Books posts

Thursday August 11, 2022

June 12, 2017

I'm reading Mark Leibovich's “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission,” and all of it is still infuriating. But unlike other “What assholes these Republicans be” books (cf., “Dark Money,” which I want to try again), I'm able to get through it. One of the joys is learning how painful this was to most traditional Republicans: the Reince Priebuses and Paul Ryans of the world. Even if they worked with Trump, as Preibus did, they hated him. That was the trade-off. That was all of their trade-offs. And some drank the Kool-Aid. 

So many awful things happened so fast, they tend to blur in the memory. Leibovich, for example, goes pretty deep into the first full cabinet meeting of the Trump administration, June 12, 2017, whose point, it seemed, was not to do the people's work, or even the GOP's work, but to kiss Trumpian ass. I'd forgotten it but remembered seeing it and being mostly disgusted, slightly amused, and a bit amazed that they would grovel so quickly: 

  • “It's just the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president,” Mike Pence said after Trump gave him the honor—and greatest privilege—to open the testimonials. Not just any vice president, Pence said, but one serving “the president who's keeping his word to the American people and assembling a team that's bringing real change, real prosperity, real strength back to our nation.” ... No one did complete submission the way Pence did: the hushed voice, the bowed head, and the quivering reverence for “my president,” “this extraordinary man.” He was constantly referencing Trump's “broad shoulders” ... 
  • “Mr. President, it's been a great honor to work with you,” gushed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
  • “I am privileged to be here, deeply honored,” said Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. “I can't thank you enough for the privileges you've given me and the leadership that you've shown,” added Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.
  • “Thank you for the honor to serve the country,” said Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who was enduring a particularly unhappy tenure as secretary of state. This came shortly after Tillerson had privately derided his boss as “a moron,” according to NBC News. 

It's both creepy and comic. It's like an authoritarian regime but the sitcom version. The fear isn't that the Great Leader will chop off your head but will tweet nasty things about you. Then you'll lose the support of assholes (the base) and won't be able to keep doing the thing that you hate doing. Or maybe you won't be able to imagine that perfect future for you: Speaker of the House, Veep, Prez. Right. 

The one cabinet officer who kept his dignity, according to Leibovich, is the man Trump chose because his nickname was “Mad Dog”:

The outlier to the praise parade was Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who was seated directly to Trump's right and spent much of the session staring down at his hands. When it was his turn to speak, Mattis pointedly did not mention the president and could barely manage to look at him. “Mr. President, it's an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense,” Mattis said. Trump turned away, not pleased. After a few seconds, Trump shifted back and leaned in close to Mattis's face in an attempted LBJ-style intimidation move.

“We are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making,” said Mattis, staring straight back. He spoke in a determined monotone, then raised his voice slightly as if to accentuate his nonparticipation in this debasement.

Leibovich has a good conversation about the book, and the awfulness, with Al Franken on Franken's podcast.  

Posted at 07:23 AM on Thursday August 11, 2022 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Friday December 24, 2021

Joan Didion (1936-2021)

The other night, reading Amor Towles' “A Gentleman in Moscow” on my Kindle, I looked up the word desultory the way you do on an e-reader—highlighting the word, and if you're connected to wi-fi, getting the answer from whatever dictionary has an agreement with Amazon. Yesterday, after hearing of the death of Joan Didion at the age of 87, I was looking through the books of hers that I owned, and in “Salvador,” which I'd read in the mid-90s, I found I'd underlined the word desultory and wrote its meaning in the margins. Lesson? Tech may change the way we read but I learn nothing. 

A lot of encomia for Didion in the usual places—The New York Times, social media, fans and fans and fans—but she's never been an author who blew me away with her insights. I remember reading “Salvador” and thinking, “Where's the oomph?” Norman Mailer roared in, demanded, made a fool of himself, then wrote about it. He was, in a word he liked to overuse, engagé. Didion wasn't. At all. She held the world at an ironic distance, and maybe I had too much of that in myself to admire it in others. She went to places and interviewed people but it all seemed a little distasteful to her. Apparently she didn't like interviewing people. She assumed they would lie, or miss the point, or self-mythologize. She wasn't wrong. 

She made a name for herself with her “Slouching Towards Bethlehelm” piece in The Saturday Evening Post, when you could say she was part of the media missing the mark or manufacturing the story (apparently the cover was designed before she turned the piece in); then she spent much of the rest of her career writing about the media missing the mark or manufacturing the story. I think those are some of her best pieces: “Insider Baseball,” for example, about the way the press covered the 1988 presidential campaign, and “Sentimental Journeys,” about the Central Park Jogger case. She was one of the first in the press to imply that the Central Park Five received nothing like a fair trial. The press and the politicians made a symbol out of the jogger, and another type of symbol out of the Five, and for the city to survive the negative symbol had to be punished and put away and forgotten. We still do this, by the way. We've actually gotten worse at it. We're all the press now and we make symbols of everything. 

I think she got Obama's 2008 election wrong, or she took the easy way out and mocked those who were way too exuberant in its aftermath; but at least she was less wrong than some, like Daryl Pickney, with whom her thoughts were partnered in The New York Review of Books. He wrote: “The election of Senator Obama to the presidency signals our return to a nation whose government respects law and order.” He wrote: “President Obama will certainly save the Supreme Court and therefore the US Constitution. The integrity of our institutions has been guaranteed, restored.” Ouch and ouch.

In my trip through my decades-old margin scribblings in her books, I didn't come across much worth repeating, save one thing in “Salvador.” It was about the crash of a helicopter that killed a colonel whom she was trying to meet, and subsequent reports were so vague as to be nonexistent. She writes; “In the absence of information (and the presence, often, of disinformation) even the most apparently straightforward event takes on, in El Salvador, elusive shadows, like a fragment of retrieved legend.” You can remove “in El Salvador” from that sentence now; that's all of us now. Then she went to interview Alvaro Magana, president of El Salvador during this time, but his hold was tenuous, as he knew above all. Her questions to him were answered with indefinites: “I read that,” and “I have that impression,” and finally, when she asks simply where the crash took place, he says “I didn't ask him.” The him is a general. Didion gives Magana a look, he shrugs and says:

I have a problem there. I'm supposed to be the commander-in-chief, so if I ask him he should tell me. But he might say he's not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I don't ask.

That feels like the GOP with Trump now. They're the officials, they should hold the power, but the power is elsewhere. It's with someone who lost in a way it's never been with someone who lost. Did she ever write about Trump? I'll have to search that out. (Apparently not.) I'll also have to get “Where I Was From,” whose subject, Menand says, is “American self-deception,” and good god that topic. That never ends.

I do recommend Louis Menand's 2015 review of a biography on her. There's a lot there. I also think she would think that much of the encomia following her passing misses the mark. I think she would have something biting to say about it all.

Posted at 12:21 PM on Friday December 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 24, 2021

Cagney's Old Man

I'd forgotten that James Cagney lost his father to the pandemic 100 years ago. This description of the cemeteries in New York City, taken from his 1974 memoir, reminds me of some of the descriptions of New York City in April 2020:

I was at Columbia [in the Student Army Training Corps] when my dad died. I got a message he was about to leave for the hospital, so I hurried home to accompany him, but he had gone. I took the streetcar, and when I arrived at the hospital I went to the desk nurse and said, “I want to see Mr. James Cagney.” Her face fell. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she said. “He died this morning.” The flu epidemic was then raging, and caskets were piled six or seven high outside the cemeteries, so many people were afflicted. Mom was carrying Jeannie at the time, and Dad was sent to the hospital so that Mom would be safe from infection. So quickly had my sunny, charming old man left us. Old! He was just forty-one.

I wonder if Cagney had to deal with anti-maskers, and, if so, how he did it. Maybe with a “shaddap!” Maybe with a grapefruit.

Posted at 08:44 AM on Wednesday November 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 11, 2021

Oklahoma Red

Cagney's 1925 stage partner Charles Bickford riding tall and aging well with Charlton Heston in 1958's “The Big Country.”

Another story from the Michael Curitz bio:

Curtiz convinced Zanuck that the dual role of Keith and Conniston [in the 1930 movie River's End] needed a rugged new face. Zanuck agreed and arranged to borrow Charles Bickford from MGM. The craggy, red-haired actor had been signed by MGM after a sensational 1925 turn on Broadway in Jim Tully's Outside Looking In. He quickly earned a reputation as “difficult” by constantly quarreling over scripts and film assignments. He was let go by Metro after telling Louis B. Mayer “fuck you” when the mogul insisted that the actor finish his role in The Sea Bat (1930). In addition to being stubborn, Bickford was an intimidating presence. As a kid he shot a trolley conductor in the forehead for running  over his dog and was later rumored to have killed a man he caught in flagrante with his wife. Bickford was sold on River's End, however, and gave an excellent performance. Although pleased with the picture, Bickford loathed Curtiz, who he believed was “burdened by a terrible inferiority which he manifested by screaming gratuitous insults at little people who were in no position to fight back.”

Unmentioned by author Alan K. Rode is Bickford's co-star in the 1925 Tully play. Bickford played a character named Oklahoma Red, who hoboed around with a character named Little Red, who was played by an up-and-comer named James Cagney. It was Cagney's first big break. I like that someone at MGM saw the play, signed Bickford, but let Cagney go. Not exactly Decca Records and the Beatles, but amusing nonetheless.

I've written about “Outside Looking In” before but didn't know much about Bickford. The above helps. He had a long career: 114 credits, including playing the studio chief in the Judy Garland “A Star is Born” and a feuding patriarch in the 1958 Gregory Peck epic “The Big Country.” Bickford acted until his death in 1967. He also wrote a memoir in 1965, “Bulls, Balls, Bicycles & Actors” that might be interesting. If anyone has read it, let me know if he said anything about hanging with Cagney in '25. At the least, his relationship with L. B. Mayer feels like Cagney's with Jack Warner. Just shorter.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Wednesday August 11, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday July 07, 2021

What's the Matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit

I spent July 4 weekend rereading E.L. Doctorow's “Ragtime,” as is my patriotic duty, and this passage stuck out for me in a way it hadn't before. It's about Evelyn Nesbit, whom you can consider a through line for sex, movies, even Internet ads. It's also about why working class people vote the way they vote. Doctorow voiced it in 1975, before they truly began to vote that way. 

Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American History. Two elements of the society realized this. The first was the business community, specifically a group of accountants and cloak and suit manufactures who also dabbled in the exhibition of moving pictures, or picture shows as they were called. Some of these men saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of a newspaper sold out editions. They realized that there was a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life. There were the individuals who represented on desirable human characteristic to the exclusion of all others. The businessmen wondered if they could create such individuals not from accidents of news events but from the deliberate manufactures of their own medium. If they could, more people would pay money for the picture shows. Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The second group of people to perceive Evelyn's importance was made up of various trade union leaders, anarchists and socialists, who correctly prophesied that she would in the long run be a greater threat to the workingman's interests than mine owners or steel manufactures. In Seattle, for instance, Emma Goldman spoke to an I.W.W. local and cited Evelyn Nesbit as a daughter of the working class whose life lesson in the way of all daughters and sisters of poor men were used for the pleasure of the wealthy. The men in her audience guffawed and shouted out lewd remarks and broke into laughter. There were militant worker, too, unionists with a radical awareness of their situation. Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.“

What's the matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit.

I'm curious about the first part, actually, the movie stuff, the idea that stars were manufactured by would-be moguls rather than by audiences. So much of what I've read about the nascent days of the industry make it seem the producers were caught unaware, too. Oh, they like the actors? They want to know who they are? They'll go back if we promote their names? Let's get on that. A pretty face launches more than a new movie these days. She's in all those Internet ads, too, and on social media avatars. Even journalism. For the latest tragic event, see if you can't get a shot of a pretty girl on the scene crying about it. I see this over and over again. She's there to catch your eye. And it works—over and over again. 

Anyway, everyone should read ”Ragtime."

Posted at 10:46 AM on Wednesday July 07, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Monday May 24, 2021

Lionel Trilling: 'What is Batman?'

These guys knew before Trilling (from Detective Comics #27)

“Ginsberg wrote to Trilling from shipboard in Sheepshead Bay, off Brooklyn, to ask whether he'd had a chance to read a long poem he had given him. In order to fit in with his shipmates, he reported, he had purchased some Batman comic books—and 'I brought here my beloved Rimbaud.' Trilling commented positively on the poem. 'Your mention of Rimbaud,' he added, 'crystallized my impulse (a slow one) to know more about him and I am now the next name after yours on the library card of the Starkie biography [the Irish writer Enid Starkie's biography of Rimbaud came out in 1938] you so warmly recommended to me. I doubt he will ever be my ”beloved Rimbaud“ as he is yours or that I will ever even understand how he can be yours; but if I cannot be affectionate to him I at least need not be ignorant!' He added, 'What is Batman?'”

-- from correspondence between Columbia professor and cultural critic Lionel Trilling and one of his students, future “Howl” poet Allen Ginsberg, in the mid-1940s, as reported in Louis Menand's “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War: A Cultural History of the Cold War.” (Ginsberg's response in the next letter was: “Batman is second on the bestseller list of semiliterate America.”) Ginsberg had joined the U.S. Maritime Service, prep for the Merchant Marine, after Columbia suspended him for a year for drawing pornographic images and ironic anti-Semitic slogans in the dust along a windowsill as part of a feud with a maid, whom Ginsberg suspected of anti-Semitism. The Beats, in general, do not come off well here, but then I've never been a big fan. Menand's book is recommended. It's makes me aware of how much I don't know.  

Posted at 08:57 AM on Monday May 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 18, 2021

Bette Davis' First Days in Hollywood

An excerpt from “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography,” by Bette Davis, published in 1962. The book began slowly but I skipped ahead to the NY theater years and it's been interesting ever since. The voice is definitely hers. This is from her first days at Universal Studio lot. 

On Monday I drove to the studio. I was whisked through the gates. Word had spread that the “Davis girl” had arrived and one by one studio executives found reasons for wandering in and out of the reception room to get a glimpse of the “find.” I waited and waited and, at last, Mr. Laemmle opened his door and I was ushered into his office. I was wearing no makeup except lipstick. I had never plucked an eyebrow. I had never even seen the inside of a beauty parlor. My hair was worn simply, with a knot in back. Mr. Laemmle's face was a study. He was immediately convinced that I was not right for Strictly Dishonorable. That was apparent to me. Mr. Laemmle later said, “She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville!” ...

After a tour of the lot, I was photographed in the still gallery, introduced to officials and one actress, Genevieve Tobin, and saw a few others I recognized. I was told the studio would call me tomorrow and arrange for some tests. It was rumored on the lot that Bette Davis was “a little brown wren.” I think Mr. Werner [the man who signed her] was sent to Siberia. The rest of the week was spent making what they called photographic tests. They supposedly found out your good angles and your bad angles. All I wanted to do was act!

The following week I was sent for and told I was being tested for a part in a picture. I was not given a script for the test, which I thought odd. I was simply asked to lie on a couch. Vague doubts assailed me as one male after another bent over me whispering, “You gorgeous, divine darling. I adore you. I worship you. I must possess you.” He would then make ardent love to me and end lying on top of me. “O.K. Cut!” I would hear the director say. “Fine. Who's next? Who's next?”


The most compulsively dedicated harlot never had a morning like mine. No less than fifteen men—all of them well-known names—repeated the scene. Only Gilbert Roland had the sensitivity to see how shocked I was. Before he started that awful monologue, he whispered, “Don't be upset. This is the picture business. We've all gone through it. Just relax!”

I didn't understand. Was it like going across the equator the first time? Was it an initiation? Relax? My ancestors were revolving in their graves.

And thus began the career of the woman who wound up with more best actress nominations than anyone not named Meryl or Kathrarine. At this point, she and Humphrey Bogart are at Universal, so i'm curious how they wound up with Warners. And can you imagine signing both Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart and losing them? That's worse than Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock. It's the Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. 

Posted at 07:57 AM on Sunday April 18, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 14, 2021

Bette Davis by Bette Davis, the Early Years

From her autobiography, “The Lonely Life, which I was reading last night. Middle of the night, actually. Insomnia. You know.

The first passage is about one of Davis' breakthrough performance in Vergel Geddes' ”The Earth Between“ at the Pronvinctown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in March 1929. After opening night, she and her mother, Ruthie, are reading the reviews, including one by St. John Ervine of the World:

He loathed the whole evening with a passion but interrupted his brilliant invective to remark that our other play was ”remarkably acted especially by Miss Bette Davis.“ Ruthie screamed. I started skipping the texts and looking for my name—unabashedly. After all, that's what mattered. One after the other—the News, the Graphic, the Sun, Telegram, Mirror Journal, Brooklyn Eagle—all of them were excessive in their praise. It had come to pass and Mother was crying. We had saved the Times for last and now Ruthie hysterically quoted Mr. Atkinson. ”Miss Bette Davis who is making her first appearance is an entrancing creature who plays in a soft, unassertive style.“ I fell back on the pillow in relief.

Then this passage, about the curtain calls after she played Hedvig in Ibsen's ”The Wild Duck,“ which starred stage icon Blanche Yurka, a few months later:

Then up went the curtain again, and the whole cast once more joined the star. The audience is certainly extremely responsive this evening. There was a certain persistence in its ardor—an ungratified passion. The audience seemed insatiable. Suddenly Miss Yurka took my hand and led me to the footlights and the curtain fell behind us. This was a tremendous honor and most gracious of her. But then she let go of my hand, smiled that secretive smile of hers and walked off the stage—leaving me alone. The theatre now shook with applause and bravos. People actually stood on their seats and cheered—for me. It was really just for me. Wave after wave of love flooded the stage and washed over me. I felt my face crumble and I started to cry. The weight that was Charlie [her fiance, who had broken off the enagement] was lifted like a miracle. ”Bravo! Bravo!“ I was alone—onstage and everywhere; and that's the way it was obviously meant to be. ”Bravo!“ My first stardust. It is impossible to describe the sweetness of such a moment. You are at once the indulged beloved and the humble lover. Alone! All those marvelous people. My heart almost burst. This was the true beginning of the one, great, durable romance of my life.

I love how she doesn't hold back. Me me me me me me me me. ”After all, that's what mattered.“ ”The one great, durable romance of my life." Refreshing.

Can't wait until she sinks her teeth into Jack Warner. 

Posted at 05:48 PM on Wednesday April 14, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 11, 2021

Replacing Tucker Carlson

I keep thinking I've posted this passage from the beginning of chapter three of “Ragtime,” written in 1975 by E.L. Doctorow about turn-of-the-century America. Lord knows it's been relevant in 21st-century America. But each time a new xenophobic idiocy arises and I think to post it, and look at it again, I always go, “Nah. Too subtle for this doltish age.” But fuck it, here we go.

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn't pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes.

The latest xenophobic idiocy comes from the immigrant-founded Fox News, of course, spoken by Tucker Carlson, of course, this time about how the far-right “white replacement theory” is, to Carlson, a voting rights question. Immigrants come in, Carlson says, and dilute his voting power. Sure. And new babies are born that eventually do the same. Does Tucker want blanket, enforced abortions to protect himself? Does Tucker know he's going to die someday? And be buried and eaten by worms? There's your utlimate replacement theory. I like that the Anti-Defamation League is now calling for his repacement, on Fox News, sooner rather than later. Nice potential irony. But what a sad world that we have to parry all day long with such idiocies.

Anyway, read more Doctorow.

Posted at 07:03 AM on Sunday April 11, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Friday April 09, 2021

'Al Pacino's Jewish?!'

Another excerpt from Mark Harris' bio of Mike Nichols, this time about the casting of the HBO film “Angels in America,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Harris' husband Tony Kushner. The anecdote reflects something I've long been curious about:

[Al] Pacino had agreed to portray Roy Cohn, the play's vicious, droll, and profane embodiment of ruthlessness and self-deception. “I wanted Mike to cast Dustin Hoffman,” says Kushner. “I love Al Pacino, and of course I ended up thrilled with his Roy. My only initial worry was that when he was young, he was gorgeous. He was Michael Corleone—someone born into power. What I wanted for Roy was someone who'd had to struggle all his life for every bit of power he had. The day after Pacino was announced, I was at a party and I felt someone kind of hit me from behind. I turned around and it was Dustin Hoffman, and he said, 'Al Pacino's Jewish?! Fuck you, and fuck Mike, too!'”

I've always been curious if it bugs Jewish actors when Italians in particular are cast as Jewish characters. Apparently it does. Or at least this one Jewish actor. One wonders if Dusty did the same to Martin Scorsese after he cast the Jewish “Casino” gangsters with his usual Italian crew. “Robert De Niro's Jewish?! Fuck you!”

And it raises a couple of interesting points. Whenever people talk about inappropriate racial casting, they bring up almost every overlooked group but Jews, and probably for this reason: Jewish people are generally not absent from positions of power in Hollywood. Which means when most people talk about racial miscasting/appropriation, they're really talking about something else. They're talking about power. Ten white people deciding a white actress should play an Asian character is one thing; two Jews deciding a gentile should play a Jewish character is another. 

Which leads to the second interesting point—a pattern I've noticed in the way Nichols cast roles. “The Graduate” called for a blonde WASP and Nichols cast Dustin Hoffman. “Carnal Knowledge” called for a Jew and he cast Jack Nicholson. “Heartburn” called for a Jew and he cast Mandy Patimkin, then fired him and cast Jack Nicholson again. Then Pacino for Roy Cohn. Nichols' WASP antihero becomes Jewish while his Jewish villains become gentiles. Don't know if there's a there there, but it's intriguing.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Friday April 09, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 07, 2021

Mike Nichols as Director

“'It was glorious,' says [Audra] McDonald. 'He became a dad to all of us, and even though it was such dark material [the HBO adaptation of the play ”Wit“], we had a ball. What was so unique was that you didn't feel the direction. He did it so subtly that it felt like he was just lightly touching a ball that was already rolling down a hill. When it was great, he just said, ”Oh, man.“ And when it wasn't, he would say, ”I'll tell you what . . .“ and then he'd go into a story or he'd have a discussion with you, as if he wanted to figure out the moment with you.'

”'What I remember him saying is “This moment is like this,” says [young actor Jonathan] Woodward. 'Everything was a story or a metaphor or an analogy. If I was pushing too hard, he would say, “Why are you trying to give a prostitute an orgasm?”'“

-- from Mark Harris' ”Mike Nichols: A Life," recommended

Posted at 05:54 PM on Wednesday April 07, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Thursday March 25, 2021


Reading Mark Harris' book on Mike Nichols and can't recommend it enough. Feel like I'm tearing through it but I'm only up to “Carnal Knowledge.” Not just great anecdotes but great life advice throughout. This is when he was directing “The Apple Tree” on Broadway with Alan Alda and Barbara Harris:

As work got under way, Nichols, at first, felt very much back in his element, once again pushing his actors to stay true to life and engaged with one another. “He was an actor's director,” says Alda. “Once when Barbara and I were rehearsing, he said this thing that has aided me all my life. He didn't feel we were connecting to each other, and he said, 'You kids think relating is the icing on the cake. It's not. It's the cake.'”

I wish I'd had this book, or known this story, when I was young and wary of being smart; I might've studied harder. 

Posted at 10:46 AM on Thursday March 25, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 17, 2021

Fatty Arbuckle and the Original Cancel Culture

Recently I finished a rare read for me: a true-life crime thriller. It's also a not-so-rare read since it's set in the early days of Hollywood.

William J. Mann's Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is about the unsolved 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures. Some of the key figures Mann writes about include:

  • Adolph Zukor, Famous Players' head honcho and the most powerful man in the motion picture industry at the time
  • Will Hays, the Kennesaw Mountain Landis of the movies, brought in to save the industry and assuage the blue noses amid sex- and drug-related scandals
  • comic movie queen Mabel Normand
  • up-and-coming ingenue Mary Miles Minter
  • shady lost soul Margaret “Gibby” Gibson aka Patricia Palmer

The last three are friends and acquaintances of Taylor—and suspects in his murder.

(Typing out the above, I suddenly wondered if the writers of “Sunset Blvd.” got the name “Norma Desmond” from some combo of Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. According to IMDb, that's half correct. Yes to Desmond but Norma was after Norma Talmadge, whom IMDb claims was romantically invovled with Taylor. That would be news to William Mann, who says Taylor was a closeted homosexual.)

The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal is peripheral to the main storyline but it's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary. A girl, Virginia Rappé, died at one of Arbuckle's parties, and he was eventually charged with manslaughter. The gossip against him was frequent and lurid while the evidence against him was so nonexistent his lawyer asked the judge to dismiss the case altogether. But the judge didn't—and in the worst way. “We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone,” Judge Lazarus declared. “In a large sense, we are trying ourselves. We are trying present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.”

Good god, what a pompous, unjudicious declaration. As a result of such grandstanding, Arbuckle was forced to sit through three trials—two ended in hung juries—while his career dissolved. Mann writes:

Overnight, Arbuckle vanished from the screen. At the Manhattan Opera House, a rerelease of one of his shorts with Mabel, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, was scrapped at the last minute. When a title card announced that “in view of public feeling due to the San Francisco affair, it was deemed advisable to substitute another subject,” the audience erupted in applause. That broke Mabel's heart. It also terrified her. Because if they were gunning for Fatty today, she might be in their crosshairs tomorrow.

And that's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary to me. The terror Mabel Normand felt. I flashed on the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. These later movements are more legit, of course, and have led to a much-needed recalibration in Hollywood and elsewhere; but as #MeToo gained in power it widened its reach and ensnared and ruined the lives of those it shouldn't have: Al Franken, Aziz Ansari, maybe Garrison Keillor. One accuation was often enough—or several vague ones. Many people still assume—vehemently so, brooking no opposition, caring about no evidence—that Woody Allen is guilty even though he's the one who's been proven not so, and even though his son, Moses, has written eloquently in his defense.

Even after Arbuckle was acquitted, the media noise against him stayed strong. The New York Times editorialized: “Arbuckle was acquitted by a jury, but an odor still clings to him.” Will Hays compared the outrage to the Dreyfus affair but he hoped it would dissipate. He didn't want to be a censor; he believed in both the free market and that whole “innocent until proven guilty” proviso. And most people, according to Mann, were ready to welcome him back:

Every time working people, young people, blacks, and immigrants were offered a say in the matter, Fatty triumphed. The Kansas City Journal polled its readers, and the results came back ten to one in favor of the comedian. The same thing happened when the Blackstone Theatre in Detroit asked its audiences to vote. Yet Arbuckle's fate didn't rest with the entire public. It was decided in white, middle-class drawing rooms where the Federation of Women's Clubs took their votes, and in church halls where ministers whipped their flocks into outrages over Hollywood.

Hays did remove the ban against Fatty but outrage erupted again. In an attempt to repair the damage, he held a meeting with, among others, James West of the Boy Scouts, and Mrs. Oliver Harriman of the Camp Fire Girls (who were on his side), and  Mrs. Herbert Hoover, a national representative of the Girl Scouts, and Charles A. McMahon, of the National Catholic Welfare Council (who weren't). A “compromise” was reached. Arbuckle could work as a writer or director but was banned as an actor. Bad enough. But Mann says that Hays knew the compromise was empty:

The Federation of Women's Clubs was still vowing to boycott any film he made, whether he was in front of the camera or behind it. The National Board of Review announced that it would exclude any film directed by Arbuckle from its list of recommended films, which many communities used to decide what to show in local theaters.

Arbuckle worked sparingly over the next 10 years and died in 1933, age 46.

What is Aziz Ansari up to these days? Anyone know?

Posted at 10:18 AM on Sunday January 17, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 15, 2020


“I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind...”

I recently finished Woody Allen's memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” and, to quote a phrase, I liked the earlier, funnier stuff: about growing up in Brooklyn, how crazy his parents and relatives were, and, despite his later rep as an intellectual filmmaker, what a lousy student he was. He hated school, liked playing baseball, loved jazz, loved going to the movies, yearned to be a sophisticate in a Manhattan movie scene. He did make that happen—without the cocktail, however. He was never a drinker. 

I like the details of his rise—so much of it because he was just monumentally funny:

  • At 17, making jokes during a lame movie at the local theater, getting laughs, some guy says: “Hey, you should write some of your gags down.”
  • He did. Mother: “Why don't you show your wise cracks to Phil Wasserman and get his opinion? He runs always with those Broadway wags.”
  • He did. Phil: “You should mail them in to some of the newspaper columnists—Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Hy Gardner of the Herald Tribune.”
  • He did. Friend: “Hey, you‘re in Nick Kenny’s column!”

Nick Kenny led to Broadway columnist Earl Wilson and then all the columnists were printing his stuff. Then a PR firm contacted him and asked, as Woody puts it: “Would I be interested in coming in each day after school, sitting at one of their unstolen typewriters [his father had stolen one], and knocking out gags for them so the likes of Guy Lombardo, Arthur Murray, Jane Morgan, Sammy Kaye, and others not famous for their wit could fasten their names to my inspirations and claim them as their own? For this, they would pay me forty dollars a week. At that time I delivered meat for a butcher shop, and dry-cleaning for a tailor, for thirty-five cents an hour plus tips.”

While there, Bob Hope's manager contacted him to write jokes for his idol, but that didn't pan out. Relatives then suggested he talk to a distant relative, Abe Burrows, who had coauthored the book for Guys and Dolls, and Woody says the man was kind, complimentary, informative. He helped him get hired for Peter Lind Hayes' radio show. Then he was hired for Arthur Godfrey's radio show. He got ripped off by an agent but kept rising. He wrote for Sid Caesar, Pat Boone, Gary Moore. He just wanted to be a writer, didn't want to be a stand-up comedian, but a subsequent manager pushed him out on stage and he became such a hit that Warren Beatty contacted him about writing a movie. That movie turned out to be “What's New, Pussycat?,” without Beatty, and it was such an awful experience, and his words were so mangled by the director and producers, that it forced Woody into moviemaking. He wanted to control how it sounded. He didn't want the unfunny to fuck it up. As the unfunny always do.

Once he becomes a filmmaker, the book gets a little dull. Maybe because that's all he does, make films, and there's no story to contantly making stories? Of course, he goes over the Mia/Soon-Yi/Dylan stuff, too—repetitively, I think, reminding me a bit of Kafa's Joseph K. Traduced, Woody keeps talking about his case. He keeps saying it doesn't matter, then he dives back into it. He can't leave it alone. This is from near the end of the book:

In writing about this whole affair I‘ve tried to document whatever I could so the facts would not be simply my version but the on-the-record words of the investigators, the experiences Moses had witnessed and Soon-Yi had lived through that corroborated him. I’ve quoted the Yale and New York investigations word for word plus the court-appointed monitors exactly as the appellate judge recorded their testimony. There were appalling incidents attested to by two separate women who worked in Mia's house and witnessed a number of encounters firsthand. They also corroborate Moses.

But even without all of that, I appealed to people's simple common sense. And yet I have no illusions that any of it will change minds. I believe if Dylan and Mia recanted today and said the whole thing was one big practical joke, there would still be many who would cling to the notion that I abused Dylan. ...

And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what's one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second, being a misanthropist has its saving grace—people can never disappoint you.

Good line. “Appropos of Nothing” could've used a better editor—it needed a couple more run-throughs by Woody—but it's interesting and poignant and overwhelmingly sad. (I tend to believe him, and Moses, and Soon-Yi rather than Mia, and Dylan, and Ronan.) When I saw “The Dark Knight” back in 2008, I thought this line by Harvey Dent overstated things: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Feels truer every day. Probably for all of us.

Posted at 01:24 PM on Saturday August 15, 2020 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Saturday July 11, 2020

‘What Is That Your Business? He Stopped Doing His Homework!’

“I envy those people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow, like the Catholic with his afterlife, so the artist's ‘legacy’ will make him immortal. The catch here is that all the people discussing the legacy are alive and ordering pastrami, and the artist is somewhere in an urn or underground in Queens. All the people standing over Shakespeare's grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard, and a day will come—a far-off day, but be sure it definitely is coming—when all Shakespeare's plays, for all their brilliant plots and hoity-toity iambic pentameter, and every dot of Seurat's will be gone along with each atom in the universe. In fact, the universe will be gone and there will be no place to have your hat blocked. After all, we are an accident of physics. And an awkward accident at that. Not the product of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler.”

— Woody Allen in his memoir “Appropos of Nothing.” Recommended. If you‘re a fan you’ll hear echoes from all of his movies.

Posted at 05:25 PM on Saturday July 11, 2020 in category Books   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard