Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Quote of the Day (John Travolta, on His Irish Ancestry and Talent for Mimicry)

“I’m half-Irish. My mother was Irish. Deadly with imitations. Loved mimicking people. And we all grew up with this fine art of how-well-could-you-get-someone-down.”—Oscar-nominated American actor John Travolta quoted in Steve Daly, “Face to Face in ‘'Face/Off,’'' Entertainment Weekly, June 20, 1997

What Travolta (like yours truly, a product of Englewood, NJ) is talking about, in a sense, is his uncanny “ear” for how people talk. While acting is the obvious vehicle for this talent, others of Irish descent channeled that into writing instead:  John O’Hara, George V. Higgins, and James Joyce.

(The image accompanying this post shows Travolta in the movie Primary Colors, in which he played Jack Clayton, a Presidential candidate with a Southern accent and a smooth way with words—surely not like anyone the American people have ever encountered, right?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on What Different People Talk About)

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”—American humorist Fran Lebowitz, Social Studies (1981)

Happy 70th birthday to Fran Lebowitz. Like Dorothy Parker, to whom she’s often compared, she made her reputation as a sardonic New Yorker but was actually born in New Jersey. And, as with Ms. Parker, many people wish that she could have written more over the years.

Photo of the Day: Sign Noticed in Nyack NY

I took this photo over a month ago in Nyack, NY—many of whose residents, like a great number nationwide, hope to translate this into reality exactly a week from today.

Monday, October 26, 2020

This Day in TV History (William S. Paley, Broadcast Titan and Philanthropist, Dies)

Oct. 26, 1990— Not merely in declining health but something worse for him—growing irrelevancy—longtime CBS chair, philanthropist and socialite William S. Paley died at age 89 of kidney failure in New York City.

For nearly six decades, this son of a Jewish cigar-maker was the broadcasting equivalent of the 19th-century robber barons: leveraging an initially small operation into a multi-unit empire, charming when he could get his way easily and ruthless when he couldn’t, then late in life lavishing cultural institutions with sizable donations that burnished his reputation (in his case, money given to the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Broadcasting, renamed the Paley Center for Media in his honor).  

With an assist from his father, Paley assumed control of CBS in 1928. Contrary to the myth he created, he did not initially see the value of the financially ailing radio stations he was buying, but had to be persuaded to make the transaction. Two decades later, the same pattern of coming around reluctantly to a new medium repeated itself when he had to be convinced that TV would not threaten his radio interests but complement them.

In terms of vision, Paley was no match for RCA/NBC archrival David Sarnoff, who as early as 1916 had predicted in a memo that music, news, sports, and even lectures would be someday be broadcast through "radio music boxes." But NBC’s “General” inadequately defended his network against Paley’s 1950 “talent raids” that brought Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton, and Burns and Allen over to CBS.

Paley built his empire through charisma yet maintained it through caprice. He responded to the passionate advocacy of talented figures but could also leave them so guessing about his intentions that he alienated them. One example was newsman Edward R. Murrow, who became a CBS star with his reports from London early in WWII but left the network over its wavering commitment to the news.

Murrow’s was just case of someone who enjoyed the media mogul’s warm companionship only to see him turn cold. Another such figure was In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote, who would not only enjoy holidays abroad with Paley and his second wife, the glamorous socialite Barbara or “Babe,” but once even had them once transport his beloved bulldog to Europe on their private jet, according to an interview with Kansas FBI agent included in George Plimpton’s 1997 oral biography, Truman Capote.

That all changed in 1975, when the author retailed scandalous gossip about Paley in a notorious Esquire preview of his projected novel Answered Prayers. The CBS head’s claim that he had fallen asleep while reading the article was almost surely false, but it deprived Capote of the attention he craved—and then he followed it up by never having anything to do with the writer again.

Before Capote fell out with his friend, he colorfully put his finger on the acquisitive instinct that dominated Paley from youth to old age: “He looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.” An avid modernist art aficionado, Paley collected female conquests as much as he did modernist paintings. He could be generous, even gallant (financially supporting an old love, actress Louise Brooks, when she fell on hard times), but also cold enough to drive another to suicide.

It was Capote’s revelation of another liaison by Paley (thinly fictionalized as “Sidney Dillon,” a “conglomateur, adviser to Presidents”) in a hotel room that precipitated the end of their friendship and darkened the last days of Babe Paley, who was dying of cancer at that point.

Like an aging monarch, Paley was unwilling to relinquish his power and perquisites, successively forcing out a pair of men most felt were being groomed to take the helm from him: Frank Stanton, CBS president for 27 years, then anointed successor Thomas Wyman. But the September 1986 coup against Wyman proved disastrous, as Paley’s ally, Laurence Tisch, subsequently embarked on cost-cutting measures that undercut the “Tiffany Network” aura of class it had taken the chairman years to cultivate.

By the end of his life, this once-vital corporate titan owned less than nine percent of stock in the company he had built, so he could not influence events as he once did. By then, too, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography In All His Glory had questioned his pretension to business visions while exposing his aloofness and cunning.

But, if he wasn’t what he wanted the world to think he was, Paley had managed for years to sustain a media empire that, unlike the one overseen by Rupert Murdoch, did not debase Americans’ cultural tastes or undermine their belief in verifiable fact.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Arthur,’ In Which Our Hero Meets the Really Ruthless Rich)

[Much to his discomfort, Arthur is meeting the father of his prospective fiancée.)

Burt Johnson [played by Stephen Elliott]: [smiling broadly] “When I was 11 years old, I KILLED a man.”

Arthur Bach [played by Dudley Moore]: “Well, when you're 11 you probably don't even know there's a law against that. Is Susan here?”

Burt [oblivious as he reminisces]: “I knew what I was doing. We were poor. He came into our house to steal our food.”

Arthur: “Well, he was asking for it.”

Burt: “I took a knife, and I killed him in the kitchen.”

Arthur [laughing nervously]: “You, uh... probably ate out that night, what with that man lying in your kitchen.”

Burt: “You seem to find humor in everything.”

Arthur [nervously]: “Yeah, sorry.”—Arthur (1981), written and directed by Steve Gordon

Even though Arthur has been out nearly 40 years now, I had only caught bits and pieces of it over the years until this summer, when I viewed it in its entirety on TCM. There are so many aspects of this comedy to savor, starting with the performances of Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud.

But what I think has been overlooked over time is the sheer toughness of Steve Gordon’s screenplay, which pulls off something pretty stunning: Despite its surface sunniness, a throwback to the Cinderella rom-coms that Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert might have made in the Thirties, this film is under no illusions about the rich.  

Released in the first summer of the Reagan Administration, it offers a caution that the men who profited the most in this era would have no one’s interests but their own in mind. They may be different from you and me, as Scott Fitzgerald maintained, but they don't have more charm, just more money--and the muscle to maintain it.

Burt Johnson may be the most dramatic example of the abusive 1% here, but he’s not the only one. While visiting his grandmother, Martha, Arthur shares his feelings for Linda, the thief he had encountered while she was filching a necktie at a department store.

Yet Martha warns him bluntly that he will be disowned if he does not marry longtime rich girlfriend Susan: "We are ruthless people. Don't screw with us!"

Knowing that he is gravely ill, the butler Hobbes likewise warns about the dangers of defying his family, in some of the strongest lines of tough love ever delivered on film: “Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur. Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors, they freeze to death in summer. I can't bear to think of you that way."

When salvation does come nevertheless for Arthur, it comes in the only realistic scenario possible. In church, as Burt Johnson pummels Arthur for jilting his daughter, Martha simply can’t abide an outsider delivering punishment to any member of her family, no matter how wayward she might regard him. Coming to the aid of her grandson, after all, does not contradict what she said earlier. Notice the subject of her first sentence: We are ruthless people. 

So the rich turn on each other, only this time it comes through blows rather than lawsuits.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Quote of the Day (Kellogg’s 1934 ‘Baseball’ Guide, With Fielding Advice That the Dodgers Can Use)

“Good outfielders will tell you not to be too tense. If your wrists and hands are rigid you’ll increase your chances of fumbling. Be relaxed when you catch the ball.”—“How to Catch a Ball,” Kellogg’s “Baseball” Guide (1934)

I was pleasantly surprised when a friend sent me last week the 1934 Kellogg “Baseball” guide you see here. I had just finished writing a post about Jimmie Foxx, and the guide took me back to the world of the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox slugger of the Thirties. The tips in this pamphlet offered the kind of advice from him and other future Cooperstown greats that American boys would have received at the time.

It was comforting to discover that, before designated hitters, armies of relief pitchers, and sluggers advised by hitting coaches not to worry too much about strikeouts if they could put the ball out of the park, some elements of the game of the past have managed to carry over.

After last night’s game, I’m sure that Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts might have wanted to get the above passage into the hands of centerfielder Chris Taylor. With only one strike to go to secure victory and a 3-1 World Series advantage, Taylor and Dodgers catcher Will Smith committed a cascading series of errors that frightened their fans with what one Twitter user termed “a double Buckner”—a reference to the Red Sox first baseman unfairly tagged the goat of the 1986 World Series for a ball that skidded through his legs.

Maybe the Boys in Blue will recover and this set of defensive miscues occurring in a mere 10 seconds will be forgotten in the ensuing era of good feeling. But if the Dodgers don’t win the series, expect Roberts to be put on the same “Win This Year or Else” clock that Aaron Boone is on following his deeply problematic pitching strategy in Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Bill Bradley, on the Moral Questions That Politics Avoids)

“How can a people that wages war on nature reflect God? How can a society with grating poverty amidst great wealth remain just? What is it that guides one through life? What is it that one yearns and strives for? Politics shrinks from even acknowledging these basic questions. It is easier to give a response based on a poll than one that flows from your heart.”—Former U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Presidential candidate, and New York Knicks basketball player Bill Bradley, Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir (1996)