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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
Thursday July 09, 2020
Quote of the Day
“How [my father] loved that life. Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie is a mystery on a par with dark matter. Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.”
Woody Allen in his memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” which I'm currently reading. It's zippy and funny. Right now his complaints are childhood complaints about family; will be interesting to see how far he goes into his life and what those complaints become.
Saturday June 27, 2020
“Hachette read the book and loved it and despite me being a toxic pariah and menace to society, they vowed to stand firm should things hit the fan. When actual flak did arrive they thoughtfully reassessed their position, concluding that perhaps courage was not the virtue it was cracked up to be and there was a lot to be said for cowering.”
Woody Allen in a postscript to his autobiography “Apropos of Nothing,” which I need to get around to reading one of these days