Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Celebrating the Worst of the Worst

Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker): How can you walk around like that in front of all these people?

Ed (Johnny Depp): Well, hon, look around. Nobody's bothered but you.

Dolores: Ed, this isn't the real world. You've surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos.

I've never been a fan of Sarah Jessica Parker, but I have to admit that I felt a certain empathy for her character in "Ed Wood."

She was Ed's long–suffering, nearly endlessly supportive (and painfully naive) girlfriend, Dolores — and like the enablers you hear about in tales of addiction, she made excuses for his often inexplicable behavior and found ways to justify the unjustifiable.

Ed's addiction wasn't to alcohol or pills, though. It was to the make–believe world of movies.

Dolores was into that stuff, too, although not quite to the extent Ed was. I think my favorite scene with her was early in the movie, when Ed and his gang of "misfits and dope addicts," as Dolores called them, were waiting for the first press run of reviews of a play they were staging. They all read in a silence that was broken first by Bill Murray, who disparaged the reviewer.

Parker glanced up from the review with a stricken look on her face. "Do I really have the face of a horse?" she asked no one in particular — which was good because no one replied.

(My answer to that question, had I been there, would have been, "Well, yes, dear, but don't concern yourself with it. It isn't so noticeable in profile, and it is not a deal breaker.")

Her character stayed with Ed — who, in real life, directed movies that were so bad that people actually remembered them because they were so bad. I know I remembered them. Of course, I was probably about 5 or 6 years old when I first saw one of his movies on TV, but they sure did make an impression on me. Many of the sci–fi images I've been carrying around in my head most of my life are due to Mr. Wood's work — characterized by cliche–ridden scripts and tacky special effects.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp in the movie) became synonymous with cheap, trashy filmmaking. When I first heard that a movie based on his life was being made, I figured it had to be some kind of goofy spoof on his life — especially when I learned it would be directed by Tim Burton. But it was, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, "a film which celebrates Wood more than it mocks him, and which celebrates, too, the zany spirit of 1950s exploitation films."

That was kind of unfortunate, I guess, for Parker. Her character lived with Wood in the early '50s and provided tons of material to be scoffed. From what I have read, the movie apparently told the truth about her, too.

Dolores tolerated all kinds of quirks in Wood's personality and encouraged his often nutty movie ideas — but never managed to put two and two together concerning his transvestism. Wood's character, at one point, acknowledged that he frequently wore Dolores' sweaters, and she never figured out why they were always stretched out of shape.

She finally found out before she was cast in Wood's "Glen or Glenda?" She went ahead and appeared in his movie even though he popped up on the set wearing women's clothing.

Anyway, Burton's movie premiered 20 years ago today. I liked it, but it wasn't what I expected. Like Ebert, I suppose I expected "a camp sendup, maybe a cross between 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'Sunset Boulevard.'"

To my great surprise, it wasn't like that at all.

I watched it again this summer — first time I had seen it in years. And, once again, I felt that empathy for Parker's character. If it was true to life, Dolores must have really had it bad for Ed — and that wasn't good. Because when you've got it that bad for someone, you're more likely to ignore things that should set off alarms in your head.

Those bells must have been ringing louder and louder because Dolores finally gave up on Ed — when he cast someone else as the female lead in his movie "Bride of the Monster" and relegated Dolores to a small part. That's when she left him.

She needn't have taken it personally. Most of Wood's filmmaking decisions were determined not by talent but by financial considerations, and he thought the actress, Loretta King (played by Juliet Landau), was going to provide money to produce his movie; it turned out she had already given him her life savings, $300, when he was expecting tens of thousands.

Wood was very flexible about everything if it meant money for one of his movie projects. If a backer was willing to finance a movie, the backer could pick the stars — and that could usually be described in a single word: nepotism.

(One of my favorite scenes showed Wood trying to get backing from a meat packer, played by Ron Howard's father, who said he would finance Wood's movie only if his son played the lead and the movie ended with an explosion.)

For her part, Dolores claimed she couldn't handle Wood's transvestism, and that is how Burton's movie presented their breakup. (Don't feel too badly for her, though. She went on to enjoy some success as a songwriter, writing songs that were recorded by Elvis Presley, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee and others.)

Wood's deep love for movies was clear, and Burton treated it with respect. Wood just never had the talent to make his dreams and ambitions become realities.

Wood's tendency to use stock film footage of any and all types in his movies was handled with a kind of gentle deference — wholly unexpected from the guy who brought us "Beetlejuice" and "Batman."

But Wood's filmography was so bizarre that Burton needed only tell the truth — for it really was stranger than fiction.

I haven't seen them all, but, judging from the Ed Wood movies I have seen, he did surround himself with a genuine freak show. Astonishingly, they were all real people. Burton didn't have to make up any of them, nor did he have to embellish their stories.

Purely by chance (at least, in the movie — and, perhaps, in real life), Wood met Bela Lugosi, who became his friend and participant in three of his movies. Lugosi (Martin Landau in the movie) was the only one who had any sort of fame beyond the Los Angeles city limits when he hooked up with Wood; the rest were unknown and probably would have remained so if Wood had not been recognized as the worst director of all time, fueling a cult–like interest in his movies.

Wood also met — at least in the movie — his idol, Orson Welles, and, for a second or two, as Wood and Welles compared notes about the movie business, it was tempting to regard Wood as a man of integrity. Except he had none. Only a childlike faith in the magic of the movies — not unlike a child's innocent belief in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.

Among Wood's entourage were Vampira, the hostess of a local horror movie TV program (she once sued Elvira for stealing her act); Tor Johnson (George Steele), a pro wrestler who was persuaded by Wood to appear in a couple of his movies, including the widely panned "Plan 9 From Outer Space"; The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a psychic who had earned a reputation for making predictions that were always way off the mark.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie came when Wood, to appease financial backers from a Baptist church, agreed to have everyone in the company get baptized. The ceremony was held in a swimming pool.

"Why couldn't we do this in the church?" Vampira asked Criswell.

"Because Brother Tor wouldn't fit in the sacred tub," he replied.

They all had their moments, but I must make special mention of Bill Murray, who played Bunny Breckenridge, another real person who tried unsuccessfully to have a sex–change operation.

Bunny was openly gay and descended from some prominent figures in American history — John Breckinridge, attorney general under Thomas Jefferson, was his great–great–great–grandfather, and John C. Breckinridge, vice president under James Buchanan, was his great–grandfather.

I thought Murray did an especially good job of playing Bunny. He could have given in to the temptation to really ham it up — but that would have been hard to do, considering how flamboyant the real Bunny was.

When he grieved his failure to acquire a sex change in Mexico, the viewer empathized — even if he/she had less in common with his character than with Parker's. Bunny's grief seemed sincere.

For a movie about the worst director of all time, it was successful. "Ed Wood" won both of the Oscars for which it was nominated — for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) and Best Makeup.

But, fittingly, given the subject of the movie, it lost money — grossing about one–third of what it cost to make.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major: The Gold Standard

I have long admired the music of Mozart. In fact, I wrote as much when I observed the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the movie "Amadeus" a couple of weeks ago.

But his "Clarinet Quintet in A major," which he finished writing 225 years ago today, has always been special to me. I don't really know why except to say, in that somewhat vague way, that it speaks to me. That isn't really an adequate answer, I suppose, but it's the only one I have.

Not everyone knows what a clarinet quintet is so I will briefly explain. A clarinet quintet is an ensemble of a clarinet and a string quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello). Clarinet quintet is also used as a reference to compositions for such a combo.

I am not sure if it is my favorite Mozart composition, but it is certainly one of them. If I ever get into a debate with someone over the greatest Mozart composition (hardly likely but not impossible), his clarinet quintet will be in the conversation.

I love the way the clarinet sets the mood for the piece, and its notes hang in the air for a short time before the other instruments join in. I knew of it before it held a prominent place in the record–shattering series finale of M*A*S*H; I wasn't asked for my input, of course, but I could hardly have picked a better piece to be associated with that episode.

It was a brilliant touch.

In it, Charles encountered some Chinese soldiers who were, at heart, musicians (and, I suspected, peasants in civilian life), and they surrendered to him with no resistance; in fact, they were insistent about it. Their music offended Charles' patrician sensitivities, particularly when he was trying to listen to a recording of Mozart — and then one of the prisoners began playing that very piece. Charles was inspired to teach all of them to play the Mozart piece, which they eventually did admirably.

In spite of their language barrier, they bonded — through the universal language of music.

Mozart wrote the piece for renowned clarinetist Anton Stadler of Austria. It is said that, in Stadler's hands, a clarinet was "so soft, so delicate in tone that no one who has a heart can resist it."

That's a pretty good description of this piece, actually. For a piece from a composer who was known to be as prodigious as Mozart, it holds a unique place in the extensive library of his work. It is the only clarinet quintet he completed.

Although it was completed about two years before Mozart's death, the clarinet quintet was not his last composition. It wasn't even close. He wrote some of his most admired works in those last two years of his life.

Many of his works have been mimicked by others. In some cases, though, the word mimic really isn't appropriate. Maybe it is better to call such pieces homages. Beethoven, who was Mozart's junior by 15 years, is said to have written several pieces in Mozart's style. I'm sure Beethoven believed that what he was doing was a tribute to Mozart.

But I know of no instance in which a composer mimicked Mozart's clarinet quintet. Perhaps it couldn't be done.

Fact is, not many composers have written clarinet quintets. A few tried after Mozart did it, but I guess it was more than a century later, when Johannes Brahms wrote his clarinet quintet, that composers really began to write them. Brahms' clarinet quintet was good — but, along with being virtually the first of its kind, Mozart's composition really set the standard.

More than two centuries later, it is still the standard.

Judy Garland's Comeback

"He gave me a look at myself I've never had before. He saw something in me nobody else ever did. He made me see it, too. He made me believe it."

Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland)

We're overdue for another remake of "A Star is Born."

The original version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, was made in 1937. The first remake premiered 60 years ago today, and the third version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, hit the theaters 22 years later.

Of the three versions, the one that premiered on this day in 1954 was superior to the others. After all, it starred Judy Garland, and no one could sing like Judy Garland. Her co–star was James Mason as the fading star who tries to give her a boost as his career begins its descent.

Apparently, it was treated as Garland's comeback, given the fact that it had been about four or five years since her last movie. She was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, and everyone seemed to assume she would win. She couldn't attend the Oscars ceremony because she had just given birth to her son so NBC, which broadcast the Oscars in the 1950s, sent a camera crew to her hospital room so she could give her speech on TV.

Except she didn't win. Grace Kelly did — for "The Country Girl."

I suppose, if one is going to launch a show–biz comeback, being in a movie that is about show biz is a pretty good way to do it.

Director George Cukor's story certainly must seem predictable to 21st–century viewers. Considering that it was a remake, it should have been familiar to viewers in 1954, too. After all, it was faithful to the story that was told in the Janet Gaynor–Fredric March movie.

Garland played an up–and–coming singer/actress who married an alcoholic actor on the downside of his career. She relied on his wisdom at first, but, as she became more self–sufficient, she needed his intervention less and less, and Mason's character, already struggling with alcohol, retreated deeper into the bottle.

It was a battle his character did not win. Although he sought treatment and seemed to recover, he suffered a relapse when Jack Carson, playing a publicist, accused him of living off his wife's income. This sent Mason's character on a drinking binge that led to his arrest.

When he realized that Garland had decided to sacrifice her career to care for him, Mason committed suicide in the famous scene in which he walks into the sea and drowns. (Well, March did it first.) His hope was to free Garland to pursue her destiny as a star — but, instead, she became a recluse.

A friend snapped her out of it by telling her she was wasting the career that Mason's character wanted to save, and she agreed to appear in public again, introducing herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine."

When I was younger, I thought Streisand and Kristofferson gave the movie its musical spin even though I knew Garland was in the 1954 version. But I was wrong. Garland gave it its first musical spin. She sang lots of songs in "A Star Is Born." If you went to a theater 60 years ago today hoping to hear Judy Garland sing, you weren't disappointed.

But people who hoped for a blockbuster of a movie were disappointed. By 1954 standards, it was very expensive to make. It made more than $6 million — an impressive figure for 1954 but not enough to recover the investment that was made in it. Was that a factor in the Oscar vote that year?

"A Star Is Born" was nominated for six Oscars and lost them all.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

'Something Happened,' But What Was It?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about Joseph Heller's book, "Something Happened," which was published 40 years ago this month.

(By the way, that is about as close as I can come to pinpointing when it was published. I've tried, and I've tried, but the best I can find is September of 1974.)

I wanted to write about it, I told my friend, but I didn't know what to say. "Don't worry," he replied. "Something will come to you."

Well, September is nearly over. I'm not sure if something ever happened, as my friend said it would, but if I am going to write about it during its 40th anniversary month, I am running out of time.

"Something Happened" was Heller's long–awaited and highly anticipated followup to his critically acclaimed "Catch–22." In my opinion, he never matched "Catch–22," which was published 13 years earlier, but "Something Happened" was pretty darn good.

It wasn't a sequel by any stretch of the imagination. None of the characters from "Catch–22" was in "Something Happened," but they were similar books. The former satirized war; the latter poked fun at domestic life.

I read them in reverse order. I read "Something Happened" in paperback when I was in junior high school. I read "Catch–22" in college.

Since they didn't tell the same story, though, it wasn't necessary for me to read them in sequence.

"Something Happened" was the story of a fellow named Bob Slocum — told by Bob Slocum. He spoke of how everyone in his office was afraid of someone. It wasn't the same person in each case — although there was one person of whom nearly everyone was afraid. She was a typist who was "going crazy slowly" and everyone hoped that, when she finally snapped, as seemed inevitable, she would do so on a weekend.

Bob's home life wasn't much better. His wife, he said, was unhappy — mostly bored and lonely. She had turned to alcohol, he said, and believed she was older, heavier and less attractive than she used to be. He agreed with her but silently. She said he didn't love her anymore, and he agreed with her on that, too, again silently — although Bob did claim there were times when he was proud to have her on his arm when they went places.

His daughter was unhappy, too. In fact, both of his children were unhappy, but he tried not to think of his son, who was "having difficulties" in school. He was, Slocum observed in a less than paternal way, "starting to let me down."

Bob told his story in a stream of consciousness style. In one of my favorite sequences from the book, Bob reflected on a time early in his marriage and the lives of his children when their dwelling had a problem with mice, and he had to set traps for the mice each night and then check them each morning. Each morning, his wife and children huddled behind him while he checked places like behind the refrigerator and inside the pantry.

Although this is not word for word, Bob said something to the effect of, "Even then, I wasn't sure if I liked my family well enough to share such a personal and intimate experience with them."

Later in the book — in which, I should point out, Bob's anecdotes are only loosely connected to each other — the reader discovers that Bob is concerned about his sanity, and the reader starts to realize that Bob may be an unreliable narrator, not necessarily able to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

What it means to be an unreliable narrator is that the narrator's credibility is in doubt for some reason. Many people believe that an unreliable narrator is, by definition, a liar. Some are liars, but that is not always so. Some may be delusional, as Slocum apparently was, or they may be too young to perceive some things, such as Huck Finn or Forrest Gump.

So an unreliable narrator is not always deliberately deceptive. I suspected, as I read the book, that the title was a hint about that. Bob Slocum knew that something had happened to change the trajectory of his life. He just didn't know what it was.

Does that make him that different from the rest of us?

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Unanswered Questions From 'Gilligan's Island'

Fifty years ago tonight, Gilligan's Island made its debut.

I first watched Gilligan's Island reruns when I was a child. I've seen that initial episode several times, and there really wasn't anything special about it.

It mainly served to introduce viewers to the seven–member cast: The "fearless crew" of the Minnow, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and Gilligan (Bob Denver); the millionaire (Jim Backus) and his wife (Natalie Schafer); the movie star (Tina Louise), and "the rest," the Professor (Russell Johnson) and the pretty girl–next–door, Mary Ann (Dawn Wells).

In that first episode, running jokes were established — the clumsiness of Gilligan, the nerdiness of the Professor, the elitism of the Howells, the self–absorption of the movie star. It was well established that, deep down, each was shallow in his/her quirky way.

The show opened with a song written by program creator Sherwood Schwartz. It was intended to bring every viewer up to speed on the castaways and their situation by the time the opening credits had run. So we knew how they came to be stranded on that island.

But we never found out why, for example, the Howells and the two girls brought so many clothes with them on a three–hour tour. There must have been some kind of explanation for that — and, for that matter, where all those clothes were kept. The Howells did have some closet space, but it wasn't nearly enough to accommodate all the clothes they had with them. And Ginger and Mary Ann had no closet space that I can recall yet they had clothes for all sorts of occasions.

The Skipper, the Professor and Gilligan always wore the same clothes (except for the episodes with dream sequences), but the other four brought enough different clothes to sustain them for weeks if not months without ever having to wear the same thing twice.

The Professor was a handy guy to have around. He was able to make all kinds of remarkable things from just the raw material that could be found on the island, but he never seemed to be able to transform the radio into a transmitter — or even patch up the boat.

It was also established that the castaways would do anything to be rescued — and that laid the foundation for perhaps the biggest running joke, Gilligan's tendency to foul up just about every promising rescue. He wasn't always to blame — just most of the time.

And he never meant to foul things up, either. It was just in his nature to do so. He was a well–meaning fellow. His heart was in the right place.

In that first episode, the Skipper and Gilligan tried to set sail on a makeshift raft in search of help. But the raft came apart on them after they fought off ravenous sharks, and they swam to the nearest land, which turned out to be the island they had left earlier.

The fate of the castaways was emblematic, I suppose, of the cutthroat nature of the TV industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Gilligan's Island was canceled after three seasons — and the decision was made after the last episode of the third season had been shot. That was the way things were done in those days, I suppose. The same thing happened to Ed Sullivan — and his show was on the air for 24 years.

Today — I'm not sure why, maybe because of the proliferation of channels in the cable age — the cast and crew of a canceled TV series are far more likely to get enough advance notice to have the opportunity to wrap things up in the series' final episode — unless that cancellation comes only a few weeks into the new season.

It seemed to be much more competitive when there were only three networks. A show was on the air one week, then it disappeared forever the next. It was like a mafia hit job. Explanations were seldom given.

I suppose it has something to do with audience share. When there were only three networks dividing up the available viewership, the share of the audience for even an average program probably set a standard that modern programs can't hope to match, no matter how popular they are.

But when the audience is being divided up by hundreds of channels instead of three, well, that is bound to affect how things are done and how things are perceived in the television industry, don't you think?

In that environment, I suppose, silly programs like Gilligan's Island were lucky to last more than a season — and it lasted three, even though it had no supernatural or extraterrestrial characters. Well, no regular ones, anyway.

Eventually, thanks to made–for–TV cast reunion movies, viewers found out what happened to the castaways. They eventually made it back to civilization — but they were so turned off by what they found that they returned to their island paradise. As the old song says, you don't know what you've got until it is gone.

Presumably, they lived out their lives in the peace and serenity of their south Pacific island. Guess we'll never know, though. All but Wells and Louise are deceased now.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant): Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.

In 1944, Cary Grant was one of the most popular movie stars in Hollywood.

He's been called "the best star actor there ever was in the movies," and, if he wasn't, he should have been. The American Film Institute agrees. When AFI named its top 50 male and female movie stars, it listed Grant as second only to Humphrey Bogart.

During his career, Grant must have co–starred with nearly all of the most beautiful leading ladies of his time, but I don't think he ever really had the same chemistry with any of them that he had with Priscilla Lane in "Arsenic and Old Lace," which made its big–screen debut 70 years ago today.

Grant seemed to have chemistry with everyone, but there was something special about his chemistry with Lane. She had a definite girl–next–door quality, not unlike Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, that set her apart from Grant's other co–stars. That was a good quality for her to have because, in "Arsenic and Old Lace," she was the girl next door. The viewing audience knew her as Grant's new bride, but, before that, she had been the girl next door.

Lane was young and vivacious — and not a star in the sense that Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne and many of Grant's usual co–stars were. Lane probably would have qualified for one of those "you know the face, but do you know the name?" contests — if such a thing existed in 1944.

Lane didn't upstage Grant, who was clearly the star (and, therefore, the primary attraction) of the movie — perhaps that was part of what made the movie so appealing. In reality, Grant was 11 years her senior, but they looked very natural together on screen. It worked in a way that Grant's other on–screen relationships did not.

Lane's character wasn't submissive, she was deferential. The thesaurus may tell you that those words are synonyms, but they don't really mean precisely the same thing.

Maybe a big part of the movie's success was the dialogue, which came from Joseph Kesselring's 1939 stage play. It was a huge hit, opening in January 1941 and moving to the Hudson Theatre in 1943 before finally wrapping up in 1944 after more than 1,400 performances.

That's an important fact to remember because the movie was made in 1941; but it couldn't be released until after the play had concluded its run on Broadway because of a mutual agreement between Warner Bros. and the producers of the play.

That led to some interesting quirks in the story. For example, the story itself took place in Brooklyn, and it was supposed to be set in the present day. When the movie was made, the then–Brooklyn Dodgers had won their first National League pennant in more than 20 years (they lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, four games to one), and the opening sequence shows the jubilation of Brooklyn baseball fans.

In the next three years, the Dodgers plummeted to 42 games out of first place, and, what with the war and everything, the '41 pennant was a distant memory by the time the movie made it to the theatres — so the references to Brooklyn's championship season had no real relevance to moviegoers in 1944.

One of my favorite lines in the movie was when Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) said she was anxious to leave Brooklyn because the community had changed since the Dodgers "won that old pennant thing." That certainly would have been a lot more amusing in 1941. Audiences in 1944 had to reach too far into their collective memory bank.

Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) were delightful supporting characters who, as one of their charities, poisoned lonely old bachelors and widowers to end their suffering, then buried them in the cellar — with the assistance of their nephew Teddy, who believed himself to be Teddy Roosevelt.

(A nice touch was the way Teddy would run up the stairs and yell "Charge!" It was his re–enactment of Roosevelt's famed charge up San Juan Hill.)

I don't think I ever saw Adair in any of her other film roles (there weren't that many of them; most of her career was spent on the stage) so I think of her performance as Aunt Martha when I think of her, but Hull is different. I always associate her with her Oscar–winning role in "Harvey." It was a similar kind of role, I guess — a peculiar, even eccentric, older lady — and she was awfully good at it.

It wouldn't be right to discuss the supporting characters without mentioning two other, more sinister characters — played by Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.

Massey took the place of Boris Karloff, who was still appearing in the stage version on Broadway when the movie was being made. Adair and Hull were in the Broadway play, too, but they were given leaves of absence to make the movie. Karloff was the main attraction of the Broadway show, however, and couldn't be spared.

The movie retained a line that was written for Karloff. His stage character was supposed to have had facial surgery by his companion, who had been intoxicated and made the character of Jonathan look like Karloff. The resemblance was mentioned in the script and, presumably, it drew a huge laugh from theater audiences when Karloff was said to look like Karloff.

To support the story about the surgery, Massey was made up to look like he had scars on his face.

As a student of history, though, I have more appreciation for a line that Massey's character delivered.

To set the table, as it were ... there was a discussion about Massey's murder record stacked up against the record of his aunts in Brooklyn. One of the victims Massey claimed to have killed had died of pneumonia — but he had been shot first. Lorre's character insisted that it didn't count.

"He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him," Massey replied.

I don't know if Americans of that time were as ignorant of the nuances of history as they are today, but that was an allusion to the death of President James Garfield in 1881.

Garfield was shot in early July 1881 and lingered for weeks, at times appearing to improve only to get worse. Eventually, he died more than two months after being shot. Officially, he died of a heart attack and pneumonia, neither of which probably would have occurred if not for the facts that he had been shot earlier and the inadequate medical treatment he received had taken a toll on his system.

So Massey's assertion that a victim wouldn't have died of pneumonia if he hadn't been shot was a reference to the manner of the president's death.

I wonder how many people knew that in 1941 or 1944.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Peeking Behind the Scenes at the 'West Wing'

Laurie (Lisa Edelstein): Tell your friend POTUS he's got a funny name, and he should learn how to ride a bicycle.

Sam (Rob Lowe): I would, but he's not my friend; he's my boss. It's not his name; it's his title.

Laurie: POTUS?

Sam: President of the United States. I'll call ya.

Fifteen years ago tonight, one of my favorite TV programs of all time, The West Wing, made its first appearance on America's TV screens. (Of course, I am a political junkie, anyway, so I suppose it isn't really surprising that the show appealed to me.)

That first episode was a mangled, dangling mass of loose strings — or so it must have seemed to many viewers. Some of those loose ends took seven years to tie together. It was a very literate script, written by very savvy writers. Frankly, there were times when I thought that, in spite of the elementary nature of that first episode, parts of it might be over some viewers' heads. I suppose that is a risk you run with just about anything on TV.

That very basic first story dealt with how the president got hurt riding a bicycle. As the episode unfolded, viewers became acquainted with the characters — and learned that there was much more to the story than met the eye. The West Wing was like that; it tended to set up its viewers — and usually delivered a gentle knockout punch in the last five minutes — gentle in the sense that viewers almost never saw it coming.

In some ways, the cast of that first episode did not really resemble the cast of the final episode seven years later. There was a core of characters who remained with the show from start to finish, but others came and went, as they do in the real West Wing. I felt that angle added a touch of realism to the stories, kind of like the ever–changing nature of the ensemble cast of "M*A*S*H."

Some of those characters, like Allison Janney who played C.J. the press secretary, became very well known through their work on the series — even if some weren't originally intended to be regulars. Others, who may have been expected to be long–term characters, were there briefly, then left and were never heard from again.

Martin Sheen, who played the president, wasn't supposed to be a major presence on the show. The series was really supposed to be about the president's staff. But he quickly became a regular, as did the first lady (Stockard Channing), who wasn't even seen 15 years ago tonight. I think the only time she was mentioned was during Sheen's monologue near the end of the episode.

I believe Janel Moloney, who played Donna, the aide to Josh (Bradley Whitford), was only intended to be an occasional character, but she wound up staying with the series to the last episode — and became a much more significant (and popular) character in the process.

Ironically, viewers weren't sure just how attached they should get to Whitford's character that first night. He was, in the words of the first President Bush, in deep doo–doo after insulting a pundit from the Christian right on the air; as a result, the as–yet unseen president was said to be ready to fire Josh — but had not, primarily because of intervention on his behalf by others, especially Leo, the chief of staff (John Spencer).

For that matter, I wasn't sure about Lisa Edelstein's character, a "high–priced call girl" who appeared destined to be the significant other for Sam the speech writer (Rob Lowe). There was something noble about Edelstein. Her character was using the proceeds from her prostitution to pay for her education so she wasn't your run–of–the–mill call girl. She was in a few other episodes in that first season, and her relationship with Sam seemed to be blooming, but she did not remain with the series. I recall no explanation being given.

Sam had kind of a shaky start that night. He didn't know Edelstein was a call girl when he slept with her — and, unfortunately, when he tried to explain to the communications director, Toby (Richard Schiff), what had happened, he neglected to elaborate after he said, "I accidentally slept with a prostitute." Toby was, understandably, bewildered. "Accidentally? I don't understand. Did you trip over something?"

Likewise, Moira Kelly played a political consultant and Josh's former girlfriend. She seemed to be destined for a long–term role on the show but left after the first season (actually, her involvement was less and less each week until it apparently dwindled to nothing before the end of the season) and was never mentioned again.

The reason for Sheen's bicycle accident was mostly a mystery that first night — until Sheen showed up near the end of the episode and clarified things considerably. That, as I understand it, was kind of how the series was originally designed. The focus would be on the staff, the president would pop in from time to time to sort of tie together the loose ends.

On this occasion, though, it seems more appropriate to reflect on the series, which ran for seven years, than to obsess over the meat of that first episode. The show was pigeonholed by some as a liberal's fantasy of how things ought to work — and it was that, to be sure. It was a product of its times, patterned to a great extent after the Clinton administration, a clearly Democrat president contending with a Congress that just as clearly was dominated by Republicans.

Many of the show's advisers came from the Clinton administration, and sometimes episodes were almost wistful reflections on how the writers apparently wished things could have been in the late 1990s.

The great thing about the West Wing, though, was how it appealed to people across the political spectrum. I knew people who were Democrats, Republicans, even independents who watched the show faithfully and wished for a president like Jed Bartlet.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? If they can agree on a TV show about a president and a Congress held by opposing parties ...

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Myth About Mozart and Salieri

"All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?"

Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)

All that Antonio Salieri, an 18th–century Italian composer, wanted to do was make music praising God.

But he wasn't a great composer. He was enough of a music lover to know how far off the mark he really was — and how close to that same mark his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was. And Salieri resented Mozart for that.

At least, it was that way in Peter Shaffer's 1979 play. Whether it was that way in reality is anyone's guess two centuries after the fact.

Personally, I don't have to guess — at least when it comes to Mozart's talent. I am convinced that Mozart is the greatest composer who ever lived. He's been a favorite of mine since I was a boy, frankly. I guess it goes back to when I was taking piano lessons in elementary school. To encourage me, my grandmother gave me a music box in the shape of a bust of Beethoven. When you wound it up, it played Beethoven's Minuet — a nice enough piece, but it just has that marble–bust sound to it. Stiff, virtually lifeless, by the book.

When I was taking piano lessons, I was assigned to learn a couple of the easier pieces written by Mozart, and, for me, there was really no comparison. I liked Beethoven well enough, but Mozart became my favorite when I was about 7 or 8. My musical tastes have expanded a great deal since that time, but I still love Mozart's work, and I am constantly meeting people who feel the same way.

It has long been rumored that Salieri was responsible for Mozart's death at the age of 35. Mozart himself may have been the origin of these rumors via letters he wrote to his father complaining about obstacles being thrown in his path, obstructing his access to prestigious posts or commendations, and speculating that the Italians were to blame.

For centuries, there has been a rivalry between the music communities of Italy and Germany. Germans like Mozart and his father resented what they believed was special treatment that Italians received from European nobility; when Mozart struggled in Vienna, the Italians were the most appropriate scapegoats.

"You know those Italian gentlemen; they are very nice to your face!" Mozart wrote once to his father.

One of Mozart's biographers contended that the rivalry between the two (if there was one) could have begun when the two were candidates for a position teaching music to a princess, and Salieri was selected, apparently because he was known to teach singing as well as music.

That episode was re–created in Miloš Forman's "Amadeus," which premiered on this day in 1984.

Apparently, Mozart did not take that setback well, and it added fuel to the stories of a rivalry between Mozart and Salieri.

There is no other evidence that I have found, though, that indicates Salieri was a threat to Mozart. In fact, there seems to have been little, if any, acrimony between them. They appear to have regarded each other as friends and colleagues and supported each other's professional efforts.

But, after Salieri died about 30 years after Mozart, some fictionalized accounts of their relationship that promoted the myth of rivalry were published. Then Shaffer revived the rumors with his play, which was the basis of the movie.

Now, as I say, I have always loved Mozart's music. I thoroughly enjoyed "Amadeus," and, after I saw it, I did something I rarely do. I bought the soundtrack — in cassette so I could listen to it in my car — then I replaced it with the CD version about 10 years later.

But what I found particularly amazing was that, although very few adult Americans listened to classical music, that soundtrack was, for a time, one of the best–selling albums in the country. It reached #56 on Billboard's charts, making it one of the most successful classical recordings of all time.

I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas that year. Of all the Christmas gifts I gave Mom in her life, that may have been the one she liked the best.

The movie itself wasn't quite a blockbuster. It made nearly $52 million, but it cost $18 million to produce.

"Amadeus" was intriguing in that it gave a different twist to the rivalry idea. In "Amadeus," Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) was the victim of the charmed Mozart (Tom Hulce), who, when he composed, seemed to be doing little more than "taking dictation" from God.

That may have been the key to it. Instead of presenting Mozart as some kind of stuffy, marble–bust figure from the recesses of the past, he was portrayed in the movie as more of a contemporary sort, a freewheeling 18th–century flower child, you might say, to whom things just seemed to come too easily.

His wife (Elizabeth Berridge) was more practical about some things, but she was, in essence, a flower child, too.

When I saw Berridge on the big screen, I had one of those moments when I was convinced I had seen her somewhere before. I just didn't know where; consequently, it turned into an extended moment of brain wracking that made me miss a few things on the screen.

She was a new face to a lot of folks in those days. I've looked her up online, and it seems she was in two other movies and a soap opera before she was in "Amadeus." I don't think I ever saw the movies, and I have never been a fan of soap operas so I probably mistook her for someone else.

Berridge wasn't the first pick to play Constanze. The first choice was Meg Tilly, but she got hurt and had to pull out. Berridge and Diane Franklin were flown to Czechoslovakia, where filming was under way, to audition for the part. I have heard that Berridge was chosen because Franklin was considered too pretty to be an innkeeper's daughter. Well, that's what Berridge says on the Director's Cut DVD of "Amadeus."

Frankly, I liked Berridge in the part. I don't know if Franklin was prettier, but Berridge just seemed right for it.

A word of advice: If you haven't seen "Amadeus" but would like to — and I certainly encourage you to do so — I recommend watching that Director's Cut. There were several things about the movie that I never understood until I saw the Director's Cut.

"In a film of grand gestures," wrote Roger Ebert, "some of the finest moments are very subtle."

Ebert was right about that, especially in the way he chose to illustrate his point — by observing shifts, some of them barely perceptible, in facial expressions.

Ebert focused primarily on Jeffrey Jones, who played the emperor, and I have to admit his moments really were superb.

Emperor Joseph is one of my favorite supporting characters of all time — even if Jones did not receive recognition in the form of an Oscar nomination.

But Ebert had some things to say about Abraham, too.

"[W]atch Abraham's face as he internalizes envy, resentment and rage," Ebert wrote. "What a smile he puts on the face of his misery! Then watch his face again at Mozart's deathbed as he takes the final dictation."

At the time of the Oscars, Hulce and Abraham were both nominated for Best Actor. Abraham won, which at the time I didn't think was right. The movie was about Mozart. Shouldn't the actor who played Mozart win?

I must confess that, at the time, I still hadn't seen the movie. I saw it after the Academy Awards. I don't recall now whether it had finished its run and was brought back to theaters after it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, or if it was still showing in (or just getting around to) the Little Rock market. Either one certainly is possible.

Whichever it was, I went to see it some time after Abraham received the Best Actor Oscar.

When I had seen the movie, I had to admit that Abraham deserved it.

"Amadeus" won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Shaffer won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

And "Amadeus" picked up Oscars for costumes, makeup, art direction and sound mixing. In fact, Dick Smith, who died recently at the age of 92, won the Oscar for makeup.

It was recognition that was long overdue. A brilliant makeup artist, Smith did the makeup for such classics as "Little Big Man," "The Exorcist" and "Taxi Driver" as well the Oscar–winning makeup for "Amadeus."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seeing the 'Beauty' of Life

"Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? Well, that's true of every day but one — the day you die."

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)

Middle–aged office worker Lester Burnham is the sort of man for whom masturbating during his morning shower is the highlight of his day.

In that regard, I suppose the protagonist of director Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," which premiered nationwide 15 years ago today, is not that much different from many, perhaps most, men who are leading quiet lives of desperation.

And it was his performance in this everyman role that won Spacey the Oscar for Best Actor.

The word beauty was used a lot — and in many ways — but the story wasn't even that direct.

"'American Beauty' is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero's problems," wrote critic Roger Ebert. "And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure ..."

While most people probably can empathize with Lester when it comes to his feelings about his job, not everyone can relate to the rest of his experience — his disconnection from his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Thora Birch) or his fantasies about his daughter's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari).

Still, the idea of blackmailing your employer when you quit your job probably appealed to quite a few people who saw "American Beauty" in 1999. I didn't see it until it came on cable so I don't know what motivated people to see it on the big screen — or what it was in the story they found particularly appealing.

Maybe the audience sympathized with Lester, who believed his wife and daughter thought he was a "gigantic loser.

"And they're right,"
he tells the audience. "I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always feel this — sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back."

The audience learns a lot about Lester by watching "American Beauty." It is about him, really, although he isn't the American beauty of the title. Do you suppose the American beauty is his daughter's friend? Lester often fantasizes about her, frequently picturing her laying naked on her back while rose petals come cascading down around her.

Lester tries to, I don't know, embrace the future by re–living his past. Life was simpler when he was a burger–flipping teen, getting high and getting laid every night so he blackmails his boss, applies for a job flipping burgers and starts working out so he will look good in the nude.

Ebert wrote that Lester was rebelling. That isn't my take on it. I think he was pursuing beauty — obsessively, at times, which could be confused with rebellion — and his daughter's friend was merely the most accessible representation.

The beauty of the title doesn't appear to be his wife, whose only real passion seems to be for her work as a realtor. She psyches herself up to sell a house, then slaps herself out of her funk when she fails to sell it. She does have some passion, though, which she saves for a competitor (Peter Gallagher), who tells her, "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." It becomes her mantra.

His daughter loathes both her parents and has very low self–esteem. Her friend wants a career as a photo model — and sees sexual attention from males as an indication that she's on the right track.

And that was how life was for Lester and the people in his immediate circle — until a new family moved into the neighborhood, a retired Marine colonel (Chris Cooper), his introverted wife (Allison Janney) and their son, who wanted to be a filmmaker but was currently a marijuana smoker and dealer, which was how he could afford his high–tech equipment (his father thought he paid for it through catering). He, too, was pursuing beauty — through the camera lens. His favorite video was one he shot of a plastic bag dancing in the wind.

"Sometimes," he says while watching the video, "there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart is just going to cave in."


Watching the Burnham family eat a meal together is definitely not a beautiful experience. Excruciating is more like it — especially when Lester tells his daughter about his day (in which he quit his job and blackmailed his employer for $60,000) and his wife laughs hysterically, pausing long enough to tell their daughter, "Your father seems to think this kind of behavior is something to be proud of!"

Actually, when compared to the behavior of others in the movie, Lester's behavior doesn't seem so bizarre — almost rational, in fact.
"It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about."

Lester Burnham

And, at the end of the movie — and his life — Lester seems to have figured it all out.

I must say that I really liked the ending — not the part where Lester was killed by the homophobic Marine next door but the part after that, where the audience heard his voice saying, "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world."

If that is symbolic of perfect acceptance, maybe Lester didn't figure it all out after all because then he said, "Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

Then he observed, "You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry. You will someday."

The movie won five Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor (Spacey), Best Director (Mendes), Best Writing and Best Cinematography — and was nominated for three more.

'Bewitched' Embarked on a Wild Ride 50 Years Ago

Darrin (Dick York): Al, my wife is witch.

Bartender: Cheer up. You should see my wife.

Fifty years ago tonight, Bewitched came into America's homes for the first time — and took up residence for eight years.

When the 1964–65 season was over, the sitcom was #2 in the country. It remained in the Top 10 through its third season, then dropped out of the Top 10 but stayed in the Top 20 for the next two seasons. That five–season run was really pretty good, given the often–intense competition between the three networks. Most programs didn't last more than a season or two.

But Bewitched didn't stop there. It was on the air for three more seasons; it wasn't even in the Top 30 for the last two.

So many things from Bewitched worked their way into the culture's consciousness. Take Samantha's trademark nose twitch, for example. Before Bewitched, the predominant image of a witch casting a spell would have the witch waving her arms and spouting some sort of incantation.

Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) did that, too, at times, but mostly she just looked at the focus of her spell and twitched.

Viewers first learned about the twitch 50 years ago tonight. They would learn a lot about witches and witch culture in the next eight years — and the rules by which they lived. If a witch cast a spell, for instance, another witch could not cast a spell to override the first spell. (Strangely, no other witch — except for Samantha's children — twitched spells.)

In many ways, it represented the kind of existence most of us mortals would like to have, and viewers could sympathize with Samantha, a member of a persecuted and largely misunderstood minority group who wished only to marry and make a life with the person she loved.

I suspect the series was somewhat empowering for people who, like Samantha, had felt the sting of prejudice. After all, Samantha might have been persecuted, but she clearly was more powerful than her oppressors, and she often showed great restraint in not using her power. It isn't very gratifying to show restraint if no one knows or acknowledges it, though, and sometimes Samantha demonstrated her own inclination toward mortality and yielded to the temptation to use her power for her own benefit.

Endora (Agnes Moorehead) played Samantha's mother, who did not approve of her daughter's choice in husbands. She was so dismissive of him that she could not — or would not — pronounce his name correctly.

Some of the other witches followed her lead, but a few seemed to side with Samantha and Darrin (Dick York).

When I got older and watched those episodes again, I realized the premise of the series was a great metaphor for mixed marriage or an unconventional marriage of some kind — which was a social issue at the time, but it did not always refer to sexual preference (as some modern viewers might assume) or race (as many viewers from the previous generation might have assumed).

It could refer to spouses who belong to different faiths — or it could refer to people who come from different countries. I've even heard the phrase used in reference to people who were separated in age by many years — and couples in which the wife was older than the husband. Or marriages in which the spouses came from different rungs on the social ladder.

In short, any marriage that is perceived to be different from others in some supposedly important way is a candidate for the mixed marriage designation.

It wasn't a new theme in 1964. The idea of a marriage between a mortal and a witch, though, was kind of a new thing, I suppose — mostly because just about everyone agrees that witches don't exist.

If they did exist, though, most folks probably also would agree that they look nothing like Samantha. She had no warts nor a crooked nose nor any of that stereotyped stuff. She was young and sexy.

She didn't even dress like a witch — most of the time.

Neither did her cousin, Serena, also played by Montgomery (under the stage name of Pandora Spocks). Serena looked exactly like Samantha, of course, but their personalities were entirely different. Viewers had to be prepared for Serena, I suppose. She didn't appear until midway through the second season.

Fifty years ago tonight, there wasn't time, of course, to get into all the aspects of this mixed marriage in which Samantha promised to give up her witchly ways. That was the kind of thing the sitcom could explore. It was in the debut episode that viewers learned Samantha was willing to live in the "mortal way," foregoing twitches and incantations, and her mother opposed the marriage. That was the primary conflict through the series.

The series may have been a product of its time, approaching current events topics in a uniquely allegorical way, but it was a lot of fun.

A wild ride.

A Fabulous Foursome

"First, we'll have an orgy. Then we'll go see Tony Bennett."

Ted (Elliott Gould)

When I was in college, I remember having the kind of frank conversations that were abundant in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," which premiered on this day in 1969.

Having such conversations when you are 20 is one thing. It is quite another when you have come to occupy that middle earth known as one's 30s — when one is apt to be married, maybe have a house and a car and a kid or two — and such conversations can lead to divvying up such things.

With some people and in some situations, it is possible to be too honest. There are probably some topics that are best left unexplored.

What made "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" funny was that its writers were sensitive to the crisis the 30–somethings of that time faced. They were caught in the no–man's land of the Generation Gap.

Now, there is always a gap between the generations, but it was particularly pronounced at that time when a war half a world away wasn't the only war being waged in America. There was a race war in America in those days, and there was a war between the sexes, which came to include the emerging gay rights movement.

It is no exaggeration to say there were times when the fabric of American society seemed to be coming apart at the seams.

Quite often the conflicts seemed to come down to the Generation Gap. The young were usually on one side, the old were on the other. The couples in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" were too old to be the radicals and too young to be the parents of the radicals.

Most of the time, I guess that isn't so bad. Being in your 30s gives you a unique — but temporary — ability to connect with both extremes. I have never been able to be as honest with both groups as I was when I was in my early 30s. The rest of the time, I've been able to be pretty honest with one side but not so honest with the other.

In the late '60s and early '70s, there was a lot of emphasis on honesty in relationships, and that really was what "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" was about.

It wasn't really about wife swapping although that was the premise for the movie.

"My darling, you did not cheat. You told me about it. If you hadn't told me about it, that would have been cheating!"

Carol (Natalie Wood)

Things really got started when one of the couples (Natalie Wood and Robert Culp) spent a weekend with one of those groups that were so prevalent in those days — dedicated to helping couples get in touch with their feelings and open up to each other and all that. Culp's character got caught up in the moment, and he found himself confessing to infidelity.

Wood's response was that it was wonderful that he could be so honest with her, and she proudly shared the news of his affair with the other couple (Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould), which caused a ripple effect within their relationships.

I thought that was the funniest part of the movie. The four had been spending the evening together, going out for dinner, then getting high back at Bob and Carol's place. Throughout the evening, Bob and Carol ranted about the life–changing experience they had had.

Then Carol dropped the bombshell on Ted and Alice as they were leaving.

Alice was furious with Bob and made it clear on the drive home. My memory is that Ted said little — except that it was clear he was aroused. Alice was not.

After discussing the subject of whether to have sex, Alice, in frustration, suggested that she should just lie back and let him do what he wanted to do with no additional participation from her. "Now," she said triumphantly, for she couldn't imagine anyone wanting to have sex if the partner did not wish to actively participate, "do you wanna do it just like that with no feeling on my part?"

"Yeah," Ted replied.

Well, he was being honest — but it probably wasn't the most diplomatic way he could have done it.

Later, Ted told Bob that he had been tempted to cheat but hadn't gone through with it. Bob's advice to him was to do it if he had another chance. "You've got the guilt, anyway," he advised. "Don't waste it."

Eventually, the couples reached the conclusion that the only way they could be totally honest with each other would be to swap sexual partners.

Some of the reviews I have read criticized director Paul Mazursky's ending, in which the couples did not trade partners after all, but I disagreed. I thought it was consistent with the characters and where they were emotionally at that point in their story. If they had swapped partners, it would have totally obscured the movie's message.

"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" received four Oscar nominations but lost all four.

Monday, September 15, 2014

An Iconic Shot

Even if you weren't around at the time "The Seven–Year Itch" was made, even if you've never seen the movie, you've probably seen the above shot — or one like it — from the movie.

It is regarded as one of the most recognizable images from the 20th century.

The 60th anniversary of the release of "The Seven–Year Itch" is next year, but director Billy Wilder was filming the movie at this time in 1954. And, on this day, he was scheduled to film the famous scene in which Monroe is walking along a New York City sidewalk with Tom Ewell when a subway comes along, and the breeze it creates blows Monroe's dress up, revealing the lower half of her body.

Originally, the scene was shot late at night on location outside the Trans–Lux 52nd Street Theater in Manhattan, where a crowd had gathered to watch (including Monroe's then–husband, baseball player Joe DiMaggio); a second take was filmed later on a sound stage. The story I always heard was that the on–location crowd made too much noise, and the second take was needed to get the dialogue. But I have also heard that portions of both takes ended up in the movie.

The on–location publicity stills were photographed by Sam Shaw, who first met Monroe on the set of "Viva Zapata!" few years earlier.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Riddle Me This

Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes): I've stood on the shoulders of life, and I've never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I've flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.

I guess I am something of an amateur historian. I minored in history in college, but it has mostly been a recreational interest for me. When a topic from the past intrigues me, it's like an addiction. I have no choice but to read whatever I can on the topic until all my questions have been answered.

The quiz show scandals of the late 1950s came along well before my birth so I had no memory of them. In fact, I hadn't read much about them before I saw "Quiz Show," which premiered on this date in 1994.

After I saw the movie, I felt compelled to read everything I could about the subject — and I found that Robert Redford had directed a movie that was almost entirely faithful to the actual story.

On the surface, the premise may seem preposterously elementary to folks in the 21st century, but things really were different in the '50s. TV was going through what were probably the inevitable growing pains of a developing medium — but it was also a morality tale that is relevant to any age.

"Any so–called material thing that you want is merely a symbol," Mark Twain wrote. "You want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment."

Was that why Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) went along with the folks at Twenty One? Because he was greedy? Maybe. But I think there was more to it than that. Sure, he received a lot of money along with the answers, but you have to remember that he came from a patrician family of high achievers. His father and uncle both won Pulitzer Prizes. His mother was a noted novelist. The Van Dorens were so intellectual, they played Shakespeare trivia at a family gathering, according to the movie — and few, if any, of them appear to have owned a television set before Charles' success on Twenty One.

I have heard conflicting accounts on Charles' television ownership and exposure to the television programming of the day. On the one hand, I have heard that he didn't own a television before he went on Twenty One, which suggests a certain amount of naivete about TV. On the other, I have heard that he approached another quiz show about being a contestant before he was approached by Twenty One. Considering the level of the general public's ownership of TVs, exposure to TV programming was not nearly as extensive in the 1950s as it is today. It required owning a device that was still priced far beyond the budget limitations of many American households.

Folks who didn't have TVs in those days went someplace public, like a bar, or stood on sidewalks outside department stores and watched the TVs in the display windows when some kind of event was taking place. The Van Dorens don't strike me as being the sort to do that, particularly not for something as mundane as a quiz show. Charles could have learned about the quiz shows by reading articles in journals — he was known to have considerable curiosity about a variety of subjects — but it seems more likely to me that, if he did apply to another game show, he had to have gained much of his knowledge through personal ownership of the emerging technology of television.

Was Charles Van Doren motivated by money? Mr. Bernstein in "Citizen Kane" may have been speaking about Charles long before the quiz show scandals when he said, "It's no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money."

After conducting my own research into this story, I don't think it was money that he wanted — although he enjoyed what affluence brought him. I became convinced that Van Doren's motivation was not money but to distinguish himself in a way that no one else in his family ever had.

If I am right, he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

In a way, I'm inclined to say that Charles Van Doren recognized the wave of the future. Prior to the quiz show scandals, people were rewarded on television for their knowledge. Every family has that one person who knows a lot of generally useless information, right? Such people thrived in the TV quiz show environment.

After the scandals, quiz shows became game shows, in which you needed a certain amount of knowledge, but you needed a gracious helping of luck, too. That promoted the idea that you could succeed even if you weren't particularly smart. It's the same mindset that compels people to buy lottery tickets or place bets on longshots at the race track. On any given day ...

Van Doren wasn't the first one to get the answers ahead of time. The guy he replaced, Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro), got the answers until the execs at NBC decided his time had run its course — and the person he replaced probably got the answers, too. I honestly don't know how far back it went. Ostensibly, the motivation was to give the viewers the entertainment they desired (at one point, a network exec protested, "We're in show business") — but there was clearly a profit motive. As long as the winner was popular with the viewers, everyone was happy. But when the champ lost his/her appeal and ratings started to go down, it was time to find a new champ. That was what happened to Stempel; he rode the gravy train until it came to a stop, then he blew the whistle when the network didn't give him a show of his own.

I've never really reached a conclusion on the movie's take on Stempel — in the movie, he felt he had been ridiculed by having to take a dive on a question about his favorite movie, and he blamed anti–semitism for the bum's rush he felt he had been given by the execs at NBC.

"Don't do this to me," he pleaded with Dan Enright (David Paymer), "it's humiliating."

"For seventy grand, Herb, you can afford to be humiliated," Enright replied.

Van Doren was popular, and ratings soared. No one really wanted to hear Stempel's story — until investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) started poking around.

And it kind of served as the starting point for a general erosion of standards, the fruits of which we see around us today.

Image Management: Van Doren was really an early practitioner of public spin. More than half a century after the quiz show scandals, he is remembered as the guy who cheated — but, mostly, he is remembered as the guy who was on the TV show that cheated.

Blaming Others: Van Doren received applause at the House committee hearings in which he testified that he had "flown too high on borrowed wings." Things had come to him too easily, he said.

The audience saved its most enthusiastic applause, though, for the one member of the committee who did not fawn over Van Doren and said he saw no reason to commend Van Doren for telling the truth.

I doubt that such a scene would be duplicated today.

"Quiz Show" received four Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Paul Scofield) — but won none.

The Star-Spangled Banner: A Sensory Experience

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star–spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two centuries ago today, Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star–Spangled Banner."

It was a poem, written as Key, a 35–year–old lawyer and poet, watched the Americans turn back the British at Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. Key wasn't primarily a writer, but he had some of the writer's soul within him. I think I know how he must have felt; I, too, have been inspired by sights or sounds or smells or tastes, and felt compelled to write.

That is a big part of what writing is about — an attempt to describe an experience, and inspiration can come in many forms. I feel inspired, for example, to write about my grandmother whenever I taste biscuits or cookies that taste like the ones she made. My mother was a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver; when I hear a song by either, I think of her, and sometimes I am inspired to write about my memories of her. Other things remind me of people and places, too — sunsets, the sound of gentle rain falling early on a Saturday morning, the smell of burgers cooking on the grill. The smell of honeysuckle in the summer evening air always reminds me of my first serious girlfriend.

Key's senses must have been on overload 200 years ago today. He could see the smoke of battle and, as it cleared, the red, white and blue of the American flag still waving in the breeze. He could smell the smoke. He could hear the guns being fired. I'll bet he could practically taste the gunpowder.

Of course he wrote about it. He was powerless to do otherwise. He was moved by what he had witnessed that day.

Now, I know, from a lifetime of writing, that people don't always read what you write. It may be emotionally and intellectually satisfying to put your thoughts on paper, but every writer has to accept the fact that he/she will write some things — perhaps many things — that others will not read. Two centuries ago today, Key may have wondered if anyone would ever read what he wrote. It goes with the territory, but still a writer writes, anyway.

And sometimes you may write songs that people sing or books that people read and quote long after you have died. Sometimes — if you're lucky as well as good — you create something that outlives you.

In Key's case, he wrote a song that became his nation's anthem. I have known no other national anthem in my life. That said, though, there is not really a long tradition of the song as the official national anthem, certainly not the kind of history that should make folks misty upon hearing it — and yet they do. It really is a fascinating phenomenon.

You know the old story about how Key's lyrics were set to the music of a British drinking song? Well, that isn't entirely true. The music did come from Britain, but it was written for a men's social club. Characterizing the members of the club as drunks needlessly demeaned them.

Anyway, the song had four stanzas. Most Americans know at least part of the first stanza — but almost no one, drunk or sober, knows the other stanzas.

It became the national anthem in 1931.

Many folks may only know "The Star–Spangled Banner" from hearing it being played before the start of ball games and whenever Americans have won gold medals at the Olympics.

I recall once, in an episode of All in the Family, a Puerto Rican gentleman began singing the national anthem in Spanish to prove to Archie that he was a legitimate American citizen, and Archie stopped him, admonishing him that the song should only be sung the way it was written (in English) and "only on patriotic occasions — like ball games and that."

I guess there was no official national anthem prior to 1931. "Hail, Columbia" was one of several songs that were regarded as unofficial national anthems. "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" was another.

I don't think I'm especially choosy about who sings the national anthem — but I am sort of particular about how it is sung. Some singers feel compelled to jazz it up — or funk it up or whatever, to put their own personal stamp on it, depending upon what it is that performer does. That isn't necessary. If it was up to me, I would tell 'em all, Put your unique style out there on CDs or in concerts. Sing this song with the respect and reverence it deserves.

(I've always liked Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star–Spangled Banner" from Woodstock, but it isn't generally appropriate for most audiences.)

In Baltimore, some people apparently expect a "Super Bowl–esque kind of crowd" for the anthem's bicentennial today. Lots of things are planned, as USA Today reports.

But you don't have to be in Baltimore to celebrate. Do you have an American flag? Even a small one? You can stick it in a flower pot or whatever you've got.

And maybe try to learn those other three stanzas. Here they are:
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star–spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star–spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star–spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Speaking of All in the Family, I remember a hilarious exchange between Mike and Archie while they were watching the national anthem being performed before a ball game.

"That is one terrible song," Mike observed.

Frankly, I thought he said it strictly to get under Archie's skin. When Archie made a predictable defense of the song, Mike complained that it glorified war and that, as a song, "it stinks. No one can remember the words."

I guess that is a matter of opinion. Personally, I have never thought the words of the national anthem were any worse than most of the words to alma maters or college fight songs I have heard, and, nevertheless, those songs evoke strong emotional responses.

Mike may have been right about performers forgetting the words. I have witnessed a couple of those. But Steve Vogel writes in the Washington Post that it is a myth that the song glorifies war.

"Actually," Vogel writes, the song "is more a hymn of thanks by the devout Key, who feared that Baltimore would be destroyed."