Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hearts on the Line

"Whenever it wants, the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's going to take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you want to go."

Adult Bobby (David Morse)

I'm a fan of Stephen King, and I remember reading "Hearts in Atlantis" before I saw the movie, which hit the theaters on this day in 2001. It was not a single story. It was a collection of two novellas and three short stories that involved the same primary characters and were told in roughly chronological order. "Hearts in Atlantis" was merely the title of one of the pieces in the collection — and it wasn't even the title of the story that was told in the movie.

The movie was a dramatization of the first and longest story in the book, "Low Men in Yellow Coats." I suppose "Hearts in Atlantis" was considered a more marketable title — but its meaning had to have been virtually incomprehensible to anyone who saw the movie but had not read the book. In the movie adaptation, Atlantis was casually mentioned a couple of times, justifying the title

Having said that, I was impressed as always with Anthony Hopkins' work. He is already extensively recognized and praised, but I think that, in the future after he is gone, he will be seen in hindsight as one of the best actors of his generation — if not of all time.

Anton Yelchin, who played his young friend, might have been one of the best actors of his generation. Roger Ebert wrote that Yelchin "is not just a cute kid but a smart and wary one." That seems to have accurately described him as he grew and appeared in quite a few other movies. He didn't fall into the self–destructive trap in which so many child stars seem to fall, but tragically he died earlier this year in what can only be described as a freak accident.

The movie, Ebert wrote, "weaves a strange spell, made of nostalgia and fear. Rarely does a movie make you feel so warm and so uneasy at the same time." As he so often did, Ebert made the perfect observation.

In my life I have learned that the best fiction writers are the ones who can vividly recall what it was like to be a child. The children in this story were living in 1960, which was before my time, but childhood experiences tend to be kind of universal, I guess. As such, I suppose it would be a natural assumption that anyone can write a story about being a child, which is not true. Anyone can feel a personal connection to such a story, but few can write the story. Fewer still can do it well.

I can think of no contemporary writer who is better at that than King, and "Hearts in Atlantis" really may have been one of his best — the best of the best. In the book, the novellas and short stories told the tale of Bobby (Yelchin), and that first story, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," was about an older man who was taken in as a boarder by Bobby's self–absorbed widowed mother (Hope Davis), who constantly complained about her late husband leaving nothing but debts when he died.

The story took place in the summer of Bobby's 11th year. His constant companions were Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar), but Ted (Hopkins) became his special friend, sort of a father figure for the fatherless boy.

In the book Ted and Bobby had a conversation about Carol that I was pleased to see was brought to the screen. Ted asked Bobby if he had kissed Carol; upon learning that he had not, Ted observed, "You will, and it will be the kiss by which all others in your life will be judged — and found wanting."

That isn't the sort of thing your typical 11–year–old wants to hear. But it is so true.

Having been an 11–year–old boy once, I know that most 11–year–old boys do like to talk about sports, and Bobby remembered his father telling him about seeing Babe Ruth and Bronko Nagurski. Ted told him about Nagurski's miraculous comeback. Six years after his retirement, Nagurski was persuaded to return to pro football because the NFL's teams had been depleted by World War II. He led the Chicago Bears to the NFL championship, as Ted said in the movie, but the victory he described over the crosstown rival Cardinals occurred on the final day of the regular season. It was not the NFL title game. That came against the Washington Redskins. Nagurski did score a touchdown in that game, but the Bears won that title game by 20 points.

Ted made it sound like Nagurski scored the touchdown that broke open a close game with the Cardinals, but that margin was 11 points. A little poetic license, I presume. Perhaps Ted knew that and just embellished the story a bit for Bobby's sake.

The movie was about the relationship between Ted and Bobby as much as anything — even though the movie began with the adult Bobby going to his old stomping grounds for Sully's funeral.

Ted recruited Bobby to be on the lookout for "low men," strange, mysterious men who wanted to have Ted under their control, apparently because of some kind of psychic ability Ted possessed.

"Some think of it as a gift," Ted told Bobby after confirming that the low men's pursuit of him was connected to the FBI's alleged recruitment of psychics in the war on communism, "but to me it's always been a burden."

Although it received nary a nomination from the Academy Awards, I liked "Hearts in Atlantis," probably because it reminded me of my own childhood and adolescence.

Every young person should be fortunate enough to have a mentor like Ted. Not every one does, of course. The prisons are filled with folks who didn't have such a positive influence in their formative years. But I did. I called her Aunt Bess — as did everyone in my hometown. We talked about all sorts of things. Sometimes I read to her, much like Bobby did for Ted. And she shared her wisdom with me.

I guess she was sort of like a grandmother to me. My own grandmothers lived more than 300 miles away. I saw them a few times a year, usually around holidays. I could see Aunt Bess every week — and most weeks I did.

Aunt Bess wasn't psychic — probably, although she always seemed to know when I was fudging the truth. Maybe that is something all adults — or at least the ones who have been parents — know or seem to know.

The best ones aren't bothered when their young charges prove fallible. And Ted was one of the best ones. Even after he had been captured by the low men, as he was being taken away, he saw Bobby and told him he wouldn't have missed the experience of being Bobby's friend for anything — even though it was Bobby's mother who had played a key role in his capture.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Too-Good-to-Be-True Good Guy

"I ain't a–goin' to war. War's killin', and the book's agin' killin'! So war is agin' the book!"

Sgt. York (Gary Cooper)

I've never been a big fan of war movies.

There are some war movies that I like, but they almost always involve more than shooting and explosions. I've never been much for splashy special effects. For me, a war movie has to tell a good story, preferably with some kind of redeeming quality to counterbalance the violence. It helps if the story being told happens to be true.

Howard Hawks' "Sergeant York," which was at the theaters 75 years ago today, was such a movie. In fact, I would hesitate to call it a war movie. It was about a man who had sincere religious beliefs that came into conflict with the laws and requirements of the country in which he lived. War was merely the subtext of the larger issues that Alvin York's story raised.

Really, though, it would have been hard to go wrong. It was a biography of a hero whose story really seemed too good to be true. The American Film Institute ranked the film character the 35th–most heroic character in movie history; AFI also ranked the actor who portrayed him, Gary Cooper, as the 11th–greatest actor of all time.

Given the fact that York was one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, a conflict that had been fought in the lifetimes of most American adults in 1941, it should be no surprise that his story would draw huge audiences, and it did. It easily cleared more than $16 million at the box office, more than four times the earnings of the runnerup, "Honky Tonk," starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

My mother was quite taken with the movie and frequently quoted her favorite dialogue from it. York's sister, played by 16–year–old June Lockhart, and mother (in an Oscar–nominated performance by Margaret Wycherly) waved to Alvin as he left to report for duty. "What are they a–fighting for, Ma?" York's sister asked. "I don't rightly know, child," her mother replied.

(I've known that dialogue most of my life, I guess. Mom repeated it so many times. She was like that about her favorite lines from movies. Sometimes she used funny pronunciations of words as part of her regular conversation. One of her favorites was using words spoken by Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies — but that's a topic for another time.)

When the story began, Alvin York was a hillbilly from rural Tennessee who liked to drink and carouse. He needed motivation to walk the straight and narrow — and he found it in the form of a beautiful young girl (Joan Leslie). York set out to raise the money for payment on a prize piece of farm land, which he figured would seal the deal with this girl. But the land was sold to someone else so he went back to his old ways.

But he found religion, and it changed his life. His pastor was played by Walter Brennan, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (but lost to Donald Crisp in "How Green Was My Valley.")

Because of his conversion, York was an unlikely war hero. He even tried to get out of serving by claiming conscientious objector status, but he was drafted anyway. During his training it was discovered that he was a superior marksman — a skill he had picked up hunting in the hills — and he was promoted to corporal.

York put his marksmanship skills to good use during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918 when enemy machine gun fire pinned down his unit. With only a handful of men — and doing most of the work himself, picking off enemy soldiers from a sniper position — York captured more than 130 Germans.

He was a national hero and received the Medal of Honor — even though he always said his motivation was to save the lives of his men.

As I say, the movie was a big hit at the box office. The story was heroic, but it was also helped by the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, which happened while "Sergeant York" was in theaters. I have heard that some young men went directly from watching the movie to local recruitment offices to sign up, so inspired were they by Cooper's performance.

Cooper won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of York.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sharper Than a Scorpion's Sting

I'm pretty sure I was grown when I read the fable of "The Scorpion and the Frog." Ostensibly a children's tale, it had an indisputably dark side that was really for adults, and I don't think my parents or anyone else read it to me when I was little.

I don't know if my parents made a conscious decision not to read that fable to my brother or me. If they did, I probably wouldn't have liked that when I was a child, but I would endorse that decision today. If I had any children (which I don't), that is the decision I would make.

In the fable a scorpion asked a frog to carry it across a river. The frog was wary because it feared being stung by the scorpion. But the scorpion assured the frog it would not do that because if it stung the frog, they would both drown. That persuaded the frog who agreed to take the scorpion across the river.

Halfway across the river, the scorpion did indeed sting the frog, sealing their fates. The frog asked the scorpion why, and the scorpion told the frog, "It is in my nature."

It was the perfect inspirational metaphor for the episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night in 2006. The episode was appropriately — for a couple of reasons — called "The Scorpion and the Toad."

If you are familiar with the early seasons of How I Met Your Mother, you know that, at the end of the first season, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) made the decision to break up with Marshall (Jason Segel) to go to San Francisco to pursue her dream of being an artist. Marshall was devastated but, at Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) urging, decided — after three months of mourning the seemingly dead relationship — to start meeting new women when the second season began 10 years ago.

So Marshall and Barney started going out to meet women. Marshall, of course, was his usual sincere, honest (sometimes to a fault) self, and Barney, who was there supposedly to lend his support to Marshall, intervened each time and ended up bedding the women in whom Marshall had shown an interest.

Thus, the scorpion of the story was Barney, whose nature (to seduce women) overrode his intention to help his friend. Every time.

Well, actually, The Scorpion and the Toad was the name of a bar where Barney and Marshall went to meet young college women who, Barney assured Marshall, would be dazzled by Marshall's status as a third–year law student. Of course, Barney ended up seducing Marshall's interests there, too.

But a really good sitcom rarely depends on a single joke or story line to carry an episode, and How I Met Your Mother was a truly good sitcom. The other story line in this episode involved Lily.

Lily was back from San Francisco. No one knew until Robin (Cobie Smulders) encountered her and went apartment hunting with her. Robin was convinced that Lily was happy and had moved on with her life, but when she told Ted (Josh Radnor) he was equally convinced that Lily was miserable and wanted to be back with Marshall.

They made a bet on it, and Ted won when Lily reacted irrationally to the news that she had not gotten an apartment she wanted — and confessed that she missed Marshall and wanted to be back with him, just as Ted had said.

But Ted, who was always a much better friend to Marshall than Barney was, made sure that Lily knew how hurt Marshall had been when she left. He couldn't go through that again, Ted told Lily, so she needed to be absolutely certain that she wanted to be back with Marshall — or else leave him alone entirely.

Lily clearly wanted to be with Marshall, so much that she just happened to be on the street where she knew he would be, and they had a brief conversation. Lily told Marshall she wanted things to be the way they once were.

Marshall was hesitant to reunite with Lily, the memory of a painful summer still fresh in his mind. Longtime viewers of How I Met Your Mother know that not only did Marshall and Lily reconcile, they wound up getting married and having a baby. On this night, however, such an outcome was far from certain.

Lily seemed eager to try, though. She and Marshall sat down on some steps and had a long talk, and at one point she told Marshall that if there was anything she could do to make things up to him, she would do it. And Marshall told her there was one thing she could do — but she could never ask him why.

The next thing the viewers knew, Lily was in the bar confronting Barney, who had been not so subtly working the word "menage" into his conversation with twins. Lily accused Barney of giving her chlamydia, threw a drink in his face and stormed out. She returned a few minutes later, accused him of giving her twin sister chlamydia and threw another drink in his face. That was enough for the twins, who left Barney sitting there with the drinks trickling down his face.

And that is how Lily started making amends with Marshall — by throwing drinks in Barney's face as the Scorpion was seducing young twins, one of whom had been an interest of Marshall's.

And, thus, the Scorpion was stung.

Ridding Yourself of Your Ghosts

Lana (Jean Smart): You are a really good f–––

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Don't. Don't use the F word.

Lana: I wasn't about to! I was gonna say we're friends!

Considering that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was a psychiatrist, I thought that the greatest — perhaps only — shortcoming of the Frasier TV series was the rarity of episodes that really dove into psychiatric studies and principles.

Sure, Frasier hosted a radio program on his series in which he dispensed psychiatric advice, but the conversations with Frasier's listeners tended to be what his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) derisively called "McSessions" — brief and, to be honest, mostly written and played for laughs. Fair enough. Frasier was, after all, a sitcom.

Occasionally, Frasier would devote his radio show to a particular theme, inevitably drawing some pretty bizarre listeners from the woodwork, but I honestly felt that he seldom made his psychiatric work the centerpiece of an episode. Psychiatry was always there, and there were usually hints at something, but seldom did the writing really plunge into the subject.

That could not be said of the episode that aired on this night in 2001, kicking off Frasier's ninth season. It was called "Don Juan in Hell," and it was a full hour — which, in syndication, has been divided into two 30–minute parts.

From the beginning, the story of Frasier's character was love — more specifically, his unsuccessful quest for it. On Cheers!, his character was left at the altar, then he thought he had found love again only to lose it again. When Cheers!' run ended and Frasier began his own series, his romantic missteps became more epic.

When Frasier finally came to its conclusion, it did so with Frasier pursuing yet another love interest. The audience was to be deprived of the knowledge of how that one turned out — unless somewhere down the line there is a Frasier reunion that brings the audience up to date.

The psychiatric angles of Frasier's quest for love were rarely addressed directly. They were mostly implied. But the episode that opened the ninth season was different.

In the episode that aired 15 years ago tonight, Frasier was dating the woman he had once thought was his soulmate — Claire (played by Patricia Clarkson) — and they had gone on a trip to Belize together, but while they were there Frasier had been having second thoughts, especially after he dreamed of being in bed with the woman who brought Frasier and Claire together, his high school heartthrob Lana (Jean Smart). You know how psychiatrists are about dreams.

That was where the eighth season ended.

When the ninth season began, Frasier was torn between those two love interests, a rare circumstance for him. He was faced with a similar quandary a few seasons earlier when he told his radio show producer Roz (Peri Gilpin), "I'm a one–woman man — if that."

He seemed quite earnest about it — in his own way. If you ever watched Frasier, you know how obsessive he could be, and he was obsessive on this topic, seeking feedback from everyone from his father and brother to the guy who cleaned airplanes between flights.

Eventually, Frasier decided to go off by himself for awhile to think things through — and found himself driving with the ghosts of Diane (Shelley Long), the one who left him at the alter, and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), his ex–wife — and he began discussing his relationships with them. (Frasier's writers always punctuated episodes with title cards that frequently had meanings that were not immediately obvious. The title card that preceded this portion of the episode was appropriately labeled "Head Trip.")

As they drove along they encountered Nanette (Dina Waters), the famous Nanny Gee who was mentioned frequently but seldom seen, Frasier's first wife from his college days. Nanette, appearing as she must have when she was with Frasier, was hitchhiking, and they offered her a ride. Once inside the car, she began performing a song she had written in college to a poem Frasier wrote about Bangladesh. (I've always loved the title the show's writers gave that song — "Bangladesh: Dhaka Before the Dawn." It simply reeks of youthful idealism.)

Anyway the trio followed Frasier to a cabin in the woods, where they proceeded to evaluate his relationships with women. At that point, his mother (played by Rita Wilson) showed up, and the four began to analyze Frasier.

During their discussion, there were some delightful references to past episodes, but to know the history and get most of the inside jokes, one really needed to have seen episodes of Cheers as well as episodes of Frasier that preceded this one. There was a lot of inside baseball going on. As I understand it, most of the women were reprising, if only for a few seconds, roles they played previously on one of the shows. (Wilson had played a Frasier love interest who strongly resembled Frasier's mother in an earlier episode, and Long and Neuwirth were regulars on Cheers!.) If a face looked familiar, there was a good reason for that.

Finally, Frasier could stand no more, and he bolted for the door of the cabin — only to find waiting for him on the porch all the women he had ever dated.

That led him to conclude that those three primary love interests and his mother (who referred to the other three as "the slacker, the barmaid and the icicle") were at the root of his problem. They had created a fear of rejection that was with him on every date and in every relationship. They were a constant reminder, he told them, of how emotionally risky pursuing a relationship can be.

"How will I ever move forward if I don't put you behind me?" he asked.

And all four disappeared.

I thought it was the writers' best, most thought–provoking exploration of the psychiatry in a character since an episode that aired nearly 20 years ago, "The Impossible Dream." I plan to write about that one on its anniversary next month.

The episode was dedicated to the memories of Frasier creator and executive producer David Angell and his wife Lynn, who died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "Don Juan in Hell" aired two weeks to the day after the terrorist attacks.

Ironically, more than four years before the attacks, a Frasier episode mentioned American Airlines Flight 11. It was, of course, purely coincidental — but eerie in hindsight.

(That episode, "Odd Man Out," was first shown nearly 20 years ago. I plan to write about it when it observes that anniversary next May.)

One of the Reasons Why I Like Black-and-White Movies

Eddie (Paul Newman): Well, you don't leave much when you miss, do ya, Fat Man?

Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason): That's what the game's all about.

As I understand it, there were a few attempts to make a movie out of Walter Tevis' novel "The Hustler" before director Robert Rossen gave it a shot, but they all failed, probably because the earlier attempts emphasized pool too much. Rossen used pool as the backdrop to a more human story — a story about winning and losing and simply being human.

His version made it to the big screen and received nine Oscar nominations (two in the same category), winning for Best Black–and–White Cinematography and Best Black–and–White Art Direction. Only "West Side Story," the big winner at the 1962 Oscars, received more nominations.

(As I have written here before, I love black–and–white movies. It's a disappearing art form, one that depends on acting and story telling and camera angles that turn inanimate objects into characters in the story rather than flash and dash and special effects. And "The Hustler," which premiered on this day in 1961, is a great example of that.

(If you don't have to have a lot of "sound and fury signifying nothing," to misquote Shakespeare, you will enjoy movies like "The Hustler." No splashy special effects at all. Just a great story told well with great acting.

(If you've been hesitant to watch black–and–white movies, c'mon. What've you got to lose? In fact, you have everything to gain. "The Hustler" is a good place to start on your journey.)

Of course, it helped to have some heavyweights in the cast. I don't know who was cast in the earlier movies, but Rossen's film starred Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Newman was a young pool hustler looking to break into big–time pool by beating the legendary Minnesota Fats, played by Gleason. It is a movie that should be seen so I will try not to give too much away if you haven't seen it yet.

But when you do see it, relish the performances. As I say, it is the acting that makes black–and–white movies special, and the acting in this movie was extraordinary — even as it dealt with very ordinary human shortcomings.

Newman wanted to be a big shot, and he was willing to sacrifice just about everything — and everyone — for his goal. That included his girlfriend.

To be fair, his new manager played a pretty significant part in that last one.

Everyone in the cast was great. Gleason was impressive in a rare dramatic role. Newman was always worth watching, even when the movie wasn't too good — that was certainly not the case with this movie. George C. Scott played an unethical manager. Piper Laurie was Newman's rather jaded girlfriend.

Kenyon Hopkins' riveting score was nominated for an Oscar.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What Was the Truth?

"No ... wire ... hangers! What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers ever? I work and work 'til I'm half dead, and I hear people say, 'She's getting old.' And what do I get? A daughter ... who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her ... as she cares about me! What's wire hangers doing in this closet? Answer me! I buy you beautiful dresses, and you treat them like they were some dishrag! You do! Three hundred–dollar dress on a wire hanger? We'll see how many you've got, if they're hidden somewhere! We'll see! We'll see! Get out of that bed. All of this is coming out! Out ... out ... out ... out! You got any more? We're gonna see how many wire hangers you've got in your closet! A wi ... wire hanger! Why? Why? Christina, get out of that bed. Get out of that bed! You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood ... and you don't care if your clothes get stretched out from wire hangers? And your room looks like some $2–a–week furnished room in some two–bit back street town in Oklahoma! Get up! Clean up this mess!"

Faye Dunaway (Joan Crawford)

Faye Dunaway has had many memorable roles in her career, but her performance in "Mommie Dearest," which premiered on this date in 1981, may have been her most memorable.

By the time she made "Mommie Dearest," Dunaway was no stranger to controversy, but the movie was controversial in a way that was unique in Dunaway's experience. Dunaway was portraying not a fictional character but a real–life actress, Joan Crawford, who had died less than four years earlier and was still well remembered by many of her fans — and Crawford had an image that many of her friends in Hollywood wished to protect.

"Mommie Dearest" was based on a book by Christina Crawford, Joan Crawford's adopted daughter, who had been specifically mentioned in the actress' will as not being a recipient of any portion of her mother's estate. Christina alleged that Crawford had been abusive to her and her brother Christopher — and some folks in Hollywood were willing to back her up on that. Essentially, Christina accused her adopted mother of caring more about fame than being a parent and used the children as props to further her career.

Some people believed — and continue to believe — that Christina was motivated by a desire to get even with her mother. If that was indeed the objective, she seemed to accomplish it. My feeling at the time — and still is — that both the book, which sold well, and the movie, which did pretty well at the box office, were probably guilty pleasures for a voyeuristic public. Was Christina Crawford telling the truth? Did Joan Crawford abuse her children behind closed doors then parade them in public as examples of what a fine mother she was?

And certainly there was curiosity about how this conflict between Joan Crawford (Dunaway) and Christina (played as an adult by Diana Scarwid, as a child by Mara Hobel) would come across on the big screen.

The dispute lives on nearly 40 years after the book's publication.

I don't know what the truth is; I suspect that this story is a combination of truths with no single version being the whole truth. Having been a child when these alleged abuses occurred, it is possible Christina's version of events is completely accurate — from a child's perspective.

Events in a child's life can be magnified and exaggerated out of proportion, though. Adults don't tend to give them much credibility until they have had enough time to mature.

It is equally possible that, from an adult's perspective, the abuse could be seen as parental discipline that was not nearly as frequent as Christina perceived it to be — just as it is also possible that other adults witnessed almost nothing but abuse in their interactions with Joan and her children.

Especially the part where Dunaway went ballistic upon discovering one of her daughter's dresses hanging from a wire hanger in the closet. That scene spawned the somewhat iconic line in which an obsessive Crawford ranted about wire hangers — "No wire hangers!" The American Film Institute ranked it #72 on its list of the top 100 movie lines of all time.

(Whenever I have watched this movie in recent years, the wire hangers scene always reminds me of an evening when I worked on the sports copy desk at the Arkansas Gazette. On that particular occasion, I was in charge of putting out the next morning's sports section. One of the copy editors asked me how we were doing — since we had three deadlines each night, it was important to stay on schedule. I replied that we were still waiting for color art from the wire services covering whichever sports event was in the spotlight that day — I think it was one of the golf majors, but I don't remember which one. The copy editor wrinkled up his face like Dunaway in this movie and snarled, "No ... wire ... color!" I couldn't help laughing.)

Undoubtedly it was the very absence of collaborating accounts that encouraged the mixed reviews the movie received. In the three–plus decades that have passed, "Mommie Dearest" has become something of an underground favorite, a cult classic — but it was not particularly well received when it made the rounds of the nation's movie theaters 35 years ago.

Despite its problems with the critics, the movie was, as I mentioned earlier, reasonably successful at the box office, earning $39 million. That wasn't enough to land the movie in the Top 10 moneymakers for the year, but it was only a few million off the pace.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

And Then There Were Two

"You're very pretty, now that I see you clearly. But I'm afraid the only way I could convince you of my honorable intentions would be by force. And I'm terribly, terribly sick of fighting."

The Man (Charles Bronson)

Twilight Zone was known for many things — one of which was the number of guest appearances that were made by up–and–coming performers as well as many who may have been a bit past their primes. We're not talking about D–listers here, either. Robert Duvall appeared on Twilight Zone. So did Robert Redford and Agnes Moorehead and Buster Keaton. Burgess Meredith appeared four times.

The episode of Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961, "Two," featured two people who could not truthfully be said to be at the beginning of their careers, but neither were they at the ends of their careers. It would probably be more accurate to say they were on the verge of reaching their primes. Perhaps this episode was what gave them their final nudges.

Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson played the last surviving combatants in an apocalyptic, presumably nuclear, war. Amid the rubble of a city, they encountered each other. Being the good programmed soldiers that they were, they continued to fight each other, even though there were no armies left, no other survivors.

Narrator Rod Serling more or less left it up to the viewers to decide who had been involved in the war. The signs and posters were written in English, he said, to make it easier for audiences to read them, and Bronson spoke his lines in English, but he never said which country he represented or which country Montgomery represented.

Montgomery, meanwhile, spoke only one word. I have been told it is the Russian word for beautiful. To put that in context, she said that when she and Bronson were walking down a street and stopped in front of a dress shop. Even though they couldn't carry on a conversation, it was clear both were speaking of a dress in the window. Bronson grabbed it from the window, tossed it to Montgomery and told her it was hers.

After awhile, their tensions eased, but not without a few more confrontations.

When one has been conditioned in a certain way, it can be difficult to shift gears — especially if that conditioning has involved following orders, not giving them.

But eventually, they did. Montgomery took off her uniform and put on the dress — but she kept her rifle and a knife handy; just in case, you know — and they walked off together while Serling told the audience this had been a "love story."

A love story by necessity, I suppose, as Bronson apparently was the last man on earth, and Montgomery apparently was the last woman on earth.

It was truly an unconventional love story, but Montgomery certainly became accustomed to unconventional as Samantha the witch in Bewitched, the hit TV sitcom that ran for seven years.

Bronson had been in movies and television for 10 years when he appeared on Twilight Zone. In the years immediately after his appearance, he had roles in several memorable movies that went a long way toward establish his reputation as an actor.

But on this night in 1961, there were only two, and it has been one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes for many years.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Planting a Bad Seed

"sociopath — a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience."

Random House Dictionary

"The Bad Seed," which premiered on this day in 1956, was a thought–provoking — for its time — contribution to the debate over nature vs. nurture that influences so many behavioral discussions.

In this case, the discussion centered on sociopaths. We've all known sociopaths, even if we didn't know that was what they were. The term sociopathy came into use in the 20th century — but I'm sure sociopaths have been around since time began. The defining feature of sociopathy is antisocial behavior. Some psychiatrists caution laymen to avoid using the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably as the former is less likely than the latter to be mistaken for psychosis — and socioopathic behavior is not necessarily the same as psychotic behavior.

And, while I am not a trained psychiatrist, it seems to me that antisocial behavior is more or less in the eyes of the beholder. I have known people who judged certain behaviors that did not conform to their preconceived notions too harshly and labeled them sociopathic when most people probably would consider them introverted.

The things that seem to define sociopaths are the frequently criminal nature of their behavior and the complete absence of any kind of remorse for their actions. They are concerned only with themselves. All others exist — or cease to exist — to serve the sociopath's needs.

In "The Bad Seed," Patty McCormack played a young girl who, on the surface, appeared to be every parent's dream child — brilliant in school, excelling in all things. But if you looked closely enough, you could see a pattern of vicious behavior when things didn't go young Rhoda's way.

For the adults in her world, it was easier to simply dismiss some things as childish misbehavior that she would certainly outgrow.

But a time came when the behavior could no longer be so easily excused.

That was when Rhoda did not win a medal for penmanship that she had believed she would win. When the boy who did win the medal turned up drowned at a school picnic, those closest to Rhoda began to examine her behavior with alarm. She just didn't respond to the tragedy the way the adults expected. A young girl, they reasoned, should be traumatized by such an event, but when Rhoda came home, all she said was that she was hungry because the picnic had been canceled before anyone could eat.

The boy's mother, played by Eileen Heckart, knew something — somehow. Perhaps she sensed it. It was known that Rhoda had been the last person to see the boy alive; they had been seen struggling near the lake where the boy's body was found.

Anyway, the boy's mother showed up at Rhoda's home, clearly intoxicated and accusing Rhoda's teacher of concealing information about how her son had died.

And Leroy the handyman (Henry Jones) stumbled on to Rhoda's secret — and paid for it with his life when he was set on fire by Rhoda.

Rhoda's mother (Nancy Kelly) confronted her daughter with her suspicions and Rhoda tearfully confessed that she had killed the boy — and also confirmed her mother's suspicion that she had been responsible for the death of an elderly lady who had lived near them at one time. The elderly lady promised Rhoda she could have a trinket that she had admired "after I'm gone." Rhoda arranged for things to be moved up.

All this came at the same time that Rhoda's mother learned she had been adopted when she was young — and her biological mother had been a serial killer.

Thus the question of whether sociopathic behavior is learned or inherited was introduced into the story.

Rhoda's mother believed it was inherited, that she and her biological mother were responsible for this "bad seed" that she had spawned, and she took it upon herself to end it, once and for all. She gave Rhoda a lethal dose of barbiturates, then shot herself in the head. The sound of the gunshot brought people to the scene. The mother died, but the daughter was rushed to a hospital, where she was saved.

And it appeared that evil would triumph over good. Except ...

When a recovered Rhoda went out to the lake to retrieve the medal, she was struck by lightning.

The movie received four Oscar nominations in three categories but lost them all.

Kelly was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Ingrid Bergman in "Anastasia." Heckart and McCormack were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Dorothy Malone in "Written On The Wind." Harold Rosson was nominated for Best Black–and–White Cinematography but lost to "Somebody Up There Likes Me."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Misery Waltz

"Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."

Geraldine (Sarah Silverman)

"Take This Waltz," which premiered on this day at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, was an offbeat love story. To be honest, I'm not much of a fan of love stories — as a rule — but this one intrigued me. It was just offbeat enough.

It did have its problems, though. I'll come back to that.

To all outward appearances, Margot (Michelle Williams) had a life that, if not perfect, was a sight better than most. She and her husband of five years (Seth Rogen) had a home in the Little Portugal section of Toronto. She was a freelance writer and, while on a business trip, she met a young man (Luke Kirby) with whom she clearly shared a spark.

Each thought the other looked familiar, but neither knew why. Turned out they lived across the street from each other, creating another complication in Margot's life.

Margot and her husband seemed to have a pretty good marriage. Not ideal — but I don't think I have ever known of a marriage that was ideal. It was unique, as all relationships are. They had their own games that they played with each other. They knew the rules — most of the time — and tended to get upset when the other did something unexpected.

But Margot kept encountering this young man, and they carried on a somewhat flirtatious relationship. Margot clearly was not fulfilled by her marriage, and this young man managed to fill in the gaps.

So well, in fact, that Margot left her husband to be with this other fellow. But she began to regret it.

Now, love triangles are certainly not new to the movies. But in order for them to work it seems that one of the three people has to be unlikable, you know? And that element was missing in this story.

Typically, I suppose, you would expect the husband to come off as the heavy. It would make sense then for the wife to be driven to the arms of another man. But Rogen was a good guy, always working on recipes for his chicken cookbook. He wasn't overbearing. He wasn't emotionally distant. He wasn't abusive. He was attentive and seemed to be trying to be a good husband. My guess would be that most people would consider him good husband material.

When Margot decided to leave him, he was bewildered, trapped in a situation he didn't fully comprehend. "I feel like I never deserved you," he said to Margot.

And Kirby's character wasn't some evil person who simply wanted to mess up a marriage. He was drawn into the relationship as one is usually drawn into such a relationship. It just kind of happened — with a little nudging from Margot.

So, if the two guys were not unlikable, then surely the girl must be the unlikable one. She, after all, was the one who disrupted lives. But how could anyone not like Michelle Williams? She had such a sweet, even innocent quality about her that no one in the audience could possibly dislike her. She didn't want to hurt her husband. It wasn't deliberate.

How could the viewers take sides?

As I watched the movie, it occurred to me that maybe the answer was in the casting. Sarah Silverman played Margot's sister–in–law; the actresses should have switched parts. Silverman always rubs me the wrong way and never more than in this movie. She could have given the role of Margot the kind of treatment it deserved — and someone the audience could root against.

Williams, on the other hand, could have given the role of Geraldine the kind of treatment it deserved. Geraldine was a recovering alcoholic who, while drunk, confronted Margot about her decision to leave her husband. Silverman's Geraldine was already unlikable before the confrontation scene; while she made sense (from her perspective), she wasn't made more likable by doing so. Williams could have made Geraldine more sympathetic.

I could be wrong about that, of course, but I think it would have changed the whole movie — without so much as changing a word of dialogue.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Sudden Transformation of a Friendly Pet

"It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor."

Stephen King, Cujo (1981)

When I was a child, I grew up in the country on a manmade lake surrounded by hills that may have existed before the lake did but if they did, they were certainly enhanced by the lake's creation.

Homes were scattered in lots along the hillside and for me to visit my friends — usually by bike because it took too long to walk — I had to pass by a house where dwelled a Doberman pinscher. You had to move slowly when you went past that house because if you didn't and that dog happened to be loose on the property, it would come barreling down the hill barking viciously.

I found myself in that position one day. I thought the dog was going to kill me, and I screamed. Fortunately for me the dog's owner came outside and called the dog back, but the experience left its mark on me. I still remembered it years later when I read Stephen King's novel "Cujo," which was published on this day in 1981.

And it sent a chill down my spine.

"Cujo," you see, was about an amiable St. Bernard named Cujo who was bitten by a rabid bat when he was chasing a rabbit one day and, in due course, went mad, attacking and killing people whenever they happened to cross his path. King's descriptions of what Cujo was feeling as the disease gnawed at his brain were incredibly insightful, much like James Michener's descriptions of the thoughts of the dinosaurs and wildlife that lived in the area of Colorado of which he wrote in "Centennial" a few years earlier. Really fascinating stuff that cries out to be told on the big screen.

But, as it has been with so many of King's masterfully written books, it proved extremely challenging to put that on film.

That didn't keep an attempt from being made a couple of years later. Technology has never really been adequate to tell one of King's scary stories in movie form, but a story like "Cujo" — which has no supernatural element at all — requires a director with a cutting–edge vision. The director of that movie didn't possess such a vision, and while the movie was a modest success at the box office, it received mixed reviews from critics.

Actually, it isn't exactly true that there was no supernatural element in the story (I guess it wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without at least a whisper of the supernatural). There was one, but it was implied and indirect. It was strongly suggested early in the book that what happened to Cujo was due to some supernatural force that made an appearance in that small Maine town every few years or so, but from a broader perspective, animals — and humans — can get rabies in many — frequently unexpected — ways. That's what made the story so scary — the sense that this could easily happen.

And, as King observed, free will would not be a factor.

Most of us realize the chances of the kind of stuff that usually takes place in a Stephen King novel occurring in real life are virtually nil — but "Cujo" was about the kind of thing that really could happen. Many of my friends have dogs. I had one at one time. We always had dogs around our house when I was growing up — and, as I say, I grew up in the country. We allowed our dogs to run loose there all the time.

In hindsight, they could have been bitten by a rabid creature at any time. Or some other unfortunate incident could have occurred.

Most of the dogs in my life have been friendly, but how quickly they could have been changed by a chance encounter with a diseased animal.

Isn't that what makes a story truly scary — the belief that it really could happen to you — and without warning? The truly great writers, and I believe King is one of the great writers of this or any era, can make it seem as if something like the topic of a story could happen in real life — even if the topic was as unlikely as they come — but if it is a plausible story to the reader, that makes all the difference.

I liked the book, and apparently so did King, who confessed he could hardly remember writing it, having done so during a time when he was drinking heavily.

Like many of King's stories, this one took place in Maine and centered on two families, one a longtime resident of the town, the other a newcomer. The family with the local roots was the one that owned Cujo. The newcomers frequented the home auto repair business run by the first family. The mother and child from the newcomers were trapped in their car when they took it in for some work, not knowing that a now–mad Cujo had killed the man of the house and was all alone on the property.

A novel can be made more dramatic by the introduction of angles that might not be present in a real–life scenario like the one I have described, and so it was with "Cujo." There were several examples of unsavory adult behavior that certainly exacerbated the conditions.

But the fact remained that being trapped by a rabid dog — or rabid animal of any kind — would be a terrifying experience — and hardly one that anybody, regardless of behavior, deserved.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Memories of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon

I suppose one of the universal experiences for humans is associating memories of certain things with events in one's life.

It's unavoidable, I guess. Whether it is a song or a color or a fragrance, something triggers a memory.

It is probably less common for someone to recognize something like that at the time, but that is how it was for me when I was a child and it was Labor Day, as it is tomorrow, and Jerry Lewis' telethon for muscular dystrophy was on the air.

Labor Day was — and still is — the first holiday of the new school year. It was a special holiday for me for several reasons. For one, it was my last opportunity to enjoy the freedom of summer before being forced back into the classroom — and, believe me, until I reached high school, that was no fun because the schools in my hometown were always without air conditioning — and it was always hot when school resumed in Central Arkansas. I guess air conditioning was too expensive for the school district so I grew up trying to take notes on papers that were constantly being whipped around by the box fans our teachers set up in the classrooms to keep the air circulating.

Those fans didn't make the air cooler. They just moved it around.

Labor Day also meant that the start of the football season was near, and I have always loved football. Labor Day was usually a week or two before the start of the football season in those days. Now, of course, college football is wrapping up its first week of official play on Labor Day, and the NFL is only days away from its kickoff. Nevertheless, football was on my mind when Labor Day rolled around, and I was in that preseason mode when all things are still possible.

And Labor Day meant the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. I thought it was cool because if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night (which I don't think I ever did on any of those Labor Day weekends of my childhood) I could get up from my bed, go to the living room and watch TV. Remember, this was in the days before cable and satellite TV, and local network affiliates ordinarily would sign off around midnight. You couldn't watch anything until the stations signed on again the next morning, probably around 5 or 6 a.m.

But on that Sunday night just before Labor Day you could watch the Jerry Lewis telethon at 3 a.m. if you wanted. It would be on for about 20 hours or so.

As a child, I often watched several hours of the telethon every Labor Day — nearly always during the daylight hours, my nocturnal fantasies notwithstanding — but I stopped long ago.

Periodically, maybe two or three times per hour, the telethon would break to permit local affiliates to give the telethon a local touch. I don't know what the affiliates in the other markets did, but I assume it was pretty much what was done in the Little Rock market. On–air personalities, along with rank–and–file volunteers, would man the phones, and the names of local folks who had called in pledges (that's what they were called before telethons started using credit cards to collect commitments, presumably because too many people didn't honor their pledges) were announced on the air.

A couple of times, as I recall, my brother and I persuaded my mother or father to allow us to call and make a pledge. We wanted to hear our family mentioned on TV. I never watched the telethon for hours on end, though, just snippets at a time, and I never heard my family's name mentioned. Maybe I was out of the room when it happened — or outside playing with my friends.

That isn't to say that the telethon's guests were necessarily from my generation or even the one just before it. Mostly they were entertainers my parents and grandparents remembered from before my birth, but they were still big names, and they still drew big audiences.

I guess the telethon lost much of its appeal when, courtesy of cable, it ceased to be the only show in town in the wee hours of the morning. I don't remember ever thinking to myself, "I'm not gonna watch it this year," but it was never a conscious decision. There were simply other things I wanted to do with my three–day weekend, and time was running short by Labor Day. In the back of my mind, it was always a fallback position. If nothing else, I could always watch the telethon for a little diversion.

Then last year it was no longer an option.

The last telethon was two years ago. Lewis stopped hosting it in 2010 — he was in his mid–80s by that time, and he had a history of health issues.

It wasn't the same even the last time I saw it, though. I didn't recognize most of the people who appeared with Lewis — the way I did when I was a child. Things truly do change. Everything. It is the only constant in this world.

The telethon was the source of many good memories for me. That is all they are now, I suppose. Memories.

But I will say this. Every cause should have a Jerry Lewis to promote it with a telethon. He managed to get just about every big name to appear on the telethon at least once, and he was tireless in his dedication to the effort.

In the entertainment world, I guess, he was seen as a clown, a jester, a buffoon. But in the world of philanthropy, he stood tall.