Monday, October 16, 2017

Adapting Thomas Hardy's Best Novel

"A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine."

Francis (Terence Stamp)

Nearly everyone I know would tell you that I always recommend reading a book before watching its movie version. It has always been an article of faith with me that a book is better than any movie that is based on it.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and "Far From the Madding Crowd," which premiered in Britain on this day in 1967 (and opened in theaters across the United States two days later), was an exception to that rule. At least, in my opinion.

It followed Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel pretty closely. Well, I thought so. In some ways, it may even have been better than the book (albeit somewhat condensed in places). I know others who feel that way.

But I also know others who think the movie is inferior to the book, which some people think was his best. There are plausible arguments to be made on both sides.

So I just want to make a couple of observations on this, the 50th anniversary of the movie's debut.

First, Julie Christie had been making movies for several years but was still in her 20s when she made "Far From the Madding Crowd." She played Bathsheba, a beautiful but vexing woman who inherited a prosperous farm and found herself the object of the affections of three very different men.

Christie's performance was splendid and deserving of an Oscar nomination, but it didn't receive one. Must have been hard to get one of the five Best Actress nominations that year with Katharine Hepburn ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), Audrey Hepburn ("Wait Until Dark"), Anne Bancroft ("The Graduate") and Faye Dunaway ("Bonnie and Clyde") turning in award–worthy performances that year.

(Katharine Hepburn was the winner, by the way.)

In a talented cast, Christie stood out — and that's saying something when the three men who pursued her were played by Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.

The other thing that stood out was the sweeping cinematography that so beautifully captured the countryside where the story took place. It was gorgeous, and each time I have watched this movie I have seen something new to admire. The cinematography deserved an Oscar nomination, too.

But the only Oscar nomination that "Far From the Madding Crowd" received was for Best Original Music Score, honoring the work of British composer Richard Rodney Bennett, but Elmer Bernstein took home the trophy for his work on "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Oscar nominations are like inductions into halls of fame, though. Some are deserved; some are not. It's really a matter of personal preference and bias.

And cinematography is not something I usually get worked up about.

But the cinematography in "Far From the Madding Crowd" truly was exceptional.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

On Aging and Making Commitments

I'm not really sure why I like the episode of Frasier that first aired 15 years ago today.

Except that, as always, the writers for the show had a unique take on their theme — which, in this case, was the twin themes of aging and commitment.

Which, I suppose, are really just subsets of the more general topic of life, which is probably more accurately defined by the phrase "it's complicated."

Now, that's real reality programming — even if it is in a fictional context.

The episode — "Kissing Cousin" — centered on a visit from Roz's cousin Jen (played by Zooey Deschanel). Jen was a younger but just as free–spirited version of Roz (Peri Gilpin). In fact, Roz once babysat for Jen and took the opportunity to school her in Roz's rather bohemian ways. The two became close, and Jen, like many disciples of an avant–garde role model, took it to extremes.

Jen was negative about, well, just about everything, but all of it couldn't be explained simply by the mindset Roz had encouraged. Jen had that judgmental certainty of the rightness of every thought she had and every position she took that often seems to be the hallmark of youth.

And older viewers must have suspected that, had they been given the opportunity to watch Jen's character evolve as she got tossed around by life (as all lives inevitably must be), they would have seen her abandon most of her preconceived notions about how life is and should be.

But Jen never made another appearance on Frasier so viewers will never know what became of her. They can only speculate based on their own experiences and knowledge.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) put up with it longer than one might think his narcissistic personality could, but he finally had enough when Jen told him that Freud had been "proven wrong about everything." The strongly Freud–influenced Frasier could not resist the urge to set her straight.

Otherwise, Frasier was to be commended for an atypically restrained response that anyone who has had to contend with Millennials must admire.

But he could get some distance from Jen. He wasn't with her 24 hours a day the way Roz was, and Roz, who was 38 in the episode (Gilpin was actually 41 when it aired), couldn't keep up with her twentysomething cousin.

And the all–nighters with the globe–trotting Jen were wearing Roz down.

While Frasier seethed privately over Jen's attitudes, the perennially prissy Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was willing to chalk them off to youthful exuberance, ironically noting that "we were all that way" and "it passes."

To older observers, the young always seem to have everything, and that can be frustrating for those who have lost a step or two.

The truth is that no generation has it all, and Millennials, in spite of their reputation for being technology–savvy, have their own obstacles to overcome. Many are more resistant to rites of passage, like leaving their parents' homes, than their predecessors.

For many this is said to be an economic condition, heavily influenced by the Great Recession and related external factors, but that does little to explain the behavior of older Millennials like Jen, who had been living in places like London and Florence — and planning a trip to Vietnam because "Americans have never even heard of it" — years before the economy imploded.

I'll admit that most Millennials probably couldn't afford to live the way Jen did in 2002 — but her lifestyle seemed to have an appeal for the station manager, Kenny (Tom McGowan). Recently separated from his wife and still working in an office filled with boxes containing his possessions (because Kenny's experience had been that permanent jobs were temporary), Kenny had his issues with commitment. And Jen was free of such bonds.

Jen encouraged him to be more impulsive, but when he did so and then tried to arrange to travel with her to Vietnam, she revealed herself to have her own problems with commitment. She always traveled alone, she told Kenny, because of an experience she once had. The audience was left to guess about the nature of that experience, but one can reasonably imagine that it involved someone who had feelings for Jen that she did not return.

That seems to be at the heart of many such human conflicts.

That person was probably another Millennial, not as mature as Kenny, who handled Jen's rejection quite well, shrugging it off and expressing the hope that they would run into each other in Asia — and, after she left, he began to unpack the boxes in his office.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

An Ode to Journalism, Be It Fake or Yellow

We can do 'The Innuendo'
We can dance and sing
When it's said and done we haven't told you a thing
We all know that crap is king
Give us dirty laundry!

It is easy these days for people whose lives have not been involved in journalism the way mine has to believe that sensationalism and yellow journalism in the media are new.

But I could have told you back when I was an undergraduate studying journalism that neither is new.

On this day in 1982, Don Henley (initially of Eagles fame) released a solo single called "Dirty Laundry" that criticized the media of that time. If you listen to the lyrics, you must conclude that little has changed.

(Actually, the song was from an album titled "I Can't Stand Still," which had been released two months earlier.)

I studied print journalism in college, then practiced it in the real world. And it was an article of faith in every newsroom I was ever in that broadcasters weren't really serious journalists — that, in the words of the lyrics from the song, they only had to look good (while they read what someone else had written for them, either from the hard copy or from a teleprompter). Being "clear" was not required.

I don't know if the song fits in the modern–day debate over "fake news," but if fake news exists it is merely an outgrowth of the kind of journalism Henley criticized in the song.

I liked the song because, even though I hadn't been in the business long when "Dirty Laundry" was still being played on the radio, I knew enough about it to know that bad news will happen on its own. It doesn't need any help from journalists, whether they are legitimate journalists or not, and I have always despised those who try to stir things up needlessly.

And I also enjoyed a little tidbit that only journalists would know. There's a line in the song that goes "Is the head dead yet?" The song, as I understand it, was largely inspired by the media coverage of the deaths of John Belushi and Natalie Wood — but that particular line has a real role in newspaper history. It asks whether the major headline story (or head) is ready to go. If a head is dead, it means it is all set and is being printed — and it is too late to make a change.

I suppose that yellow journalism is the same thing as fake news. It depends on the label you want to slap on journalism that uses little, if any, research or facts and is presented in the most sensational, eye–grabbing way possible.

And that kind of thing has been going on in America since at least the 19th century and the days of Pulitzer and Hearst.

If it preceded that time — and I am sure it did — journalism historian Frank Luther Mott probably could have told us. He wrote the textbook on American newspapers from 1690 to 1940 that was used in most college journalism history courses for many years — and, for all I know, may still be in use in some classrooms today.

But Mott died in 1964. Not that he would be likely to still be around today. After all, he'd be over 130. Still, it would be good to hear his insights about modern journalism. No doubt he would be able to compare this time in journalism history to another period, whether it qualified as yellow journalism or required a different label.

And Mott, who led journalism departments at the University of Iowa and University of Missouri, was good at naming things. For example, he was responsible for the term "photojournalism."

He didn't coin the term "yellow journalism," but he did define it so I am sure he would have some thoughts to share on fake news — or whatever it is.

Absent Mott, though, you can listen to "Dirty Laundry" and get an idea what broadcast journalism was like 35 years ago.

And, as I said earlier, you will realize that things really haven't changed that much.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Moral Conscience of All in the Family

People often forget how groundbreaking All in the Family was. And much of it was because of Edith (Jean Stapleton). She was never the dingbat Archie said she was. She was, in fact, the conscience of the show.

A couple of days ago I wrote about how the sitcom addressed sexism — at a time when it wasn't really a topic of conversation. We live in a time when a woman has been nominated for president and three women sit on the Supreme Court; the subject matter of that episode probably seems quaint to many people who weren't around when All in the Family was on the air.

Ironically Edith wasn't the conscience of that program, but the theme of the series evolved so that, five years later, Edith was the moral influence on the family.

Forty years ago today, All in the Family took on homosexuality, another topic that wasn't popular in the 1970s — and, in its typical fashion, did so in an unexpected way.

As the episode "Cousin Liz" began, Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith had traveled to New Jersey for the funeral of one of Edith's cousins, Liz, who had died unexpectedly. As the Bunkers prepared in their motel room to go to the service, Edith lamented the fact that Liz had never married and Archie revealed that he had once had a crush on Liz.

"What did you do about it?" Edith asked.

"I kissed her," Archie replied.

"Was that all?" Edith asked.

"She wouldn't do nothin' else," Archie said.

No one — Archie, Edith, the audience — realized how much that said about who Liz really was.

Homosexuality simply wasn't brought up in those days. Roommates of the same sex were presumed to be in a platonic relationship, perhaps sharing a place to live to save on expenses; at least that is how it was always presented on TV. In Liz's case, she had been living with a woman (Veronica Cartwright) for a couple of decades, but everyone in the All in the Family universe assumed that, being low–paid teachers, they did so to save money.

Well, that may have been part of it, but in truth they were lesbians. The fact that they kept the true nature of their relationship secret is entirely consistent with the way things were in those days. Even Edith didn't know about her cousin's sexual orientation.

But she was about to find out.

As Liz's closest living relative, Edith stood to inherit a valuable tea service that had been in the family for years and had been in Liz's possession when she died. So she brought it up with Liz's roommate at a post–funeral reception.

But Liz's roommate asked Edith if she could keep it, explaining that she and Liz had shared tea in the afternoons after school. It was a time they eagerly anticipated each day, a time that was set aside just for them.

When Edith pressed her on the matter, Cartwright tried to explain that she and Liz had been lovers, telling Edith that their relationship was "like a marriage."

That was hard for Edith to understand. Her concept of marriage was a traditional one, but her faith in love transcended that.

Edith had many memorable moments during the series' run, but some of her finest were in the episode that aired on this night in 1977.

She told Cartwright that she was sorry she knew the truth — not because she didn't approve but because Cartwright had lost the love of her life, and that grieved a kind soul like Edith's. And she told Cartwright she could keep the tea service because she really was Liz's next of kin — a status that has only been legally recognized in the United States in recent years.

But Archie would be a problem. Once he knew the value of the tea service, he had to have it — or, at least, had to have the money it would bring.

When Edith told him the truth about Liz's relationship, he threatened legal action, which would have meant the end of Cartwright's teaching career. That didn't bother Archie.

"Who the hell wants people like that teachin' our kids?" he bellowed. "I'm sure God don't! God's sittin' in judgment ..."

"Well, sure he is," Edith replied, "but he's God. You ain't!"

(I've always thought that is pretty good advice for anyone who presumes to speak for God on anything. And, in my experience, far too many do presume to speak for God.)

Then she shamed Archie for considering what amounted to blackmail, saying "I can't believe you'd do anything that mean."

Edith's assumption of the role of the family's moral conscience had been in progress for quite awhile, but I think it reached a turning point with this episode. Within the next few episodes, Archie — who had been a bigot's bigot from the start — moved so far to the center that he was taking on the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. That was almost certainly the result of Edith's influence.

But the story of Archie's confrontation with the KKK is a story for another day.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Solving a Riddle

"A young boy and his father were in a car accident. Both were injured and rushed to the hospital. They were wheeled into separate operating rooms and two doctors prepared to work on them, one doctor for each patient.

"The doctor operating on the father got started right away, but the doctor assigned to the young boy stared at him in surprise. 'I can't operate on him,' the doctor told the staff. 'That child is my son.'

"How can that be?"

The riddle

Good television is many things.

Mostly, I suppose, it is a reflection of its time. Watching an episode of a classic TV series is often like looking into a window to the past. Sometimes it reflects the reality that the writers and producers may have wished was so — but wasn't really. Other times, though, it can be brutally, unflinchingly honest.

And an episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1972 — "Gloria and the Riddle" — holds up a mirror in 2017 to show just how far America has come (and how far it has yet to go) in its attitudes about certain things. In this case sexism.

Forty–five years ago, Gloria (Sally Struthers) had her family stumped by a riddle she had picked up while working with a friend of hers for what was known at the time as women's lib. You can see the riddle at the top of this post.

The answer to the riddle — that the surgeon who couldn't operate on the injured boy was the child's mother — seems to leap out at you in 2017, doesn't it? But it wasn't so obvious in 1972. I recently saw a survey of schoolchildren who were told the riddle, and a majority identified the surgeon as being the boy's mother. I doubt that the results of such a survey would have been anywhere close to that in 1972.

And the answer that most of the remaining children gave definitely wouldn't have been given by many (if any) respondents in 1972 — that the boy had two fathers.

Certainly sexism still exists today, but it is also beyond dispute that doors that were closed to women in 1972 are no longer closed to them in 2017.

In 1972 there weren't many positive role models for young women outside of the traditional ones. Well, successful ones, that is. The women's liberation movement promoted the idea of women achieving in previously male–dominated fields, but that idea really hadn't taken root in American thinking yet.

Girls and young women, for example, could admire and be proud of the achievements of the space program, but it would be more than a decade before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

In the years that have passed since that time, many women have flown on space missions, and some have died there.

Any American could (and still can) take pride in Supreme Court decisions and opinions, but until Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to replace Potter Stewart in 1981, only males could realistically dream of occupying a seat on the highest court in the land and writing legal opinions that would influence millions of lives.

Today women occupy three of the nine seats on the Supreme Court.

And, in 1972, no woman had ever been on a major political party's national ticket. There have been three since — Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were their parties' first female nominees for vice president, and Hillary Clinton was the Democrats' first female presidential nominee last year.

No woman has been elected president or vice president — but that will change eventually, just as it did for Catholics and blacks.

Change comes slowly sometimes, and it depends upon many variables — not the least of which is the messenger.

On this night in 1972 All in the Family was the messenger.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Salesmen Under Pressure -- Or Is That Redundant?

"I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion. If everyone thinks one thing, then I say, bet the other way."

Ricky (Al Pacino)

The Chicago-based real estate office in "Glengarry Glen Ross," which premiered on this day in 1992, probably could be any office in any business anywhere.

It certainly resembled offices in which I have worked (even though I have never worked in real estate) — a fairly small staff liberally laced with profanity (because the script did have so much profanity, I understand the cast jokingly referred to it as "Death of a Fuckin' Salesman").

The layout reminded me of the newsroom at a daily newspaper where I once worked. The editor had a little glassed–in office from which he could observe everything that went on in the newsroom — but nothing that went on in his office could be heard from outside when the door was closed (at least it couldn't be heard clearly). It was pretty much the same in this real estate office, where, in telephone conversations with prospective customers, the salesmen would pose as wealthy investors who were in town briefly but could juggle their commitments to allow for an in–house visit with a lead who had already proven to be hesitant or financially unable to invest in land.

It was a familiar ploy, but everything was familiar to the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross." The salesmen had seen all these leads before and knew they were dead ends. It was frustrating. You could hear the frustration in their voices. You could see it in their eyes. I guess they continued to play the game in the hope that the outcome would change.

What did Einstein say? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The only reason that wouldn't apply in this case is the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross" didn't think anything would change.

Why did they continue to play the game? Maybe they harbored an ill–defined hope that maybe a miracle would occur. Or maybe it was all they knew.

Profanity was about all the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross" had left — the leads on which their livelihoods depended were worthless.

They were men under pressure, intense pressure, and it has been my experience that people who are under pressure are more apt to do things they might not do otherwise, like resort to profanity (if not worse). Such a situation is not improved when the people in charge look for ways to ratchet up the pressure.

And the boys downtown found a way to do precisely that — in the person of Alec Baldwin, who was sent to announce to the salesmen the latest sales contest. The salesman with the top sales for the week would win a car. Second place would be a set of steak knives. Third place was a pink slip. Thus, the top two would be retained. The other two would be terminated.

The announcement caused considerable angst among the salesmen in the office. Jack Lemmon played a salesman who had once been the best but had fallen on hard times. He may have been under more pressure than anyone else with an ailing, hospitalized daughter. His character certainly elicited the audience's sympathy, but there were others — Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino — who were fighting their own battles.

This was a period when Lemmon, who had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career, had some of his finest moments on the silver screen. His work in "Short Cuts," is often overlooked — and, to my great regret, I overlooked it when I wrote about that movie a few years ago (which was a mistake because his character's monologue on his infidelity must certainly rank among the best moments he ever had) — but "Glengarry Glen Ross" preceded it and contained some equally impressive performances.

In one scene Lemmon spent an evening at the home of a reluctant client who clearly did not want to invest. Lemmon knew it was a dead end, but he persisted until the man physically ejected Lemmon from his home. Desperation had driven both men to the inevitable.

In another scene, Lemmon tried to buy the new premium leads from office manager Kevin Spacey but ultimately could not because Spacey demanded payment up front.

The new leads were on everyone's minds. They were the leads that promised deals that could be closed — and Lemmon, under pressure, stole the leads and sold them to a rival. That led to another great scene between Lemmon and Spacey — in which Lemmon's role in the mysterious disappearance of the leads was revealed.

Lemmon deserved more recognition for his work. He did win Best Actor in the National Board of Review's D.W. Griffith Awards, but Pacino received the movie's only Oscar nomination, losing Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven" — but winning Best Actor for "Scent of a Woman."

Perhaps Lemmon got the last laugh. His character was the inspiration for Ol' Gil Gunderson, the real estate agent on The Simpsons.

And that may be the more lasting legacy.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Having Faith in Somebody

Opie (Ron Howard): I told Mr. McBeevee I'd be right back.

Andy (Andy Griffith): Who?

Opie: Mr. McBeevee. You don't know him. He's new around here. I just met him this mornin'.

Andy: Oh.

Barney (Don Knotts): Oh, a newcomer in town, eh? Where's he live at?

Opie: I met him in the woods.

Barney: What's he doin' in the woods?

Opie: Well, mostly he walks around up in the treetops.

Barney: He walks in the tree ... Mm hmm. I suppose he's invisible, too.

Opie: No. Mr. McBeevee's easy to see, especially his hat. He wears a great, big, shiny silver hat.

Not everyone likes the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired on this night in 1962, but I have always liked it because it so beautifully summarizes the father–son relationship between Andy (Andy Griffith) and Opie (Ron Howard).

The episode was called "Mr. McBeevee," which was the name of a telephone lineman (Karl Swenson) Opie had befriended in the woods.

The story began with Opie and Andy playing a game that parents undoubtedly have played with their children since time began — the game of pretend, of make–believe.

Opie had an imaginary horse he had named Blackie, and Andy was playing along with the game one morning. When Barney (Don Knotts) showed up, Andy and Opie spoke so convincingly of Blackie that Barney never doubted that Blackie was real, running out in the yard to see Opie's new horse.

Then Andy advised Barney that Blackie was "on the invisible side."

Barney was a little put off, believing himself to have been the victim of a practical joke, but he got over it — until later when Opie came to the courthouse telling of a new friend he'd made, one who walked in the treetops and wore a "great, big, shiny silver hat."

Andy and Barney believed Mr. McBeevee was make–believe, too — until Opie came home with a hatchet that definitely was not imaginary. He claimed Mr. McBeevee had given it to him.

That was something Andy couldn't understand so he instructed Opie to take the hatchet back where he found it and leave it there.

Turned out Mr. McBeevee was real — and Opie described him in the only way an 8–year–old boy could, but Andy and Barney couldn't comprehend. It was a classic failure to communicate.

Anyway, Mr. McBeevee took the hatchet back, acknowledging that Opie's father probably had been right to insist that he return it, but he wanted to give Opie something for doing some odd jobs for him so he gave him a quarter. (That may not sound like much in 2017, but it was a small fortune in 1962, at least in a boy's eyes.)

In the meantime Barney told Andy that he did believe Mr. McBeevee was real. Opie had already provided information that would be difficult for a child to make up, and Barney was going to get a more complete description using a technique of the law enforcement officer's trade — an eyewitness description.

At first it went well, but then Opie spoke of how Mr. McBeevee "jingles ... like he has rings on his fingers and bells on his toes." Barney pressed him on that point, and Opie conceded that Mr. McBeevee didn't really have rings on his fingers and bells on his toes. The jingling came from the "12 extra hands" that hung from his belt.

That was how Mr. McBeevee had described the tools he used in his work, but Andy and Barney had no way of knowing that. Opie's description of Mr. McBeevee was a source of endless amusement for Andy.

Then Opie showed them the quarter Mr. McBeevee had given him, and things changed. Andy couldn't believe the person Opie had described had given him a quarter. Opie suggested that they go to the woods and talk to Mr. McBeevee, and Andy agreed to do that. So they went to the woods.

Unfortunately for Opie, Mr. McBeevee had gone to get a colleague to help him with a task so he wasn't where Opie expected him to be, and Andy believed Opie had gotten into the habit of "stretching the truth a little out of shape."

When they returned to their home, Andy sent Opie up to his room and followed him there later, intending to punish him for lying.

Their conversation, in my opinion, was one of the great scenes in sitcom history.

Andy told Opie that he could avoid punishment if he admitted that Mr. McBeevee was imaginary. But Opie couldn't say that. Mr. McBeevee was real. "Don't you believe me, Paw?" he implored his father.

Andy sighed. "I believe you," he said and went downstairs, where he told Barney and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) that he hadn't punished Opie.

When Andy told them that he had told Opie that he believed him, Barney protested that what Opie had told him was impossible.

"Well," Andy replied, "a whole lot of times I've asked him to believe things that, to his mind, must have seemed just as impossible. ... I guess it's a time like this when you're asked to believe something that just don't seem possible, that's the moment that decides whether you got faith in somebody or not."

Barney wanted to know if Andy believed in Mr. McBeevee.

"No," he insisted, "but I do believe in Opie."

Later, of course, Andy's faith in his son was justified when he met Mr. McBeevee in the flesh.

I have said many times that I thought Andy Taylor was the best father on TV, better than any who came before or who have come along since. This episode proved it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Debut of Cheers!

Coach (Nicholas Colasanto): I'm working on a novel. Going on six years now. I think I might finish it tonight.

Diane (Shelley Long): You're writing a novel?

Coach: No, reading it.

The great thing about Cheers! was that, although it was ostensibly about a bar, it was really about the people in the bar. The place where everybody knows your name.

When it finished its 11–year run, viewers felt as if they knew the folks on the show — their strengths, their weaknesses, their personality quirks — so well that sometimes I think any one of them could have starred in a spinoff and been successful.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was the character who was spun off and had an 11–year run of his own, which is kind of ironic since he wasn't in the Cheers! cast when the show premiered on this day in 1982. In the first episode, "Give Me a Ring Sometime," the emphasis was on the barmaid who would be viewers' introduction to Frasier's woeful love life — Diane Chambers (Shelley Long).

She wasn't a barmaid at the time. She came in to the bar with her fiancé. They planned to go to Barbados, where they would be married, but Diane's fiancé wanted to get the ring from his ex–wife, so he left Diane at Cheers! with a promise to return.

By the end of the episode, though, it was clear that he was not going to return, that he had probably reconciled with his ex–wife. Forlorn Diane was offered the job of a barmaid.

Her conversation with her first customers kind of set the tone for the series:

"Welcome to Cheers," she told the middle–aged couple. "My name is Diane. I will be serving you. Why don't you sit down right over here? You know, I should tell you, parenthetically, that you are the first people that I have ever served. In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago that I would be doing this, I would have thought them insane. When Sam over there offered me the job, I laughed in his face. But then it occurred to me, here I am, I'm a student — not just in an academic sense but a student of life. And where better than here to study life in all its many facets? People meet in bars, they part, they rejoice, they suffer, they come here to be with their own kind. What can I get you?"

To which the man replied, reading from a phrase book in broken English, "Where is police? We have lost our luggage."

The episode was also a setup for the other people in the bar, especially the proprietor, Sam (Ted Danson), who had been a major–league baseball player until his struggle with alcohol ended that chapter in his life.

Many of the characters who went on to be regulars on the show were there — waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) and patrons Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger).

"Coach" (Nicholas Colasanto), the bartender, was there, too, but he died of a heart attack a few years later, and the character was written out of the series. Woody (Woody Harrelson) was brought on as Coach's replacement.

And that is probably what prevented the episode from being regarded as one of the best of the series. The first episode essentially introduced the viewers to the characters in the series, and that took most of the time.

So the first episode couldn't be too in depth. There simply wasn't enough time, you see.

It served its purpose, though. It got the audience hooked and set the stage for the show's 11–year run. And that provided plenty of time to explore various personalities and themes.

Good thing for all of us, too.

A Horse Is a Horse

The sibling rivalry between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) made for some of the best episodes of the Frasier series, and the episode that first aired 20 years ago tonight was one of the very best.

Their father, Martin (John Mahoney), was observing his 65th birthday. Frasier and Niles were known to have battled to outdo each other in the birthday gift department for years, but this was a milestone birthday so the competition was particularly intense.

Initially they had agreed to limit their spending, but that agreement quickly fell through, and the brothers escalated the stakes rapidly.

Frasier thought he had finally won when he agreed to buy a big–screen TV for his father. He hated the idea, had been resisting it for years but finally agreed to do it just to see Niles "twisting and writhing in agony."

But then he observed that Niles wasn't twisting and writhing. Niles, it turned out, had topped him by acquiring the horse Martin had ridden when he was on mounted patrol.

Niles had tracked down Martin's old police horse and had found out that he was a week away from being put out to pasture. So he bought the horse and set him up in a stable where Martin could visit him whenever he wished.

Yes, it did appear that Niles had won the sibling competition — until his father, who was initially excited by the gift, turned morose. Niles began to doubt the wisdom of buying the horse, not realizing that his father was a bit stunned by the realization that both he and his horse had grown older.

And he was feeling a little sorry for himself, but he insisted that it was the best gift he had ever received.

For reasons that weren't entirely clear, Niles shared the credit with Frasier, who in turn insisted that it had been mostly his brother's idea.

It was a nice commentary on aging, but I have to admit that I was a little disappointed in the ending. It struck me as anticlimactic, and I expected better from the writers for Frasier.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Important History Lesson

When I was in junior high, I was assigned to do a book report on Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day."

Looking back, I would have to say that the book was probably a bit beyond my years. I mean, I love history — I have always loved history — and I love a good story, but the book was a bit technical for me, at least at that time in my life.

I didn't know who most of the people in the book were. I guess I hadn't studied World War II or D–Day too much at that point, had no idea, really, of their significance in American history.

And in my mind, too, I suppose, that was my parents' war — but they had been children when it was fought. It was probably more my grandparents' war. Either way, I probably saw it as their history, not mine.

Perhaps that is how it is for everyone. Major events that have gone before belong to someone else. The current ones belong to whoever is coming of age, and generations to come will have their own. It depends on whose time it is, and even though it is technically true that a time belongs to all who live through it, it truly belongs to those who are coming of age, whose impressions are still being formed. For the most part the rest of us share ownership of that time.

But not always.

Remember Sally Field in "Forrest Gump" and what she told her son as she was dying?

"It's my time," she said. "It's just my time."

People tend to be more in tune to what happens in their times — and less so about what happens in other people's times.

But I guess I am slipping away from the point — which is that "The Longest Day" was a good history lesson, whether in print or on the big screen.

"The Longest Day" had an all–star cast — so many stars I can't name 'em all.

In that sense it reminded me of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" the definitive dramatization of Pearl Harbor.

There were actors everyone should be able to recognize — Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and John Wayne, for example — and others whose faces are familiar but you've really got to be past a certain age (or of a certain time, to return to my earlier theme) to know their names — I suppose Eddie Albert, Peter Lawford and Robert Mitchum fall in that category.

It also reminded me of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" in the sense that it was faithful to the facts of the story, which were dramatic enough.

It was filmed in black and white in a documentary style at a cost of $10 million. For nearly 30 years it was the most expensive black–and–white film ever made — until "Schindler's List."

The movie brought to life the story in a way the book couldn't do for me when I was 14.

I don't know how much of that story young people are taught in school today, but the parts I found the most compelling were the accounts of the tricks the Allies used in the battle with the Germans.

Like dropping mannequins with parachutes to deceive the Nazis into thinking an expected invasion was happening in an unanticipated area.

Or using an attractive young female bicyclist as a diversion to slip a wagonload of resistance operatives past Nazi soldiers.

The last time I watched it I couldn't help thinking that the invasion of Normandy as presented in "The Longest Day" was probably the most realistic depiction of modern warfare committed to film until "Saving Private Ryan."

"The Longest Day" received five Academy Award nominations and took home two Oscars — for Black–and–White Cinematography and Visual Effects.

Telling a Story

The Grandson (Fred Savage): Grandpa, maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.

Grandpa (Peter Falk): As you wish.

My mother loved "The Princess Bride," which premiered on this day in 1987.

That is what I most remember about the movie.

Mom saw it at a theater. I didn't see it with her. For years after that, she kept urging me to rent the video tape, but I never did. Finally, she gave me a copy of the video tape for Christmas — just a few months before she died in a flash flood.

At the time of her death, I still hadn't watched the tape. I still had it, but I hadn't watched it. So one night I decided I was going to do it for Mom.

I thought the movie was cute, and I could see why Mom liked it, why so many people liked it. Critics liked it, and it was a modest success at the box office, too.

I would have liked to talk with Mom about it. That was what we did almost every time we saw a movie together. Our discussions were brief sometimes, extensive other times, but they were almost always the best part of the movie watching experience for me.

I miss many things about my mother, but that exchange of thoughts and ideas may be what I miss the most. I have no doubt that our conversation about "The Princess Bride" would have been one of our best.

Reading Roger Ebert's review was almost as good. Not quite, but almost.

"'The Princess Bride' reveals itself as a sly parody of sword and sorcery movies, a film that somehow manages to exist on two levels at once," Ebert wrote. "While younger viewers will sit spellbound at the thrilling events on the screen, adults, I think, will be laughing a lot."

I wanted to know which parts Mom found funny — and why. I think I know the answer, but I never truly will.

Ebert elaborated on that point, and I couldn't disagree.

"In its own peculiar way, 'The Princess Bride' resembles 'This Is Spinal Tap,' an earlier film by the same director, Rob Reiner," he wrote. "Both films are funny not only because they contain comedy, but because Reiner does justice to the underlying form of his story. 'Spinal Tap' looked and felt like a rock documentary — and then it was funny. 'The Princess Bride' looks and feels like 'Legend' or any of those other quasi–heroic epic fantasies — and then it goes for the laughs."

Without going into too much detail, the movie was the telling of a story by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to his bedridden grandson (Fred Savage) — and if Mom could be here, I have no doubt she would say that I shouldn't spoil too much for anyone who hasn't seen it.

I don't think it would spoil too much, though, if I told you that, in the context of the story, it was established that the phrase "As you wish" really means "I love you."

When I discovered that, I understood the meaning of the note Mom had attached to that Christmas gift. "I think you'll like this," Mom wrote. "As you wish."

I remember being puzzled by that at the time, and I asked Mom about it. But all she did was smile. She knew what it meant, and she knew I would understand only if I watched the movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Born to Be Wild

Ted (Josh Radnor): I like your tats.

Amy (Mandy Moore): Thanks. You can play with them if you want. Hundred percent real.

Ted: No, your tats. Your toos. Your tattoos.

Amy: Oh. [laughs] Thanks.

As How I Met Your Mother began its third season 10 years ago tonight, it had established certain catch phrases and character quirks in the minds of the viewers — which is, of course, critical to the long–term success of a TV series, especially a sitcom.

It was a clear indication of how comfortable the writers were with that kind of recognition factor that they titled the third–season debut "Wait For It," which regular viewers would instantly recognize as Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) signature punctuation of multisyllabic words — i.e., "It's going to be legen — wait for it — dary."

The episode that aired on this night in 2007 picked up where the episode that wrapped up the second season left off — so the title was appropriate in that sense, too. The audience, after all, had had to wait since May.

When last we heard from them, Robin (Cobie Smulders) and Ted (Josh Radnor) had split up. As the new season began, we learned that Robin had taken a trip to Argentina to regroup after the breakup, and Ted had embarked on his typical post–relationship routine, which involved growing a beard and painting his apartment.

According to the unwritten rules of relationships (at least according to How I Met Your Mother), relationships are defined by who wins, and the only way for both parties to win is for the relationship to be a long–term one.

Otherwise someone has to win the breakup — to be the first to move on and find someone new.

(This concept of winning probably has more in common with Charlie Sheen's than Donald Trump's — although it preceded both.)

And, initially, it appeared that Robin was winning. She returned from Argentina with a handsome new boyfriend in tow (Enrique Iglesias) — and, after introducing him to the gang, she wanted to make sure that Ted was "OK with this."

The guys had a lot of fun mispronouncing his name — but Ted found himself obsessing over Gael's fondness for windsurfing and making love "sometimes at the same time." Being able to do both things at once would certainly make Robin the winner.

So Ted and Barney went out in search of a 12 to replace Robin (who, Barney conceded, was a 10) — and, it turned out, Ted found one with no help from Barney. In fact, Barney was against the idea of Ted spending time with this girl (Mandy Moore) — while he was almost exclusively motivated to be the one responsible for finding a girl for Ted, it turned out he was right about her, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

At one point Ted casually expressed his admiration for this girl's tattoos; after she told him that he would look good with "some ink," and Barney objected, Ted decided to do precisely that.

But, in his inebriated condition, Ted blacked out at the tattoo parlor and remembered nothing more when he awoke in his own bed several hours later.

While all this had been going on, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) had a double date with Robin and Gael. Marshall told Lily they had to stand firm and not like Gael because Ted was their best friend. But Lily, who already had something of a crush on Gael, buckled, falling to his South American charm, his romantic music and his sensual massages.

Then Marshall developed something of a bro crush himself — and even admitted to Ted later that things got "weird."

But no matter how weird things had been, they really couldn't top something.

Ted had gotten a tattoo, even though he had no memory of it. Apparently, after he blacked out, Amy had the tattoo artist put a butterfly tattoo on Ted's lower back.

Barney called it a "tramp stamp."

At the end, Ted and Robin had a confrontation over their breakup, which cleared the air and established that no one had won the breakup.

I thought the ending was a little weak, lacking in the kind of punch that such an episode probably deserved, but it was entertaining enough.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Mystery of a Mind

I have long admired Joanne Woodward, and I remember the first time I saw "Sybil," the supposedly true story of a woman with more than a dozen personalities. Woodward played the psychiatrist who treated the woman in that made–for–TV movie.

At the time, I did not know Woodward had been in a similar movie some 20 years earlier in which she played the patient so "Sybil" was a role reversal for her. The movie in which Woodward was the patient was called "The Three Faces of Eve," and it premiered on this day in 1957.

There were many similarities between the stories. Given the subject matter, I suppose that was unavoidable.

By comparison Woodward had it easier in 1957 than Sally Field did 20 years later. Granted Woodward only had to portray three different personalities while Field had to do some 16, but I couldn't help feeling, when I saw "The Three Faces of Eve" that Field must have picked Woodward's brain or watched "The Three Faces of Eve" — or both — before she started work on "Sybil."

I saw "Sybil" first. When I saw "The Three Faces of Eve," much of what I saw Woodward do was what I had seen Field do.

But Woodward did it first — and won an Oscar for Best Actress in the process. So, arguably, one could say Woodward did it better — although Field did win an Emmy.

Lee J. Cobb played the role that Woodward eventually played in "Sybil." He was the doctor who treated her, who diagnosed her condition.

Although it was not her real name, the patient was known as Eve White, a timid and reserved individual who suffered from excruciating headaches and occasional blackouts. Her behavior became so erratic that her husband (David Wayne) brought her in for treatment. While speaking with Cobb, a second personality emerged, one whose personality was the opposite of Eve White's — so she was given the name of Eve Black.

Eve Black knew all there was to know about Eve White, but Eve White was oblivious to Eve Black's existence.

After Eve White had been sent to a hospital for observation and released, Eve Black attempted to kill Eve White's daughter, and her husband decided he had had enough. He left his wife and took their daughter to live with relatives.

That, too, was similar to "Sybil." Brad Davis played Field's long–suffering boyfriend who started out being supportive but apparently concluded that he, too, could not live with that.

Cobb believed Eve White and Eve Black were incomplete personalities, that they had to be united to form a complete personality, and that was the conclusion that Woodward's character reached in "Sybil."

And it would be hard to imagine anyone who was more different from Eve White than Eve Black. Eve Black was constantly going out on the town, drinking, carousing in night clubs.

But while Eve Black seemingly knew everything about Eve White, there were gaps in her knowledge. A third character could resolve things, and it turned out this comparatively stable character was named Jane.

Jane knew how the personalities had split. It went back to when Eve was a little girl. Her grandmother had died when she was 6, and it was a family custom for everyone to kiss the deceased person at the viewing. This was supposed to make it easier for them to let go.

When Eve's mother (played by Nancy Kulp years before she was Miss Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies) took her in to kiss her dead grandmother, it so traumatized the child that the personality split occurred.

If you have never seen the movie before but when you do you think the voice of the narrator is familiar, you're probably right. The narrator was Alistair Cooke, a journalist and broadcaster by trade who achieved his greatest popularity in America as the host of television's Masterpiece Theater for more than 20 years.

Did He or Didn't He?

When the season premiere of Frasier aired on this night in 1997, I have to admit to feeling a bit odd.

You see, when the season ended a few months earlier, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had been on the receiving end of some phone messages that had been intended for someone else. They were from a woman who sounded like a perfect match for Frasier so when one of her messages provided details about when she would be arriving at the Seattle airport, Frasier decided — on a whim — to go to the airport and offer her a ride to her destination rather than let her sit there and wait for a ride that would never come.

Only about eight months earlier, I did kind of the same thing. I hadn't been the unintended recipient of phone messages; in fact, I had become acquainted with a young lady online and she told me she was going to be getting a connecting flight at the Dallas–Fort Worth airport. I agreed to meet her there — and we passed a pleasant hour together as we waited for her next flight. There had been no expectations or commitments made — in fact, we haven't been in touch for many, many years — but I could relate to the thrill Frasier felt in doing something impulsive.

It turned out she wasn't perfect for him after all. Primarily she was married, but she did seem to be his type. And he admitted to her that he had liked the sense of adventure he felt when he drove to the airport.

Even after he saw her off, Frasier was still on that adventure buzz and decided to tag along when he met a beautiful woman bound for Acapulco.

That is where the season–opener that aired 20 years ago tonight — "Frasier's Imaginary Friend" — comes in.

Frasier had a few misfires on the plane. The woman he had followed was creeped out when she found out why he was there and quickly switched seats; then Frasier thought he had found a substitute only to realize she, like the one he had met at the airport, was married.

Both were quite attractive — but not as beautiful as the third woman to cross his path. (As inept as Frasier was at relationships, I always admired his ability to at least get things started with beautiful women.) She turned out to be a supermodel (played by Sela Ward), and Frasier managed to strike up a real relationship with her that appeared to be more than a temporary one.

Ward's character was modeling to pay for her education at the University of Washington, where she was studying zoology, but she was also in a relationship with a professional football player. She was in the process of breaking up with him, but she asked Frasier to say nothing about it. Given the work they did, they were in the public eye, and Ward's character preferred to keep the situation private "for now." Frasier agreed to say nothing.

But that promise created problems for Frasier.

Back in Seattle, his family and friends presumed that he had struck out on his excursion to Mexico, and Frasier desperately wanted them to know the truth — that he was in a relationship with a supermodel who was studying zoology and had been dating a professional football player but was leaving him to pursue a relationship with Frasier.

What was so hard to believe about that?

Anyway, when Frasier learned that she had been invited to participate in some zoological work in the Galapagos Islands for a couple of months, Frasier realized it would be difficult for him to persuade his family that she wasn't a fantasy.

So after they made love and Ward was sleeping, Frasier tried to take a selfie of himself in bed with her, but the camera malfunctioned, and Ward woke up and discovered what was going on. She stormed out of the apartment.

No sooner had she left than Niles (David Hyde Pierce), their father (John Mahoney) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) arrived, and Frasier tried to tell them that his supermodel girlfriend had just been there. They still didn't believe him.

But then she returned, chewed him out and left. Frasier's family stood there silently with their mouths hanging open.

It was all the proof Frasier needed that his trip to Mexico had been successful.

I thought it was a funny episode, but the ending was bit too forced, all for the sake of the punch line:

"What do you think of me now?"

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Negotiating the Curves of Life and Baseball

I've been a sports fan all my life, and I enjoy good sports movies, but "Trouble With the Cueve," which premiered on this day in 2012, wasn't really a sports movie, even though it had baseball as its backdrop.

I tend to enjoy Clint Eastwood movies, but I will be the first to acknowledge that sometimes you can see things coming in a Clint Eastwood movie long before they get there. Such moments are always there in Eastwood movies, but what keeps them from being trite is the fact that they are always poignant in their presentations. They never seem cliched even if at times they are predictable.

Case in point: Eastwood movies have ways of repeatedly reminding the audience of the title in obvious and not–so–obvious ways. It isn't always easy to tell them apart, either. In "Trouble With the Curve," Eastwood played Gus, an aging baseball scout whose eyesight was failing him. Early in his scouting career, "curve" probably referred only to a type of pitch, but all sorts of new images became associated with it as his character aged.

There were curves that his life and his work kept throwing at him. Of course, everyone is susceptible to that — but I got the sense from watching the movie that Gus had been more fortunate than most. Not so in his later years. At one point in the movie Eastwood was driving his car and was in a collision with another car on a curving road.

Then there were his problems with his daughter. In that instance, I suppose, curve could be physical as well as psychological.

Of course, the curve that held the movie together was the one that a hot prospect couldn't hit. Gus couldn't see it, but he could hear it. It was easy not to like the prospect; he was the kind of narcissistic athlete that, unfortunately, is seen more and more frequently these days. The audience's first glance at him told you everything you needed to know — after demanding peanuts from a ballpark vendor he derisively called "Peanut Boy," the prospect clearly believed he needn't compensate the vendor for the nosh.

"Peanut Boy" got even with the prospect later — in a scene that was reminiscent of the one in "The Natural" when Robert Redford's character blew three straight pitches past a blowhard slugger. In "Trouble With the Curve," it clearly confirmed that Eastwood's character had been right in his assessment.

To say any more would deprive you of the pleasure of experiencing that cinematic moment. It was a gem even if you saw it coming — and, frankly, I didn't.

Eastwood movies seldom pull a fast one on the viewer. There's an honesty in Eastwood movies. They never start out as one thing and then shift gears improbably halfway through. What you see is what you get.

Eastwood movies tell good stories well — something that hasn't been in style in Hollywood for awhile, which may be what appeals to a writer like myself. "Trouble With the Curve" was no exception to the Eastwood rule.

As I say, sports was the backdrop of the story, but it wasn't what the story was about — unlike, say, for example, "Million Dollar Baby." Actually, I thought it had more in common with "Gran Torino." Perhaps that is because Eastwood has entered a different phase in his life and career. He is playing older men and chronicling what life is like for older men in today's world. Sometimes they are retired. And sometimes they are, like Gus in "Trouble With the Curve," being pushed toward retirement to make room for the new.

It was never said directly, but I suspected that Gus remembered a time when older people were treated with respect, and their experience was valued — and he lamented the absence of that in the modern world, where computers get the respect and people get the leftovers, if there are any.

Gus knew he wasn't perfect. He was seen at the grave of his long–dead wife, confessing his shortcomings and telling her how much better she had been at some things than he was — especially communicating with their daughter.

Gus' daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) was all too aware of his imperfections. The two were estranged, apparently had been for years. She harbored resentments, as most of us do, about her childhood (and adulthood, too) and her all–too–frequently absent father.

In spite of themselves, they shared many similarities. They were driven to succeed in their careers, above and beyond anything else — although, as it turned out Mickey, an attorney who was in line for a partnership at the Atlanta law firm where she worked, was more driven by her father's career than her own.

She was with her father at the request of his longtime friend and current employer, played John Goodman, who was concerned about Eastwood more as a friend but also as an employee who could still do his job. In the process she met a former pitcher (Justin Timberlake) who had been recruited by her father — but then blew his arm out and was angling for a broadcasting gig via talent scouting.

Remember when I said that you can sometimes see things coming from a ways off in an Eastwood movie? Well, this relationship was one of those things.

But that was OK, too.

It wasn't the best Clint Eastwood movie I have ever seen, but "Trouble With the Curve" was worth the time it took to watch it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On the Road Again

One of my colleagues at work is a member of the Millennial generation.

She is also a big fan of Audrey Hepburn, who died before my co–worker was born. I learned of her fondness for Hepburn last year when she told me how she dressed like Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for a costume party given by the youth group at her church.

I asked a perfectly reasonable question: Did anyone know who she was pretending to be?

Her answer surprised me: Yes!

In fact, she said, just about everyone knew who she was.

I have always admired Hepburn, too, and I think one of the primary reasons for her appeal is that it wasn't really possible to pigeonhole her. She was an extraordinarily versatile actress who could do many things well. Even so she never seemed like the sort of star who would appeal to the Millennials.

At least that was my take on it. I stand corrected.

One of the best examples of her versatility was the British movie that made its debut on this day in 1967 — "Two for the Road" — which starred another versatile thespian, Albert Finney. They made an appealing on–screen couple.

Just one problem. That seemingly picture–perfect marriage was imploding.

As Roger Ebert observed in his review of the movie, "Love is ever so much more satisfactory in the movies where every other kiss is framed by a sunset, and people are always running toward each other in slow motion, their arms outstretched, while in the background the tide comes in, or goes out, or keeps busy, anyway."

Just about every married couple I know would tell you that isn't what marriage is really like.

That is what courtship is like. That's what going together (or whatever they call it these days) is like.

But when you say "I do," you're saying "I do" to a whole lot of stuff that is not mentioned directly in your vows — like the fact that you will have to work on keeping that spark of romance alive more often and in more ways than you think.

Some marriages can overcome that. Some can't.

That was the subtext of the story, and it was far from certain which way this couple would go. They had their two–seater transported to Northwestern France, and they took off on a road trip to the southeastern corner of the country. Finney played a successful architect, and they planned to participate in a celebration of the completion of a client's project.

The road through France was one they had traveled before, and the current road trip gave them the opportunity to reflect on events in their lives and examine where life had taken them since they met.

It was an intriguing story–telling technique, but the memories weren't always pleasant. There were moments of infidelity on both sides.

If you happen to catch this one on TV, look for Jacqueline Bisset in one of her early roles.

And listen for the title song, "Two for the Road," which was written by Henry Mancini. It wasn't nominated for an Oscar, unlike many of his other songs, but Mancini said it was his personal favorite.

In fact, the movie was all but ignored by the Oscars, receiving only one nomination, even though Ebert was adamant that "Two for the Road" was one of the best movies of 1967.

I thought it was a well–told story, balancing comedy and drama in that poignant way that real life does. To some viewers, the end may seem to be an unrealistic compromise in which the two remain together in spite of all that has passed before.

And there may be something to that.

But director Stanley Donen treated it differently than your typical Hollywood happy ending. He had Hepburn and Finney cross the French border into Italy, something they had never done before.

They symbolically turned the page and began a new chapter, traveling into unexplored territory.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Movie Myth of the Benevolent Birdman

"You best go find out who you are. Come on. Now what's wrong with you, you old buzzard? Come on. Don't be afraid. Out there you can kick up the dust. You can dance to fiddle music. Watch the alfalfa bloom. If you like, you can see gold teeth. Taste sweet whisky and red–eyed gravy. The air breathes easy, nights move faster, and you tell time by the clock. Now you don't wanna be a jailbird all your life, do ya? You're a highballin' sparrow. So you fly high, old cock. Go out there and bite the stars — for me. Find yourself a fat mama and make a family. You hear? Beat it."

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster)

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know of my love of history — and how I feel about the standards for movies that attempt to re–create historic events or tell the life stories of noteworthy people.

But the 55th anniversary of the premiere of director John Frankenheimer's "Birdman of Alcatraz" is an appropriate time to revisit that.

Simply put, I believe that a movie that proposes to tell the story of an actual event or life should be faithful to the facts. Well, most of the facts. I can overlook minor details.

"Birdman of Alcatraz" took some liberties with the truth. For openers, the title implies that Robert Stroud, the convict about whom the movie was made, kept birds at Alcatraz. In fact, he kept his birds at Leavenworth. When he was transferred to Alcatraz, he wasn't allowed to keep pets.

But I suppose you could get around that by saying that Stroud had already established himself as the Birdman before he went to Alcatraz so the title was a reference to his past, not his present, activity.

OK, I guess I can let that one slide.

The thing I find it harder to overlook, though, is the apparently considerable liberty the filmmakers took with Stroud himself. The movie did portray him as a bitter individual given to violent outbursts, but the clear implication was that he mellowed as he aged.

Former inmates have said the portrayal was inaccurate, that Stroud was not the amiable fellow of the movie but a "vicious killer" and troublemaker — and, indeed, the movie was candid about the events that led to his incarceration — but Burt Lancaster's Stroud could be a sympathetic character whereas the real one apparently was not.

Having said that, though, "Birdman of Alcatraz" had its inspiring moments — and a remarkable cast — in spite of its inaccuracies. Besides, the makers of "Birdman of Alcatraz" freely acknowledged, as did the makers of "A Beautiful Mind," that it was not a literal presentation of a life story, merely based on it.

If the movie did take liberties with the truth, though, it didn't gloss over the fact that Stroud was a hothead in his youth.

But Stroud also became an authority on sparrow diseases — all because he found some injured sparrows in the prison yard one day and began raising them.

So, to borrow a Huckleberry Finn observation from Mark Twain's classic novel, the makers of the movie "told the truth — mainly."

The movie received four Oscar nominations and lost all four.

Lancaster was nominated for Best Actor. He was nominated four times in his career — and even won once — but lost this time to Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Thelma Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Stroud's overbearing mother. She lost as well — to Anne Bancroft's magnificent performance in "The Miracle Worker," but I thought the role of Elizabeth Stroud was every bit as demanding as the role of Anne Sullivan.

Telly Savalas was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to Ed Begley in "Sweet Bird of Youth." I'm not sure if Savalas' character was real. Perhaps it was a combination of several inmates who interacted with Stroud in some way — although Stroud spent almost his entire incarceration period in solitary confinement so he couldn't have interacted with other inmates much. Besides he would have been as likely to get into a fight with a fellow inmate as to make friends with him.

The fourth nomination was for cinematography, and "Birdman" lost that one to "The Longest Day."

Karl Malden received no nomination — although I have long believed he deserved one as Stroud's first warden. Maybe it is because his character was entirely fictional whereas most, if not all, of the other primary characters were real, but aspects of their lives were fictionalized.

Was "Birdman of Alcatraz" Lancaster's best? That is really hard to say. He was always good. Some people will cite "From Here to Eternity." Others will say "Elmer Gantry" or "Atlantic City." I would say "Judgment at Nuremberg" or "Seven Days in May." But that's me.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not Much of a Plot, but 'Across the Universe' Made You Feel Good

"Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs."

Roger Ebert

I've been a Beatles fan as long as I can remember.

So I have to ask myself something: How did I possibly miss the premiere of "Across the Universe" on this day in 2007?

OK, today is actually the 10th anniversary of its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. It started showing in the United States about a month later.

All the same, though, I do not remember hearing anything about it at the time — and that really is a shame.

And difficult for me to comprehend because "Across the Universe" actually is my favorite Beatles song. You'd think the movie's title would have left an impression on me.

Now, I have mentioned before that I am not a fan of movie musicals — but this is Beatles music. It isn't the Beatles singing — I have heard that it is quite costly to obtain the rights to use actual Beatles recordings in movies, which is why 2001's "I Am Sam" used cover versions of Beatles songs — and it may be why "Across the Universe" used covers, too, although it seems to me that it really worked better for the movie's plot — such as it was — to have the characters sing the songs.

I liked it better in "Across the Universe," though. "I Am Sam" was shot in sync with the original Beatles songs so even though the versions that were used were covers, they couldn't stray far from the pace of the originals. In "Across the Universe," there were no such constraints, and the musicians had more freedom in their interpretations.

Consequently, if you were a Beatles fan, you would recognize variations, both subtle and not so subtle, in the songs.

(One example that stood out for me was the rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends," which was like a cross between the original version and Joe Cocker's — with a generous helping of the musicians' own spins. The music was very enjoyable — and occasionally surprising.

(Speaking of Cocker, he actually was in "Across the Universe," but he didn't sing "With a Little Help From My Friends." He sang "Come Together.")

I wasn't wowed by the story — it was dialogue loosely connected by the songs, and the names of the characters — Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Prudence, Jojo, etc. — came directly from song titles or lyrics that Beatles fans were sure to recognize.

The power of "Across the Universe" was the merging of roughly three dozen Beatles songs with strong images — like the part where "Let It Be" was incorporated into juxtaposing scenes of two groups of mourners, one white and one black, burying young people. The black casualty came during a protest; the white casualty was the result of warfare.

It produced a stark contrast, to be sure.

Any Beatles imagery — direct or implied — evoked by the group's brilliant lyrics was brought to the screen.

Dana Fuchs, as Sexy Sadie, added a Janis Joplin touch to the story with her Pearl–like performances.

Evan Rachel Wood was the female lead as Lucy. She only recently turned 30 and almost certainly has many film roles ahead of her, but Wood, who performed Beatles songs admirably, has said the role of Lucy is her favorite. That isn't surprising, given that she has said that the music of the Beatles has played a significant role in her life.

I have been working as a journalism professor for several years now, and it never ceases to amaze me when I hear that people — who I know could not have been born yet when the Beatles broke up — say that the Beatles' music influenced them when they were growing up. Nearly all the Beatles songs ever recorded had been on record store shelves for years when those folks were born. The Beatles, of course, continued to record as solo performers, but they were not a contemporary band for recent generations.

Wood is one of those people. The fact that she and so many others are inspired today by the music of the Beatles gives me hope.

And despite the absence of much of a plausible plot, "Across the Universe" was a pleasurable experience.

By the way it did receive an Academy Award nomination — for costume design. It lost.

While I didn't think it deserved nominations for much of anything else, I can't help but wish there was some way to recognize the imagery in the movie. At times it could be quite impressive.