Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tough Love for Heretics

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Obviously, the station is so pleased with my show that they're looking for more of the same. They could hardly ask me to do another three hours. Imagine how exhausting that would be.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): And for you as well.

Frasier's call–in radio show was enjoying good ratings in the Frasier timeline on this night in 1999, and KACL, in the finest broadcasting tradition, decided that more of a good thing would be better.

So Frasier was asked to interview prospects to host a second psychiatric advice show, and he was enamored with one applicant, Dr. Nora (played by Christine Baranski and ostensibly modeled after conservative talk–show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger). She got Frasier's endorsement — and, consequently, the job.

Frasier was under the impression that Dr. Nora would be his protege, but he was shocked to discover that Dr. Nora was not at all what he thought.

"This is a woman who thinks the Spanish Inquisition was just tough love for heretics!" Frasier complained after hearing her rigid advice to her callers.

(Well, "advice" really doesn't seem like the right word. What Dr. Nora did was label her callers whore and slut and condemn things like premarital sex and divorce. Nor could her "advice" be regarded as constructive criticism. She berated callers in a manner that could only be seen as abusive.)

Frasier was mortified that he had recommended her and was about to withdraw his recommendation when Kenny the station manager popped in with the news that Dr. Nora's advice had the phones ringing off the hook. Some listeners loved her, some hated her, but, either way, they were listening, and that was what mattered to Kenny.

Dr. Nora even mocked Frasier on the air, and Frasier decided he had to find a way to get her off KACL. So he and Roz (Peri Gilpin) did some research and dug up some dirt they could use on her. They discovered that her doctorate was in physical education — "She's a gym teacher!" Frasier exclaimed with glee — and she had been divorced twice and had an affair with a married man.

But Niles pointed out something he had observed during one of Dr. Nora's broadcasts. Based on things she had said about mothers, he felt there were some issues there — and he was right. Dr. Nora was estranged from her mother, had been for years.

Frasier had been wondering if, by using the dirt against Dr. Nora, he would be sinking to her level, and he decided it would be best if he tried to help her. Naively believing that, as an experienced therapist, he could reunite Dr. Nora with her mother, he contacted her and brought her to Seattle without Dr. Nora's knowledge.

Roz had been personally insulted by what Dr. Nora said about single mothers (Roz challenged her to a fight, saying, "If you want, I'll take it out on the street." Dr Nora replied, "That wouldn't be fair. You'd have the home–field advantage") and wanted to even the score with her — violently. But Frasier insisted that his way was better.

Frasier then met the mother (played by Piper Laurie), who seemed to be precisely what he had imagined in their phone conversation — but once she and her daughter were reunited, her true colors came through.

In the control booth, Roz jumped up and down and clapped her hands. "You were right, Frasier!" she shouted as Dr. Nora pleaded on the air, unsuccessfully, for her mother's forgiveness and acceptance. "Your way *is* better!"

The real Dr. Laura took offense — not because of the parody of her but because her mother was spoofed. That crossed the line, as far as she was concerned, because, while she was a public figure, her mother was not. And any journalist can tell you that commentary about public figures is protected as free speech, but commentary about private citizens is another matter.

The episode was pulled from syndication for a time, but that ban seems to have been lifted. I have seen it on other networks on several occasions.

Both Baranski and Laurie received Emmy nominations for their guest appearances, but they lost to Tracey Ullman.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

David Bowie's Apocalyptic Vision

It's hard to say when I learned that critics were not infallible and that just because a critic didn't like something did not mean that I could not like it, either.

Seems like something everyone should know in a country that has always prided itself on freedom of speech, doesn't it? But even after a couple of centuries, the concept still is lost on some folks.

I guess there are those who apply the principle only to political discussion, but it applies to anything that can provoke more than one point of view.

In "Diamond Dogs," the album released by David Bowie 40 years ago today, Bowie fused the glam rock he helped to pioneer with apocalyptic visions from George Orwell's "1984."

It was a unique album with a unique album cover that, with Bowie portrayed as a man–dog creature, earned a spot on Billboard's list of 20 banned album covers. (The original cover showed the Bowie creature's genitalia; the revised cover had that part removed.)

Ken Emerson of Rolling Stone couldn't decide if the music was "masturbatory fantasies, guilt–ridden projections [or] terrified premonitions." He only seemed to know he didn't like it. It was, he wrote, "perhaps Bowie's worst album in six years."

In Bowie's earlier works, Emerson wrote that Bowie "challenged us and our music, both mired in a deathly complacency, to change."

"His best songs were deft, vivid constructions," Emerson wrote, "utilizing all the tricks of the Sixties trade and recharging them with the force of his personality and imagination, pushing them into the Seventies."

But Bowie's album sales in the U.S. had never been as strong as they were in the U.K. Consequently, Emerson wondered if "this may have prompted Bowie to hope that if America didn't eat him up when he was good, it might when he was bad."

I wasn't old enough at the time to grasp the issues surrounding the album. I just knew that I liked much of the music, particularly "Rebel, Rebel." Earlier, I liked "Space Oddity" and "Changes." Later on, I liked "Young Americans," "Fame" and "Golden Years."

I can't claim that I liked every song on "Diamond Dogs," but I liked many.

"No sooner had he proclaimed a new age than he turned his back on it and retreated to nostalgia," Emerson wrote, dismissing "Rebel, Rebel" as "an attempt at a 1964 smash."

Diamond Dogs seems to have had a number of meanings over the years. It's been the name of wiki applications, a movie, even a dog kennel. These days, Mississippi State's baseball team is known as the Diamond 'Dogs, but it was exclusively (as nearly as I can tell) the name of Bowie's album 40 years ago.

I get the feeling, from Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review for Allmusic.com, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"Diamond Dogs isn't a total waste," Erlewine wrote, "but it is the first record since Space Oddity where Bowie's reach exceeds his grasp."

It was a good idea, using Orwell's book as the main theme, but, in Erlewine's words, it "evolved into another one of Bowie's paranoid future nightmares." Maybe he was right about that. I read Orwell's book some years later, expecting to see clear connections between the book and the songs on Bowie's album. Some did have such a connection, others obviously did not.

And what of the song "1984," which was so clearly inspired by Orwell's book (even if that was not so clearly the case with the other songs on the album)?

When it made its debut on TV's The Midnight Special, it was "a powerful song," Emerson wrote.

But on the album, he said, it was "sickly, and a fluttery string arrangement cannot beef it up."

Be that as it may, I liked it. Maybe I was too young to know what good music was, but I knew what I liked.

After 40 years, I suppose it is anyone's guess whether the future that Bowie sang about has come to pass — or is still yet to come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bette Davis' Victory Over the Dark

"Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory — our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid."

Judith (Bette Davis)

(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 fourth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
"Dark Victory," the Hal Wallis–directed movie that premiered 75 years ago today, had a star–studded cast — but anyone who comes across it while channel surfing and hopes to see a lot of Humphrey Bogart or Ronald Reagan or George Brent or Geraldine Fitzgerald will be disappointed.

Well, I suppose Brent had more screen time than the others. Not only was he Davis' doctor, but they got married as well. Still, this was purely a Bette Davis vehicle. The others were there, I suppose, because it couldn't be a one–woman show. They had their parts to play, and they played them well.

But make no mistake about it: "Dark Victory" was Davis' movie.

It was a bit melodramatic for my taste. Davis played a young heiress who likes horses, fast cars and partying. She's been ignoring headaches and dizzy spells, but when her vision is affected, she goes to see a doctor (Brent).

It is determined that Davis' character has an inoperable brain tumor. The diagnosis is confirmed by experts.

It is at this point that one sees a big difference between the way patients were handled in the 1930s and the way they are treated today.

In "Dark Victory," the option of deliberately concealing Davis' terminal condition from her is openly discussed by her doctor and best friend (Fitzgerald). It is even the strategy that is used for a time — until Davis' character learns the truth on her own.

I have to think that, in the 21st century, doctors would advocate being honest with their patients, even when the truth is unpleasant, and most patients probably want to play active roles in their treatment, to make choices as long as possible.

Still, it was consistent with a general theme of denial. Early in the movie, Davis' character ignores warning signs; it is never mentioned whether she might have been saved if a doctor had been aware of those symptoms earlier. Perhaps medical science had not found a preventive measure for that condition — perhaps it still hasn't — and medical personnel of that time believed it was kinder to ignore a terminal condition than confront it with the patient.

In the end, Davis' character clung to her denial strategy, sending her husband off knowing that she would soon be dead but never acknowledging the gravity of her condition. (You'd think that, being a physician, especially the one who made the original diagnosis, her husband would be aware of her declining condition. But he never showed any sign of that in the movie.)

I suppose that is in keeping with a long–standing American tradition of suffering in silence.

Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times that "[a] completely cynical appraisal would dismiss it all as emotional flim–flam ... But it is impossible to be that cynical about it."

Perhaps that makes me cynical then. I found the story to be, as I have said, melodramatic. Davis was nominated for Best Actress, but when I first watched "Dark Victory," I felt she was guilty of overacting — and, in hindsight, I am glad Vivien Leigh won for "Gone With the Wind."

Leigh's was a better performance, anyway.

'The Crooked Way' Was Routine Film Noir

I wouldn't call myself an expert in the film noir genre, but, if someone asked me to recommend a movie from that genre, there are several I could choose.

Unless that person needed a title that could serve as a source for some sort of article or term paper, though, I doubt that I would recommend "The Crooked Way," which premiered 65 years ago today.

The plot of "The Crooked Way" was intriguing. A war hero (John Payne) returned to America after suffering a head injury that left him with permanent amnesia (no other details were offered; I guess it was one of those scriptwriter devices, and a cliched one at that, even in 1949). There were many things he didn't know or remember, one of which was that, before he went to war, he had been a violent criminal.

Armed with only the knowledge that he enlisted in Los Angeles, he returned to the area hoping to find someone who could tell him who he was before the war. Almost immediately, he encountered people who had known him before he enlisted — and would be happy to see him dead.

Even with amnesia, Payne's character was able to put two and two together. I mean, he lost his memory, not his intelligence.

He ran across his former wife (Ellen Drew) and all sorts of characters from his previous life. She had a lot of difficulty believing that he had lost his memory, and she wasn't too keen on helping him at first.

I suppose I thought that Drew was the lone bright spot in the cast. Everyone else seemed wooden to me, even Payne, who was the top–billed performer, but no one seemed capable of any real passion. They never sounded as if they were speaking naturally. They never appeared to be acting naturally.

But I had to acknowledge that the cast was only as good as its material, and the story's flow was pretty uneven.

As I say, it is an intriguing idea. I just didn't think the script lived up to the potential.

Having said that, though, there were a couple of things about the movie that I could recommend. While it probably isn't a very good choice to stand as a representative of the film noir genre, it is an interesting subject for anyone who is a student of filmmaking.

In this particular case, the movie was noteworthy for its camerawork, which was done by John Alton. Alton's involvement in his most noteworthy projects — "Father of the Bride," "The Teahouse of the August Moon" and "Elmer Gantry" — came later, but he had acquired a reputation for avant–garde camera angles when he did the work on "The Crooked Way."

The other thing falls under the heading of movie/TV trivia, I guess.

In a relatively brief scene set in a place called "Green Acres," actors Frank Cady and Percy Helton appeared in small roles. That is noteworthy, as folks who remember sitcoms of the '60s will tell you, because Cady and Helton were featured in the Green Acres series.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Diamond Dreams

"If you build it, he will come."

The Voice in "Field of Dreams"

I know men of all ages who get emotional over the ending of "Field of Dreams." Even today, 25 years after its premiere — and after countless viewings.

I agree it's a good movie, but I guess I'm an exception because I have never become teary–eyed about it.

The performances are great. I especially liked Burt Lancaster, in one of his last movie appearances, as Doc Moonlight Graham.

While I'm on the subject, there really was a Moonlight Graham, and, apparently, relatively few liberties were taken with the facts of his life. The most noteworthy liberty was that the real Moonlight Graham made his only major–league appearance nearly two decades earlier than the one in the movie — and it came in the middle of the season rather than the final day of the season.

Moonlight Graham really did go into medicine, really did live in Chisholm, Minn., really did all those selfless things of which they spoke in the movie. I don't think the movie ever mentioned it, but Graham was born in North Carolina. Most viewers probably assumed he was a native of Minnesota.

So ...

Maybe Graham should have spoken in a more pronounced Southern accent when he was portrayed as a younger man, but Lancaster's accent was not a problem for me. After all, he was portraying Moonlight Graham after he had lived in Minnesota for half a century. His speech patterns had to have been affected by what he heard every day.

(I grew up in the South, but I have been told by many people that I don't have much of an accent. I'm really not sure how to account for that — except that my parents lived many places, including overseas, and I never really thought they had much of an accent, either, other than their use of the second–person y'all. I always assumed that was because of their exposure to other accents, and I picked up their speech patterns.)

In real life, Graham died in 1965. The shift in the timeline made it necessary for his death to be in 1972 in the movie.

Otherwise, it seems to have been true to the facts.

Doc Graham was a minor character in "Field of Dreams," though. Audiences discovered that the story really was about Kevin Costner's character, the one through whom the audience first heard the cryptic murmur, "If you build it, he will come."

It turned out to be about Costner and his father, but, for awhile there, most first–time viewers probably thought Doc Graham would be the mysterious he.

After all, Costner was the one who built the baseball field in the middle of his cornfield (and, really, I had to wonder just how many spouses would have been as easygoing about that as Amy Madigan). Costner went on an inexplicable trip to the East where he hijacked a reclusive writer (James Earl Jones) in an apparently vain attempt to make sense of the Voice's one–liners.

The hints that the perplexing comment would turn out to be about Costner and his relationship with his father were all around, and some viewers probably picked up on it, but I didn't.

So the finish came as a surprise to me — but I don't get all blubbery about it whenever I see it.

Maybe I should. After all, the finish is about the symbolic ritual of the son (Costner) playing catch with his father, the bonding experience between father and son. I think many men get emotional because it reminds them of their experiences of bonding with their own fathers.

Not me.

When I was a child, my father was a college professor, and he spent most of the daylight hours on campus. Usually, I was still in bed when he left in the morning, and I was back in bed when he came home at night. When he wasn't in the classroom, he was in his office or the library.

Anyway, we never played catch, as far as I can recall. Maybe once or twice, but it wasn't a big bonding experience. My father preferred to play chess.

Maybe if we had played catch more, the ending of "Field of Dreams" would have had more relevance for me.

But, you know, if bonding really is the point of "Field of Dreams," then it isn't just about a ritual, but it's also about the links that live on from one generation to the next.

Costner's character had a falling out with his father when he was a teenager, but they shared a love of baseball that survived his father's death.

My father and I bonded over other things.

He even taught me how to play chess.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Day's Dream

Did you ever notice how much dreams figured in the career of Doris Day (who recently marked her 90th birthday)?

This isn't a joke. I'm serious.

Her second hit song was "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time."

She had a 10–inch LP called "I'll See You in My Dreams," which was the soundtrack for one of her movies, and she had two 12–inch LPs, "Day Dreams" and "I Have Dreamed" (which had seven songs that included the word dream in the title).

She appeared in two movies that had dream in the title and one TV short from the mid–1960s, "Every Girl's Dream."

Well, to be fair, I guess dreams do figure prominently in the existence of entertainers. In a sense, it is their business to sell dreams. I guess they aren't much different from sales people — except that they have to be entertaining. They're not selling a product; they're selling a mood, a state of mind. That's the key difference.

Most entertainers are not as obvious; they find synonyms (suitable ones for dream, for example, are "imagine/imagination," "fantasy," "thought," "reverie" and so on) to use.

But Doris Day was more direct with her fans, I suppose. And, to be fair, few entertainers have been as entitled to dream — even after it seemed their dreams came true — as Day.

At one time a frequent star of the big screen, Day hasn't been in a movie since the death of her husband/manager in 1968 left her penniless and deep in debt. She re–created herself for the small screen of television.

Initially, her dream was to be a dancer, but after she nearly died in a car crash, she refocused her attention on singing and acting.

In her mid–20s, she made her big–screen debut in a movie with Jack Carson, and a partnership of sorts was born. It may seem as if she made many more movies, but Day was in 39 — some with Carson, and, more widely remembered, some with Rock Hudson.

Her second movie, director Michael Curtiz's "My Dream Is Yours," which premiered 65 years ago today, also co–starred Carson.

Like many of Day's movies, "My Dream Is Yours" was so light and airy it could have floated away on its own.

Carson played theatrical manager for Day, a widowed mom. He took her to Hollywood where she became a star. Her blossoming career, achieved in part at the expense of another performer for whom she has feelings, keeps them apart through most of the film — but not, apparently, off screen.

Suffice to say, the plot was not really the main attraction for the movie — nor is it today.

But, whereas Day was certainly an attraction for audiences in 1949, today the main attraction is to see an early example of a truly Roger Rabbitesque touch.

Day and Carson, dressed in bunny suits, did a live action/animation sequence with Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird (voices supplied by the late Mel Blanc) to "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" by Franz Liszt.

Now that was a dream sequence.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Road Trippin'

Martin (John Mahoney): Remember the old days, Niles? When they were kids, all they had in the back seat was a mayonnaise jar!

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Yes, it took quite a bit of skill to use it successfully at 70 miles per hour! Never really been fond of mayonnaise since.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Or speed bumps.

"Travels With Martin," the episode of Frasier that first aired 20 years ago tonight, may be my favorite episode of the long–running series' first season.

And that really is saying a lot — because I like all the episodes in that first season. OK, I like just about all of the episodes in all 11 seasons, but "Travels With Martin" was special. Maybe that was because it reminded me of my childhood so much.

My family always went on road trips in the summer. My father was a college professor, and my mother was a stay–at–home mom until the economy forced her to return to the workplace.

(Actually, there may have been more to it than that. Mom was a teacher for several years before she started having children, but she stayed in the home to look after my brother and me; then, as my brother and I got into our teen years, she may have had a yearning to resume her teaching career.

(She went back to school, got her master's in education and taught until the day she died. Literally.

(But I digress.)

My father didn't teach during the summer (the small college where he worked didn't have summer classes in those days), so we always took advantage of the fact that everyone in the family was free in the summer and went on family trips, usually (but not always) to places where friends lived.

My parents had friends scattered all over the eastern United States, so I got to see a lot of interesting sights in that half of the country when I was young. I grew up in the heat of the South, but I spent many Fourth of July holidays in much cooler areas — Vermont, upstate New York, even Maine on one occasion. Looking back, I can probably count on one hand how many times I spent the Fourth of July in my hometown.

Consequently, when I saw that episode of Frasier 20 years ago tonight, it brought back many memories.

Frasier decided he wanted to bond with his father so he suggested that they go somewhere on his vacation. The destination, he said, was up to Martin, who said he wanted to see America first and he wanted to see it in a Winnebago. Niles turned down the offer to join them — until he found out that Daphne (Jane Leeves), their health care worker from Great Britain, would be going with them.

Of course, my family never traveled with a guest from another country who didn't have a green card yet and then took that guest across the border — which was precisely the problem the Cranes encountered.

Mind you, we did travel with guests from other countries from time to time. My parents were missionaries in Africa early in their marriage, and there were friends with whom they worked in Africa who returned to the United States around the same time as my parents. We visited them.

And my parents had friends from the countries where they lived and worked who came to visit them in the United States from time to time. I don't think we ever took them across the border into Canada or Mexico, so the subject of whether they had their green cards never came up.

But it became an issue for the Cranes, who had gone on a road trip to Mount Rushmore with Daphne in tow. Martin, armed with the knowledge that they had a week off, had calculated that they could get to Mount Rushmore, look at the monument and then return to Seattle in seven days.

But after they embarked on their trip, they decided to just go where the wind took them. And, while Daphne was napping in the back of the Winnebago they had rented, the wind blew them across the border into Canada.

Daphne didn't have her green card, and she had been forbidden from leaving the country until she received it.

So the Cranes tried to smuggle her back across the border, but they were stopped and questioned by a border guard.

They got around that one and headed for home.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What If ...?

"If he loved you with all the power of his soul for a whole lifetime, he couldn't love you as much as I do in a single day."

Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier)

(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 third of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Emily Brontë would have been a terrific writer for Twilight Zone if such a thing had existed in the 19th century. Her book "Wuthering Heights" and the first of four movie adaptations based on it are perfect examples.

Of course, the William Wyler–directed movie, which premiered 75 years ago today, differs from the book. It told the story of the romance of Heathcliff and Cathy, to be sure, but it said nothing about their children, who play significant roles in the end of the book. In fact, in the movie, Heathcliff and Cathy have no children.

Having read the novel many years ago, I am inclined to think the book really was the Gothic romance it is said to be, but the movie was something different, largely because it left out that second generation stuff.

It was useful as a cautionary tale, I suppose, about jealousy and hostility.

There was also a certainly element of dishonesty — I suppose filmmakers would call it creative license. Although the story was set in the Yorkshire moors of northern England, the filming was done in California. That is the sort of thing that is done all the time, I guess, and is easily excusable, but, given the location of Yorkshire, I would have expected to hear more of a Scottish accent than I heard from the cast. All British accents are not the same.

Another thing: When I saw "Wuthering Heights" for the first time on some movie channel, I felt that there wasn't the kind of chemistry — perhaps passion is a better word for it — between Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) that would be expected.

If I didn't simply imagine that, perhaps it was because Olivier had wanted Vivien Leigh, his lover and future wife, to be his co–star. But Leigh was not yet a major star — she became one when "Gone With the Wind" came out later that year — and producer Samuel Goldwyn opted for Oberon.

Or was that the reason?

If legend is to be believed, Olivier and Oberon did not like each other, to put it mildly, and I'm kind of inclined to wonder whether Oberon was more of a star than Leigh at that point, but I'm also inclined to think that star power wasn't the driving force. Hungarian producer Alexander Korda had sold half of Oberon's contract to Goldwyn so casting her in the role of Cathy may have been purely a financial decision.

Frankly, Oberon never matched the mental image I had of Cathy when I read the book. If I could have chosen, I probably would have chosen Leigh to play the role. She came much closer to being the Cathy I imagined.

It's intriguing, isn't it, to think of how different movie history might have been.

If Oberon had not been cast in the role of Cathy, if the part had gone instead to Leigh, who would have played Scarlett in "Gone With the Wind?"

"Wuthering Heights" almost certainly would have had more passion — and might well have won Best Picture and/or other Oscars it lost, too. It was nominated for eight Oscars as it was — and actually won one, for black–and–white cinematography.

But it lost Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Geraldine Fitzgerald) as well as nominations for screenplay, score and art direction. Five of those awards went to "Gone With the Wind."

Some still recognize "Wuthering Heights" as one of the great movies of its type. The American Film Institute ranked it 15th on its all–time list of romance movies.

1939 was a banner year for movies, half a dozen of which made AFI's Top 100 romance list, but only one — "Gone With the Wind" — rated higher than "Wuthering Heights."

If Leigh, not Oberon, had co–starred with Olivier, would their screen passion have changed movie history? Or, at least, the order of some of AFI's lists?

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

I liked Roger Ebert's lead paragraph in his "Dead Calm" review: "The key image of 'Dead Calm' is of two ships drawing near each other in the middle of a vast, empty expanse of ocean. The emotions generated by this shot, near the beginning of the film, underlie everything that follows, making us acutely aware that help is not going to arrive from anywhere, that the built–in protections of civilization are irrelevant and that the characters will have to settle their own destinies."

That really summarizes things well. The ocean was a player in the movie — at times a barrier from both good and evil, at other times completely neutral, but always there. The lesson was clear — the rules of dry land do not apply on the high seas.

(Actually, in these days of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the speculation that it may have crashed in the Indian Ocean, "Dead Calm" is not a bad metaphor. When it is said the plane apparently ran out of fuel in a remote portion of that ocean, it's worth remembering that scene to which Ebert referred.

(Technology has changed many things in the lifetimes of most of us, but it still has not overcome things like time and space. In an era when technology seems to bring everyone in the world closer together and that it really does seem to be a small world after all, it is folly to forget that there are still places in this world that are as unknown to us as the surfaces of distant planets — or that we humans are mere specks occupying this blue–green ball floating in space.)

I had never heard of Nicole Kidman before "Dead Calm" premiered 25 years ago today.

She had been in several movie and TV projects, but they, like "Dead Calm," were Australian projects. I don't recall many Australian movies that made it to the American market in the '80s.

Her co–star, Billy Zane, had had a few small roles in movies like "Back to the Future," but he hadn't received a lot of attention.

After I saw "Dead Calm," I knew who both were. Each received international acclaim. Deservedly so.

That was appropriate, I suppose, because their characters really didn't like each other. At all. It seemed to come so naturally from them that it didn't seem as if it could be acting.

Well, Kidman's character was sympathetic at first, but that didn't last. And Zane's character, well, he was psychopathic.

Even though she was a familiar face in Australia, Kidman was still young (21) and virtually unknown. Zane wasn't much older (23). Their ages really weren't important to the story.

They had to be that young, I suppose. Most older characters probably wouldn't be as plausibly hostile to each other. Oh, I suppose a few might be, but most older characters seem to have a kind of grandparent quality. They're more likely to bake cookies for you or take you fishing than to attack you.

Kidman had to be young to be a believable mother, I suppose — although women don't always become mothers when they are truly young, do they? I was the first child in my family, and my mother was nearly 30 when I was born. So Kidman's character could, conceivably, have been older — but I doubt that Zane's could have. And he would have gotten the best of most of the 30–something women I have known (none of whom had the energy to keep up with a toddler).

When the story began, Kidman's character and her husband (an Australian naval officer played by Sam Neill) lost their young son in a car crash. To help them recover from their loss, they took their yacht on a vacation to the Pacific, where, just when it seemed they were beginning to mend, they encountered a drifting schooner that was taking on water.

A man (Zane) rowed over to the yacht in a dinghy, explained that his boat was taking on water and that everyone on board had died of food poisoning. Neill's character was suspicious so he decided to go over to the boat and check out the situation. He left Zane with Kidman — when I first saw the movie, I thought at the time that was his biggest mistake even though everything seemed to be under control. Zane, apparently exhausted from his ordeal, was asleep, and the door to his cabin was locked from the outside. (I remember wondering at the time why the door locked from the outside.) My fear was confirmed as the movie played out.

Neill found the corpses of Zane's companions — and a video tape that suggested Zane had killed them all in some kind of maniacal frenzy. He tried to return to his yacht, but, by the time he got there, Zane had awakened, knocked out Kidman and sailed away. Neill really had no choice but to return to the ship and try to repair it.

He would spend most of the rest of the movie repairing the schooner and then trying to catch up to his yacht.

In the meantime, the still emotionally fragile Kidman tried everything to persuade Zane to turn around and go back for her husband. She even pretended, at one point, to be attracted to him (after she had exhausted her bag of tricks) and yielded to his advances.

But she hated him — and he hated her, too — and she was constantly trying to contact her husband by radio and figure out a way to get the yacht back to where he was.

Actually, I think the movie would have been a first–rate thriller if not for a few things that I just never could work my way around.

It could have been a great story about the resourcefulness of a woman who apparently knew little about sailing before the trip but managed to learn a great deal about it — mostly on her own (perhaps recalling instructions her husband once gave her but of which the audience knew nothing) — when her husband's life was on the line.

To make her way back to the schooner (the radar equipment indicated the distance between them was more than 40 miles), Kidman had to overcome Zane, tie him up and lock two doors that he would have to get through to reach her. Of course, he did, and she had to fend him off again, this time using a speargun.

Then, with no fuel left and daylight fading, Kidman managed to use the sails to maneuver the yacht to where Neill had set fire to the rapidly sinking schooner, watching it sink from some debris, and then fired a flare into the sky, all to signal his wife. He hoped — but couldn't know — she had seen it.

I found it a little implausible — but then I realized that, being the novice at sailing that she was and probably having been raised with a moral code that prevented her from killing another human, even in the extreme circumstance of oceanic isolation, it was an understandable response to the situation.

The first time I watched the movie, I asked myself, "Why didn't he take the dinghy?" As far as I knew, there was nothing wrong with it.

And I had to agree with Ebert. Kidman's character should have killed Zane instead of tying him up. She knew what he was. She knew he had left her husband to die, and he would probably do the same to her eventually.

I understood that she played along with his naive fantasy that they were a couple on vacation in the Pacific in order to survive. But, when she had seized control of the yacht and had the upper hand, she kept him as a prisoner. How long did she intend to maintain that? After she picked up her husband, would they make a beeline for the nearest port to turn him over to the authorities? You couldn't tell from the movie. Perhaps it was explained in the book upon which the movie was based.

At sea, as in space, no one can hear you scream. And every minute Kidman wasted fending off Zane cost her precious time. Still, she tied him up.

So that part didn't make sense to me.

But neither did the ending, when it appeared that Zane was out of their lives forever — only to pop up suddenly like the hand that comes out of the dirt at the end of "Carrie."

There were other inconsistencies, much more modest and easier to explain. And, in the end, I had to say the performances were genuine.

But I still felt it was a flawed movie in many ways, and not the least of its flaws was its over–the–top conclusion.

I had to agree with Washington Post critic Desson Howe, who wrote, "For much of the movie, you're enthralled. By the end, you're laughing."

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Art Imitates Life

I have admired Goldie Hawn and Steven Spielberg for so long that I can't recall a time when I did not admire them.

My admiration for Spielberg probably began 40 years ago shortly after he released his first theatrical feature, "The Sugarland Express," which starred Hawn and was based on a true story. It made its theatrical debut on this day in 1974.

It was perhaps a year later when I saw it — not long before "Jaws" premiered.

As Roger Ebert wrote, though, "[L]ike so many things in Texas, it seems like a fantasy anyway."

That's true enough. I've lived in Texas for the last 18 years, nearly 22 years of the last 26, and I visited here for a long time before that. Both sets of grandparents lived here so my family spent many holidays here.

Even though I did not grow up here, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of how things are here. And there is a surreal quality to some things that happen here, like the case of the woman in Houston who was charged with trying to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival.

Or the time the Texas Seven escaped from prison and remained on the loose during the Christmas holidays.

Whenever something like that happens in Texas, you can't help but shake your head and wonder what they were thinking. How in the world did they think they could get away with what they were trying to do?

Many years ago, I recall, there was a television commercial that sought to boost Texas tourism. Its catchphrase was "The rules are different here."

Sometimes you've got to wonder if there are any rules.

I guess that is how it was for the original couple in the story.

I've heard nothing that indicates the atmosphere in the police car occupied by the couple and the patrolman was genial. I don't know if everything in the movie was literally what happened — I do happen to know that some liberties were taken; more on that later — but I get the feeling that it wasn't all that far from the truth.

"The actual event took place in 1969," wrote Ebert, "and the young couple involved got a lot of sympathy from the folks along their route. Spielberg uses the story to comment on the ways Americans have of turning events into happenings."

That much certainly hasn't changed.

Remember when O.J. Simpson was the prime suspect in his wife's murder but had not been charged yet? Remember the low–speed car chase involving the Bronco in which Simpson was a passenger and perhaps two dozen police cars that were following it?

I thought of "The Sugarland Express" when I saw that — because "The Sugarland Express" has an ongoing chase that is very similar. As in the movie, folks lined the highway to see Simpson go by. I don't remember exactly, but there were probably some people who held up signs encouraging him — just like in the movie.

But I'm quite sure that the movie chase involved more than two dozen police cars.

The chase wound through all sorts of small towns along the way, and the hijacked police car went through slowly, giving the couple a chance to bond with the locals and even get a few creature comforts.

At one point, the option of bypassing a community was discussed, but Hawn wouldn't hear of it. She wanted to see the people, and she wanted the people to see her.

(I mentioned earlier my admiration for Hawn. I must confess that I wasn't so much an admirer of her acting as I was an admirer of her anatomy. What can I say? I was a young boy when I first saw her on Laugh–In, and I've always had something of a crush on her, I suppose. I don't think she is a great actress, but her performance in "The Sugarland Express" was exceptionally good.)

The line of police cars was led by a captain played by Ben Johnson. His character claimed never to have killed anyone in 18 years of service, and he wanted to keep that record intact. He was a straight shooter in his dealings with the fugitive couple, and I can only hope the real–life couple had someone like him with whom to negotiate.

In the movie, Hawn's character helps her husband (William Atherton) break out of pre–release prison farm so they can go retrieve their 2–year–old son from the foster home where he has been placed. Her husband only had four months left on his sentence, but Hawn's sense of urgency and threat to leave him convinced him to go along with her plan.

They hijacked a police car (and the patrolman in it), and they were off on their trek across south Texas.

Before that, they also hijacked an elderly couple's car in one of the best scenes in the movie.

But they ended up in that police car after they crashed the old folks' vehicle. I don't know if that really happened or not.

But back to the liberties that I know were taken ...

Probably the greatest one was the fact that the wife in the real story didn't spring her husband from jail the way Hawn did in the movie. He was already out.

But that part of the story wouldn't have made "The Sugarland Express" what it was.

Actually, "The Sugarland Express" wasn't very successful financially. It made a profit of less than $10 million over its budget. I'm guessing that came as a surprise to Spielberg, given the fact that movie audiences who flocked to see "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider" only a few years earlier no longer seemed to have much of a taste for movies with sad endings.

Seldom has Spielberg been accused of misreading the popular mood, but, when he has, he usually comes back even stronger the next time out.

Perhaps that image got its start 40 years ago. Spielberg's next project (for the same producers) was "Jaws," which made more than $470 million.

Forty Years Since Stephen King's First Published Novel

"People don't get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don't stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it."

Stephen King
"Carrie" (1974)

My guess is that relatively few teenagers have not fantasized about doing something at least similar to what Carrie White did to her classmates in Stephen King's first published novel, "Carrie," which was published 40 years ago today.

The book was faithfully dramatized in the 1976 movie starring Sissy Spacek, although it left out quite a bit, as most movies do.

Anyway, Carrie (short for Carietta) was a very reserved high school girl who happened to have a special gift — telekinetic powers. That fact was unknown to her classmates, as was her struggle to control those powers. Actually, Carrie didn't know about them By her senior year, when the book opened, Carrie was losing that struggle.

In everyone's childhood, I suppose, there was the odd kid, the social outcast who was tormented by everyone else practically from the first day of first grade. Kids always seem to instinctively know who among them is the odd kid, and they gang up on him/her.

For many people, it is their first exposure to bullying. That must be why the book struck such a nerve. If you weren't the child who had been singled out — and I am sure most people were secretly thankful that they were not that singularly unfortunate child — the sight of the kind of cruelty of which nearly everyone is capable ushered in the end of innocence for nearly everyone long before the traditionally accepted innocence–taking events in one's life, like one's first beer or first cigarette.

(I have long wondered why those kinds of events, along with losing one's virginity, are always so important to adults who, on some sort of level, must wish their children would remain children forever — and who need shorter memories than their elders to recall the circumstances under which they lost their own innocence.

(If the truth is known, it must surely have been in the elementary school playground, not the family car, where just about everyone really lost their innocence. That probably was where they first saw how someone who differs from the rest of the group is treated. Shamefully, in most cases.

(I have also thought that, in a culture like this one that obsesses about bullying, "Carrie" might be a good cautionary tale for parents to share with their children. Unfortunately, most adults these days seem to prefer to watch a movie than read, which doesn't set much of an example for their youngsters.

(But I digress.)

Carrie was the odd kid in her school, always had been. As she became aware of her gift, she also became aware that she had less and less control of it. On prom night, when the tormenting went over the line, she permitted those powers to wreak havoc on her tormenters.
"Late at night I keep thinking: if I had only reached to that girl, if only, if only."

While it was King's first published novel, it was the fourth he had written. I became a fan the first time I read that book — yes, I have read it more than once. I haven't read all his books, but I have read many of them over the years.

King had no faith in "Carrie," I hear. In fact, he originally wanted to scrap the scene in the school shower where the overly protected Carrie first learned of menstruation. He threw those rough draft pages away, but his wife retrieved them and urged him to finish it.

He followed her advice — and popular fiction is better off for it.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Beatles' Historic High Five

The Beatles did something 50 years ago today that no one — not Elvis, not Mitch Miller, not Bob Dylan — had ever done — and no one has done since.

Their recordings occupied the top five spots in Billboard's Top 100.

"Can't Buy Me Love" was in the top spot. "Twist and Shout" was second.

Number three on the list was "She Loves You," followed by "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me."

All five songs are among the Beatles' all–time Top 20 hits, according to Billboard.

The Beatles were less than two months removed from their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, but they were thoroughly dominating the music scene in America as Billboard's chart clearly demonstrated. Along with the top five spots, the Beatles held an additional seven positions in the Top 100:
  • #31 — "I Saw Her Standing There"
  • #41 — "From Me to You"
  • #46 — "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"
  • #58 — "All My Loving"
  • #65 — "You Can't Do That"
  • #68 — "Roll Over Beethoven"
  • #79 — "Thank You Girl"
A week later, the Beatles placed two more hits in the Top 100 — "There's a Place" and "Love Me Do" — giving them an incredible 14 songs on the list. In the last half–century, only the Bee Gees have come close to matching the Beatles' accomplishment, charting five songs in the Top 20, thanks to the wave of popularity for the music from "Saturday Night Fever" in March 1978.

Three of those top five songs (plus "A Hard Day's Night," "Love Me Do" and "I Feel Fine") were #1 at some point in 1964, setting a record for the most #1 hits in a single calendar year. (The exceptions were "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me.")

Five of their songs reached #1 in 1965.

Beatlemania was for real.

A Signature Serenade

When I was a small child, my parents had an old stereo and a rather meager collection of records — both of which were stored on a shelf that was just high enough that I couldn't reach it even if I climbed up on the shelves.

I guess my parents managed to stay one step ahead of me.

A few of the records in that collection were mine — and my brother's, too, after he was born. They tended to be narrated children's stories with sound effects, and they were scattered among my parents' records. At times, I knew exactly what I wanted to hear — and sometimes I climbed up that shelf to get one. I wasn't old enough to read, but I could tell from the picture if the album was one of mine or one of my parents'.

Didn't matter, really. As I say, I still couldn't reach them, and I gave up trying after a couple of attempts. Good thing, too. I could have been seriously hurt if I had fallen.

In my parents' collection was a set of Glenn Miller recordings, and I remember watching them dance to the songs in our modest living room. They didn't dance often, but, when they did, they liked to dance to Glenn Miller.

When I got older, I could almost imagine what they must have been like when they were dating in college — dancing to Miller's music and the other popular recordings of that time with their friends — who I knew, of course, as older versions of themselves.

Anyway, when my parents danced together in our living room, one of their favorites was "Moonlight Serenade," which was recorded 75 years ago today.

It is often regarded as Miller's signature song, and it is easy to see why. It should make just about anyone's list of his greatest works.

Other people might name something else — personally, "In The Mood" has always stood out as Miller's best as far as I am concerned — but I think that most people could live with "Moonlight Serenade" as his signature song.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Streaking the Oscars

"Oh, yes, they call him the Streak
Look at that, look at that
He likes to show off his physique
Look at that, look at that
If there's an audience to be found
He'll be streakin' around
Invitin' public critique"

Ray Stevens ("The Streak" 1974)

The '70s were loaded with ridiculous fads — pet rocks, mood rings, leisure suits, lava lamps. The list goes on and on.

Every generation, every decade has its fads, but the '70s seemed to specialize in fads to an extent that no other decade has. I always thought one of the strangest fads of that decade was streaking — the practice of shedding one's clothes (and inhibitions) and sprinting through some sort of public place.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I did streak once — as I recall, I was 13, and I did it on a dare.)

For whatever reason, streaking has lived on long after other fads from the decade faded. It isn't done as often as it once was. Sometimes the witnesses to a streak are few — in an out of the way park, for example — and other times there can be many witnesses — at a sporting event or a commencement ceremony — but it continues to be done.

Most of the time — in the '70s and today — streakers seem to be male. Heck, sometimes all you need is a frat house and a keg of beer and, before you know it, someone will take off his clothes and run down the street or something.

Of course, if he's inebriated, it might not be much of a run.

Occasionally, though, a woman does streak — and make headlines.

In the mid–1990s, for instance, a 23–year–old woman named Melissa Johnson streaked during a match at Wimbledon.

A few years later, a woman named Yvonne Robb was arrested for running on to the course and kissing Tiger Woods during the British Open. Robb wasn't naked, merely wearing a bikini, but the next year, another woman streaked fully nude onto the course that was hosting the British Open.

My memory of late 1973, at the dawn of the fad, is that there were occasions when groups of female students (probably sorority members) at one college or another would have an organized streak — at homecoming or whatever.

And it seems to me that I once heard of a kind of group streak that was done on bicycles. That was more of a coed thing — in the sense that there were both male and female streak cyclists.

Other than that, though, streakers have almost always been males.

There are no particular rules for streaking. Originally, as I recall, all streakers were naked — or wearing something that didn't cover one's "private parts," like shoes or a hat — but streaking has changed. These days, when you hear of someone streaking at some kind of event, it may not have been a classic streak.

That person is just as likely to have been wearing something private (like underwear) or otherwise revealing as to have been naked. Of course, that may be the difference between being charged with indecent exposure — and not being charged with indecent exposure.

Streaking isn't a competitive thing with some kind of scoring system. It's more of a free expression kind of thing. Whatever you can do to make your streak memorable — other than the fact that you happen to be running naked through some kind of public place — is encouraged.

Probably the most noteworthy streak took place 40 years ago tonight during the Academy Awards presentation. Robert Opel, a 34–year–old photographer and art gallery owner, made his way backstage posing as a journalist and ran naked past David Niven flashing a peace sign.

Niven, who was in the process of introducing Elizabeth Taylor (who was going to announce the Best Picture winner), was praised for his apparent calm during the disruption and his quip, "Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

Some years later, it turned out that Niven's quip may not have been as spontaneous as it appeared. Opel's streak may have been staged by producer Jack Haley Jr., and Niven's line may have been composed in advance.

I don't believe Opel or Niven ever confirmed that it was a setup, and neither can be asked about it now. Both were dead within a decade of Opel's streak. Niven fell ill and died in his 70s, and the 39–year–old Opel was murdered during a robbery at his studio in 1979.