Monday, March 31, 2014

My Top 10 Movies

Twenty–three years ago, late movie critic Roger Ebert published a column in which he named his Top 10 movie list of all time.

Before naming his choices, he established his reasoning behind them:
"If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it's an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That's what it does best."

Ebert also listed his Top 10 in alphabetical order; readers couldn't tell which movie was his absolute #1. That list probably changed over the years, considering the movies that came out after Ebert wrote it.

So, taking my lead from Mr. Ebert, here is my Top 10 list. These are the movies that moved me the most, not necessarily the ones that made the most money or won the most awards — in alphabetical order:

Amadeus (1984)

I have always had a great appreciation for music. I owe that to my parents, I suppose. You probably couldn't find a couple with more diverse musical tastes than my parents. My mother was fond of folk music. My father's musical tastes were more wide–ranging; he also liked folk music, but he liked Ravi Shankar and Middle Eastern music as well.

They both liked classical music and the music of Glenn Miller.

My primary favorite is the music of my generation that I heard on radios and jukeboxes when I was growing up, but I have a healthy appreciation for most genres. I don't know everything about classical music, but Mozart has been my favorite composer since I was a child (even though I didn't know who he was at that time) and learned how to play some of his simpler compositions when I was taking piano lessons. (Please don't ask me to play them now! I haven't retained that knowledge.)

Mozart had a gift, and "Amadeus" provided ample proof of it. By modern standards — and probably by 18th–century standards as well — he was young (35) when he died, but he was prodigious. He wrote more than 600 compositions of all kinds — symphonies, operas, chamber music, choral music. If he isn't the most influential composer of all time, he certainly is one of them.

He was also, from the accounts I have read, vulgar, profane, generally disagreeable and childlike in many ways — in other words, pretty much as Tom Hulce portrayed him in the movie.

That fueled the urban legend that has evolved over the years about how Mozart's early death was brought about by his frustrated rival, Salieri, who was played brilliantly by F. Murray Abraham — and made for the amazing movie experience that was "Amadeus."

Hulce was wonderful as Mozart, and I thought he was deserving of an Oscar, too, but I understood why Abraham got the nod. The story really was about Salieri.

There were many memorable scenes in "Amadeus," but the most memorable for me came at the end when Salieri pardoned the mediocrities in the asylum with him. "Mediocrities everywhere," he said in a very papal manner, "I absolve you."

After I saw the movie, I did something I hardly ever do — I bought the soundtrack. It was a double cassette, as I recall, so I could listen to it in my car. That tape has long since been replaced by CDs, which I still enjoy after all these years.

I enjoy works by many classical composers, but, as I say, Mozart is my favorite, and a movie about his life, however fictionalized it may be, is a treat for me — a treat I savor often.

Animal House (1978)

"Animal House" is a very special movie for me.

It always entertains me. I laugh at all the best–known stuff — and at the stuff that never gets much attention, too.

For a long time now, it has been a bittersweet experience to watch "Animal House." It's been that way since John Belushi died.

And, with the death five weeks ago of Harold Ramis, who co–wrote it, it is even more of a bittersweet experience for me.

It's still funny, though. If you went to college, you probably knew folks who belonged to a pompous frat like the Omegas. You might even have belonged to the anti–Omega frat — which, in this case, was the Deltas. The Deltas seemed to exist entirely for the purpose of disrupting the social order in which Omegas and the Faber College hierarchy ruled.

It was the classic clash between the establishment (Omegas) and the nonconformists (Deltas) — essentially remade (but not done nearly as well) in the "Revenge of the Nerds" flicks — and it is one of those movies where I find something new to laugh about every time I see it. Oh, sure, there's the usual stuff — like when Dean Wormer puts the Deltas on "double–secret probation" and the Deltas throw a toga party.

And just about everything that John Belushi ever did was funny. I think Belushi was one of those guys who could come out on stage and read the phone book — or, perhaps, not do anything at all — and be funny. Well, perhaps not. But he was a rare talent.

I always laugh when I see him walking down the stairs in the Delta house and, driven momentarily insane by the insipid song being sung by the folk singer, smashes the folk singer's guitar, then says, "Sorry."

"Animal House" was like that — a lot of silly stuff loosely strung together, but it was still funny and it sure launched a lot of careers. You could say that Belushi's career had already been launched with Saturday Night Live, but this marked the beginning and best ("Blues Brothers" notwithstanding) of his big–screen efforts.

It just never gets old for me.

Citizen Kane (1941)

I'd be a poor excuse for a journalist if I didn't include "Citizen Kane."

Of course, lots of folks who aren't journalists think that "Citizen Kane" is one of the best movies ever made, and I can't disagree with that. It's a great story. In addition to being a great story, though, Orson Welles pioneered many filmmaking techniques.

Before "Citizen Kane," movie sets tended to be like theater stages. The rooms that were created on them had no ceilings; the walls just went up into infinity. But in "Citizen Kane," each room was enclosed by ceilings. It had the realistic feel of a room.

Welles, who both acted in and directed "Citizen Kane," experimented with camera angles and sounds as well, and I know his work inspired others. There are little touches in "Citizen Kane" that I can see in many of Hitchcock's movies.

Hitchcock, of course, did his share of film pioneering, but creative types are never above borrowing someone else's idea and putting their own spin on it (which, I suppose, explains why I am borrowing Roger Ebert's 23–year–old idea).

Anyway, in my mind's eye, I can almost see Hitchcock watching a print of "Citizen Kane" and imagining how he could incorporate a technique or two from it in his next project.

But let's think about the story and not the groundbreaking filmmaking techniques. "Citizen Kane" was the story of a man who wanted for nothing when he grew up — except the closeness of the family relationship. He hungered for love throughout the movie, but "he just didn't have any to give," Joseph Cotten observed.

That's the great irony of the story of Charles Foster Kane — and it's what new generations of viewers learn every time they discover the meaning of "rosebud."

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers was one of Mom's favorites, and she passed that on to me. Mom's been gone for a long time now, but I still feel obligated to watch a Sellers movie whenever one is on.

I never tire of watching Peter Sellers movies, whether it's one of the "Pink Panther" movies or "Being There" — or, especially, "Dr. Strangelove." That is one of the few Peter Sellers movies that I didn't watch with Mom. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, I watched it by myself late on a Friday night when I was on my first job after college.

I have a pretty vivid memory of watching it on a Little Rock TV station. I was a general assignment reporter for an afternoon newspaper, and I covered local high school football games in the fall, but we didn't publish on weekends so I had the weekend to work on my story and then enter it in the system on Monday morning.

The game I covered that night must have been local because I was home in time for the start of the movie — which typically began right after the 10 o'clock news. I remember sitting down in front of the TV with a cold beer and being captivated by that movie from start to finish.

I'm not sure if I ever watched it with Mom. I don't remember talking with her about it — and we surely would have talked about it. We did that a lot, anyway, and "Dr. Strangelove" was really no different from the other Peter Sellers movies I had seen.

I've seen it many times, and I have found that there are certain parts that are always funny to me — and other parts that I discover as if I am seeing them for the first time. (In some cases, maybe I am ...)

Sterling Hayden's monologues about "our precious bodily fluids" always make me laugh. So does the scene where Sellers breaks up a fight between an American general and a Soviet ambassador with the classic line, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room." (That's #64 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotes — and the movie itself is ranked #39 on AFI's list of the all–time best movies.)

There are so many other reasons to watch it — Slim Pickens riding the bomb, James Earl Jones' big–screen debut and Sellers' multiple roles. I have long said he should have been nominated three times for Best Actor that year (instead of the single nomination he received).

I think of that every time I watch that movie.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

I've never understood why more movies haven't been made about the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

There was a miniseries about 15 years ago starring Alec Baldwin as the American prosecutor. My memory is that it was reasonably true to the facts, but it got a little bogged down in the relationship between Baldwin's character (a Supreme Court justice) and his secretary.

But, other than a documentary on the first war crimes trial, that's about it.

"Judgment at Nuremberg" was fiction that was based on the original trial. It was about the last of the Nuremberg trials, when the victors of World War II had gone through all the vanquished's military defendants they could find and were left to prosecute German civilians — the legal authorities who carried out state policy.

There were, as Spencer Tracy's character observed, those who believed civilians shouldn't be tried at all. In reality, that was certainly a factor in the wrapup of the trials.

Ah, Tracy. I admire his work every time I see him in a film, and many of his best were made with his soulmate, Katharine Hepburn, but he made some good movies without her, too, one of which was "Judgment at Nuremberg." To be honest, I had to think long and hard about whether to include this movie or another one that he made without Hepburn — "Inherit the Wind."

Is it a coincidence that both movies are about the legal system? Probably not. It has a lot of personal relevance for me.

There was a time in my life when I covered the police beat, and part of that standing assignment meant covering trials. That can be a tedious task at times. It isn't always as exciting as it seems in the movies or on TV shows — but the potential is always there.

And sometimes, some truly dramatic events do occur in courtrooms.

I recall once when I was covering a murder trial in Arkansas. The defendant had been found guilty (there really wasn't any question about his guilt), and the trial was in the punishment phase in which the jurors were to decide between a life sentence and a death sentence. During the punishment phase, the defense was permitted to present evidence of extenuating circumstances that would justify a life sentence.

In this case, the defendant heard testimony of how his alcoholic father had abused him and his mother. He knew about that. But then he heard testimony about something he did not know — that his mother had been mentally retarded. His face showed total shock when he heard the news, then he dissolved into tears. It was the kind of deeply intimate, personal moment that one recoils from witnessing.

I always think of that whenever I see Monty Clift's tragic character, sterilized by the Nazis, in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

It's a hard movie to watch at times, but a necessary reminder of, as Tracy puts it, the necessity of standing for something.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

I am tempted to label "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" a guilty pleasure.

I laughed at it all when I was a kid. I understood some of the references, didn't understand others, but I was old enough at the time to realize it was all just silly.

I suppose I had a vague understanding of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table so I got certain jokes — and it helped that I had seen Monty Python's TV show. I knew how off the wall they could be.

Well, I'm still watching it and still laughing at the same jokes (plus some more that I got only after later viewings).

Like the running joke of how the knights' servants would follow behind and strike two coconuts together to make the sound of horse's hooves.

Or the logic of determining whether someone was a witch:
Peasant 1: If she weighs the same as a duck ... she's made of wood.

Sir Bedevere: And therefore ...

Peasant 2: ... A witch!

See what I mean? It's silly, the stuff that guilty pleasures are made of, but it is silliness with some wit attached to it. It isn't slapstick funny like the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. In its own way, it is as good a satire of the Medieval times as "Dr. Strangelove" is good Cold War satire.

And I laugh every time I watch it.

Network (1976)

And while I am on the subject of satire, I would be remiss if I left "Network" off the list.

I don't think there are any words I could use in praise of "Network" that have not been used before. Even the word that comes to my mind with a natural ease — visionary — has been used before, probably many times.

Peter Finch's rant — "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" — summed up national frustration and captured the popular imagination in the way that few movie lines have. (The American Film Institute ranks it 19th.)

But, as Roger Ebert observed, the story really wasn't about him. It was about Faye Dunaway and Bill Holden and their May–December affair. Finch was, as Ebert wrote, a "sideshow" — a very entertaining one, to be sure (I still laugh at not just his "mad as hell" but other things as well), but still a sideshow.

"The movie has been described as 'outrageous satire' ... and 'messianic farce' ... and it is both, and more," Ebert wrote. "What is fascinating about Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar–winning screenplay is how smoothly it shifts its gears."

That is good writing — and I'm a sucker for good writing. You can take away all the splashy special effects and leave me with a good, well–written story, whatever form that story may take, any time. I'll get the better of that deal. Always.

Finch's on–air rant seems to be the only thing that people remember from "Network," but there are so many little touches that keep bringing me back.

More than anything else, though, I think "Network" remains on my list nearly 40 years after it was in the theaters because it remains relevant.

"The movie caused a sensation in 1976," Ebert wrote. "It was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four ... and stirred up much debate about the decaying values of television. Seen a quarter–century later, it is like prophecy."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

North by Northwest (1959)

I could probably make a Top 10 movie list of nothing but Hitchcock movies — but if I am going to limit myself to one (and that is what I have decided to do in this article), "North by Northwest" is it.

"Psycho" and "Vertigo" came close — and I had to give some consideration to "The Birds" and "Rear Window" and "Strangers on a Train."

But "North by Northwest" prevailed.

It certainly has plenty of Hitchcock's mind–bending touches. And talk about cliffhangers! I mean, at the end, when Cary Grant reaches out his hand to Eva Marie Saint on Mount Rushmore, the very next thing we see is the two of them on a train — which is going into a tunnel. You don't have to be Fellini to figure that one out.

But it's an unresolved cliffhanger. How did she manage to get out of that particular predicament? Obviously, she did, but how did she do it?

That may be why I watch the movie — to try to figure out how she did it.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

You know, it really doesn't surprise me that Harper Lee published "To Kill a Mockingbird" and nothing else.

It wasn't from lack of talent. Anyone who has ever read that book knows what a remarkable work it was. It took a remarkable talent to create it.

Sometimes, though, writers only have one book in them, and Lee appears to be one of those writers — J.D. Salinger is often thought to be one of them, too, but he wrote things other than "The Catcher in the Rye" (his will stipulates that most not be published until 50 years after his death, which will be in 2060). Nevertheless, that is the work for which he is and always will be remembered, I'm sure.

For a few actors, even if they play many roles in their lives, there is one role that defines them.

Gregory Peck is such an actor. He is remembered for many great performances in his career, but I've always thought he was born to play Atticus Finch. To a great extent, it seems that Peck was Atticus Finch, a real–life version. I once heard Mary Badham, who played Scout, say that he was like a father to her off–screen as well as on. I devoutly believe no one else could have played the role so convincingly. He won his first and only Oscar for it — the fifth and last time he was nominated.

Anyone who talks about "To Kill a Mockingbird" will mention the courtroom scenes, and those are certainly worth the price of admission. Atticus offers a stirring defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman at a time when that kind of thing simply did not happen — most of the time. As I understand it, though, Harper Lee's father was a lot like Atticus. He was a lawyer, too, and he may have defended a black man accused of a similar crime.

I know Lee was inspired by something she saw as a child in the South.

But my favorite scene is when Atticus shoots the rabid dog in the street. His son, who earlier had been embarrassed by his father's apparent lack of toughness when he declined to play football for the Methodists, was dumbstruck.

"What's the matter, boy?" the sheriff asked him. "Didn't you know your daddy is the best shot in this county?"

I'll watch the whole movie just to see that scene.

But there's so much more. This was Robert Duvall's debut. He probably would have risen in the film industry without this to his credit, but his performance as the reclusive Boo accelerated things.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

More often than not, I will watch "Young Frankenstein" on Halloween. I've never really been much for dressing up for Halloween, but I've fallen into the habit of watching that one on Halloween, anyway.

I tend to name it as my favorite Mel Brooks movie, but there are so many others that are nearly as good. "The Producers" was wonderful — I nearly mentioned it in this list — and, of course, "Blazing Saddles" was hilarious.

And the truth is that I am just as likely to watch those movies — or "High Anxiety" or "Silent Movie" or "History of the World, Part I" — as I am to watch "Young Frankenstein."

But "Young Frankenstein" is special. I could rattle off scene after scene, line after line that I enjoy.

One of the things I enjoy the most is Marty Feldman as Eyegore who was sent to retrieve the brain of a thinker and returned with the brain of "Abby someone ... A.B. Normal."

"My grandfather use to work for your grandfather," Eyegore tells Frohderick. "Of course, the rates have gone up."

It's funny when the horses whinny when Frau Blucher's name is mentioned by anyone.

It's funny when Gene Wilder gets caught between the revolving bookcase and the wall.

It is always an entertaining movie.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

There Was a Crooked House ...

"There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house."

English nursery rhyme (published in 1846)

On at least a couple of occasions, Agatha Christie said "Crooked House," which was published in March 1949, was her favorite work.

She said it was her most satisfying book, an opportunity to examine the dynamics of family relationships — and, as she so often did, she took her title from a nursery rhyme, but it was only symbolic. Really had little to do with the plot. The story wasn't built around the content of the rhyme, only around the idea, as expressed by one of the characters, that "we hadn't been able to grow up independent ... twisted and twining." The occupants of the house were controlled and manipulated by the elderly patriarch.

It was an interesting household that Christie created in "Crooked House," which was inspired by a nursery rhyme that was about 100 years old when the story took place. It was centered around an affluent patriarch, whose first wife died and whose sister–in–law looked after his house and children from that time.

The patriarch married a younger woman — the difference in their ages could be measured not in years alone but in decades. That, of course, was an issue for others in the household, which the old boy also shared with his sons, their wives and three grandchildren.

One of the grandchildren was engaged to be married, and the story was told by her fiance. His father, a Scotland Yard inspector, was brought in to investigate, and the fiance assisted him.

The patriach suffered from diabetes and required regular insulin injections. On the fateful day, someone apparently switched the insulin with eserine, an eye medication, and it poisoned him.

As in most good murder mysteries, there was no shortage of suspects. Just about everyone in the house had a reason to want him dead. The patriarch's much younger wife was in love with another man, the tutor for the two youngest grandchildren. There had been rampant rumors about the relationship between those two, and the rest of the household hoped it would turn out that they were guilty. The second wife wasn't liked, and there would be a public scandal if someone else was responsible.

She wasn't the only one who had motive and opportunity but no alibi — and everyone stood to gain since the old man's will left generous chunks of his fortune to each family member. Beyond that, however, the family members shared little except a common bloodline.

Christie told an interviewer in the mid–1960s that she "had difficulty" with the ending of the book because her publisher believed the resolution of the crime could not be how she had written it — presumably because her readers wouldn't accept it.

As she almost always did, Dame Agatha prevailed in spite of the book's unforeseen and controversial conclusion. I won't reveal it — although, after 65 years, it is probably pretty well known to readers of mystery novels — but I would like to point out an important difference between this kind of Christie book and the ones that featured her usual detectives — Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or even her lesser detectives.

In this kind of book, Christie's detective made his only appearance, and that is significant. With her usual detectives, Christie would allow them to maintain their detachment from the crime and observe from a distance. In a book like "Crooked House," Christie let her detective (actually, as I say, there were two in this case, the Scotland Yard inspector and his son) get his hands dirty.

It occurs to me that it might not have been possible for one of Christie's regular detectives to resolve the case from afar. From a distance, one can miss too much. Perhaps it was necessary for the detective to be close to the family. That intimacy allows the detective to pick up on subtle things that the detached detective would be likely to miss.

Distance can distort details — especially in a crooked house.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Some Folks Still Like It Hot

"Well, nobody's perfect!"

Osgood (Joe E. Brown)
#48 on AFI's list of memorable movie lines

Some think that "Some Like It Hot," which hit the theaters 55 years ago today, was Billy Wilder's best movie.

That's really a matter of opinion, I guess. Wilder was director, producer and/or screenwriter of so many great movies it would be hard to pick the very best.

From that lengthy list of movies in which Wilder was involved in some way, the American Film Institute ranked "Some Like It Hot" behind "Sunset Boulevard" in its list of the top 100 movies of the last century — but it still landed in the Top 25 (at #22).

Since "Sunset Boulevard" is not a comedy, I suppose that means that AFI regards "Some Like It Hot" as Wilder's best comedy — and that is pretty impressive by itself, considering that he was a screenwriter of "Ninotchka" and director/screenwriter/producer of "Stalag 17," "Sabrina," "The Apartment," "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Seven–Year Itch."

AFI absolutely thinks "Some Like It Hot" is the best comedy of all time, and its female lead, Marilyn Monroe, is sixth on AFI's list of the 50 greatest actresses.

(Incidentally, of those six movies, only "Ninotchka" and "The Apartment" made AFI's Top 100 list. "Some Like It Hot" clearly is in a more exclusive club than I thought. Wilder worked on another movie that made the AFI list — "Double Indemnity" — but it definitely was not a comedy.)

Neither of the male leads — Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis — made AFI's list of the 50 greatest actors. Oh, well, guess you can't win them all.

Roger Ebert wrote that "Some Like It Hot" was "one of the enduring treasures of the movies." Coming from a guy who unflinchingly called 'em the way he saw 'em, that was high praise — and richly deserved, too.

Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe): Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

Here's the premise of the movie: Curtis and Lemmon played musicians at a Prohibition–era watering hole in Chicago. They lost their jobs and wound up being witnesses to a gangland massacre in a garage on Valentine's Day. Sound familiar?

The two looked for a way to hide from the gangsters, then hit upon the idea of posing as female musicians in an all–girl band en route to sunny Florida. Along the way, they became acquainted with Sugar Kane (Monroe), and both were smitten — but they had to keep up appearances and not act on their attraction.

Sugar, meanwhile, had her own problems with men, and all sorts of other issues arose, not the least of which was the constant struggle that Curtis and Lemmon waged between their attraction for Sugar and their desire not to be caught by the gangsters who were following them.

I know that Monroe often felt typecast and under–appreciated during her career — but it is easy to see how she could fall into that kind of trap when you see how easily she played clueless blondes like Sugar (and the girl in "The Seven–Year Itch" who was so clueless — and banal — she was known only as the Girl.)

Lemmon summed up her character nicely in "Some Like It Hot" when he watched her walk away early in the movie and remarked that she moved like "Jell–O on springs."

Another angle to the story involved the bandleader, who had issued a ban on drinking that Sugar was always violating. Lemmon (under the assumed name of Daphne) and Sugar were drinking on the train one night, and all the girls in the band (except Curtis, who slept blissfully unaware in the berth below — for awhile) had an impromptu party with each contributing some type of alcohol.

A cross–dressing comedy may not sound as intriguing to modern moviegoers (brought up on "Tootsie" and "The Birdcage") as it was to those half a century ago, but it was a rather new plot device in 1959.

If you have never seen "Some Like It Hot," you can probably imagine the many plot twists that were made possible by this story line.

But, then again, if you haven't seen it, you really can't imagine it — because the viewers never knew what Jack Lemmon or Marilyn Monroe (or Tony Curtis) would do until they saw them do it.

And you could never be sure what a Billy Wilder movie was going to be like until you saw it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Good Writing Still Matters

Martin (John Mahoney): Well, how was dinner?

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Let's just say that when I picked my lobster out of the tank at the restaurant, I had no idea it was in for a better evening than I.

I am part of a vanishing breed, I suppose. I think good writing still counts for something in television — all evidence to the contrary.

Take the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1999. Frasier's brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), was eager to return to his home in the swanky Montana.

To save money during his divorce proceedings, he had moved into a less expensive apartment and sublet his permanent residence.

Now, his divorce from the never–seen Maris was official, and he could afford to resume his previous lifestyle, but the tenant who sublet his apartment still had some time left on his lease.

Frasier and Niles went to the Montana to speak to the tenant, who apparently had had some run–ins with the neighbors over his tendency to tap dance.

Niles assured the neighbors that the tenant would be leaving, but they were prepared to throw Niles out, anyway. He decided to invite them to a dinner party to persuade them to keep him in the building. His family, including Roz, came over to help out.

Niles thought things were going swimmingly — until he was told that his pet parrot had died, supposedly because the bird ate one of the appetizers that was being served to the guests.

It wasn't much of a loss for Niles; he wasn't very attached to the bird. His neighbors at the low–rent Shangri–La where he had been living had delighted in teaching the bird obscenities.

Which set up exchanges like this one between Niles and Daphne:
Daphne (Jane Leeves): I don't mean to alarm you, but there's something wrong with the hors d'oeuvre.

Niles: How do you know?

Daphne: A little bird told me. [lifts towel to reveal bird's body]

Niles: Did you see how it happened? Anything?

Daphne: Well, I did hear her last words, but I don't think they'd be of much comfort to you.

To revive the party, it was decided to play a game of Murder, in which one guest would be the killer and someone else would have to deduce who it was.

Frasier volunteered to be the detective, and the activity seemed to be reviving the party — until one of the guests, Mr. Probst (Bill Morey), dropped dead.

Turned out that Mr. Probst was the only one who wanted to give Niles the boot — and none of Mr. Probst's neighbors seemed particularly upset that he was deceased. Well, they didn't actually know. They only knew that he had left early. They did not know that he had been taken to the morgue.

The board voted by acclamation to keep Niles in the building.

No moral to the story, I suppose. Just a reminder of what clever writing can do.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Making a Supreme Selection

Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close): [Reviewing how she'd respond to a Senate question during a confirmation hearing] If you're Webster, the question is "Where do you stand on Roe v. Wade?" and the answer is "Judicial rulings shouldn't be based on personal ideology, mine or anyone else's." If you're Davies, the question is "How would you approach a D&X case?" because he's the drum banger on partial birth. And the answer is "I don't comment on hypotheticals." If you're Malkin, you're from Virginia, so you ask a de jure. I take you point by point from the doctor to the father to Casey to undue burden to equal protection back to Roe at which point you can't remember the question and I drink my water for a minute while you regroup.

I'd like to think — and I hope most Americans would like to think — that every White House treats its obligation to nominate justices to fill Supreme Court vacancies as a solemn and sacred responsibility, always aware of the historical significance and the future implications of every nomination — with little attention paid to the political consequences.

(The Georgetown Law Library's website perpetuates that noble image: "[T]he President has the power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint Judges of the Supreme Court. Since Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, each nomination to the Supreme Court has a long–lasting influence on the Court and on the day–to–day life of every American.")

But the truth is that, like everything else that happens in Washington, the process is almost entirely political.

The episode of the West Wing that aired 10 years ago tonight, "The Supremes," was about that process.

It began with the death of a Supreme Court justice, and the liberal Bartlet White House had to select a replacement that could win the approval of the conservative majority in Congress. Initially, the president (Martin Sheen) was prepared to nominate a centrist (Robert Picardo), but he refused to take a position on any issue when he met with Bartlet.

His logic wasn't hard to understand. He said he didn't take sides until he had heard all the evidence in a particular case. He was preserving his initial neutrality. As a result, depending upon the facts, he might be on one side of an issue in one case and on the other side of the same issue in another.

That made him a bit too much of a wild card for Bartlet.

Ideologically, Bartlet would have preferred to nominate someone like the female judge (Glenn Close) who was asked in for an interview with White House staffers during their search.

She wowed the staffers who vetted her, too.

"I love her," Josh (Bradley Whitford) told speech writer Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) when they excused themselves to confer in private. "I love her mind. I love her shoes."

"Your work on the 14th Amendment in particular is the stuff that dreams were made of," gushed Toby when they were back in the room.

But she knew the conservatives in Congress would never approve her. Her record in general was too far to the left for them, but she was especially concerned about a heretofore hidden personal matter she felt certain would come out — that she had had an abortion when she was in law school.

She was content to be window dressing for whoever the eventual nominee turned out to be, but she knew that she could never be the choice.

The majority in Congress would prefer someone more like the conservative judge played by William Fichtner, but Bartlet couldn't do that.

(Personally, I always felt the scene in which Josh and Toby presented that particular name to Bartlet was one of the series' best. The camera never left the reception area. The president's secretary {Lily Tomlin} ushered Josh and Toby into the Oval Office, then went about her business while Vivaldi played on her radio. Behind the closed door, the president's anguished "No!" could be heard; his secretary calmly — and wordlessly — turned up the music on the radio and continued with her business.)

So there was an apparent impasse between the two branches of government, and it seemed that the oft–repeated caveat (in the West Wing universe) mdash; that the Supreme Court's destiny was to be centrist straight down the line — was coming true.

That's when Toby and Josh came up with a scheme, one that they hoped would breathe new life into a branch of government that was perceived as having grown stale and predictable with its overwhelming centrism.

(In reality, I am not so sure of that — but that underscores what is probably the hardest thing to keep in mind when you watch the West Wing. It was fiction, not documentary.)

Toby and Josh approached the chief justice (Milo O'Shea) about resigning, at which time, they said, the president would nominate Close to be the new chief justice and Fichtner to fill the associate justice vacancy.

The chief justice was intrigued and agreed to step down.

One of the things that I always appreciated about the West Wing was its ability to educate as it entertained. OK, I know that most of the people who watched the show probably forgot the history or social studies lesson that was taught before they went to bed, but I still appreciated the effort.

Having said that, though, I would be remiss if I didn't mention something that jumped out at me the first time I saw the episode. I guess my background in history and social studies made it inevitable that I would notice something that almost no one else would notice.

The West Wing writers usually were meticulous about their facts, but they really messed up in "The Supremes."

At the end of the episode, when Martin Sheen introduced the two Supreme Court nominees, he introduced Close's character as "the next chief justice of the Supreme Court." While, technically, it is true that the chief justice presides over the Supreme Court, the chief justice, as the highest–ranking judicial officer in the country, has the official title of Chief Justice of the United States.

You have just had your teachable moment for today.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Between the Spiritual World and the Material World

"Yesterday I was on the edge
Hopin' everything was going to work itself out
A good honest man doing the work of God
Trying to make things better for him
A lover of life in a school for fools
Tryin' to find another way to survive"

Cat Stevens "Music"

It was on this day in 1974 that Cat Stevens released his sixth album, "Buddha and the Chocolate Box."

It was one of the first cassette tapes I ever bought. I didn't buy it the day it came out, but I had heard of Cat Stevens, and I heard many of his popular songs before I ever bought "Buddha and the Chocolate Box." I don't think I had heard any of the songs on the album, but, as I say, I was familiar with Cat Stevens. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting.

It is safe to say that "Buddha" wasn't his most successful album. It was certified platinum about 27 years after it was released.

But the key to understanding it lies in an incident that occurred when Stevens was traveling to a concert location by plane. He had a buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other. According to the story, Stevens pondered that, if the plane crashed, those would be the last two items he would hold — and he would be caught between the spiritual world and the material world.

The music on the album reflected that — and tended to lean toward the spiritual with titles like "Jesus," "King of Trees" and "Home in the Sky."

In the context of Stevens' other albums, it was a return to his roots. His previous album, "Foreigner," was criticized by many, largely for the 18–minute "Foreigner Suite" that filled Side 1. I didn't think it was a bad recording, but it was a stylistic departure for Stevens — and a nightmare for radio programmers who were accustomed to working with songs that were three or four minutes long at the most.

In those days, longer songs could be edited for playing on the radio, but what could you cut from "Foreigner Suite?"

"[T]he suite is full of compelling melodic sections and typically emotive singing," wrote William Ruhlmann for, "that could have made for an album side's worth of terrific four–minute Cat Stevens songs, if only he had composed them that way."

The album title wasn't long and cumbersome, like Stevens' previous albums, and the music, as I say, was different. It was less acoustic and relied more on keyboard arrangements than Stevens' listeners expected from him. Listeners didn't exactly warm up to it.

"Buddha and the Chocolate Box" was more like it. Stevens found a more receptive audience — and found himself back in the Top Ten for the first time in a couple of years with "Oh Very Young."

It wasn't his most successful commercial effort. I suppose that particular title belongs to "Teaser and the Firecat," which came out three years earlier and produced three hit singles.

Actually, when most people think of "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" — if they ever do — they probably think of its only hit, "Oh Very Young," which was the second track on the album.

In fact, that is probably the only song that most people know from the album. I don't recall any other track getting much, if any, air play.

If that's the case, they've really missed out. Well, not on Stevens' biggest hits, but on an album that I found very satisfying at the time — and, when I listen to it today, my mind goes back to those days and I remember people and things I haven't thought about in a long time.

So far, all those memories have been pleasant ones. One such memory is from that summer, when my father and I came to Dallas to help my paternal grandmother move out of her apartment and into an assisted living community. I'm not really sure why I am reminded of that when I listen to the album. I didn't even own it at that time. I may have heard "Oh Very Young" on the radio, but I heard no other song from the album until I bought it.

When Dad and I came to Dallas to help my grandmother move, one of the things we did was help her get rid of many of her possessions. At the assisted living facility, she would have her bedroom and the bathroom, but she had no need for living room or dining room furniture, just a few chairs for her personal living space.

She was still capable of doing many things for herself. She wasn't moving because she could no longer care for herself. She kept her car until she died a couple of years later, and she was able to continue driving it until the last months of her life.

But she didn't need a lot of her furniture anymore so Dad and I helped her sell some of it. She gave some of her possessions to relatives and friends and sold the rest. Grandmother had two television sets — a large one that she kept in her living room and a small portable that she kept in her bedroom. She only needed one at her new residence so she gave me the portable.

It changed my young life. I still did most of my TV watching with the family in our living room, but late on Friday nights, I remember watching Wolfman Jack on the Midnight Special or Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show on weeknights — or the early Saturday Night Live programs.

And it was at that time that I was listening to "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" on my portable cassette player/recorder.

So it must be a memory by association.

I like songs from other Cat Stevens albums better than most of the tracks on "Buddha and the Chocolate Box," but that album has special meaning for me.

I suppose some folks will conclude that means that "Oh Very Young" — or at least the title — has some sort of symbolic significance for me, but the truth is I never listen to that song when I listen to the album.

Weird, huh?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Making a Date to Meet at the Empire State Building

"The things we like best are either illegal, immoral or fattening."

Terry (Irene Dunne)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the second of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Have you ever seen "An Affair to Remember"? Or "Sleepless in Seattle"?

If you have, you've essentially seen "Love Affair," which premiered 75 years ago today.

"Love Affair" was remade as "An Affair to Remember" with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr 18 years later. Then, about 35 years after that, "An Affair to Remember" inspired "Sleepless in Seattle" with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

And a year after that, "Love Affair" was remade under the original title starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn in the final movie appearance of her career.

Consequently, Richard Gilliam of says "Love Affair" is "among the most influential romance films of its era." I guess that's difficult to dispute.

A more difficult (if not impossible) point to dispute is that — with all due respect to Grant and Kerr, Hanks and Ryan and Beatty, Bening and Hepburn — the original was the best.

Charles Boyer played a French painter and Irene Dunne played an American singer. The two met on an ocean liner that was crossing the Atlantic and embarked on a relationship, even though each was already engaged to someone else.

I suppose that was about as scandalous as producer/director Leo McCarey dared to be at the time. Engaged and unfaithful may have been about as risque as audiences would accept. Married and unfaithful wasn't family friendly in 1939 (it is no more family friendly today, just more acceptable).

As the ship arrived in New York, Boyer and Dunne agreed to meet at the Empire State Building in six months; six months later, they were both on their way to their rendezvous when Dunne was hit by a car. She didn't keep the date and didn't contact Boyer, allowing him to imagine the worst.

Then they met by chance, Boyer learned the truth, and, in typical Hollywood fashion, he pledged that he would be with her no matter what. He pretended that he had been the one who hadn't kept the date, not the other way around. Kinda corny, huh? Well, when compared to modern movies, I suppose it is, but it seems to have been pretty effective 75 years ago.

Boyer was undeniably one of the top male romantic leads of his day in the movies, and I'm sure he was quite a box–office draw. I don't know where Dunne would rank on a list of the top female romantic leads from that era, but she was recognized for her acting. She was nominated for Oscars five times — including a nomination for her work in "Love Affair."

"Love Affair" received five other Oscar nominations and lost all five — four to "Gone With the Wind."

A Terrifying Coincidence

Jack (Jack Lemmon): What makes you think they're looking for a scapegoat?

Ted (Wilford Brimley): Tradition.

To understand why "The China Syndrome," which hit the theaters 35 years ago today, was so unsettling for movie audiences, it is necessary to understand the times.

Well, not so much the times when the movie was first released. There was no real hoopla that I can recall accompanying the premiere of "The China Syndrome" — other than protests from nuclear companies that the movie amounted to industrial character assassination.

Such claims were not heard 12 days later, when there was a nuclear disaster at a place called Three Mile Island, Pa. It was purely coincidental, but the timing couldn't have been better for the movie. While the performances were great and the story was first rate in "The China Syndrome," Three Mile Island probably deserves a lot of the credit for the movie earning 10 times what it cost to make.

Three Mile Island put everyone on edge, it seemed, and it made "The China Syndrome" the hottest (pardon the pun) movie ticket in every city and town in America.

In that chicken–and–egg conversation, the two subjects became intertwined; over the years, one has hardly heard the movie mentioned without the nuclear accident and vice versa.

In the movie, a TV reporter (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) witnessed a nuclear emergency while at a local nuclear plant to do a story on energy.

Thanks to the quick response by an engineer (played by Jack Lemmon), a worse disaster was prevented.

Fonda's character had her own agenda — she wanted to graduate from doing puff pieces to news with an edge to it, and reporting on a near–disaster was just the thing, but her supervisor refused to allow Fonda to report on it or to show footage that had been filmed on the sly by Douglas.

In the meantime, Lemmon did some research and discovered that all sorts of corners had been cut, leaving the plant vulnerable to a full–scale meltdown (dubbed the "China syndrome" in the movie, describing an incident that would blow the proverbial hole all the way through the earth to China).

Lemmon's character accumulated evidence supporting this and gave it to a soundman from the TV station, who promised to deliver it to Fonda and Douglas — but he was run off the road when trying to deliver it. Knowing that made me wonder if the movie wasn't based only, as advertised, on a 1975 nuclear power plant fire in Alabama — but also, perhaps, a bit on the case of Karen Silkwood, which was later dramatized in a movie starring Meryl Streep.

That event led Lemmon to conclude that his own life was in danger, and he took over the plant at gunpoint, demanding to tell his story on TV.

It was a first–rate thriller, as critic Roger Ebert said, "that incidentally raises the most unsettling questions about how safe nuclear power plants really are."

Those questions still haven't been answered satisfactorily. So often, it seems, the whistleblowers are demeaned and discredited. Why would anyone want to be exposed to that?

One wonders if the questions would have been raised at all had it not been for the coincidental nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

I also wonder if the performances of Lemmon and Fonda would have been nominated for Oscars if it hadn't been for Three Mile Island. Their performances were good — especially Lemmon's — but I don't know if either was Oscar–worthy.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fighting the Battle of Burning Oak

Elizabeth Montgomery was always an activist.

She was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War when her TV series, Bewitched, was popular. Long after the series went off the air, she was an advocate of women's rights and gay rights (the latter influenced to a certain extent by her friendship with Bewitched co–star Dick Sargent, the second Darrin, who was gay).

Surely, it was due at least in part to Montgomery's influence that Bewitched was more than another slapstick '60s sitcom. It had the requisite bizarre circumstances the primary characters were striving to overcome with goofy supporting characters. But it was also clever, contemporary and cosmopolitan — and socially aware.

Consequently, it probably wasn't much of a stretch for her to do episodes of Bewitched like the one that first aired 45 years ago tonight, "The Battle of Burning Oak."

The premise was that Darrin (Dick York) was invited to join a country club, Burning Oak, that was very exclusive — and very bigoted. Viewers knew it wasn't the kind of thing that would appeal to Darrin; but it was the kind of invitation that was of enormous value to a social ladder–climbing, up–and–comer like Darrin's mother–in–law, Endora (Agnes Moorehead), imagined him to be. She said as much to Samantha, who thought nothing of it.

(Samantha, like many viewers, probably dismissed it as the rantings of a mother who believed her daughter had married beneath her — a theme that was well established on the show by this time and paved the way nicely for an episode about prejudice and stereotyping.)

To prove her point, Endora turned Darrin into the snob to end all snobs — a snob's snob and a sure bet to be asked by the screening committee to become a member.

And he was — in spite of the fact that the ladies of the screening committee had been unimpressed when they learned that Samantha did all her own housework.

Samantha deduced that her mother had cast a spell on Darrin and, with the help of her Aunt Hagatha, dug up some dirt on the committee members to level the playing field.

It all led to an amusing confrontation with the members of the club in which Samantha, with a little assistance from witchcraft, exposed the snooty members of the committee, some of whom claimed to have had ancestors on board the Mayflower.

From a group that advertised itself to be "pure–bred Americans," it turned out that some had ancestors on the wrong side of the law; for example, one was descended from a horse thief. Others did not have the noble ancestry they claimed; one was descended from a servant, another from a stowaway. And so on.

They all came to America to escape prejudice, Samantha declared. Actually, she continued, no one could rightfully claim to be a pure–bred American except an Indian. "And an American Indian could never get in here," she said with a sweet smile.

My memory is that some of the proper ladies of the club's board fainted when she said that.

At that point, Samantha rose when Darrin announced that it was getting late and it was time to go home.

In hindsight, it was courageous of writers Leo and Pauline Townsend to tackle the topic of bigotry.

At the time, Americans' social consciousness and sensitivity was emerging. The debut of All in the Family, which regularly challenged prejudice, was still a couple of years away. TV sitcoms were mostly silly in those days, seldom trying to make a serious point.

I suppose Bewitched had its share of silliness, too, 45 years ago tonight.

At one point, Endora, in her indignant way, observed that she had been protesting a new movie that portrayed witches as evil. I don't recall a specific title being mentioned, but I have often wondered, whenever I have seen that episode, if perhaps Endora was referring to "Rosemary's Baby," which was quite popular at the time.

The theme of witches being a persecuted minority was a recurring one — which, I suppose, gave Bewitched legitimacy to poke fun at bigotry.

It's hardly the same thing, of course. Witches are fictional characters. Prejudice against them can't be taken seriously, but prejudice against real people, whatever the reason for it, should be taken seriously.

That seems obvious today, doesn't it? But you have to keep it in the context of the times. It was a big deal at that time for a TV series to have a black leading lady who wasn't carrying trays.

(It's been quite awhile since I have seen the episode, and I don't remember now if there were any stereotyped servants at Burning Oak — but it wouldn't surprise me if there were. It's the kind of touch that would have appealed to Montgomery.)

Bewitched was uniquely positioned to challenge the prejudice and double standards of its time. The marriage of Darrin and Samantha, after all, was a "mixed marriage" — not in the way that phrase was interpreted by most people at the time, but mixed, nonetheless — and it was likely to produce offspring who carried the genetic material of both parents, as indeed it did.

It was also about a marriage in which the wife had more power than the husband, something that is much more common today than it was in 1969. Her actual power advantage (witchcraft) was a metaphorical edge as well. That made it easier, I suppose, for viewers to accept it when stories could be seen on more than one level.

The story lines, like the one in "The Battle of Burning Oak," played with questions about stereotypes and group depictions that were only starting to be asked — and it did so in a way that was virtually invisible if you weren't looking for it. The best episodes of Bewitched worked both as metaphor and as a serious story.

It seems our culture is taking prejudice seriously today, and you can attribute that to many factors — but don't underestimate the contribution Bewitched made on this night 45 years ago. In my experience, laughing about something is the first and most positive step to take in dealing with it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Crane Boys Plan a Dinner Party

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Dad, do you think we're odd?

Martin (John Mahoney): No, you're not odd. You're just ... special! Your mother told me that when you were kids, and I still believe it.

I always enjoy the episode of Frasier that first aired 15 years ago tonight.

I'm not sure why. Maybe it is because just about the only words that were spoken were by the core cast members — Grammer, Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce, Peri Gilpin and Jane Leeves. (The exceptions were a few lines that were spoken by voice–only actors who were allegedly overheard on the answering machine.)

Gilpin's and Leeves' roles were rather diminished, though, and Martin's was slightly less so. The episode was largely about Niles and Frasier and their sibling relationship, which was always fertile ground for a sitcom episode.

It also had the feel of a stage play, with the only set being Frasier's apartment. In "Dinner Party," Frasier never spoke to any of the listeners on his radio show nor did he meet anyone for coffee at Cafe Nervosa.

Instead, Frasier and Niles were planning — in what was, essentially, real time — a dinner party with the objective of getting to know an unseen couple, the Ashbys. Most of the episode was devoted to their conflicts over first which night to have their gathering, then the selection of caterer, then whom to invite and whom not to invite.

In the process, they began to examine their own relationship, particularly after they overheard one of the invitees speaking disparagingly of them, unaware that the phone line was still open.

And they began to wonder if they spent too much time together — which gave writer Jeffrey Richman the opoening to introduce a little historical tidbit.

Of course, ex–cop Martin (Mahoney) brought it up — the eccentric Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who lived together in New York.

Niles and Frasier had no idea who the Collyer brothers were so Martin filled them in.

"A couple of nutsos shared an apartment together in New York their whole lives," he said. "They even built a maze out of newspapers in there that only they knew how to get through. Then it collapsed on one of them, and the other one just sat there with the dead body until the neighbors complained about the smell."

It wasn't exactly that way.

For one thing, the Collyers lived in a large house, not an apartment. They purchased the property across the street from their house with the intention of turning it into an apartment building, but they never followed through on their plan.

The main reason the property was not developed was because the older brother lost his eyesight.

Anyway, as the older brother's health worsened, the younger brother tended to his needs, carrying food to him through the maze. Then, one day, as Martin said, a portion of the maze collapsed on him, crushing him to death. The older brother, blind and paralyzed, died of starvation several days later.

Both brothers were found dead in the house in the spring of 1947.

The Crane boys decided that they liked spending time together, and they weren't going to be deterred by what others thought. Even if the Cranes were thought to be a lot like the Collyers.

An Uneasy Alliance

Tess (Shirley MacLaine): [in the grocery store] It's got no price at all.

Bob: Yes, ma'am. [over the radio] Uh, Doug, this is Bobby in canned goods, are you anywhere near the manager? I need a price check on Le Sueur baby peas, repeat, Le Sueur baby peas.

Doug (Nicolas Cage): Le Sueur baby peas.

Store Manager: They're on special today, two for .59.

Doug: They're on special today, two for .59.

Bob: Uh, copy that, it's two for .59.

Tess: But I only want one.

Bob: Uh, roger that, Doug, but she only wants one.

Doug: How much for just one?

Store Manager: The same. It's a two–for–one thing.

Doug: Uh, Bobby, it's a two–for–one thing so I suggest you go ahead and get both.

Bob: Uh, copy that, Doug, but I believe we've lost in interest in peas, repeat, lost interest in peas. Canned goods out.

Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine) was a demanding and stubborn woman, a former first lady who was "beloved" ... "as all first ladies of course are," wrote Roger Ebert, "with the possible exception of Nancy Reagan."

And it was the job of Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) to provide her with the protection to which she was entitled.

That job wasn't as easy as it might sound. Doug was intent on doing his job the way it was supposed to be done. Tess was intent on not allowing him to do his job the way it should be done.

I think Ebert made an astute observation when he said that Tess was "not elderly, or weak, or unintelligent, but she is lonely: During the film we see no friends, and her only relationships seem to be with her Service Service guards, her cooks, her secretary, her chauffeur and other employees."

Perhaps that explains a lot about her interaction with her protection detail. It was adversarial at times, but I always got the sense that Tess' relationship with her agents was special to her. In her own way, I think Tess was trying to prepare them for a world that she thought was more demanding than she was.

I found it intriguing that Ebert wrote of MacLaine, "I have never seen her in a role that I sense is closer to herself." He explained that he meant it in a complimentary sense, but he also spoke of Tess as a lonely, somewhat isolated and detached person, a micromanager.

I don't know if that really is an accurate description of MacLaine or not, but it is a good description of Tess.

Ebert made another interesting observation when he wrote that the relationship between Tess and Doug, the agent in charge, was not unlike the relationship in "Driving Miss Daisy."

"It isn't love, God forbid," he wrote, "but a certain respect for a tough opponent, and even some grudging affection."

Ebert admitted, though, that the movie took "an unanticipated turn," which he refused to reveal to the readers.

He wrote only that it was "handled well enough that it doesn't break the earlier mood of the movie but only underlines it." That's a good description.

I won't reveal that "unanticipated turn," either, except to say that it led to a satisfying final scene in which Doug and Tess indicated they had reached a mutual understanding, implying that things would be much smoother between them in the future.

It would have to be smoother than the relationship Tess had with her son (played by Edward Albert), who approached her for her endorsement of his commercial venture and was turned down. But the audience was aware that, privately, Tess had watched old footage of her husband's funeral, focusing on Doug in the crowd, and perhaps the viewers sensed that she had a certain fondness for him and his loyalty to her husband.

Personally, I enjoyed Cage's performance. I guess my favorite Cage performance will always be the one he gave in "Raising Arizona," but the one he gave in "Guarding Tess" ranks second with me.

Ebert concluded that MacLaine and Cage were quite good in their respective roles. "We feel for this man who has no life of his own — except to guard a woman who has no life of her own," he wrote.

Well said.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

"Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow."

Cole Porter

Most of the people I know will tell you they only glanced at a Shakespeare play when they were assigned to read one in school — and some of them didn't even do that. Shakespeare was widely seen as having no real relevance to modern readers.

Those folks probably would be shocked at how often they actually quote Shakespeare, some on a daily basis. He had a far greater influence on our modern English than you probably think.

For instance ...

A few months ago, when the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, the word assassination was used a lot, right? It is the word that has always been used when a prominent person is killed by someone else.

Or is it?

A person who murders a prominent person has been called an assassin for a long time. That word has Arabic roots that go back more than a thousand years. But the act of killing a prominent person was not called an assassination ... until Shakespeare came along and used that word in "Macbeth."

When Shakespeare was writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there was more freedom for writers to do what he did practically routinely — which was to take an existing word and sort of play with it, like a sculptor plays with clay, until a functional shape emerged. Thus, a noun like assassin became a verb (assassinate) — and yielded another noun to describe the action (assassination).

(Of course, we do quote Shakespeare in whole sentences or phrases, too, such as "all's well that ends well" or "foregone conclusion.")

When I was in school, I knew a lot of people who complained when they were assigned to read something Shakespeare had written. His language wasn't modern enough, they complained.

I'm not much of a linguist, but I am something of an historian, and I know that, if the idea was that Shakespeare wrote in Old English, that was plain wrong. Old English began to fall from favor several hundred years before Shakespeare was born.

(Old English really has a lot more in common with the Germanic mother tongue of the Anglo Saxons than modern English does.)

Shakespeare didn't write in Middle English, either. There were a lot of changes in the English language after the French–speaking Normans invaded in 1066, and Middle English came to prominence about 200 years before the Bard was born.

If my friends had to read the same text in both Middle English and Old English, they would find Middle English easier to comprehend — but not by much.

(If you don't believe me, try reading Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which was written in Middle English. Here's an excerpt from the prologue: "To telle yow al the condicioun, Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree, And eek in what array that they were inne, And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.")

In fact, Shakespeare wrote in what is known as Early Modern English. It came into use about a century before he was born and is nearly indistinguishable from the English that is written and spoken today.

Now, as you may have noticed, I have mentioned Shakespeare's birth a couple of times. That was intentional — or premeditated, to use another Shakespearean creation (from "King Henry VI, Part I") — because, in about six weeks, we will observe what is probably the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

I say "probably" not because it was a Shakespeare word — it might have been, I just don't know — but because it isn't known exactly when Shakespeare was born. It is known that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, and his date of birth, while not known for certain, has been traditionally observed on April 23.

If that is when he was born, then Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday because we know that he died on April 23, 1616.

The "Oxford English Dictionary" estimated that Shakespeare created some 3,000 words that one can find in the dictionary today — words like countless, for example (from "Titus Andronicus").

That is an astonishing influence on the language, especially when you consider there was no dictionary in Shakespeare's day. The dictionary came into existence about a decade before he died. Shakespeare was sparsely educated, but he would have had no more resource for studying the language he spoke and wrote than anyone else of his time. Grammar texts didn't come along until a century — or more — after his death.

I'm inclined to think that it isn't so much the words that Shakespeare used that tend to confound people — it's the way they're arranged.

Of course, one cannot disregard the fact that words do change meaning — and some fall from use entirely — over time, which can affect the reader's comprehension.

But I still think a lot of the negative reaction to Shakespeare stems from his habit of organizing words in sentences in ways that sound strange to modern ears — even if the meaning isn't altered.

Need an example? Take this five–word sentence: "The governor made a speech."

You could arrange those words in six unique sentences that essentially say the same thing but in different word orders. (Warning: Sometimes it reads like something Yoda might write.)
The governor made a speech.
The governor a speech made.
Made a speech the governor.
Made the governor a speech.
A speech the governor made.
A speech made the governor.

The key to reading and enjoying Shakespeare's work is not learning another language. It is using the language you already know, sometimes rearranging the words in an order that makes sense to you. It really isn't that arduous.

In the meantime ...

The next time you hear the word addiction ("Henry V") or elbow ("King Lear") or rant ("Hamlet"), you can thank Shakespeare.

Of course, someone might have come up with those words someday, anyway. But who knows?

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Making a 'Splash'

Allen (Tom Hanks): Freddie, the woman learned how to speak English in a single afternoon.

Freddie (John Candy): She could probably speak English already. I think she was in shock from bein' arrested, y'know?

Allen: Well, now, what about that, huh? What about a woman showing up naked in a public place, Freddie?

Freddie: Well, I'm for it, of course.

"Splash," which premiered 30 years ago today, was a thoroughly endearing movie.

How could it not be? Its cast — Tom Hanks, John Candy, Daryl Hannah — was young and fresh, at least in most eyes.

So, too, was its director — although "fresh" probably wasn't the best word for Ron Howard, who had been a star of two wildly successful sitcoms in the years before becoming a director. He was young, though. He had just turned 30 a week before the movie's premiere.

Hanks was in his 20s and not yet the huge box–office draw he would shortly become. Since "Splash," he has been nominated for Oscars five times, winning two.

Candy, who played Hanks' brother (and would die almost 10 years to the day after "Splash" hit the theaters), was older than both Hanks and Howard and had appeared in several movies before but wasn't exactly a household word.

Hannah was the youngest and freshest face in the movie. Only 23 years old, Hannah had been in half a dozen movies but had never had the kind of exposure that "Splash" brought her.

Neither Candy nor Hannah have been nominated for Oscars, but Howard certainly has — twice, with one victory to his credit. Neither of his nominations, though, came for his work on "Splash."

As Madison the mermaid, Hannah was the object of Hanks' affection — and of the desires of countless males in the audience.

None of them were recognizable the first time the audience saw them. Hanks' character was only 8 years old and on vacation with his family near Cape Cod. He wound up in the water with a young girl, who, it was later revealed, was actually a mermaid.

Their encounter couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but the young Allen was smitten with the young Madison, and it was something he never forgot.

His story of seeing the young girl was dismissed as a hallucination, and perhaps his character believed that, but it influenced his future relationships.

The movie accelerated to the present day (1984), finding Allen and his brother Freddie (John Candy) running a fresh produce business together.

Despondent over a breakup, Allen departed for Cape Cod and wound up in the sea again — and, again, he encountered Madison, all grown up, who saved him. He managed to lose his wallet, which Madison found and took to a sunken ship at the bottom of the sea, where she pinpointed his location on a map.

(It didn't occur to me when I watched the movie that a sunken 18th– or 19th–century ship wouldn't have a map of modern–day Manhattan ...)

Then she made her way to land, where she strolled onto the Statue of Liberty grounds in what might be the movie's most memorable scene. When she was on dry land, she walked on two legs. When she returned to the sea, she reverted to her half–human, half–fish form.

Madison was arrested for indecent exposure. She was clearly guilty (as you can see from the picture at right, she had nothing to hide), and she was handed over to Allen, whose contact information was found in the wallet she carried.

She learned to speak English by watching TV in Allen's apartment, and she took her name from a New York street sign. She had great taste. She ate lobster — shell, too — when they went out to eat. (That made for some noteworthy dinner conversation, I'm sure.)

I thought it was a delightful movie to watch. Wish I had seen it on the big screen, but I didn't see it when it first came out, only after it was released on home video.

Critic Roger Ebert wasn't quite as impressed as I was. Oh, he liked the comely Hannah just fine as the mermaid, but he thought the casting was off in the male roles. He thought Candy and Hanks should have been reversed.

Hanks, he wrote, was "conventionally handsome and passably appealing, and he would do in a secondary role." Candy, on the other hand, was "the large, shambling, Charles Laughton type who has such a natural charisma that he's funny just standing there."

Maybe Ebert was right. With Candy in the lead role, it might have been funnier. It might have been more slapstick.

But I liked it the way it was. It had a nice blend of comedy with fantasy and romance.

Candy did demonstrate before he died that he was capable of dramatic (or semi–dramatic) acting, too, playing the role of lawyer Dean Andrews in "JFK."

Perhaps he could have kept "Splash" from being a totally slapstick movie, but I think Hanks made sure that it was a movie that could be interpreted on more than one level.

And that, I think, is what it deserved.