Friday, November 30, 2012

Photo of the Day: Christmas at the Biltmore

I visited Asheville, North Carolina in mid-November two years ago, but it might as well have been December, the way that the city’s major tourist attraction, The Biltmore, goes all out for the holiday. This picture, which I took back then, doesn’t do justice to the view of the immense lit Christmas tree on the immense front lawn in front of the immense mansion. (For more on the great estate owned by George Vanderbilt, please see my post from two years ago.)

Quote of the Day (George Eliot, on Falsehood and Truth)

“Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.”—George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859)

I think, if at all possible, that people should be seen at their best. And so, I prefer this illustration of George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880) to another, more commonly known painting I’ve seen because it softens the appearance of this British novelist, whose appearance has so often been described as homely.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Photo of the Day: Vacant Tenant?

I took this picture of a bird house a few weeks ago while visiting Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock, N.J., not far from where I live in Bergen County.

Quote of the Day (Fred Barnes, on Why ‘Politics Isn’t Life’)

“Politics isn’t life. Like baseball, it’s a pastime. There are surefire ways to keep politics in perspective, especially for sports fans. Always boo politicians who show up for some ceremony before a game, at halftime, or between periods. And be prepared to rebuke politicians who pretend to be enthusiastic fans but don’t know the names of players. Sports buffs know intuitively that this works. If you’re not one, give it a try, and politics might just find its proper place in your life.”—Fred Barnes, “Goodbye and Good Riddance,” The Weekly Standard, November 12, 2012

A good, stoic attitude to take—particularly if one’s preferred Presidential candidate has been trounced, as Mr. Barnes’ was. Well, no matter. In this instance, he happens to be right. Politics might be important, but it isn’t life. Maybe that’s why Rush Limbaugh still shows no signs of following through on his threat to move to Costa Rica in the event of an Obama victory, just as most disappointed Democrats didn’t follow through on their threats to move to Canada or elsewhere in the wake of a Dubya win.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Flashback, November 1977: ‘I, Claudius’ Offers Villainess for the Ages

When I, Claudius began its 13-episode run in America as part of Masterpiece Theatre in November 1977, censors at the Public Broadcasting Service cut roughly two minutes from the first episode that they felt might raise hackles over racism (African dancers were shown dancing naked to celebrate a Roman military victory), then braced themselves for a tidal wave of protests over what they did allow to pass: rampant adultery, nudity, incest, a nymphomaniacal empress, violence. Nothing happened. Americans didn’t care much, it seemed, about the possibility of ancient Rome corrupting contemporary national morals.

Instead, viewers (or, at least, those of PBS) took to their hearts the kind of incessant, whiplash-inducing double-crosses they wouldn’t see again for another two decades, on HBO’s The Sopranos. Powering this toga-and-sandal saga of ancient Rome was a woman of infinite ingenious stratagems named Livia (also possessing the same name as the Mafia mama). But the ancient Roman royal’s plotting left even the New Jersey matriarch far behind when it came to the mystery behind the malevolence. There was little if any need to explain what William Hazlitt called the quality of “motiveless malignity.”

You can keep Nancy Merchand’s Livia on The Sopranos, Kathleen Turner’s siren Mattie Walker from Body Heat, or Joan Collins’ minx Alexis on Dynasty (a show patterned, creator Esther Shapiro later claimed, on I, Claudius). The Livia of television’s I, Claudius (as opposed to Alexander Korda’s aborted screen epic, a story I related in a prior post) got there first, by centuries.

I hadn’t realized, until I read Thomas Vinciguerra’s fine retrospective on the making of the show in the Sunday New York Times, how closely we came to missing out on the glories of the sly performance by Sian Phillips (pictured here) in the role. Poor thing—as nearly every actor you can name does, she initially tried to fathom her character’s motivation, and was floundering as a result.

Finally, director Herbert Wise took her aside and said: “Just be evil. The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is. ” As a result, she was able to go with the glories of dialogue (written by scenarist Jack Pulman) such as the following, featuring Phillips and George Baker as Tiberius, the son from a prior marriage that Livia would love to replace current hubby, Caesar Augustus, as emperor:

Tiberius: “Mother, I'm a happily married man. Julia doesn't interest me. She wouldn't interest me if you hung her naked from the ceiling above my bed.”

Livia: “She might even do that if I asked her!”

Tiberius: “Aren't you forgetting something? She's still married to Marcellus, and Marcellus is not dead yet.”

Livia: “When I start to forget things, you may light my funeral pyre and put me on it, dead or alive.”

Phillips might have played the Welsh mother in the Masterpiece Theatre version of How Green Was My Valley, Marlene Dietrich in a one-woman show for the stage, and, in real life, the onetime wife of Peter O’Toole. But for me and thousands of other I, Claudius fans, she’ll always be indelibly associated with the greatest schemer in a society filled with voluptuaries of power.