don't think I knew that. I'm sure the original story was beyond my years.

(Later on, I did read "Oliver Twist" — probably when I was in high school or college — and I liked it, but, in my mind's eye, I saw Oliver Reed, Ron Moody and Shani Wallis when I read about Bill Sikes or Fagin or Nancy.)

I remember that I found the music very appealing, which made it all the more remarkable that "Oliver!" did so well at the Oscars — well, remarkable in the context of the years that followed. Movies that are perceived to be musicals have rarely even been nominated for the major Oscars in the last 45 years.

But "Oliver!" got 11 nominations and won five — as well as a special Oscar for choreography.

I didn't really recognize anyone in the movie when I saw it on the big screen, but the movie's success at the box office and the Oscars catapulted many of the movie's stars to a new level.

The movie won Best Picture, and Carol Reed won an Oscar for Best Director; Reed had been making movies for more than 30 years and was already well known for movies he made following World War II so winning wasn't crucial for him.

Simply being nominated was enough to give a career boost to folks like Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger), who went on to host a reasonably popular children's Saturday morning TV show — and even folks who weren't nominated benefited from just being associated with the movie. It was a plus for Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), who was voted one of the five most popular stars in Great Britain a couple of years later.

Wallis, who played Nancy, the whore with a heart of gold, enjoyed a higher professional profile because of her affiliation with the project. She made some more movies and appeared on some TV shows in the years after "Oliver!" but I suppose it could be said that it represented the high–water mark for her career.

(As a child, I remember watching "Oliver!" and being mesmerized by Wallis. Whenever she was on the screen, even if she wasn't an important player in the scene, she had my undivided attention. I don't think I knew her character was a prostitute — I probably didn't know what prostitute meant — but, looking back, I think there was a sexual angle to it for me. She excited my budding sexuality in ways I couldn't explain then — and still can't explain today.)

It may also have been the high–water mark for Mark Lester, who played the title role and went on to appear in some movies and TV shows but received no Oscar nomination for his work. I thought he sang as well as any of the other boys his age in the movie, and that was really most of what his role demanded from him.

"Oliver!" appears to have been the pinnacle for Lester, but he is appearing in a movie (now in pre–production) that will be his first in more than 25 years. Who can say at this point how it will be received by the public or the critics?

I must confess that I don't really know what kind of an impact his part in the movie had on Moody's career, but I have my suspicions.

Moody was nominated for Best Actor for his performance as Fagin. He had been making movies for nearly 10 years, and he made maybe a dozen more in the years after "Oliver!" He did some TV, too. By most accounts, I suppose, he had a successful career.

He was even offered the lead in TV's Doctor Who the year after he was in "Oliver!" but turned it down.

Considering the long–term success of that series, that may have been the pivotal moment in his career — for better or (most likely) for worse.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Five Stages of Grief, Frasier Style

Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer): I am going to get another job. The people of this city need me. I'm a beloved Seattle institution.

Martin Crane (John Mahoney): A couple more days like this, he's gonna be in a beloved Seattle institution.

Followers of the Frasier show undoubtedly would disagree on their favorite episodes.

I understand that. And I wouldn't necessarily pick the episode that made its debut 15 years ago tonight as my personal favorite. But it's one of them.

It's about such a human kind of thing — grief. We all grieve for things — for people, for pets, for a favorite toy, for lost innocence. You name it. Someone grieves its loss.

And, in the episode that aired on this night in 1998, Frasier was grieving his lost job, which is certainly something to which many people can relate in these economic times.

The Frasier show had been on for five years, and I suppose the producers felt it needed a good shaking up. I honestly don't know what inspired them to take this approach in the premiere episode for the series' sixth season. My memory is that the economy of 1998 wasn't terrible, but, compared to the experience of the last five years, I suppose there have been few times in my life that would be considered terrible.

The radio station ultimately abandoned the salsa format in favor of the previous format — and all the regulars returned to the station.

Anyway, the episode introduced many viewers to the stages of grief that were outlined in Elisabeth Kübler–Ross' groundbreaking study on death and dying.

And it opened the door for some interesting story angles.

For example, the loss of a job would create all kinds of issues, primarily (as I say) economic ones, in most households. But the main concern for Frasier wasn't his income — apparently his radio show had paid him well, as had private practice before it, and he had plenty of money to support him through his joblessness.

What really concerned Frasier was the loss of his status — his fame and influence as a radio personality. Accordingly, he went through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — which included binge overeating as he tried to cope with the situation.

Kübler–Ross acknowledged — as do others who have written about the topic since she did — that people grieve in different ways and that not everyone experiences each stage of grief. But Frasier did experience each stage — with hilarious results.

In his denial stage, he undertook all kinds of complicated projects to fill his time because he was sure his hiatus from work would be brief. Anger came when he was hosting a picnic for his former radio station colleagues, whom the audience assumed to be jobless, too, but it turned out nearly everyone had found some other employment. While showing the children how to hit the piñata he brought, Frasier swung at it like he was swinging a baseball bat — and, his father later observed, some candy from the piñata was found all the way across the highway.

While in his bargaining stage, Frasier decided he hadn't been treating his fans well, and, declaring himself a "bad celebrity," he concluded that was the key to restoring his position in the radio community so he arranged to have a party in his home for the members of his fan club. Turned out there were only three members — which propelled Frasier into the depression stage.
Aaron (Fran Kranz): It's cool, isn't it? Your brother having his own club?

Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce): Yeah, well. Seeing all of you, I sort of wish I had a club myself.

In Frasier's case, depression meant binge eating. He gained so much weight that his family and Roz decided to stage an intervention, which finally made him see things as they were.

Niles told his father about the five stages of dying and connected the dots that Frasier was grieving for his lost status.

"People like Frasier's whole identities revolve around their job," Niles said. "The loss of the job is like a death. And they cope with it in the same way they would cope with a death, by going through a series of stages."

The intervention worked. Frasier slimmed down and got back on track — just in time for Niles to descend into the denial stage over the prospects for reconciliation with his estranged wife.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

After All, Jesus Was Only (Part) Mortal, Right?

Looking back on things, I would have to say that 1988 was a truly transitional year.

It certainly was for me, anyway.

In July of that year, I gave my two weeks' notice to the newspaper where I had been working since 1984 (I had been reading it since I was old enough to read). In August, I moved to Texas to enroll in graduate school, which I did later that month.

I don't recall specifically what I was doing on this day in 1988. I only know that I must have been very busy with my school work — among other things. The fall of 1988 was a hectic time in my life, adjusting to a new home and a new job — and being in the classroom again.

It's safe to say I wasn't going to the movies very much. In fact, I probably didn't go to the movies at all in that first semester of graduate school.

Anyway, I know I didn't go see "The Last Temptation of Christ" when it made its theatrical debut 25 years ago today. The first time I saw it was awhile later, when it was being shown on TV, and I'm sure I would have been more impressed had I seen it on the big screen, but I didn't.

I did, however, hear of the over–the–top responses from those who are charitably called the Christian right.

The fact that Jesus' final days were chronicled on film wasn't new. That's been done before. And anyone who has had any exposure to Christianity — and I was raised in a Protestant home in which the patriarch, like his father before him, was a religion and philosophy professor — knows the story of the crucifixion.

Apparently, it was an unusually painful and brutal way for a person to die. Early film depictions weren't as graphic as, say, Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," but they got the point across well enough.

And "The Last Temptation of Christ" pulled no punches when it sought to show how brutal the practice of crucifixion was. But that was not what troubled the faithful so.

Allegedly, it was the introduction of that old bugaboo — sex — that enraged them. Movies had never before featured a Jesus on the cross hallucinating about having sex.

Jesus' partner in his hallucination was no stranger to Christians. She was Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), a close friend of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) whom the Gospels tell us was there in his final days, witnessed his death, remained by his side even when his disciples had all fled and was either the first or one of the first to see Jesus after the Resurrection.

An account of Jesus' death would be as incomplete without her as it would be without Judas.

And it wouldn't have been inconceivable for Christians of the late 1980s to accept the idea of a sexually active Mary Magdalene.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene was confused with another Mary mentioned in the Gospels. The other Mary was said to be "a sinful woman," a prostitute; consequently, Mary Magdalene long was thought to be a prostitute.

That idea was discredited by the Vatican in 1969, but the public image lived on two decades later; thus, the cinematic notion that Jesus' thoughts, in his final conscious moments, were of a sinful woman was offensive to believers who held that Jesus was free of sin.

Well, that was the story.

The truth was that the novel on which the movie was based had been a source of controversy ever since it was published nearly 30 years earlier. And sex was a convenient scapegoat for the temptation of the mortal side of Jesus.

But I have long believed that the exceptionally negative reaction to the movie and the book on which it was based had more to do with its general challenge to deeply held beliefs that really went beyond sex.

That is the thing about religion that really appeals to people — the idea that, no matter how sinful a person may be, he or she can always find redemption. Jesus was/is symbolic of the accessibility of that redemption. To be the spiritual middleman between a perfect God and imperfect men, it was necessary that Jesus be closer to perfect than imperfect.

"You don't know how much people need God," Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) said to him during his hallucination. "You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything."

And Paul concluded that idea of the Messiah was far preferable to the reality of the man.

"I'm glad I met you," Paul said, "because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful."

The Jesus of "The Last Temptation of Christ" was much too human for many of the faithful.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Too Hot to Handle

Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor): Truth! Truth! Everybody keeps hollerin' about the truth. Well, the truth is as dirty as lies.

I suppose you couldn't find a more vivid illustration of the phrase dysfunctional family than Tennessee Williams' play about the fictional Pollitt family of Mississippi, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

The movie version, starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives, premiered on this day in 1958.

Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for the play, but the film adaptation, with which Williams was displeased, won no Oscars. It was nominated for several, but Ives, who was Big Daddy, the family patriarch, wasn't recognized with so much as a nomination. In my opinion, that was a crime.

(Ives, it should be noted, did not go unrecognized by the Oscars that year. He won the best supporting Oscar for a movie that was released less than two weeks after "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof""The Big Country.")

The movie sure had a heavyweight cast and it told a pretty heavy story, too, about a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and the dysfunctional family from which one (Newman) came.

In hindsight it was sort of like a dramatic version of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Newman was the golden boy, a football star in his youth; he had a brother (Jack Carson), the dutiful son always in his sibling's shadow even though he was the one who built a successful life, married and gave Big Daddy grandchildren (lots of grandchildren).

Big Daddy was, of course, the patriarch, and Big Mama (Judith Anderson) was the matriarch.

Big Daddy was dying of cancer, but he and his family were in denial, enabled by their family doctor who first told them the cancer was in remission but eventually told Big Daddy the truth.

Apparently, the screenwriters rewrote portions of Williams' play, deleting the homosexual angle of the story and inserting a scene of reconciliation between Newman's character and Big Daddy.

It did not produce Williams' desired effect.

Yet, even with those concessions to the mores of the day, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was still too hot for the Oscars to handle. As I say, the homosexuality was toned down considerably, but, in its place, the writers explored themes like adultery, alcoholism and infertility that were rarely featured in movies of that time.

That may have been a little too daring, and it may have worked against those who were associated with the film — which really is too bad because, whether you speak of the movie or the play on which it was based, it's always been my opinion that it was the best of Williams' works.

And I've always felt it was one of Taylor's best performances.

If I'm asked to choose my absolute favorite Liz Taylor performance, I'll pick Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" every time. But her performance as Maggie would easily make my Top Five.

I guess what has always impressed me about that performance is the fact that Taylor, in her mid–20s at the time, was capable of such passion and empathy at a time when, privately, she was mourning the death of her third husband, Mike Todd.

I don't think I would select "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as Newman's best performance — but it was one of 'em. In fact, I would say the cast was flawless. The material was altered from the original, but the power of the story was undiminished.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New Beginning for Frasier

Frasier: Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating. On top of that, my practice had grown stagnant, and my social life consisted of hanging around a bar night after night. You see, I was clinging to a life that wasn't working, and I knew I had to do something, anything. So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things and moved back here to my hometown of Seattle. Go Seahawks!

I suppose it was inevitable, when Cheers! took its bow in the spring of 1993, that there would be at least one spinoff the following fall.

And there was — Frasier, which premiered 20 years ago tonight. That was fine with me. I always thought Frasier was the most amusing character on Cheers!, and I thought the spinoff would give us some more time to explore his personality.

It did.

In my book, it is the best TV comedy of the last two decades. And it set the bar quite high for itself in the pilot episode.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had relocated from Boston (the site of Cheers!) to his hometown of Seattle all the way across the country after splitting up with Lilith. He had given up private psychiatric practice to be a radio psychiatrist for a steady stream of anonymous callers (usually played by unseen celebrities — the callers in that first episode were actress Linda Hamilton and actor–director Griffin Dunne).

On this night 20 years ago, TV viewers were introduced to Frasier's immediate family — his father Martin (John Mahoney), Martin's dog Eddie and Frasier's younger brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) — and someone else who joined the family unit, his father's physical therapist, Daphne (Jane Leeves).

And viewers met Roz (Peri Gilpin), Frasier's somewhat reluctant producer who, as viewers learned in a later episode, was pressed into service when Frasier's initial producer (unseen) bailed on him.

That unseen angle was kind of a signature of the show's creators, David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. Frasier's original producer was a minor, one–time–only character. An ongoing unseen character was Niles' first wife, Maris.

Maris always reminded me of Norm's wife on Cheers! — never seen but so familiar to viewers that they could easily describe her from what they had been told.

Maris wasn't mentioned much in the first episode, but viewers were introduced to her, anyway.
Niles: I thought you liked my Maris.

Frasier: I do. I like her from a distance. You know, the way you like the sun. Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth.

Most of the story lines that would serve as the foundation for the series' 11–year run were clearly established in that first episode — except for Niles' infatuation with Daphne. That story line was born in the coming weeks.

All the other recurring themes were there. Frasier's father moved in with him, bringing his dog, and the clash of the generations was established. So was Frasier's ongoing feud with Eddie — whose desire to engage Frasier in staring matches was an early and ongoing source of material.

Frasier: No, not Eddie!

Martin: But he's my best friend.

Frasier: But he's weird. He gives me the creeps. All he does is stare at me.

When Daphne came in for her job interview, her psychic abilities were revealed.

In her first psychic moment with the Cranes, she correctly pegged Martin as a former police officer.

But she missed the mark on Frasier. She thought he was a florist.

"Well, it comes and goes," Daphne observed. She then confided that her psychic tendencies were strongest "during my time of the month."

Then she said sheepishly, "I guess I let a little secret out there."

"Well, Miss Moon," Frasier said as the interview came to a close, "I think we've learned everything we need to about you — and a dash extra!"

I was thoroughly entertained by the series' pilot 20 years ago tonight, but I don't think I would have predicted that it would last more than a decade.

I guess what really hooked me was the ending. Frasier and his father had been at each other's throats, and Frasier had complained that, in spite of everything he tried to do, his father had never shown any gratitude or appreciation.

Later, when he was telling the tale to Roz, she taught Frasier an important lesson. Roz told him the story of actress Lupe Velez, who committed suicide in 1944.

As I wrote a few years ago, Roz's version of events might not have been exactly what happened, but her point — that even if things don't go as one plans, they can work out, anyway — was well taken.

And, before the final credits rolled, Martin finally did say "Thank you" to Frasier.

It wasn't what Frasier had hoped for, but it was a successful hurdle in the obstacle course of his relationship with his father — and audiences were entertained (and often moved) by the evolution of that relationship in the years ahead.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Spreadin' the News to the Blue-Collar Types

In the early 1980s, Huey Lewis and the News released a couple of nondescript albums that, by and large, slipped under most people's radars.

I suppose they would have gone totally unnoticed if not for the modest success of a couple of songs on the second album.

Anyway, by this time in 1983, The News was pretty much back where it started. The group was touring the small–club circuit, mostly to promote the second album, when it released its third album, "Sports," on this date in 1983.

It was The News' breakthrough album. Three songs from the album were Top 10 hits. "Heart and Soul" reached #1 on the charts before the end of 1983; "I Want a New Drug" and "The Heart of Rock & Roll" followed it into the Top 10 in 1984.

Two other songs — "If This Is It" and "Walking on a Thin Line" — were in Billboard's Top 20.

I never really understood why "Sports" was a huge success and the earlier albums weren't. But Stephen Thomas Erlewine of wrote that the album "holds together better than its predecessors because it has a clear, professional production." Erlewine also asserted that "the real key is the songs."

"Where their previous albums were cluttered with generic filler," Erlewine went on, "nearly every song on Sports has a huge hook."

Erlewine also observed that the group broke no new ground, but "there's no denying that the craftmanship (sic) on Sports is pretty infectious."

That's true. He's right, I can't deny it. It's clear even on the tracks that weren't hits.

Like "You Crack Me Up." (I can't rule out the appeal of the animation, though.)

Anyway, as I say, "Sports" was their breakthrough.

Even the songs that weren't hits had that infectious quality to them — and formed the foundation for the group's later hits.

But I think Erlewine was on to something when he observed that the News "was a working band, and the bandmembers knew how to target their audience, writing odes to nine–to–five jobs and sports."

(To be honest, I never figured out the connection between the album and sports — unless the album's title was intended to lure those blue collar 9–to–5ers into the record stores.

(Admittedly, I never owned the album, but I heard every song on it — and if there is an obvious connection, it flew right over my head.)

Personally, whenever I think of Huey Lewis, I always think of his cameo appearance as the megaphone–wielding teacher in "Back to the Future" who dismissed Marty McFly's band — the Pinheads — just seconds into their audition for a "Battle of the Bands" because they were "too darn loud."

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Bountiful Journey

"Growing up in a family as large and as close as mine made it hard to realize there were many people who lived in loneliness and solitude. However, the realization of that sad truth also brought me close to a remarkable woman and sent me on a journey that I was to remember for the rest of my life."

Opening narration

My mother introduced me to The Waltons before they had their own TV show. She saw them in a made–for–TV Christmas movie and saw many similarities between myself and the oldest child in the family, John–Boy.

Personally, I didn't see much similarity at first — other than the fact that John–Boy was a writer. He was quite a bit older than I was, and he had three brothers and three sisters. I only had one brother. John–Boy was a child in the Depression, which is when both of my parents were children.

But I suppose I began to feel differently on this night in 1973 when the second full season of The Waltons began.

The episode that began that season, "The Journey," was about a special friendship between John–Boy and an elderly neighbor, Maggie MacKenzie (Linda Watkins), who lived alone. As nearly as I could tell, John–Boy and Maggie weren't friends until John–Boy brought his grandmother over to check on Maggie, who had been having some health problems.

When they arrived, Maggie was trying to start her old car and having no luck. John–Boy thought it might be the spark plugs and said he would change them for her. She gave him money for the parts, but he refused to accept payment for his labor. What he didn't realize was that Maggie had in mind to drive to the coast to observe the 55th anniversary of her wedding.

There wasn't really any reason why he should have known that. Besides, John–Boy was distracted at the time by the upcoming school dance and his uncertainty over whether the girl he wanted to take would go with him. He was unaware of anything that was happening in anyone else's life.

But Maggie, knowing she might not get another chance, was determined to go to the sea coast for her anniversary. It had a special meaning for her.

"You may very well be the most stubborn, willful, cantankerous old woman I ever met in my life," Maggie's exasperated doctor told her when she told him of her plan after he had warned her about overexerting herself, "but if anything ever happened to you, I'd miss you very much."

When John–Boy repaired her car, Maggie shared the story of her wedding with him. When I watched a rerun of the episode many years later, their conversation, in Maggie's little living room, reminded me of afternoons I spent with an older woman who was a great friend of mine and an influence on me in my teen years in Arkansas.

I called her "Aunt Bess," but she wasn't really my aunt. That's what everyone in my hometown called her. Her husband was known as "Uncle Mac," and he was a preacher, a radio personality and an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. Uncle Mac died years before I met Aunt Bess, but after I met her, I started visiting her every Wednesday afternoon after school. We would sit and talk and drink tea (or Coke), maybe nibble on some cookies. I don't remember why I started doing that or how long I did, but it was a regular ritual through my high school years.

Aunt Bess never tricked me into doing anything for her. Whenever she had a request, I was eager to fulfill it if I could. Truth be told, she never asked me for much — except my friendship, and that was something I gave freely.

But in "The Journey," Maggie tricked John–Boy into coming back because she needed him to take her to the coastline for her anniversary.

Maggie didn't have to be too tricky. The thing that I always found implausible about The Waltons was the fact that they were always willing to make a sacrifice for someone else. That's an admirable quality — but, let's face it, it's a quality that most humans don't have.

(I think that may have been what my mother liked the most about The Waltons, though. They epitomized the concept of self–sacrifice, and that was something on which my mother and others of her generation were raised. It didn't seem to be considered noble by my generation.)

In this episode, John–Boy was prepared to sacrifice his much–anticipated date to drive an old woman whom he hardly knew to the coast for her wedding anniversary. I don't know if I could have been that noble at that age. Guess it's a good thing I was never asked to be that noble.

But when the trip proved to be the overexertion Maggie's doctor had warned her about, John–Boy found it hard to forgive himself.

And the final scene in the episode taught the kind of lesson at which The Waltons excelled. It was the kind of schmaltzy cornpone that only The Waltons could get away with in those days (well, I suppose Little House on the Prairie could, too).

On her deathbed, Maggie thanked John–Boy for "the happiest time I've had in 30 years," and she gave him a valuable coin that had been given to her on her wedding day.

And, with that, she died. (Betcha saw that one coming, huh?)

Symbolically, when John–Boy and his father came home, Grandpa and the rest of the clan were about to release into the wild a seagull they had been nursing back to health.

"Some people are drawn to oceans, and others to the shimmering sands of deserts," the narrator said as the camera followed the liberated seagull as it flew into a clear blue sky.

"Others feel only at home on land that flows beside a river. My people were drawn to mountains, and there on Walton's Mountain we were to share the fun and excitement of growing up together with the boundless love of our mother and father and a daily exploration of many of the wonders that lie in the human heart."

In other words, home is where the heart is. Wherever that might be.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

'The Stand' Against Evil

Thirty–five years ago this month, Stephen King published his lengthy novel, "The Stand," which was almost immediately proclaimed, by just about everyone I knew, to be his best.

I'll grant you, the list of his published works wasn't too long in 1978. "The Stand" was his fifth novel — the last count I heard indicated he has now published 50. Obviously, there is a lot more competition now than there was.

But, even 35 years later, I still hear people say it is his best. I haven't read all of his books, but I've read quite a few, and I, too, say — as I have been saying for 35 years — that it is his best.

Of course, what I read 35 years ago was the abridged version. In 1990, he published the original, uncut edition. I read that one, too.

The plot was deceptively simple. At an Army base, a deadly strain of the flu that has been created to be used as a weapon gets loose. Most of the people who become infected will die — but a handful will prove to be immune to it.

The survivors migrate into two camps — one dedicated to evil, the other mostly dedicated to good — and an apocalyptic confrontation is inevitable.

I remember thinking when the book came out — as I always do when I read a Stephen King book — that it would make a splendid movie.

And, eventually, it did. It was a four–part TV movie in 1994.

But the problem always has been that King's narratives seem to spend a lot of time inside the characters' heads.

The plot of "The Stand" was easy enough to follow. The American military had developed a weaponized strain of the flu, which was informally known as Captain Trips. It was released accidentally, causing an epidemic that killed more than 99% of the world's population.

The few who survived — and usually showed no symptoms — gravitated to two camps in the Western United States, and the story evolved into a battle between good and evil.

All of which set up a final confrontation between the two sides.

The first version I read ended on a suitably ambiguous note. A baby was born to two of the survivors who lived in the good camp. One asked if humanity had learned from its experience. The other replied, "I don't know."

The longer version had a different ending, much darker. The antagonist, who somehow survived the apocalyptic battle, awakened with a case of amnesia and began to recruit new followers among an illiterate race of people who treated him like a god.

The clear implication was that another stand would be necessary.

The TV movie was pretty faithful to the story, but there were a few differences. If you've only seen the TV movie, you owe it to yourself to read the book.

Monday, September 02, 2013

I'm Forever Blowing Ballgames ...

Ring Lardner (John Sayles): [serenading White Sox after Game 5, to the tune of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles"] I'm forever blowing ballgames, pretty ballgames in the air. I come from Chi, I hardly try, just go to bat and fade and die. Fortune's coming my way, that's why I don't care. I'm forever blowing ballgames, and the gamblers treat us fair.

"Eight Men Out," the movie about the Black Sox Scandal that premiered 25 years ago today, is one of my all–time favorite sports movies.

In the 21st century, it is almost a cliche to regard professional athletes as overpaid prima donnas — and, to be sure, many of today's professional athletes are precisely that.

But it wasn't always that way. It certainly wasn't that way in 1919 when the Chicago White Sox — who are still believed by many knowledgeable baseball folk to be one of the best squads of all time — deliberately threw the World Series on the promise of a big payoff from gamblers.

Both the movie and the book upon which it was based indicated that the key to the conspiracy was the allegiance of star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who resisted initial attempts to convince him to throw the Series.
Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd): Eddie's gettin' too old for this. I know what it's like. You walk out there with your arm hangin'.

Billy Maharg (Richard Edson): You couldn't pitch when you was young, Burnsie.

Bill Burns: Eddie's the key. If we don't get him, we can forget about it.

In Cicotte's 1919 contract, White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey, who comes across as a greedy cheapskate in the book and the movie, had promised a bonus to Cicotte if he won 30 games that year; then, when it appeared that Cicotte might actually win 30 games, Comiskey allegedly ordered manager Kid Gleason (John Mahoney) to bench him in the final weeks of the season, ostensibly to rest him for the World Series.

(That was a claim that was a little hard to swallow, considering that the White Sox took the American League pennant by only 3½ games over runnerup Cleveland.

(The Indians had a 10–game winning streak in September. Meanwhile, the Sox limped across the finish line, losing seven of their last nine games.

(I've never heard anyone mention it, but that end–of–season skid by the Sox provided them with plausible cover for their collapse in the Series.)

Cicotte finished with 29 wins.

But he missed five starts, and it is certainly reasonable to think he would have won at least one of them — maybe more. That is apparently what Cicotte thought, too.

Anyway, when that happened, Cicotte agreed to participate in the conspiracy. He was 35 years old. He knew his career would be ending soon, and he had a wife and two daughters (a third child was born that year) to support.

And the $10,000 that was being offered to him was nearly twice his contract salary.

Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker): You go back to Boston and turn 70 grand at the drop of a hat? I find that hard to believe.

Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe): You say you can find seven men on the best club that ever took the field willin' to throw the World Series? I find that hard to believe.

Chick Gandil: You never played for Charlie Comiskey.

When Cicotte agreed to throw the Series, it opened the floodgates. The #2 pitcher in the rotation, Lefty Williams (James Read), got in on the conspiracy, along with a few other key players. There were eight in all including outfielder Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen) and infielder Fred McMullin (Perry Lang), a utility player who did not play enough to affect the outcomes of games but was permitted to join the conspiracy after he heard other players talking about it and threatened to blow the whistle on them if he was not included.

Comiskey didn't exactly help himself with the rest of the team, either. He had promised them bonuses if they won the pennant, but when they did (with a winning percentage of .629), their "bonuses" turned out to be bottles of celebratory champagne (which, reportedly, were flat).

Consequently, many of the players were bitter. It was fertile ground for gamblers wanting to fix the Fall Classic.

Based on eyewitness accounts, most of the players who agreed to throw the World Series were obviously guilty. Cicotte lost two games, and Williams lost three (a World Series record), which was enough for Cincinnati to take the best–of–nine series.

But even today, nearly a century later, doubts remain about whether two players — Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by D.B. Sweeney) and Buck Weaver (John Cusack) — did anything to alter the outcome.

Jackson's batting average in the series was .375, he committed no errors (an important point on a team that made 12 errors in eight games), and he hit the series' only home run. Weaver hit .324 and also made no fielding errors.

(Cusack's Weaver may have been the most tragic figure in the story. Jackson was illiterate. His testimony before the grand jury clearly suggested he knew of the conspiracy but left the question of his actual participation open to interpretation. Shoeless Joe, it is worth pointing out, never received any payment.

(The evidence against Weaver was practically non–existent.)

Ring Lardner (John Sayles): Sports writers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your bar privileges.

The infamous Black Sox scandal might never have seen the light of day, though, if not for the efforts of two intrepid Chicago sports writers, Ring Lardner (played by the movie's director, John Sayles) and especially Lardner's mentor, Hugh Fullerton (played by writer Studs Terkel), to expose what had happened.

Fullerton was a popular and prestigious sports writer whose suspicions were aroused before the start of the Series when he heard persistent talk that Cincinnati was a lock to win. When the Reds actually did win, Fullerton wrote a series of articles that forced major league baseball to investigate — and, ultimately, ban the eight ballplayers who had been involved (in some cases, as I say, allegedly so) from baseball for life.

Presumably for dramatic purposes, Sayles made some alterations to the story, particularly the part involving Fullerton and Lardner. In the movie, the two agreed, before the start of the first game, to keep score individually and make notes about plays that appeared "fishy." In reality, though, Fullerton did that with Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson.

Before the Series began, Gleason heard rumors of a fix as well, but he kept insisting that the players would come around. Perhaps they would have if Williams' wife had not been threatened before the eighth game. Williams was scheduled to pitch Game 8, and, like Cicotte, he had grown disenchanted with the scheme and seemed ready to pitch his usual game — until a hired killer threatened her.

The book on the scandal by Eliot Asinof was published 25 years before the movie was made, but the timing of the movie's release could hardly have been much better. Almost a year after the movie premiered, Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling on games.

What were the odds?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Maker of Middle Earth

"I am, in fact, a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe and like good plain food (unrefrigerated) but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."

J.R.R. Tolkien

When J.R.R. Tolkien died 40 years ago tomorrow, I had not yet read "The Hobbit" or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"The Hobbit" might have been about my speed at that time in my life. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, though, definitely would have been beyond my years.

I read those books later when I was in high school. And I learned what all the cool kids had learned long before. I'd seen those kids carrying around their copies of whichever volumes of "Lord of the Rings" they happened to be reading at the time like emblems of some kind of exclusive club, a club to which I did not belong until later.

By then, though, they had moved on to other things.

When I finally joined that club, I was filled with admiration for the things Tolkien wrote. To put things in perspective, I had been doing a lot of writing by that time in my life, and I felt a great appreciation for well–written pieces, be they articles or books. Still do.

But on this day in 1973, I'm not sure I even knew who Tolkien was.

Consequently, I often feel as if I missed out on something special that everyone else got. Not permanently, of course. I finally got it, but I didn't get to experience it along with everyone else in my peer group. I felt out of step, somehow.

That was really kind of the story of my life when I was growing up. My family lived in the country, and there were many times when I felt isolated from my friends in town. When the school day ended, I got on the school bus and it took me home. A few kids my age lived in the general vicinity of my house, but most of my friends lived in town, and it always seemed to me that they experienced things as a group before I experienced them.

Tolkien was like everything else.

I was really isolated from my friends when Tolkien died. My father was a college professor, and he was on a four–month sabbatical in another state (with my mother, my brother and me). But, at that time, I doubt that many (if any) of my friends had read Tolkien yet.

Now that I think of it, I don't recall seeing any of my friends with their copies of volumes of the "Rings" trilogy until years later.

When I finally read "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I kept thinking it would make a wonderful movie. As it turned out, it inspired three great movies.

But I also kept thinking that it wouldn't be possible technically to put Tolkien's vision on film. And that was true — at that time.

But 30 years after Tolkien's death, the film trilogy based on his books was being honored in every possible way.

I've often wondered what Tolkien would have thought of that.

Projected moving pictures made their debut when he was small, and the medium was evolving through most of his adult life, which was largely devoted to writing, either doing it or teaching it. My guess is he gave little thought to movies — and probably less to whether anything he wrote would be made into one.

There are times when I think that Tolkien, with his knack for story telling, must have mused about the possibility that his works would be preserved on film — even if filmmaking was primitive at that time.

But then I think that his devotion to the fantasy world that he had created — as well as his scholarly interest in language — would not permit him to tolerate anything less than perfection in its film representation. And filmmaking was decidedly imperfect during his lifetime.

Of course, that's just an educated guess — and, perhaps, some wishful thinking.

As I say, he probably never gave it a thought.