Movie Review: The Great Waldo Pepper (1974)
Patricia made a face the other night when I suggested watching Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper,” but it turned out she’d never seen it. I had. Three times? Five? More? Never in the theater, just on TV or cable, but probably not in 25 years. Most of the story was still in my head but I was curious how it had aged. Or how I had.
“Waldo” is lesser Redford from his glory period. He was the biggest movie star in the world, and from’73 to ’76 he starred in the following:
- “The Way We Were”
- “The Sting”
- “The Great Gatsby”
- “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- “Three Days of the Condor”
- “All the President’s Men”
Only “Gatsby” sucked. Redford was all wrong to play a man hopelessly in love; that’s not his character. He’s the one women are hopelessly in love with. Think Barbra in “The Way We Were,” Mary Tyler Moore weekly stuttering his name, and the prison guard’s wife in William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” who tells her husband she would gladly “get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.” Again: She tells her husband this. So, yeah, not Gatsby.
Which raises a question: What was the essence of the Redford character during his heyday? Into his late ’30s, he was still playing the ingénue, still being shown the ropes by the like of Paul Newman and Jason Robards. And Barbra. His character has promise and his character often fails. That happened to be the essence of America at the time—how we viewed ourselves. “The Way We Were” actually makes the comparison explicit: “In a way he was like the country he lived in: everything came to easily to him.” And then it didn’t. That’s the point of the ’70s. When everything stopped being easy.
Pepper vs. Kessler
“Waldo Pepper” begins in the late 1920s, and while life isn’t exactly easy for the title character, it is freewheelin’. He’s a young blonde-haired hunk of man barnstorming around Nebraska, and selling simple folk on the thrills of aerial adventure. For some reason the movie posits him as a kind of charlatan, a bullshit artist. He’s supposed to come off a bit like Redford’s grifter in “The Sting,” but when you think about it he is actually selling something worthwhile: a chance to see the world from the sky. In the 1920s, that’s the stuff of gods.
The bullshit comes when he tells the local yokels about his dogfights during the Great War against German ace Ernst Kessler (cf., Ernest Udet): how he and four other guys had him in their sites but Kessler shot them all down, all except Pepper, whom he fought to a standstill until Pepper’s guns jammed. Kessler saw this, saw his opponent was helpless, but he didn’t take advantage. There was honor in the skies. He pulled up alongside him, saluted, and continued back to Germany. A great story. A true story. But not Pepper’s story. He didn’t make it into battle; he was still training recruits at the time. When he’s caught in the lie by his rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson, surprisingly good), his lament is: “It should’ve been me.”
That’s the tragedy of his life when we first meet him: He thinks he’s one of the best but never got the chance to prove it. The tragedy of the rest of the movie is that that life, the life we first see him living, disappears. He becomes increasingly saddled—first with a partner (Axel), then a flying circus (Doc Dihoefer’s), then federal regulations (in the person of former pal New (Geoffrey Lewis)). But the real problem is other people’s ennui. Planes become everyday, so the crowds disappear, so the stunts have to become bigger and more dangerous to draw them back. The tension is between the crowds, who demand blood, and the feds, who demand safety, with our heroes caught in the middle.
The crowd gets what it wants. Axel’s movie-loving girlfriend, Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), is pulled into wing-walking to add sex to the stunt; but despite her visions of grandeur, of becoming the “It Girl” of the skies, she freezes on the wing. Despite Herculean efforts to save her, she falls. (Patricia was legitimately, vocally shocked by this; she forgot what ’70s movies were like.) More gruesomely, Pepper’s pal, Ezra Stiles (Edward Hermann), finally finishes the plane that might be the first to perform an outside loop, but at this point, because of the Mary Beth tragedy, Waldo is grounded by the feds, so Ezra tries it himself. He’s not pilot enough to pull it off, and on the third try crashes. Trapped by the plane, the yokels gather around, some with cigarettes, and the leaking gas is ignited. Ezra is burned alive while everyone watches. This traumatized me as a kid, not least because I didn’t get it. Why did everyone just stand there? My father tried to explaining it to me, but, to be honest, as an adult now, 54, I think it’s part of the movie’s bullshit. It was the era’s extreme anti-populist message, and it feels false to me. And I’m a cynic.
Eventually, Waldo follows Axel to Hollywood, becomes a stunt man, then finally meets the great man, Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), on the set of a “Wings”-like aviation epic about Kessler’s dogfights. They talk, lament the passing of better days, then go off-script in the skies so they can dogfight without the guns in one final moment of freedom. They essentially kill themselves in the skies. It’s a dumb ending. It makes Thelma and Louise seem like they were really thinking it through.
A regular August Wilson
You know what I kept thinking watching this? Charles M. Schultz. He grew up in the Midwest (St. Paul, Minn.) in the 1920s. He could’ve been that kid getting gasoline for Waldo’s plane. He certainly bought into the romance of it all, then updated it in the 1960s with Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel, which is where I picked it up. Everything I learned about the Great War I learned from Snoopy.
Was it Redford specifically, or the popular cinema at this time, that kept looking backwards, ceaselessly, toward the past? From ’73 to ’85, his only movies with contemporary settings were the two political thrillers above and “Electric Horseman” 1979. Otherwise he’s a regular August Wilson:
- 1910s: “Out of Africa”
- 1920s: “The Great Gatsby”; “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- 1930s: “The Sting”; “The Natural”
- 1940s: “A Bridge Too Far”
- 1940s-50s: “The Way We Were”
- 1960s: “Brubaker”
A man out of time.
“Waldo” isn’t bad. Redford’s gorgeous, Bo Swenson is remarkably good, so is Sarandon. Writer-director George Roy Hill, a real aviation buff, gets the details right. It’s fun for an evening—Patricia liked it—but it doesn’t quite resonate. Like the bi-planes it’s filming, it just kind of drifts away.
Going up against Hedda Hopper excluded.
The following excerpt is from Glenn Frankel's much-recommended “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” and relates to a 1951 meeting of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the right-wing org that invited HUAC to Hollywood in the first place.
This was HUAC's second go-round at Hollywood. The first, in 1947, led to the Hollywood 10 being found in contempt of Congress and imprisioned. It also led to the Waldford Statement among moguls and producers, which led to the blacklist, which led to ruined careers and lives, and a sad stink permeating our democracy.
In 1951, HUAC returned with sharper teeth than ever, and the first witness before them was Larry Parks, the star of “The Jolson Story.” The committee broke him. He admitted he'd been a communist, didn't want to name names, but eventually, in tears, did name names. He gave up his honor, dignity and friends to keep working. And it didn't keep him working. From Frankel:
The next evening, the Motion Picture Alliance held its annual meeting at the Hollywood American Legion Auditorium. The alliance was riding high and more than a thousand people attended. John Wayne, its president, expressed sympathy for Parks. “When any member of the Party breaks with them, we must welcome him back into American society,” said Wayne. “We should give him friendship and help him find work again in our industry.” Guest speaker Victor Riesel, a fire-eating syndicated columnist, showed no such mercy. “The hell with Parks,” he declared. “He didn't tell us anything we didn't know.” Fellow columnist Hedda Hopper stood up and excoriated Wayne. ...
... a chastened Wayne rose to apologize for expressing sympathy for Parks.
“I never thought I had the ability to not watch.” — Donald Trump, President of the United States, in a long-ranging and embarassing interview with the Associated Press.
“I like to watch.” — Chance the Gardener, “Being There”
Both men are talking about TV.
Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
I enjoyed it. The songs were catchy, the characters fun, and if you’re going to spend two hours watching something it helps to have Emma Watson in it. She’s just a pleasure to look at—even if, by the movie’s absurd light, she’s the village outcast. What an odd village! Everyone is obsessed with Belle (Watson) and Gaston (Luke Evans), but love him (the loudmouthed jerk) and hate her (the polite, studious one). It’s like the 2016 election all over again.
I like the feminist aspect of it. Belle is smart, courageous, proactive, isn’t looking to be rescued, and in the end upends the fairy tale trope: her kiss awakens the prince.
But I don’t quite get why the father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), keeps the mother’s death from her as if there was something shameful in it. It’s the plague; just tell her. And why is LeFou (Josh Gad) considered a positive character? He doesn’t help at all. He’s Smithers to Gaston’s Mr. Burns but without the true loyalty of Smithers. He’s willing to smear Maurice and Belle for the love of Gaston, but once Gaston dies it’s off to dance with the movie’s one other gay character. “Progress.”
And does anyone else have questions about fairy-tale versions of crime and punishment?
It began with hypertrychosis
The movie is based, of course, on the hugely successful 1991 Disney animated movie, which was based on the 18th-century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, which was adapted from the original French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. She, supposedly, was inspired by the real-life story of Petrus Gonsalvus, a 16th-century courtier who suffered from hypertrychosis, or abnormal hair growth of the face and body, but managed to marry and have kids anyway.
So what is the Prince’s crime that he becomes a beast? It changes over time. Sometimes, it’s not even a crime:
- Villeneuve: He resists the seductions of an evil fairy.
- Beaumont: He refuses to let a fairy in from the rain.
- 1946 Jean Cocteau film: His parents didn’t believe in spirits.
- 1991 Disney film: He refuses a rose from a beggar/enchantress in exchange for shelter.
Here, it’s the rose again. Also excessive taxation of the villagers to fund his lavish, lipsticked lifestyle. That should really be the bigger crime. And is it? Did the beggar/enchantress pick him because of the taxes? After all, why would she need shelter? She’s an enchantress. How hard is it to conjure up an umbrella?
If she picked on him for a reason, if it wasn’t simply happenstance, that leads to another plothole: How does Gaston get away with what he does? It’s more than bugging Belle with the marriage proposals; he actually leaves Maurice in the woods to be eaten by wolves. And when Maurice is saved (by the beggar/enchantress) and tells his tale, Gaston convinces the villagers that the old man, with his tales of “magic castles” and “a beast,” is crazy, and arranges for him to be sent to an insane asylum. Moments later, Belle shows up with proof of the Beast, which would make you think the crowd would turn on Gaston—since he was obviously lying before. Nope. He gets the villagers to turn on her, then leads a charge on the castle to kill the Beast.
Yet no spell for him? Or the villagers, who are so easily swayed toward injustice? Just the prince for the thing with the rose? And why are the prince’s courtiers also punished? According to the film, it’s because they were complicit in the Prince’s assholedom. But ... Chip, the boy? Really? And the little dog, too? They’re at fault? And all the adults totally bought into the bullshit and weren’t just trying to survive in undemocratic times? Hell, the courtiers actually got it worse than the Prince did. I mean, what would you rather be—a magnificent beast or a clock?
Moving, and movement
The story is full of such oddities. If the Beast knows that he has to get a girl to fall in love with him, he’s doing a poor, grumpy job of it at the beginning. And though the living household items seem sweet, and in love with love, they have skin in the game. They have to get these two idiots to fall in love—or die. They should be on their game, and condemning every act of incompetence by Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) or Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald). BTW: Since this whole thing originated with the French, couldn’t we have hired someone French to play Lumiere (Ewan McGregor)? Was Jean Dujardin busy or something? Could Romain Duris not sing?
I did like how Belle’s loyalty softens his heart, and Beast’s vulnerability softens hers. I like their mutual love of literature. That said, the most moving moment for me wasn’t in the love story but when the last rose petal fell and the clocks and candelabras disappeared into their form without a trace. Yet even here, even as my heart was cracking a bit, my head was saying: Yeah, but really the spell should’ve already been broken. They already love each other. It shouldn’t be a requirement that she say it aloud.
As for the big dance at the end? With the villagers? Those assholes who follow whatever idiotic scheme Gaston has and would probably vote for Trump if given the chance? Release the hounds.
Bye Bye, Bill
Yeah, you can shut up now.
And just like that, Bill O'Reilly's gone from Fox News. I assumed he would never go. Like asthma or acid reflux.
As Capone with taxes, O'Reilly was undone not by his deeper crimes (lying, bullying, using patriotism to bring out the worst in scoundrel America) but by his awful, loutish behavior around women. It was less than three weeks ago, April 1st of all days, that The New York Times ran their in-depth feature on O'Reilly “thriving” despite the numerous sexual harassments suits against him. They tallied up five, added details, and I seriously thought that would be the end of it. We elected a man president of the United States who's done worse. But then the calls for boycotts of his show. And they stuck. They worked. They actually worked. Alex Wagner has an interesting piece over at The Atlantic about how O'Reilly can blame Trump for all of this. If Trump hadn't arrived in the awful, lying, sexual harassing manner he did, classless and idiotic, stupeflyingly oblivious to how hated he is around the world, most folks would be carrying on as normal. Now they're riled up. Women especially. Thank god.
There were calls for boycotts, they worked, and advertisers fled in droves. But I still thought he would stick. He was Fox's most popular guy. He was the John Wayne of their sad little studio: tall and craggy-faced and sometimes calm but mostly angry. He seethed with righteous, racist anger. He was less the benevolent Wayne in “Liberty Valance” than the awful Wayne in “The Searchers” or “Red River.” Now what do they got? Hannity? He's the Rory Calhoun of their sad little studio. Tucker Carlson? He's Jeffrey Hunter.
So both O'Reilly and Ailes were undone the same way. Not really a shocker. You hire a bunch of ruthless, domineering, craggy-faced guys, pair them with hot young things, sprinkle over everything a sense that America's best days were pre-civil rights and pre-feminism, when white men were men and all women were sex objects, well, don't be surprised at what grows in that awful, backward experiment.
According to Joe Muto in his insider look at Fox News, “An Atheist in the FOX Hole,” O'Reilly always asked, “So who's the villain in the story?” To get the outrage, you needed the target: “A name and preferably a photo that could be splashed onscreen for the host to point to and say, This is the bad guy. This is the guy hurting you.”
So who's the villain in the story? The one Bill O'Reilly least expected.
- Stephen Colbert calls upon “Stephen Colbert” to say good-bye to Papa Bear.
- In the wake of the allegations, Jia Tolentino reads Bill O'Reilly's 1998 novel ... about a TV newsman who commits murders after being fired.
- The Daily Show's Trevor Noah says goodbye with some pretty angry, racist shit O'Reilly spewed over the years.
- Randy Rainbow parodies the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song “Just My Bill” with some of those same O'Reilly rants.
- Finally, Stephen Colbert again, reeling, and reading from that '98 novel.
Desert Dreams: Did Tatooine Begin as a Film Project on the Set of 'Mackenna's Gold'?
There's a great little vignette near the end of Glenn Frankel's much-recommended “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” that doesn't have anything to do with “High Noon” or the blacklist but does have something to do with the making of an American classic.
Carl Foreman, screenwriter/producer for “High Noon,” was blacklisted during its production for past communist ties and refusing to name names before HUAC. He wound up in England for a few years, then re-testified before HUAC in 1956 without naming names, and, with stops and stutters, rejuvinated his career. By 1967, he was writing/producing a film, “Mackenna's Gold,” with an early '60s cast to die for (Gregory Peck, Omar Shariff, Telly Savalas), all of whom were on the downhill slide by this point.
Foreman also funded several fellowships at USC film school, and in one he offered four students the opportunity to work on the “Mackenna's” set while producing a short film about how the movie was made. One of the students, Michael Ritchie, nailed it. Another was a problem:
George Lucas had no interest in mainstream commercial movies—he saw himself either as a documentarian or creator of avant-garde underground films—and he proposed making his short film about the desert where much of Mackenna's Gold was filmed. “Carl had a fit, he got so angry with me,” Lucas would later recall. “And he said 'you can't do one about the desert, you're supposed to do it about the movie'... ”So we kind of butted heads ... I just thought of him as some big Hollywood producer, you know, had tons of money and had connections ... one of the establishment.“
The various layers of irony in that paragraph is so lovely: that Lucas thought the blacklisted Foreman one of ”the establishment“; that Lucas wasn't interested in mainstream commercial movies; and that Lucas got infatuated with the desert and wanted to film it.
This kid, in the summer of love, who identified with what would become the ”Easy Rider" generation of filmmakers, would, in 10 years, destroy them with a massively mainstream commercial product that spent much of its time on a desert planet.
KUOW's Science Coverage Needs Peer Review
On Monday morning, my local NPR station, KUOW, ran a piece in which various scientists talked up the March for Science this Saturday. One is marching, she says, despite politics (“If there was a Democratic president who was doing the same things, I would feel the same way”), one feels marching reinforces partisan politics (i.e., “scientists have their own political agenda”), while a third gets into the squishy areas of liberal thought rather than the hard facts of science (“We are marching to defend an inclusive and diverse culture inside of science”).
It was a kind of “meh” piece, to be honest. I wondered: Are these three supposed to be representative of the scientific community? Are they outliers? Does the media tend toward the outlier, which feels like a story, even when it's supposed to be doing a representative piece?
But whatever. I was shaving. I was moving on with my day.
Then KUOW had to add a coda.
The piece seemingly over, they suddenly introduced Alex Berezow, a Senior Fellow at the American Council of Science and Health, with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. For some reason, Mr. Berezow's thoughts aren't even part of the transcribed portion on KUOW's website. What were his thoughts?
Republicans, he said, may be known for denying climate change and evolution, but what about the left, which denies the benefits of GMO and the safety of nuclear power? “So I don't just buy that this is a one-sided war on science,” he said.
The he told a story of that infamous anti-vaccer, Barack Obama.
Specifically, he talked about the vaccine shortage during the 2009 flu epidemic and the response by the Obama administration's FDA, which didn't use adjuvants to extend the vaccine, because some thought they increased the chance for autism. “The Obama administration's FDA had given in to a couple of very fringe ideas, and as a result we had a vaccine supply shortage,” he said. “So I don't buy this idea that the war on science comes from the right, I don't really buy that it comes from the left; I buy that politicians are politicians, and they will throw science under the bus whenever they think it suits them.”
That was the end of the piece. No follow-up, no fact-checking from KUOW. Although it did add this, cryptically, about the American Council of Science and Health:
On its website, the council says part of their mission is to fight back against activist groups that have targeted GMOs, vaccines, nuclear power and chemicals.
Wikipedia is more explicit. The ACSH is a pro-industry group, often funded by the Scaifes and Exxons (and nearly the Phillip Morrises) of the world. I don't know why KUOW didn't just tell us this. Because this is my thought: Businesses are businesses, and they will throw science under the bus whenever they think it suits them.
As for Berezow's line about “the Obama administration's FDA” caving in to “a couple of very fringe ideas”? That leaves a little something out. This is from a New York Times piece on Senate hearings from Nov. 2009. Dr. Lurie is Nicole Lurie, chief of preparedness and response for the Health and Human Services Department:
Dr. Lurie said the adding of adjuvants had been discussed repeatedly but would have meant pulling doses off the production line. Also, she said, because anti-vaccine activists have expressed a fear of adjuvants, even though they are naturally occurring oils that have been used safely in Europe for a decade, public confidence in the vaccine was “not as robust as we'd like it to be” and officials feared some people would avoid shots.
I spent half a day researching for nothing what KUOW couldn't bother to tell us. Well, at least I learned how to spell “adjuvant.”
Is There Anything Better than Ichiro Doing Junior's Swing at Junior's Statue?
The Seattle Mariners posted this pic today, which, if you're a Seattle baseball fan, or just a baseball fan in general, or just a human being in general, can't help but make you smile:
My friend Andy and I went to the game last night, in the drizzle, under the roof, and it was bizarre: M's got an early lead, 3-0, on back-to-back homeruns by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in the 1st inning, and never looked back. Ariel Miranda pitched 7 strong innings, we got good D, we added three more runs. Final: 6-1, good guys. Marlins and Ichiro never had a chance. It was our fourth win in a row.
Tonight, we didn't have a chance, nearly get no-hit by Chen Wei-Yin. Actually we did get no-hit by Chen. But he was pulled after 7 innings and 100 pitches, and Mitch Haniger saved us from ignominy with a 1-out double in the 9th. Tomorrow is getaway day. Also Ichiro dual-bobblehead day. Think two Ichiros (M's/Marlins) rather than Ray Milland and Rosey Grier.
Again: Nice pic. Our fist HOFer and (I hope) our third.