Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Denver's 70th Birthday

"Heck, I'm no Henry Mancini or Michel Legrand. I just play the guitar and write songs."

John Denver (1943–1997)

If I had to name one popular recording artist who embodied the '70s, I would have to pick John Denver.

I'm sure there are '70s musical artists who were more commercially successful than Denver — Elton John, perhaps, or the Bee Gees or the Eagles — and any would probably be better representatives of the decade.

But Denver has always been the '70s to me. It's not so much his music — although that is part of it. It is more his fresh–faced, innocent (almost naive) look, I suppose.

That may be at odds with your mental image of the '70s, but that's the thing that people, especially those who weren't around then, need to understand. The '70s were contradictory years.

They were full of vulgar musical acts, the spiritual fathers of heavy metal, grunge and other extremist variations. They also had more innocent–appearing, wholesome performers than any decade other than the '50s.

John Denver was part of the latter. He wore his hair long, yes, but it was always combed and fashionable. He wore blue jeans like many of his contemporaries, but they were clean and fashionable. He wore colorful shirts, but they, too, were stylish. My grandmother couldn't tolerate most of the musicians I liked — she thought they were "scraggly" — but she had no objection to John Denver. As far as she was concerned, he was a good–looking young guy with a nice voice who needed a haircut.

And, unlike most of the groups I liked, my grandmother could understand what Denver was singing.

My mother really liked Denver's music, and I acquired my fondness for his recordings from her. I guess you could describe much of his music as "folk music" — he started his professional career playing with folk groups in the 1960s — but that wasn't his only genre. He also wrote and played pop songs. He did perform mostly acoustic guitar — power guitar wasn't his style.

It didn't surprise me that Mom gravitated to Denver's music. Mom liked folk music. I think of Simon and Garfunkel most when I think of her — they were her favorites — but I also think of John Denver and Don McLean. In fact, I often listen to Simon and Garfunkel when I go to the cemetery to visit Mom's grave, but I listened to John Denver the last time I went there. It seemed appropriate, given that his 70th birthday was coming up.

And now it is here.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., his first hit composition, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," actually was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, who made it the #1 hit on Billboard's Hot 100.

Most of his solo career was in the 1970s. That's when he released his biggest hits — "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders."

In fact, John Denver was one of the first recording artists I ever saw perform in concert.

I've seen many concerts since. I wish could say that it was the greatest thing I ever saw, but, really, the only thing that was memorable about that concert for me was that it was one of my first.

My memory is that it was a low–key concert. No fireworks or explosions or anything like that. Modern concertgoers probably would be disappointed. I don't think there was even a big screen behind him showing images that were relevant to the songs he sang.

Just Denver playing the guitar and singing with the background musicians and singers making their contributions but never taking the spotlight unless invited to do so by Denver. It was Denver's show.

That makes it sound like he might have been some kind of micro manager or an obsessive type, doesn't it? I don't mean to imply that. I don't know what kind of personality he had. I never got the sense that Denver was a control freak or anything like that.

(At one time in my life, my favorite album was Denver's two–record concert album, "An Evening With John Denver." I have it now on CD — thanks to CD technology, it is even better with the addition of half a dozen tracks. It's a pretty good example of what Denver's concerts were like around the time I saw him.

(Speaking to the audience in that album, he encouraged them to "go wherever the music takes you — any time you feel like singing along, as always you're welcome to do that — please limit yourselves to the choruses of the songs and let me do the verses!")

It was well known that he was committed to humanitarian causes, which suggests a generous spirit. It was also known, although perhaps not as widely, that he had had problems with alcohol, which led to other problems in his life.

For some reason — and I don't know why this is so — I got the impression that the dovetailing of his career in the 1980s was connected to his alcohol abuse. Perhaps I read an article that said that.

But that may not have been the case. Perhaps, for whatever reason, people stopped paying attention to him. I know I did, but I don't think it had anything to do with his drinking. My interests changed.

It is true that Denver's best–known songs were recorded and released in the 1970s, but I thought that many of his most thoughtful, most insightful, most meaningful songs were products of the 1980s, when the spotlight seemed to have passed him by — songs like "Perhaps Love," which he recorded with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, and "Love Again," which he recorded with French singer Sylvie Vartan.

In those later years, after both of his marriages had ended in divorce, including the one that had inspired the phenomenally popular ballad "Annie's Song" at the height of his popularity, his music seemed to speak of his yearning for love and his desire to understand it.

That's a pretty tall order for most of us.

On a Sunday in October in 1997, Denver perished when the private airplane he was piloting crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

(There is, in hindsight, a poignant moment early in that concert album in which Denver speaks of arriving in Los Angeles prior to the concert and going to the beach. "I felt very good," he says, "about being with the ocean again." Since his death, I have often wondered if he felt that same sense of exhilaration in the moments before he died.)

What would he have done in these last 16 years? I don't know. I imagine he would have continued to compose and record. Perhaps he would have found the love of his life and retreated into a comfortable retirement.

Just speculation, of course. Today is merely the 70th anniversary of Denver's birth. He isn't celebrating his birthday. He is no longer living.

But it is beyond dispute that his influence continues to be felt. A few years ago, the Colorado legislature made "Rocky Mountain High" one of two state songs.

And I still hear his music on the radio. Not as often as I once did but more often than you might think.

Perhaps, in a way, he does still live.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Rosalind Russell's Most Memorable Performance?

"Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!"

Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell)

Rosalind Russell is remembered for many movie roles, but perhaps the one with which she is most associated is the title role of the movie version of "Auntie Mame," which premiered 55 years ago today.

It was a comedy, but a very sophisticated one. Russell's character insisted on being called Awntie Mame. I was raised to pronounce the word like ant, which seems to be the way most Americans pronounce it (well, most Southern Americans, anyway). Awntie seems like more of a British pronunciation to me.

Well, however you pronounce it, Auntie Mame was a flamboyant character, and the choice of Russell to play it was perfect.

My grandmother was a big fan of "Auntie Mame," although I never knew it while she was living. The evidence was all around me. I just never saw the movie until after my grandmother died.

I will always remember watching it for the first time and hearing Russell speak in that exaggerated way she had — and I realized it was the way my grandmother liked to speak at times when she was feeling playful. It always struck me as an inside joke that the grownups all seemed to get, but I didn't get it. I guess I never asked for clarification.

Auntie Mame was more of a free spirit than my grandmother was. And her decorating style definitely was more fluid than my grandmother's. In all the time that I was growing up, I don't think anything in my grandmother's house changed. The furniture was always the same. The art on the walls was always the same.

(Whenever I woke during the night in my grandmother's home, and I wasn't sure where I was, the grandfather clock in the living room was sure to chime every quarter hour, and, when it did, I knew instantly where I was. My brother has that clock now. I don't think it works now, but he has it, and he claims he will get it working again. He probably will. He's always been very mechanically inclined. And, when he does, I am sure I will have a real sense of deja vu when I hear it chime.)

But Auntie Mame's apartment was constantly changing. It was a device for showing the passage of time, I suppose, but the viewer had to reorient him or herself with each new chapter in the story. The only thing that was recognizable was the grand staircase; the decor surrounding it was always different.

Mame threw some wild parties in her home; in fact, she was in the process of throwing such a party when she first met her nephew.

See, in the movie, Mame's eccentric ways were put to the test when she became the guardian of her late brother's son. Her brother was very affluent when he died so the nephew's inheritance came with a trustee who didn't approve of the way she lived her life. Neither, for that matter, had her brother, who left instructions for how his son was to be raised if he should die a premature death.

But, with apologies to Little Orphan Annie, it probably never was so much fun being an orphan.
Auntie Mame: Please, dear, your Auntie Mame's hung.

After her money was lost in the stock market crash of 1929, Mame took on a series of employment challenges. She acted on the stage. She worked as a switchboard operator. She even worked in retail sales — where she met a rich Southerner (Forrest Tucker) and fell in love.

They married and embarked on a 'round–the–world honeymoon, during which Tucker's photography–obsessed character fell to his death on the Matterhorn.

Mame returned to America and resumed her involvement in the life of her nephew, who had become as stuffy as she suspected from his letters.

If you haven't seen this movie, I'll stop discussing the plot here. But be advised that many people believe this was the greatest performance of Russell's career. She received her fourth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination for it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Casting Out a Demon

Chris (Ellen Burstyn): She doesn't remember any of it.

It wasn't long after "The Exorcist" was released to theaters, 40 years ago today, that the news reports were full of stories about people losing their minds while watching it. Well, that's probably an exaggeration. I do remember hearing a lot of reports of moviegoers who fainted or vomited while watching it (some theaters made "Exorcist barf bags" available for squeamish patrons).

I was a child at the time and really didn't understand what was being said. I just knew the story was about a young girl who was possessed by a demon, and her mother sought the help of an exorcist to free her of the demon's grip.

The young girl was Linda Blair, who went on to encourage many a young boy's fantasies in the '70s. "The Exorcist" was the first real glimpse most people had of her. She had a couple of minor roles in some low–profile movies before that; her projects in the next few years could hardly be described as "low profile" — simply because she was in them.

But her movie career — which more or less ground to a halt after she ran into problems with the law in the late 1970s — is the subject for another article at another time.

On this day in 1973, Blair was about to turn 15 — and she was about to become a national sensation.

The role she played was inspired by the last recorded Catholic–sanctioned exorcism in the United States. In that 1949 case, a 13–year–old boy was the victim. Novelist William Peter Blatty altered the victim's gender and the age for the novel that spawned the 1973 movie.

I didn't see it until several years later. The movie was re–released to the theaters (why, I do not know) a few years after its initial release. I wanted to see it, but I was too young to get in without an adult so I talked my father into taking me to see it.

By that time, things like the scenes in which Blair's character vomited pea soup on the priests or spoke in a series of low–pitched voices were practically cliches. I remember being distracted from the story on the screen several times by the persistent giggles of a group of young people in the back of the theater.

No one was giggling in 1973.

The Oscars didn't reward makeup work until the 1980s; I suppose makeup was considered part of costumes until that time, but "The Exorcist," which was nominated for 10 Oscars, did not receive a nomination for its costumes — or any other category that would have taken into consideration the really impressive achievement of transforming a seemingly ordinary young girl into a victim of demonic possession.

Director William Friedkin (a recent Best Director winner for "The French Connection") broke a lot of ground in special effects (which, I suppose, included the makeup) and, simultaneously, pushed the project over budget. But it earned more than $440 million at the box office, which probably compensated for quite a bit.

In the movie, Regan's possession put mounting pressure on her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn), who first sought the help of doctors but gradually became convinced that her daughter's behavior was due to possession.

As with the case that inspired the story, a Ouija board was the conduit.

The British theater director for Regan's mother died after falling from a window in Regan's bedroom, and a detective (Lee J. Cobb) was called in to investigate.

For her part, Burstyn called in a young priest (Jason Miller), who evaluated the situation and decided that an exorcist (Max von Sydow) was needed.

And the two priests did battle with the demon.

I read Blatty's novel before I saw the movie. When I saw it, I was disappointed that most of the theological conversations between the demon and the young priest that were in the book did not make it into the movie. I understood then (as I understand now) that it simply isn't feasible for everything in a book to be included in a movie version. There will always be things that are omitted, for one reason or another.

But I found those conversations to be the most thought–provoking parts of the book. The demon, essentially, challenged the priest's faith by pointing out inconsistencies in scriptures and religious practices and beliefs; the priest deftly defended his faith in a fascinating display of linguistic dexterity.

Because of the subject matter, I guess it was really no surprise that there were numerous claims that the project was cursed. There were so many incidents while the movie was being made that priests were brought in frequently for the purpose of blessing the set.

Books and movies and music that deal with supernatural topics are often magnets for suspicion. Not surprisingly, I guess, "The Exorcist" was accused of many controversial things, the most controversial may have been the suggestion that it used subliminal effects in its sound and imagery. I recall hearing such allegations, but I don't recall the messages that supposedly were being transmitted.

Maybe it was fallout from the backward masking, both actual and alleged, in Beatles records a few years earlier.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

If You Don't Pay Attention, You'll Get Stung

Henry (Paul Newman): You beat him, kid.

Hooker (Robert Redford): You were right, Henry. It's not enough. But it's close.

In 1969, director George Roy Hill teamed with Paul Newman and Robert Redford to make "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." It was a box–office smash, making $102 million, and a four–time Oscar winner. The American Film Institute ranked it 73rd on AFI's Top 100 movies list.

It was, quite simply, movie magic, the kind of movie magic that few people thought could be duplicated.

But, on this day in 1973, the second and final movie to team Newman and Redford (with Hill in the director's chair) was released. Their reunion was an even bigger box–office hit than the first one, earning more than $159 million after being made on a budget of $5.5 million. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was nominated for three more.

It didn't make AFI's Top 100 list — but it should have.

"The Sting" was a Depression–era tale about a grifter (Redford) who was intent on avenging the murder of his partner (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones). Redford and Jones had conned a numbers runner out of $11,000, and the dedication of the numbers runner's boss (Robert Shaw) was not to the numbers runner but to the money and his own reputation so he had Jones killed.

He was on Redford's trail — but this was the 1930s, remember. It wasn't a high–tech heyday. There was no internet or YouTube or faxes or anything like that. There wasn't even television. Heck, there was barely radio.

So, while the audience knew what the grifter looked like, the crime boss didn't.

That's the kind of detail you needed to keep in mind when you watched this movie. You didn't want to miss anything; if you missed something, you were apt to be taken by surprise at the end. But, if that is indeed what happened to you, don't feel too bad about it. It happens to the best of us.

I had to watch it two or three times before I caught everything I needed to catch.

Anyway, before he was killed, Jones' character encouraged Redford to look up Newman's character. Newman, he was told, could teach him the "big con" — often called the "long con" — a confidence game in which, through a series of staged events, a con man gradually gains the trust of an affluent person or individual, setting up a "sting" by exploiting the target's vanity or greed or lust or something similar.

When Redford located Newman, he was sleeping one off. Redford rather unceremoniously roused Newman, then told him, "Luther said I could learn something from you. I already know how to drink."

"The Sting" benefited from a very talented supporting cast — and, since the "big con" required the coordinated efforts of a crew of men, not merely one or two, that was essential for the success of the movie.

Everyone has his/her favorite, I suppose. Mine is Eileen Brennan, who played Billie, Newman's girlfriend and cathouse madam. She went on to greater fame several years later in "Private Benjamin," but she knew where all the bodies were buried in "The Sting."
Billie (Eileen Brennan): Who told you this guy was in here?

Lt. Snyder (Charles Durning): Nobody. I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joyhouses 'til I find him.

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

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

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

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

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

But I also liked Ray Walston (who is better known — probably — for his role in TV's "My Favorite Martian" or his performance as Mr. Hand in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High").

And I liked Charles Durning as the (somewhat) earnest cop investigating matters who got conned in a con on top of a con, distracting not only the mark in the movie but the audience as well.

It was hard not to like the guy who pulled off the con within a con, either — Dana Elcar — who, upon meeting Durning's character, cautioned him, "Try not to live up to all my expectations."

"The Sting" exceeded all of my expectations, and Marvin Hamlisch's Oscar–winning score certainly helped. If you haven't seen it, it will exceed yours, too.

But you may have to watch it a couple of times.

A Hot War Story, a Cold Love Story

"All this while I've been packing ice around my heart. How will I make it melt?"

Nicole Kidman

"Cold Mountain," the Civil War drama that premiered 10 years ago today, is the kind of movie that can be frustrating.

It tries to tell a couple of stories at once. That's fine with me. I guess I was a weird kid. While most of my peers seemed to hate reading and went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to avoid it, I was the kind of kid who liked to read so much that I gravitated to lengthy books. My logic, I suppose, was that the longer the book, the more there was to enjoy.

As a teenager, I was reading books by James Michener, who was not only wordy but also tended to weave several stories into one. When it is done well, I have found it to be a rewarding reading experience. Consequently, the more the better. Same thing goes for movie plots, I guess.

But you can run into trouble trying to tell two stories at once.

As a war story, "Cold Mountain" did a good job of portraying the brutality and cruelty of war within the context of its times (as "Saving Private Ryan" did with World War II). The problem, though, is that director Anthony Minghella's movie also wanted to be a romance, and that is a tricky assignment.

It isn't impossible to achieve. It just requires a rather delicate balancing act. It was sufficiently thoughtful in its handling of war and the suffering it brought to not only the soldiers but the civilians as well.

But I didn't feel that it worked as a love story, mainly because the leads (Nicole Kidman and Jude Law) didn't really seem to have much genuine affection for each other. And that really was too bad because, above all else, I think, "Cold Mountain" was meant to be a love story. But it was aptly named because, all evidence to the contrary, Kidman and Law just didn't have much mutual chemistry.

At one point, for example, Law deserted during the war and made a beeline for home. Was he driven by a burning, insatiable desire to be with Kidman? Not so you could tell.

Near the end of the movie, Law spoke to Kidman of his desire to be with her, but the words were flat without any tangible evidence of his love for her. All the audience got was a few voiceovers by Kidman reciting the letters she sent to him. Law's character never spoke of wishing to be with Kidman, and audiences never heard his thoughts so who was to know what went through his mind?

It was only when he spoke of those thoughts near the end of the movie that viewers got a glimpse into his motivation. Even Kidman seemed bewildered. "We barely knew each other," she said.

I liked Renee Zellweger's performance as the earthy Ruby who helps Kidman's Ada run her farm, and I liked what Dana Rowader wrote about it for AllMovie.com: Zellweger's performance, Rowader wrote, "may be considered by some as hamming it up or chewing the scenery; however, her character injects life into the film where it would otherwise have fallen horribly flat."

I'm not sure I agree with the notion that the movie "would ... have fallen horribly flat." I suppose that is a matter of opinion.

Apparently, the Oscar voters liked Zellweger's performance, though. They rewarded it with the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.

Rowader suggests, though, that performances by Zellweger and others "upstage the two leads." And I'm willing to concede there may be something to that.

There really is no question that the supporting cast had a lot of interesting characters (and intriguing choices to play them).

There was Donald Sutherland as Kidman's minister father, a generally wise and upstanding man — and, on the flip side of the religious coin, there was Philip Seymour Hoffman as an amoral preacher.

There was Natalie Portman as the war widow forced to raise a child on her own who sought comfort in the arms of a stranger (Law, trying to get home).

Portman's performance may have been the best of the bunch, even in what was a relatively small role. The audience didn't need to know the details of her suffering. They could see it in her face, in her eyes, and they could hear it in her voice.

They saw an example of her suffering when Union soldiers seeking food occupied her dwelling, tied her to a post outside and left her crying infant on the cold ground. It occurred to me as I watched that Portman's character must have thought she was cursed.

Perhaps she did.

Based on what I know of the Civil War, it seems to me that anyone who survived it must have thought he/she was cursed. As far as I could see, there really were no winners in a conflict that claimed so much blood and so much property.

As I say, as a war story, "Cold Mountain" was a strong statement.

But, as a love story, I have to admit that it left me cold.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Discrimination of a Different Color

"Now, explain it to me like I'm a 4–year–old."

Denzel Washington

In what is being described as a crowded pre–Christmas weekend for movies, Tom Hanks (possibly the most bankable male star — certainly one of them — of his generation) and Emma Thompson apparently struggled at the box office with their new movie about Walt Disney and the making of "Mary Poppins."

My guess is that it won't be long before the Hanks name will come to the rescue of "Saving Mr. Banks." It's hard to remember a time when Hanks wasn't a huge box–office draw. He had been nominated for an Oscar (for "Big"), and he had been in some other successful movies ("Sleepless in Seattle," "A League of Their Own") by this time in 1993 (and he had had his share of flops, too) — but the bulk of his Best Actor nominations (and all of his victories) were still in the future.

On this day in 1993, Hanks' future arrived.

Before "Philadelphia" was released 20 years ago today, no big–screen movie had truly dealt with the many and complex issues — social and political as well as medical — surrounding AIDS.

There had been earlier movies about AIDS, but they mostly seemed to focus on the medical mystery that existed regarding the disease and how one might come down with it. "Philadelphia" took on the issues that anyone with a deadly — and mostly misunderstood — disease must face.

From the start, AIDS patients were shunned like polio sufferers once were. Gradually, their suffering was the subject of movies and TV shows, but there was still a great deal of misunderstanding about the disease, how it was spread, all that stuff, and there was virtually no knowledge of the issues that AIDS sufferers faced — in schools, in the workplace, in the community at large.

"Philadelphia" tried to tell the story of one fictional individual afflicted with AIDS who was dismissed from his workplace.

Joe Miller: The Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified handicapped persons who are able to perform the duties required by their employment. Although the ruling did not address the specific issue of HIV and AIDS discrimination ...

Andrew Beckett: Subsequent decisions have held that AIDS is protected as a handicap under law, not only because of the physical limitations it imposes, but because the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precedes the actual physical one.

Joe Miller: This is the essence of discrimination: formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with the same characteristics.

Andrew Beckett (Hanks) was a young lawyer in Philadelphia who had just been promoted to partner of his prestigious law firm and had been given a case involving the firm's most important client. He was also gay and had contracted AIDS, but he kept both his sexuality and his medical condition secret from his employers.

Within two weeks of his promotion, the file for this case disappeared, then was mysteriously found at the last minute, and Beckett was dismissed, ostensibly for incompetence, but he believed he was fired because someone at the firm had discovered that he had AIDS, and he went about suing the firm for wrongful dismissal.

To represent him in court, he got Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a personal–injury lawyer and unapologetic homophobe who at first declined to take the case but later agreed to do so for the money and exposure it offered. An interesting and ironic — and, in some ways, predictable — transformation took place. Miller began to realize that the discrimination that Beckett and others like him faced wasn't any different from the racial discrimination that Miller and others like him faced.

Discrimination is discrimination, whether it is based on race, religion, age or anything else.
Judge Garrett (Charles Napier): In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation.

Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don't live in this courtroom, do we?

There were complaints from the gay community and elsewhere about some aspects of the movie. Some of the complaints focused on a perceived tendency to compromise on some harsh realities in order to appeal to a wider audience.

I'll give you an example of the kind of thing I mean.

I'm not gay, but I have friends who are, and some of them — in fact, many of them — have encountered the most resistance from those from whom support was expected — family and friends.

Hanks' character was fortunate in that he had a large, supportive family — "I didn't raise my kids to sit in the back of the bus," his mother (Joanne Woodward) told him — but many gay people have suffered the sting of the rejection of parents and siblings. Whatever the reason for it, that kind of rejection is painful, and I honestly felt that director Jonathan Demme kinda copped out on that one.

But Demme didn't entirely shy away from showing the pain of isolation brought on by the stigma of AIDS. It was most vividly illustrated when Hanks initially visited Miller, his one–time courtroom adversary, in search of legal representation and left rejected.

That scene was even more poignant when it was combined with Bruce Springsteen's haunting (and, eventually, Oscar–winning) song, "Streets of Philadelphia." I've never been the Springsteen fan that many of my peers are, but I have always admired that song.

Neil Young, another songwriter favored by those of my generation, shared the award with Springsteen.

Hanks received his second Best Actor nomination (and his first Oscar) for his performance in "Philadelphia."

Washington wasn't even recognized with a nomination from the Oscars. He had been nominated three times before — winning Best Supporting Actor for "Glory" — and, as of 2013, he has been nominated for Best Actor four times (winning in 2002 for "Training Day") — but he received no recognition for his work in "Philadelphia."

Neither, for that matter, was Jason Robards recognized for his work. Robards was one of my favorite actors, as is Mary Steenburgen (who played the law firm's legal representative in the suit), but neither was nominated by the Academy.

There were others who made memorable contributions for which I suppose it was a given that they would not be nominated for Oscars.

Possibly the most memorable was the performance of Ron Vawter as an associate at the firm. His character testified after Hanks' character collapsed in court and was taken to the hospital for what apparently was the last time.

Vawter's character said he didn't know that Hanks' character had AIDS, but he had suspected it. He was asked if he had ever mentioned his suspicions to Hanks. He replied that he had not, that he had not even given Hanks a chance to talk about his condition. "I think I'm going to regret that for as long as I live," he said.

There was irony in his words (even though they weren't his words but words he had been given by the script writer). Vawter was suffering from AIDS and died of a heart attack while flying from Zurich to New York less than four months after the debut of "Philadelphia." He was 45.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Enlightening and Educational Christmas Story

Breast cancer wasn't the sort of thing that was mentioned on television 40 years ago.

But the writers for All in the Family were all about breaking down barriers, and they chose their 1973 Christmas episode to take on the topic of breast cancer.

I guess there has always been a kind of conspiracy of silence concerning certain illnesses, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of a sense that polite people didn't speak of such things. Whatever the reason, it always seemed to rob people of their power as individuals. When I was growing up, my mother told me that knowledge was power. She told me that time and time again, which probably isn't surprising given that both my parents were educators.

Veils of silence impose limits on that power.

Such a veil of silence seemed to exist around breast cancer. I simply don't remember hearing much about it until well into the 1970s if not the 1980s. I might be mistaken about that, but I have no memory of it.

In fact, I remember watching the episode of All in the Family that aired 40 years ago tonight.

And I remember the lighthearted, disarming approach to the start of the episode, when first Mike (Rob Reiner) and then Archie (Carroll O'Connor) showed up with shopping bags filled with Groucho Marx glasses.

Then Edith arrived (the audience already knew she had gone to what appeared to be a routine doctor's appointment earlier that day), laughed over the Groucho Marx glasses and went to the kitchen, where she lapsed into distraction while doing simple things like filling a saucepan with water.

She confessed to Gloria that she had found a lump on her breast and said that was the "lucky part" of her story. Gloria was confused — as most viewers probably were — until Edith went on to explain that most breast cancers were discovered in self–examinations. Early detection was the key to survival then, and that hasn't changed. Self–examination isn't foolproof, never has been, but it is still the best way that is known to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages.

People just didn't talk about breast cancer 40 years ago. Edith probably educated a lot of people that night.

That wasn't really so unusual. Edith was often dismissed as a simpleton, but she had a lot of wisdom, and she enlightened people in her way.

But she could be enlightened, too, as she was in this episode.

She confessed to her friend Irene (Betty Garrett) her anxiety over how Archie would see her if she had to undergo surgery. Irene assured her that she was worrying about nothing, that Archie loved her and nothing would change that.

"You don't know," Edith said.

"That's just the point, I do know," Irene replied, and she went on to tell Edith that having breast surgery several years earlier hadn't affected her marriage at all.

A visibly relieved Edith embraced Irene. "You made me feel so much better!" she told her.

Archie was still in the dark over what was going on with Edith, though. When Edith went in for a test, Archie was under the impression that she had gone Christmas shopping for him.

Irene was the one who let the cat out of the bag. She came over to inquire about Edith, and she and Mike were exchanging hand signals when Archie, seated in his chair and thinking of the fishing rod he believed Edith was purchasing, piped up that he knew where Edith was.

Irene rushed to him and asked if Edith was all right. Then the cat really was out of the bag. The three of them raced to the hospital, where they found Edith in bed.

Archie could be opinionated, racist, sexist and anything else you want to mention — and you would certainly be right. But he had his moments. One of them came when he sat down next to Edith's hospital bed while she slept.

He put his hand on hers, and she stirred, opening her eyes and telling Archie he didn't have to come to the hospital.

"You're my wife," he protested, "no matter what happens."

Edith said she would be home the next day. Archie was confused. "They told me you had cancer," he said.

No, Edith replied. It turned out to be a cyst, and the doctor removed it with no problem.

Looking around, Archie said, "So what are you laying here for?"

Sheepishly, Edith answered, "When they told me everything was all right, I got so excited I jumped off the examining table, and I broke my ankle!" She pulled back the bedcovers to reveal a cast.

In hindsight, the Bunkers probably laughed about that moment, how relieved they both were. But at the time, all Archie could do was say, "Oh, Edith," and give her a hug.

Which is probably what most people would do under the circumstances.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Final Chapter From Middle Earth

When the first two installments of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy were released at the movie theaters in 2001 and 2002, neither went on to win any major Oscars although both received nominations.

The general consensus among most moviegoers was that the third and final installment, which was released 10 years ago today, would be the big payoff for director Peter Jackson's achievement. Was it ever. "Return of the King" swept all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

"Return of the King" gave audiences the chance to see Gollum (Andy Serkis) at length. He was merely a shadowy figure in the first movie, as he was in the book, and more visible in the second. People who read the original J.R.R. Tolkien books already knew of Gollum's treachery; I can only imagine what that revelation was like for people who hadn't read the books.
Sam (Sean Astin): I heard it from his own mouth! He means to murder us!

Gollum/Smeagol (Andy Serkis): Never! Smeagol wouldn't hurt a fly!

Sam: What are you up to? Sneaking off, are we?

Gollum: Sneaking? Sneaking? Fat Hobbit is always so polite. Smeagol shows them secret ways that nobody else could find, and they say 'sneak!' Sneak? Very nice friend. Oh, yes, my precious. Very nice, very nice.

Sam: All right, all right! You just startled me is all. What were you doing?

Gollum: Sneaking.

The movie started with a distant flashback to when Smeagol (Gollum's original name) first came to possess the ring, and audiences got their first real glimpse of the actor who played him. In the earlier movies, only Andy Serkis' voice was heard. He performed the movements that served as the basis for the computer–generated imagery (CGI) of the Gollum character.

The opening flashback showed Smeagol killing to possess the ring, then withdrawing into exile. It was a not–so–subtle reminder to viewers who hadn't read the books (as well as those who had) that the ring would corrupt anyone who possessed it. That was why Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the other Hobbits and members of the Fellowship had embarked on the journey to Mount Doom in the first place.

In many ways, "Return of the King" was more majestic than its two predecessors. The battle of Helm's Deep in "The Two Towers" was impressive, but the action sequences in "Return of the King" were as good as, if not better than, such sequences in the first two movies.

As the climactic battle approached in "Return of the King," I felt as if I was catching a glimpse of the fruition of the biblical prophecy of Armageddon.

Many film trilogies seem to run out of gas by the time the third and final installment hits the big screen. But Peter Jackson's "Return of the King" went into a higher gear. I suppose it had to. There were several stories that were wrapping up in it, not just the one about Frodo and Sam and Gollum, although that certainly formed the heart of the movie.

The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a triumph, and "Return of the King" was a worthy finale.

Christmas With the Bunkers

In the last season of the All in the Family series, Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) visited Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) in California for Christmas.

The result was one of the most honest and thought–provoking episodes of the entire run of the series. It aired 35 years ago tonight.

The Bunkers, along with their young charge, Edith's grandniece Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois), made the trip from New York to California for the holidays. They didn't know that Mike and Gloria were separated, and Mike and Gloria were determined to keep it that way. Well, Gloria was. Mike wanted to tell the Bunkers the truth, but Gloria wanted to keep up appearances through Christmas.

So Mike stayed overnight on Christmas Eve to keep up the charade. Apparently, the original plan called for Mike and Gloria to give Archie and Edith their bed and they would sleep on the sofa bed in the living room — presumably, when everyone was asleep, Mike would leave. But Edith double–crossed him, insisting that Mike and Gloria sleep in their own bed.

Gloria, however, did not feel comfortable sharing a bed with Mike, which led to an amusing bit of physical comedy in which Gloria tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep in a piece of bedroom furniture that clearly wasn't made for sleeping. Finally, at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, Gloria had had enough, and she told Mike she wanted to trade. He refused, and they fought. Gloria fled the bedroom and went, sobbing, to the bathroom. Edith followed her in, and Gloria told her the whole story.

She and Mike had drifted apart since coming to California, Gloria told Edith. Mike had a whole new life with his career, one that kept him busy day and night, and Gloria stayed at home with the child — and ate.

And then she met a man, and she confessed to Edith that she had started a relationship with this man.

Edith returned to the living room, where Archie wanted to know what was going on — so Edith told him, and Archie stormed into the bedroom to confront Mike.

Archie was under the mistaken impression that Mike had been cheating on Gloria and that was what had led to their breakup. But he soon learned that Mike hadn't been unfaithful.

And that led to the dialogue that made this Christmas episode unique among Christmas episodes.

The four adults had a conversation about love and marriage and commitment and infidelity. It's the kind of conversation that could happen — and almost certainly has happened — under different circumstances in different families the world over. It's probably not much of a stretch to say that it probably happens somewhere every day.

The critical moment came when Archie implied that Gloria and her male friend had been sleeping together, and Gloria said she wouldn't say anything because it was none of Archie's business. And Edith sided with her daughter.

"No matter what she's done, it's none of your business," she told Archie.

"What are you talking about?" Archie asked. "It's the world's business."

"No," Edith replied, "it ain't the world's business, neither."

"Well, it's certainly God's business," Archie insisted.

"Then you let God tend to it," Edith said.

It was so often the case that Edith was the wisest, most insightful member of the family.

Edith wanted to know if Mike and Gloria loved each other. When they admitted they did, she asked if they loved each other enough to save their marriage. Mike said yes; Gloria said she wasn't going to talk about it in front of her father. But Archie and Gloria reconciled, sharing a heartfelt father–daughter embrace and joining the rest of the family in the living room to celebrate Christmas.

That's what Christmas is about — love, forgiveness, acceptance.

As far as I am concerned, the folks who write the Christmas specials and Christmas movies these days forget that and emphasize more of the commercial aspects of the season. But the folks who wrote this hour–long episode — Milt Josefsberg, Phil Sharp, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf — were nominated for a Primetime Emmy for their work, as was director Paul Bogart and deservedly so.

The series was frequently nominated in both categories, and sometimes it won. But it won neither of the nominations it received for this episode.

That's a shame. As all truly good comedies do, All in the Family often balanced humor and poignance — rarely, if ever, better than it did 35 years ago tonight.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Tangled Web

Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close): One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.

On this day 25 years ago, I was finishing up my first semester of graduate school. I had completed my final exams, and I was looking for something special to do to celebrate.

"Dangerous Liaisons," with John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, was making its premiere 25 years ago today. It was a Friday, and I decided to go to the theater on Monday. (I worked for a mostly afternoon paper in those days, and my days off were Sunday and Monday. I spent Sundays watching football with my father so Monday seemed like the best time.)

There wasn't much of a crowd the day I saw it — which was kind of surprising. It was a week before Christmas, and schools were out. The malls were busy, and I would have figured that some people would have taken a couple of hours to watch a movie.

But, if they did, they were watching something else.

That was OK with me, though, because I didn't have to struggle to hear the dialogue, which crackled in a way that movie scripts seldom do. Maybe that's because it was based on an 18th–century novel — which may have been the reason moviegoers were scared off. If so, that was a shame because they missed out on an entertaining movie experience.

"Dangerous Liaisons" earned back more than twice what was spent to make it, and there were those who regarded that as a success, but its box–office take was exceeded by dozens of other movies that were released that year.

Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich): Now, I think we might begin with one or two Latin terms.

It had a kind of "Midsummer Night's Dream" quality to it.

The acting was first rate. Glenn Close played a member of the French nobility who had a virtuous reputation but was, in reality, a scheming and manipulative woman. She decided to have her revenge on a former lover by having his fiancee (Uma Thurman) seduced by another man, thus humiliating the former lover, and the instrument of the seduction would be an equally manipulative character played by John Malkovich.

Well, that was the plan.

The conflict for Malkovich's character was that he was already otherwise occupied with trying to seduce a chaste character played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who was staying with Malkovich's aunt (Mildred Natwick in her final role). But he changed his mind when he learned that Pfeiffer had been warned about him by the mother of Thurman's character (Swoosie Kurtz), and he turned his attention to Thurman.

Thurman's character, incidentally, had fallen in love with her music teacher (Keanu Reeves) who was not, in Kurtz's eyes, suitable for her daughter.

It's all kind of complicated to explain in print. It's much easier to follow when one watches the movie.

It is interesting, in hindsight, to contemplate what might have been. Drew Barrymore and Sarah Jessica Parker could have had the part that eventually went to Thurman. I find it hard to imagine either of those actresses bringing the freshness and naivete that Thurman brought to the role.

At the Oscars, Close and Pfeiffer were nominated for awards but lost. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Score but lost those as well. It won for adapted screenplay, costume design and art direction.

Malkovich and director Stephen Frears were not nominated.

On the subject of the music, I was gratified by the soundtrack, which included compositions from a virtual who's who of baroque and classical composers — Bach, Handel, Vivaldi — but, interestingly, even though the story took place in France, no music by French composers was heard.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Under the Evil Eye

Irene Lorenzo (Betty Garrett): Bless you, Archie. You're one of a kind. Thank God for that.

In the midst of the Christmas season, it's kind of nice when a TV series reminds viewers that life isn't peace on earth, good will to men. Prevents a glucose overdose. Forty years ago tonight, All in the Family was all too eager to oblige.

Ever since the Lorenzos (Frank and Irene) moved in next door to the Bunkers, there was an ongoing feud on All in the Family between Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Irene (Betty Garrett).

In the episode that aired 40 years ago tonight, it bubbled over into a tangible competition.

Archie and Irene were arguing about whether women should be allowed to play in traditionally male sports. Archie did some bragging about his prowess at pool, and Irene was inspired to challenge Archie to a game.

Archie didn't know that Irene was pretty good, good enough to have won a personal pool cue in a tournament.
Frank (Vincent Gardenia): Irene! I'm still waiting. Are we going to the museum?

Irene: Later. I got a date to shoot pool — for money!

Frank: No kidding! Who's the pigeon?

Irene: Minnesota Fats over there! (pointing at Archie)

When Archie discovered (to his dismay) how good she was, he pretended to have injured his back to get out of the match — and blamed it on a Sicilian curse that Frank put on Archie after he made disparaging remarks about Irene.

But Archie got shamed into going ahead with the match by Frank, who threatened to go down to the neighborhood bar and tell everyone that Archie wasn't showing up because someone put a curse on him.

"Then, after they all stop laughing, I'll tell them the truth," Frank said, "that you are afraid to play a woman!"

Archie got to the bar early so he could warm up, but he lapsed into his aching back routine when the Lorenzos arrived. Irene took pity on him and said she couldn't go through with it. But Frank insisted that Archie was faking; to prove it, he silently dropped a dollar bill on the floor as the three of them were preparing to leave.

"Archie, is that your dollar?" Frank inquired casually.

And Archie, ever ready to claim a loose buck, immediately said it was and bent over to pick it up. Bad move.

"He can bend! He can bend! He can bend!" Frank exclaimed.

And an invigorated Irene re–challenged the chagrined Archie, who went on to lose the match.

In its gentle and generally nonthreatening way, All in the Family poked fun at its usual targets that night — irrationality, superstition, sexism (well, –isms of all kinds, really), greed, hubris, stereotyping — and did so effectively.

Somebody to Love

Howard (Bill Daily): (pointing to a photograph) Hey! That's a good–looking couple. Who are they?

Bob (Bob Newhart): That's just two of hundreds of people that Emily tried to fix up. That's Ed Wolf and Louise Wagner. Ed used to be a real good friend of mine.

Emily (Suzanne Pleshette): Bob, I know I fix people up, and I know you hate it, but I don't always do so bad. You know, I fixed the two of us up.

Bob: Emily, one out of 100 is nothing to brag about.

Folks who used to watch The Bob Newhart Show were familiar with Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley), Bob's neurotic and narcissistic patient.

Carlin was a fixture on the show, and, in this episode, he arrived before Bob and was waiting in Bob's office when he got there. Before Bob even realized he was there, Carlin picked up where he left off at the end of the previous session. That is how self–absorbed he was.

Carlin's problem in this episode was that he was lonely — on this night especially. Carlin's annual real estate banquet was that night, and he needed a date to impress his clients. He wanted to take Bob's receptionist, Carol (Marcia Wallace, who died in October), and Bob had no objections.

When Carlin asked her, she said yes, and everything seemed to go fine, even when it turned out the banquet was held at a Japanese restaurant, and Carlin had to remove his elevator shoes.

But the next day, Carlin showed up and invited Carol to join him for lunch — in the middle of the morning. Carol knew something was up, and she was right. Carlin pulled out a small box and presented it to her. Inside was an engagement ring.
Carol: And then I told him a wedding was not my idea of a second date. And he said that he had to know right away because if my answer was no, he would have to cancel the church, and then he would have to call the building contractor to let him know whether to go ahead with our house before the interest rates went up again.

Otherwise, he would have to sell the lot, and he hated to do that, he said, because it was so close to the school and when our kids were older, they could walk to school rather than me having to take them in my station wagon because by this time, of course, I would probably be very busy with my junior league activities and, of course, my bridge club.

Then, when the kids are in college, we'll be moving to a smaller house closer to campus, which also happens to be directly across the street from the cemetery, where he has already purchased our plots side by side.

Bob: Well, unless you and Elliot are busy, Emily and I are planning on having some people over for egg nog on Christmas Eve 1993.

Carol sought Bob's advice, and he told her she needed to be honest with him.

When she was, though, that sparked a crisis in Carlin's life, and Carol decided it was best if she didn't come in to work, knowing that Carlin would be coming in the next morning so a substitute receptionist showed up. Bob didn't really care for the substitute; he wanted Carol back. Bob insisted that she couldn't stay in hiding forever.

So they met in Bob's office, and, in what may have been the first statement of its kind ever uttered by an actress in an American television show, Carol gently asserted herself. She told Carlin that she liked him, but she didn't want to be treated like a piece of meat or an acre of land.

In the context of the times and all that had come before on television, that was practically a revolutionary statement. Imagine! A woman asserting herself and standing up for her right to want something other than what a man might want for her.

So, she suggested that they go back to being what they had been before — friends — which seemed to suit Carlin fine.

In fact, he already had his eyes on someone else ...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Was 'Silkwood' Snubbed?

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep): You think I contaminated myself? You think I did that?

Mace Hurley (Bruce McGill): I think you'd do just about anything to shut down this plant.

"Silkwood," which was released in the theaters 30 years ago today, was a story about three ordinary — and flawed — people caught in an extraordinary situation at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma.

Meryl Streep played Karen Silkwood, a plant worker and a labor union activist. Her boyfriend Drew was played by Kurt Russell; he also worked at the plant. Cher (yes, that Cher) played Dolly, a lesbian and a roommate of Karen's and Drew's. Dolly worked at the plant as well.

The first part of the movie dealt with their day–to–day lives — Karen, for instance, was involved in a clash with her former common–law husband over time with their children. Drew and Dolly tried to be as supportive as possible. Working at the plant was a humdrum job, like any other humdrum job. The only real difference, as far as they were concerned, was that this job required workers to handle hazardous material, but the workers believed the risk was minimized, that they were protected by all the precautions their employers had taken.

But as the movie went on, it was established that the plant had taken on a large contract — and it had fallen behind. To make up for lost ground and lost time, the company was requiring employees to work long hours — and Karen, who had recently become active in the labor union, was convinced that the company was falsifying documents and cutting all kinds of corners, making conditions truly hazardous for the workers.

In spite of the precautions that were in place, she and others had been contaminated during the course of their work. This was expected to a certain extent but not at either the rate or level they were seeing. That alone was suspicious, but Silkwood, in the course of her investigation, uncovered evidence of other abuses as well — so Silkwood became a whistleblower and agreed to meet a New York Times reporter with the evidence she had gathered. She never made the appointment. She died in a car accident. No documents were found with her body.

I thought that the acting was terrific, and I was pleased to learn that critic Roger Ebert felt the same way. "It's a little amazing," he wrote, "that established movie stars like Streep, Russell and Cher could disappear so completely into the everyday lives of these characters."

Amazing but true. Long before the end of the movie, I stopped being conscious of who the actors were and became aware only of who their characters were and the plight they faced.

Director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate") probably had his own ideas of why Silkwood died, and he didn't spare the company, but he left the door open for other conclusions as well. Nearly 40 years after Silkwood's death, much of it remains shrouded in mystery.

Maybe the subject matter was a little too hot to handle for Oscar voters in those days. "Silkwood" got five Oscar nominations but zero wins.

"Silkwood" was just one of the movies for which Streep has earned an Academy Award nomination. Everyone knew how talented she was when "Silkwood" premiered. She had received four Oscar nominations already and had won two statuettes (but she wouldn't win another one until 2011).

Her co–star, Cher, also was nominated. It was her first, but she wouldn't win until she was nominated a second time.

Nichols' directing received a third Oscar nomination — and, for the second time, someone else took home the award.

"Silkwood" wasn't nominated for Best Picture, either. Was it snubbed? I don't know. I've seen "Terms of Endearment," the Best Picture winner 30 years ago, and I thought it was good.

It just wasn't as important as "Silkwood."

Cinematic Sleight of Hand

"I think it's time she met ... ze prince."

Michael Caine ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels")

Most of humanity, I suppose, falls into one of two categories — those who are naive and trusting and those who take advantage of the ones who are naive and trusting.

I believe there are degrees of both of these conditions. No one is either all bad or all good. Well, maybe a few are, but not many.

Most of the folks who are naive and trusting do manage to balance those tendencies with a healthy share of skepticism, but there are some who, like Charlie Brown, will always try to kick the football, knowing full well that Lucy will pull it away at the last minute.

And, while most of the people who take advantage of others don't do so routinely and often feel guilty when they do, there are the Lucys of the world who seize upon such opportunities virtually as a reflex action — and with no more remorse than one typically shows when swatting flies.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which premiered 25 years ago today, was about the extremes.

There was the ongoing struggle for local supremacy between two con artists, the urbane con man Michael Caine and the arrogant and a bit rough–around–the–edges hustler played by Steve Martin. In the seemingly gullible category was Glenne Headly, ostensibly a prize winner on a once–in–a–lifetime international vacation — set against the backdrop of the French Riviera, which did lend it a kind of "To Catch a Thief" aura.

But Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were never as funny.

For awhile, Caine was cast as a teacher, guiding Martin in the subtle ways of sophisticated con artistry. But he struck out on his own when he realized that Caine and the rest of his merry band were benefiting while he was doing all the work and receiving none of the profits from it.

That was a conclusion that wasn't hard to reach. His performances as, primarily, Ruprecht (the mentally challenged "Monkey Boy," as Martin sneeringly called the character) were intended to frighten off the wealthy marks that Caine targeted once their money had been taken; after that mission was accomplished, the money was divided between Caine and his associates. Martin received nothing — but knowledge.

There was a third unseen con artist known only as "the Jackal." The Jackal was said to have been preying on wealthy folks in the area. He was regarded, to put it mildly, as unwelcome competition.

Initially, Caine mistook Martin for the Jackal. That was why Caine tried to scare Martin away from his corner of the Riviera, and he was briefly successful.

But it eventually occurred to Caine that there simply wasn't enough room in his corner of the Riviera for both of them so the two of them devised a bet. The first to con Headly (believed to be a wealthy heiress) out of $50,000 could stay. The other had to leave permanently.

And the race was on.

Near the end of the movie, the con artists discovered that Headly was really the Jackal — after she had conned the two of them — and, most likely, the rest of the audience. It was probably the best sleight of hand I've seen at the movies since "The Sting."

It was neatly done.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Dramatizing the Stories of History

Anderson (Gene Hackman): You know, if I were a Negro, I'd probably think the same way they do.

Ward (Willem Dafoe): If you were a Negro, nobody would give a damn what you thought.

I grew up on what might be considered the fringes of Ground Zero in the civil rights movement.

I grew up in Arkansas, which was not where the era's most violent episodes occurred — but it was near by.

There were still racial issues in Arkansas when I was a child, even though it had been many years since the integration crisis at Little Rock's Central High drew the attention of the nation. That got ugly at times, but never (to my knowledge) deadly.

But as far as Mississippi was concerned, Arkansas might have been in the next hemisphere in those days rather than just across the river. People were dying in Mississippi. They were lynched or shot — or otherwise killed in a variety of creative ways.

Perhaps the most notorious such case during the civil rights era was the killing of three civil rights workers, two (both white) from "up north" and one (black) from Mississippi, who were abducted and murdered in 1964 while preparing for Freedom Summer.

Set against that backdrop was "Mississippi Burning," a largely fictional account of that time that premiered on this date 25 years ago.

In "Mississippi Burning," there were three missing civil rights workers, and the stories shared certain similarities, but the case that was described in "Mississippi Burning" was not a literal re–telling of the story from 1964.

To borrow a line from "Absence of Malice," it wasn't true — but it was accurate. It told a story that was all too common in the South in those days. Even when the fact that it was seen through the lens of the late 20th century was accounted for, the federal agents were more heroic and principled than many of their real–life counterparts.

Anderson: You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer lived down the road from us name of Monroe. And he was, well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. Now, my daddy hated that mule, 'cause his friends were always kiddin' him about oh, they saw Monroe out plowin' with his new mule, and Monroe was gonna rent another field now that he had a mule. And one morning that mule just showed up dead. They poisoned the water. And after that there was never any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. So one time, we were drivin' down the road and we passed Monroe's place and we saw it was empty. He'd just packed up and left, I guess. Gone up North, or somethin'. I looked over at my daddy's face — and I knew he'd done it. And he saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and he said: 'If you ain't better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?' He was an old man just so full of hate that he didn't know that bein' poor was what was killin' him.

Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe played the FBI agents dispatched to Mississippi to investigate the disappearances, but they had certain obstacles to overcome. The two had different backgrounds — Dafoe's character was from the North, Hackman's was from the South. Hackman was older; Dafoe was younger. Dafoe was idealistic and didn't really understand the culture; Hackman did understand the culture.

But understanding the culture was only part of the challenge. The rest of it was getting people to trust enough to talk. The blacks were reluctant to talk for fear of retribution from the white power structure, which was intimately involved with the Ku Klux Klan. The whites wouldn't talk because to talk would mean to implicate their friends and associates — and invite violence against themselves and their families.

It was an ugly chapter in American history, to be sure, and the movie about it sparked some pretty ugly moments when it was released. I guess the subject matter stirred up some dormant issues — or perhaps not–so–dormant ones that had been suppressed — often (perhaps unintentionally) by the very people who sought to shed light on them.

At the time, I remember some complaints from people who felt the movie should have been more accurate about the historical event that inspired it. The most famous example probably was a review in TIME magazine that called the movie a "cinematic lynching" of the facts — but the movie's director, Alan Parker, frequently reminded moviegoers at the time that it was a dramatization, not a documentary.

I understood Parker's position, but I felt at the time — and I still feel — he did a disservice to the truth.

Given some of the images Parker used (like the above image of clearly separate water fountains that were provided for whites and blacks), viewers could be forgiven for not always being able to tell the difference between dramatization and documentary.

But everyone knew what inspired the movie. Only the names had been changed, really — well, and some of the details were different, too. The name of the county where the real murders took place was Neshoba County; in the movie, it was Jessup County (to my knowledge, there is no Jessup County anywhere in the United States, let alone Mississippi).

The movie got plenty of recognition. I was particularly pleased that Frances McDormand was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the deputy's wife who was severely beaten for giving information on the bodies' whereabouts to the agents. She sometimes gets a bum rap, I think. Depending upon the role she has played and where that character lived, audiences have often mistaken her for the character.

That's an indication of how talented she is, I guess, and her talent was rewarded by the Oscars eight years later when she appeared in "Fargo." But she didn't win an Oscar for "Mississippi Burning."

Hackman, who has a problem similar to McDormand's, was nominated for Best Actor. Parker was nominated for Best Director. The movie was nominated for Best Picture. None of the nominations "Mississippi Burning" received led to a victory.

In a memorable moment, Hackman's character took the place of the barber while the deputy (Brad Dourif) was in the chair getting a shave. He proceeded to beat him. I'm not sure how accurate that was. My memory of that time (and I was quite young in the '60s) is that there were not many federal agents who were prepared to do that kind of thing in a Southern town.

"Make no mistake about it, Deputy. I'll cut your fucking head clean off and not give a shit how it reads in the report sheet!"

The murders of the civil rights workers in Mississippi was an important story in the history of the American civil rights movement, and it deserved a lot more movie attention than it had received by the time "Mississippi Burning" made it to the theaters. Only one TV movie of which I am aware dealt with the subject — more than 10 years after the killings — before that time, and only one has made the theatrical rounds since.

But they are always fictional accounts, never a complete re–telling of what happened. The people who make those movies, in addition to being few and far between, seem to be caught betwixt and between their determination to tell the truth — and, at the same time, not tell too much of it.

The lessons of history are never served when the facts are altered.

A High Old Time

As a general rule, I don't usually care for Christmas episodes of TV series.

They tend to be too sugary for my taste.

But the holiday episodes of the Frasier series always fell into a different category for me, and the one that premiered 10 years ago tonight, in the final season of the Frasier series, is an excellent example.

The series was about midway through its final season, and, frankly, I thought many of the episodes that season were contrived. But, in many ways, the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight rang true for me.

It was about teenage rebellion.

The contemporary story was about Frasier's son, Frederick (Trevor Einhorn), who arrived for the holidays sporting a new look — goth — which was disappointing for Frasier because he had been discouraged by his life recently and had been looking forward to spending time with his son. Then Freddy showed up wearing clothes inspired by a goth girlfriend, and Frasier concluded that it was characteristic of teenage rebellion.

This, in turn, inspired a dialogue among the adults about teenage rebellion and what they had done to rebel as teenagers. During the conversation, Martin (John Mahoney) observed that mild–mannered and fussy Niles (David Hyde Pierce) never rebelled — which wasn't really true. Earlier in the series, it was mentioned that Niles once "mooned" President Nixon.

But that wasn't mentioned in this episode. Instead, it was accepted by everyone — including Niles — that he had never rebelled, and that set him on a mission to finally rebel. Better late than never.

Niles decided that the way to rebel was to consume some marijuana ("reefer," as he called it), and Roz (Peri Gilpin) set him up with a pot brownie made by her neighbor. When Niles told Frasier what he was going to do, that he had decided to throw caution to the wind and indulge in "one act of utter, devil–may–care, crotch–grabbing brazenness," he added this: "And, of course, I'll have a nurse on speed–dial in case things get too hairy."

Just as Roz was delivering the brownie to Niles at the cafe, his car alarm went off and neither he nor Frasier could stay. As they left, Martin arrived and Roz gave the brownie to him to give to Niles. Martin was trying to cut down on junk food, but the sight of the brownie was just too tempting so he ate it.

Martin didn't realize, of course, that the brownie was spiked with marijuana, but he did know he had to replace the brownie before Niles returned to the cafe so he got in line to buy an ordinary brownie, purchasing it just in time to slip it into the aluminum foil in which the original had been wrapped before Niles came back to the cafe.

Martin gave the normal brownie to an unsuspecting Niles, who left the cafe under the watchful (though equally unsuspecting) eyes of two police officers.

Niles and Martin encountered each other later. Niles had consumed the normal brownie by that time and was imagining all kinds of psychological effects he was experiencing. (Earlier, he had spoken of the things he expected to experience. "I'm especially looking forward to something called the 'munchies' stage," Niles confided to Frasier. "It's where one enjoys bizarre food combinations. ... I'm thinking of pairing this Chilean sea bass with an aggressive Zinfandel!")

His father, meanwhile, was experiencing the real thing — but didn't realize it. He was having his own munchies and told Niles he would soon be thanking his father for "turning you on to the best thing you will ever eat: barbecue pudding chips!" When Niles declined, Martin said, "They looked at me funny in the store, too, but you taste that and tell me that's not better than a woman."

Niles was despondent when he learned the truth — that he had eaten a normal brownie and hadn't really rebelled — but he was cheered somewhat when Frasier said to him, "You're a good man, Niles. In a way, isn't that rebelling against rebellion?"

Niles smiled and said, "Nice try."

"All right, look at it this way," Frasier replied. "You did get our cop father stoned tonight."

Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

One Shot

In the late 1970s, America's involvement in Vietnam had been over for only a few years, but Americans already were coming to terms with the experience the way they always seem to — by way of the cinema.

Vietnam movies were plentiful in the late '70s, and they were frequently well done, but each was different. The movie that was released 35 years ago today, "The Deer Hunter," had its own, unique angle. In this case, it explored the effect of the war on a bunch of working–class buddies from western Pennsylvania — guys who believed .

It was presented, essentially, in three acts — and would have been a great theatrical production if not for the fact that it would require some really extensive sets.

In the first act, the buddies were home, participating in two coming–of–age rituals — marriage and military service. After the wedding of one and before the start of military service for some, the buddies went deer hunting. Robert De Niro's character had a philosophy — a deer had to be taken down with one shot — and that "one shot" theme was at the heart of the story.

De Niro was probably the most bankable star in the movie at that time. Audiences had seen him in, among other movies, "The Godfather Part II" and "Taxi Driver." Other folks in the cast — chiefly, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep — went on to greater things, but they were largely unknown in 1978, especially Streep.

But De Niro was the name.

Anyway, in the second "act," the scene shifted to Vietnam, and movie audiences were introduced to "the game," in which North Vietnamese soldiers forced prisoners to play Russian roulette and gambled on the results among themselves. De Niro, Walken and John Savage were among those forced to play the game; De Niro and Walken even had to play each other.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that the characters were emotionally scarred by the experience. They managed to turn their guns on their captors and escape, but their physical survival was only part of the story.

It may have been the most intense scene I have ever witnessed in a movie theater, the no–longer–naive Americans forced to play a deadly game for the amusement of their sadistic captors.

Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who won awards for his coverage of the Vietnam War, insisted that the Russian roulette angle was not true. Most likely, it was not representative of the experiences of most American POWs, but, in the minds of many Americans who lived through both Korea and Vietnam and had been hearing stories of Asian wartime atrocities all their lives (if they were old enough to remember World War II) — and found Vietnam to be the more confusing and the more bizarre conflict by far — it probably seemed entirely plausible.

In fact, until I saw "Saving Private Ryan," "The Deer Hunter" was my gold standard for gritty depiction of war. Even more than "Apocalypse Now," which came out the following year.

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here. "The Deer Hunter" didn't re–create horrific battle scenes as "Saving Private Ryan" did. It depicted a lawless state of mind that seems to permeate nearly all wars.

The third and final act saw the Americans back home and dealing with their issues. De Niro's character found Savage veterans hospital and learned that someone in Saigon had been sending him large amounts of money.

De Niro returned to Vietnam and tried to bring Walken back to the United States, but Walken's mind had snapped and he had no memory of his previous life. He only existed to play the game in the gambling dens of Saigon.

Again, this was probably a little extreme, but, given the conditions that many vets were in when they returned to the United States, perhaps it wasn't as extreme as it may have seemed 35 years ago.

De Niro's character, in an act that I thought of when I watched Tommy Lee Jones dragging Robert Duvall's corpse back to Texas in the final installment of "Lonesome Dove" more than a decade later, brought Walken's character's body back to the United States for burial after he actually did kill himself playing the game. That, too, was an intense scene, symbolic of the waste of Vietnam and the wreckage it made of the lives of those who lived to tell the tale — even if it wasn't true.

And, in the final scene of the movie, Walken's survivors sang "God Bless America" and raised a glass in his memory.

Director Michael Cimino won an Oscar for his work on "The Deer Hunter," and Walken won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

"The Deer Hunter" also won Oscars for Best Picture, film editing and sound.

De Niro and Streep were both nominated but lost — De Niro to Jon Voight, star of another Vietnam movie, "Coming Home."