Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Flashback, September 1970: ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Marks Generational Clash—and Nicholson as Leading Man

Five Easy Pieces, which opened at the New York Film Festival 50 years ago this month, reflected its creators’ desire to bring a French “New Wave” sensibility to American audiences, with a drama that was character- rather than plot-driven, focused on an anti-hero who could find no easy resolution to his problems.

In the process, it propelled 33-year-old Jack Nicholson—who, after a decade of acting in low-budget flicks for exploitation-movie mogul Roger Corman, had finally gained significant mainstream attention with a supporting turn the year before in Easy Rider—into contention for leading roles, even in studio pictures—a perch he would continue to occupy for the following four decades.

Although Nicholson went on from triumph to triumph, the same could not be said for his two collaborators in creating his misfit, Bobby Dupea. Director Bob Rafelson would make other unusual films (Black Widow, Mountains of the Moon), but a characteristic he shared with Bobby—resistance to authority—limited the quantity and quality of his subsequent work. (See Josh Karp's excellent 2019 profile of him for Esquire.)

The least heralded member of the trio was screenwriter Carole Eastman. A fellow student of Nicholson’s in acting class, she had come to admire his brilliance. Four of her six produced screenplays would feature her friend, but none of these was as successful as channeling his snarling but smart persona into a complex character who continually surprises audiences. (At some level, this former model may have identified with Bobby herself; like him, she was highly intelligent, funny, an object of desire, and not always understood even by those who knew her best.)

Eastman’s Oscar-nominated screenplay used the road-picture genre as the basis for its gossamer plot. But the road offers less of an opportunity for Bobby’s brooding oil-well rigger to understand himself than for the audience to glimpse his restless heart.

Meeting his sister after years away from the family, he follows her urging to see their ailing father while there is still time. Bobby must re-enter his musically minded family’s home off the coast of Washington---which, for all its pristine beauty, had led him to escape its stifling atmosphere of pretentiousness and privilege.

The “chicken salad” scene in the film’s first half, in which Bobby explodes at a waitress for the menu’s absence of his desired item (an omelet with a side of toast), is the one that inevitably ends up in highlight clips of the film or of Nicholson’s long career, as it showcases the unexpected edge that the actor brought to so many roles.

But it is a more subtle scene in the second half of the film (in the accompanying photo) that I think demonstrates Nicholson’s range, while pinpointing the source of Bobby’s aimlessness.

The chicken salad scene presented the actor with a foil—actress Lorna Thayer, with dialogue that Nicholson could react against. In contrast, when Bobby talks alone on a hillside with his father, a mute stroke victim, Nicholson had to face an actor (William Challee) who could only react with sad eyes.

Nicholson speaks jaggedly, letting the audience absorb Bobby’s anguish as he searches futilely for words that can connect him to his long-estranged parent:

“I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of... I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really... I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking... for auspicious beginnings, I guess... I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say.”

Nicholson’s slow, soft dissolve into tears is a far cry from the rage he displayed in the diner scene. As Bobby pulls himself together, he confronts what he has long avoided about himself, but with no happiness realized: “The best that I can do, is apologize….We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway...I'm sorry it didn't work out.”

At the same time, the scene shines a different light on the “generation gap” than the one depicted in Easy Rider. The gap between parents and children here in Five Easy Pieces is not over counterculture issues like music, drugs or the Vietnam War, but a broader division over values—one that predated the film’s release in 1970 and endured well beyond it.

That inability to bridge the divide has left the younger generation adrift—in Bobby’s case, unable to commit to a relationship or even a steady job.

Many of the “youth” films that Hollywood greenlighted after the success of Easy Rider (e.g., Zabriskie Point, The Strawberry Statement) are little remembered these days. But Five Easy Pieces and a movie that opened the month after its release, I Never Sang for My Father, examined, in the context of a similar generational conflict, another issue that would become even more salient for baby boomers: how to work out a relationship with an aging parent in failing health.

In I Never Sang for My Father, Melvyn Douglas’ Tom Garrison represents the obdurate, querulous parent that Nicholas Dupea was before his stroke. His son Gene, more dutiful and repressed than Bobby Dupea, is similarly unable to make peace with the past issues that corrode his bond with his father. “Death ends a life,” Gene concludes, “but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”

That struggle began years before for Bobby, so resenting his father that he casts himself out of the family’s Edenic home and is cursed, Cain-like, to roam the Earth. His best actions—rushing to aid oil-field buddy Elton when he’s being assaulted, defending pregnant waitress girlfriend Rayette against a pompous visiting philosopher—end up for nothing because he sees no value in what he does.

After he makes a floundering plea to the third woman he sleeps with in the course of the film, his brother Carl’s student-lover Catherine, she rejects him to devastating effect: "You have no love for yourself, no love for family, for friends—how can you ask for love?"

Put in 2020 norms, Bobby is unable to negotiate the distance between cultural norms for his Red State acquaintances (signified by the country music in the first half) and his Blue State family (indicated by the classical music they all play, but none so well as he). Nicholson, Rafelson and Eastman showed a half century ago that this conflict, not the parental one, was cleaving its anti-hero in two. Now, we know, the entire nation feels so riven.

Quote of the Day (Derek Walcott, With a Sailors’ Song)

“In the middle of the harbor
A fish breaks the Sabbath
With a silvery leap.
The scales fall from him
In a tinkle of church bells;
The town streets are orange
With the week-ripened sunlight,
Balanced on the bowsprit
A young sailor is playing
His grandfather’s chantey
On a trembling mouth organ.”— Saint Lucian poet and playwright—and Nobel Literature laureate—Derek Walcott (1930-2017), “A Sea-Chantey,” in Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (1986)

(Picture of Derek Walcott taken at his honorary dinner, Amsterdam, May 20, 2008; permission is granted by Michiel van Kempen, secretary and treasurer of the Werkgroep Caraibische Letteren, The Netherlands; by courtesy of the photographer Bert Nienhuis.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Photo of the Day: V-Cut Cliff, State Line Lookout, Closter NJ

As I type this, rain is slapping against my windows, with an even heavier downpour forecast for overnight. But it was a different story this past Sunday.

Though the calendar says that we passed into autumn a week ago, the air, with moderate temperatures but some humidity, felt more like early summer. At State Line Lookout in Palisades Interstate Park, New Jerseyans like me (and perhaps some New Yorkers crossing the border) used the opportunity to walk around the highest point on the Palisades Cliffs.

I decided to photograph this spot along the scenic overlook not just because of the craggy cliffs but the unusual V shape in this rock formation.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Almost Famous,’ In Which a Mom Shocks a Rock Musician)

Russell Hammond [played by Billy Crudup]: [swigging Miller Lite in front of groupies, then grabbing the phone away from William Miller] “Hey, mom! It's Russell Hammond. I play guitar in Stillwater. Hey, how does it feel to be the mother of the greatest rock journalist we've met? Hello? Hello...? Look, you've got a really great kid here. There's nothing to worry about. We're taking good care of him, and you should come to the show sometime—join the circus...”

Elaine Miller [played by Frances McDormand]: “Hey, hey, listen to me, mister. Your charm doesn't work on me—I'm on to you. Of course you like him...”

Russell: “Well, yeah...”

Elaine: “He worships you people. And that's fine by you as long as he helps make you rich.”

Russell: “Rich? I don't think so...”

Elaine: “Listen to me. He's a smart, good-hearted, fifteen-year-old kid with infinite potential.”

[Russell listens, stunned]

Elaine: “This is not some apron-wearing mother you're speaking with—I know all about your Valhalla of decadence and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly?”

Russell: “Yes—yes, ma'am...”

Elaine: “If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession which is law—something you may not value, but I do—you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?”

Russell: “Uh, yes, ma'am...”

Elaine: “I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell. Please get my son home safely. You know, I'm glad we spoke.”

[Elaine hangs up]

[Russell stands holding phone in stunned silence.]— Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe (1995)

Twenty years ago this month, the dramedy Almost Famous premiered in American theaters. As with other films by Cameron Crowe, the soundtrack represents a source of nostalgic joy for baby boomers like me who entered adolescence in the early 1970s listening to hits like Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," The Raspberries “Go All the Way,” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

But the heart of the film is Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay, a semi-autobiographical account of his time as a teenaged journalist traveling on the road interviewing acts such as The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell.

Years later, fans can still recall great scenes such as acid-tripping Russell shouting “I am a golden god!” as he dives into a pool (an incident based on an exploit of Robert Plant’s); a terrifying plane ride that climaxes with a string of hilarious near-death confessions; or William’s encounter with the nubile females who trail the rising rock ‘n’ roll band Stillwater. (As explained by one of these ladies, Penny Lane: “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music—we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.”)

I don’t think that Kate Hudson has ever been sweeter, funnier or more moving om film than as the warm-hearted Penny. It’s not surprising that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance—or, in a case of art imitating life, that Patrick Fugit, much like his Crowe stand-in William, fell for her.

And, in one of the few cases in which he played a real-life person, the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in one of his nicely nuanced turns as cynical but compassionate rock journalist Lester Bangs.

Yet, for me, the actor who stands out (and, like Ms. Hudson, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the movie) is Frances McDormand (pictured) as William’s psychology prof mom Elaine—fiercely protective (yes, overly so) of her son (as seen in the above ferociously funny tongue-lashing) but also, in a sense, the moral center of the film. 

(Yes, Elaine is based on Crowe’s mother—who, despite the filmmaker’s concern that she would bother McDormand during filming, ended up getting on very well with the actress.) It is a far cry from the libertine musician she would play two years after the release of Almost Famous in Laurel Canyon.

Maggie Lange’s GQ analysis of the “aggressively, stunningly, transcendently uncool” Elaine captures perfectly both the character’s hilarious Mother Bear instincts (though I suspect that at least a few mothers I know have been tempted to use some variation of Elaine’s “family whistle”) and her belief in her son’s promise and goodness—a belief that Russell, for all his instincts towards that “Valhalla of decadence,” ultimately shares and honors.

It is in keeping with McDormand’s view about other mothers she’s played, expressed in a 2003 New York Times interview with Karen Durbin: “Those roles weren't just mothers in a story about a male protagonist. First they were specific, three-dimensional people."

Almost Famous also reflects Crowe’s ongoing fascination with Billy Wilder. Crowe had conducted lengthy, intense interviews with the Sunset Boulevard filmmaker about his techniques and themes (later collected, like a volume that Francois Truffaut did based on talks with Alfred Hitchcock, into Conversations With Wilder). Crowe had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Wilder to play a character in his hit Jerry Maguire, and a late scene in Almost Famous pays homage to Jack Lemmon’s desperate floor-walking with a suicidal Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment.

I was stunned to read that, despite all of its critical acclaim, Almost Famous underperformed at the box office, clobbered by a re-release of The Exorcist. But over the years, it has found its audience—not just the musicians who inspired and appreciated it, but the millions of fans who had their heads blown away by a piece of music (as William is by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds classic LP) and seek every moment they can from then on to re-experience that sense of youthful transcendence. It has reached cult status, even inspiring its own podcast.

Moreover, as with Crowe’s best other works (Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire), it celebrates the necessity of idealism and openness to love amid the “compromised values” that Elaine Miller fears, battles, and girds her decent son to withstand.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The American President,’ Showing That Even Ultimate Power Has Limits)

President Andrew Shepherd [played by Michael Douglas] [muttering in disgust]: “Seven-trillion-dollar communications system at my disposal and I can't find out if the Packers won.” —The American President (1995), screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Rob Reiner

Hmmm…Well, right now they’ve started this season 3-0. (And even in 1995, when this romantic comedy opened, they won their first division title since 1972.) So I’d say, “Don’t sweat it, Mr. President.”

(That’s Michael Douglas—presumably, using his remote, without success, to locate the Packers—with Annette Bening by his side in The American President.)

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on Ted Williams’ Last At-Bat)

“The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky."—American fiction writer and essayist John Updike (1932-2009), "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," The New Yorker, Oct. 22, 1960

Sixty years ago today, Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams accomplished something that most players desire desperately but can’t achieve: retire on top, with a home run in their last at-bat. John Updike’s account of this game is one of the classic baseball articles.

As seen in this passage, Updike endowed the last homer of the Hall of Famer’s 521-HR career with mythic majesty. He did the same thing in evoking how the 42-year-old Williams, who had quarreled with the press and even fans throughout his career, stayed true to form, refusing to tip his cap or come out of the dugout to acknowledge the wild cheering from the roughly 10,000 fans in Fenway Park after his eighth-inning blast.

Updike summed up the disdain of “The Splendid Splinter” simply, in perhaps the most quoted line of the piece: “Gods do not answer letters.”

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Photo of the Day: Calvary Lutheran Church, Bergenfield, NJ

A few days ago, while stopping at the Bergenfield Public Library, I was struck by the sight of this church, and decided to photograph it.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Book of Isaiah, on a Soul That ‘Rejoices in My God’)

“I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
    and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
    and praise spring up before all nations.”— Isaiah 61:10-11 (New International Version)

(The image accompanying this post is Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet in the Sistine Chapel.)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

This Day in Western History (Death of Daniel Boone, Restless Frontier Legend)

Sept. 26, 1820—Half a continent away from his Berks County, Pa., birthplace, Daniel Boone died quietly in his sleep at age 86 near present-day Defiance, Mo., still yearning to hunt far from the thousands who had followed his lead into the interior of the vast North American continent.

Partly because as a child I watched Fess Parker playing him for six seasons on TV in the 1960s, I associated Boone for years entirely with Kentucky. It would be a long while before I realized he also spent considerable time elsewhere—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, present-day West Virginia, and Missouri.

Many myths already existed about this legendary American frontiersman, and I’m afraid Parker’s TV series dispelled few of them and maybe even added some more. (He probably preferred practical wide-brim felt hats and wool and fabric to the coonskin caps and buckskin in which he’s usually depicted, for instance—and was hardly an Indian fighter, since, by his own admission, he only killed three men throughout his long life.)

It is true that he established the settlement Boonsboro; escaped from captivity by Native-Americans (and helped his daughter do the same); and clashed with the British in the American Revolution.

Other aspects of Boone’s life are not as well known, but explain much of his nomadic life:

*Slaveholder: Despite being raised by Quakers, Boone owned slaves in adulthood—as many as seven at one point. Slaves were used to help farm at Boonsborough, and were among the casualties he died during Native American attacks. At the same time, a slave named Burrell guided the frontiersman in the 1760s as he looked for a potential settlement; another, Adam, owned by another settler, told him about the death of Boone’s son James in a 1773 Indian attack, enabling the grief-stricken father to recover the remains; and an ex-slave, Pompey, was able to save his life when Boone was captured by the Shawnee in 1778 by translating his pleas to Chief Blackfish.

*Land speculator: Like other major figures in the early republic—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and financier Robert Morris—Boone was an active land speculator. In Boone’s case, his inability to provide adequate written documentation led to heavy debt, loss of his properties, a warrant for his arrest, and a permanent move out of Kentucky in the 1790s.

*Public official: Hardly the solitary figure of so many legends, Boone was, like his father, Squire Boone, a leader. Aside from his role in helping settle Kentucky, he was a member of the Virginia legislature and, in his 70s, a justice in the new territory of Missouri.

*Legend in his own time: Unlike a frontiersman of the second generation, Davy Crockett, was not interested in generating publicity for himself. But legends began to accrue about him even in middle age. John Filson started the process in 1784 with an appendix about the hunter in Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Very problematically, the “interview” with Boone sounded suspiciously flowery. By the end of his life, the English poet Lord Byron extended his legend across the Atlantic by including him as a character in the epic Don Juan.

In encountering Boone’s grandchildren decades later, historian Francis Parkman hailed their famous ancestor’s “quiet and tranquil spirit.” Quiet, even given his disgust with the court system in Kentucky, taciturn, perhaps; but tranquil? That’s not a word I would use to describe someone with Boone's wanderlust.

While slightly romanticized, Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait of Boone in the 1890 book he wrote with friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales From American History, offers a judicious appraisal of this pioneer:

“The toil and hardship of his life made no impress on his iron frame, unhurt by intemperance of any kind, and he lived for eighty-six years, a backwoods hunter to the end of his days. His thoughtful, quiet, pleasant face, so often portrayed, is familiar to every one; it was the face of a man who never blustered or bullied, who would neither inflict nor suffer any wrong, and who had a limitless fund of fortitude, endurance, and indomitable resolution upon which to draw when fortune proved adverse. His self-command and patience, his daring, restless love of adventure, and, in time of danger, his absolute trust in his own powers and resources, all combined to render him peculiarly fitted to follow the career of which he was so fond.”

Quote of the Day (Jack Germond, on the Outsized Importance of a Debate Gaffe)

“[A] single stumble may cost the election. Spend hundreds of millions; talk endlessly about issues; present 12-point plans for education, the economy, and the environment. But in the end, the election of our next president can turn on a gaffe.”—American political reporter and pundit Jack Germond (1928-2013), I Can’t Believe He Said That,” The Washingtonian, September 2007

Whatever justification Presidential debates may have had in the past, they possess precious little in 2020. The President has been in office for four years, with a record readily apparent, for better or worse. His opponent was a U.S. Senator or Vice-President for more than four decades. Voters have had plenty of time to know their positions and accomplishments by now, and if they don’t, shame on them.

Equally important, the type of gaffes that Germond examined in his essay were, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Past brain-freeze responses to the fate of Communist-dominated Poland, a President’s invocation of a young daughter in discussing nuclear arms, or massive sighs and eye-rolls should have mattered little when it came to assessing who would lead our country.

Moreover, candidates’ opportunities to avoid answering questions and introduce their own factual distortions with inadequate chance for rebuttal are likely to rise markedly with the first debate this Tuesday and continuing into the final two. One candidate has a habit of exaggeration that he finds difficult to resist. The other purveys staggering falsehoods with virtually every breath he takes. Some reporters will not be inclined to note these, while others will simply throw their hands up at the unending task this involves.

Presidential debates offer the kind of theater that ratings-hungry news organizations crave, but this year especially, it threatens to degenerate into the worst combination of reality show and carnival act. It is time for the media to rethink their commitment to it.

(Two generations have passed since the event captured in the attached image, so, for any younger readers, this picture shows incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in one of their 1980 debates.)

Friday, September 25, 2020

Photo of the Day: Knickerbocker Country Club, Tenafly NJ

This longtime mainstay of Bergen County, NJ, is about a mile away from where I live. I photographed its entrance while on a walk late one sunny afternoon over a week ago. The club’s golf course is itself quite a walk—for those, that is, who don’t want to ride around in a cart.

Quote of the Day (Caitlin Flanagan, on ‘The Cardinal Rule to Leading a Happy Life’)

“The cardinal rule to leading a happy life is that you must never, under any circumstances, Google yourself.”—American cultural commentator Caitlin Flanagan quoted in Rachel Donadio, “The Anti-Feminist Mystique,” The New York Observer, June 7, 2004

An updated corollary to the “Cardinal Rule”: “Never, under any circumstances, check social media for reactions to your post.”

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Photo of the Day: Victorian Home, Upper Nyack, NY

I have an abiding affection for Victorian homes, and I could indulge it to the hilt a week and a half ago while walking along North Broadway in Upper Nyack, NY. That stretch of this Rockland County community is simply lined with them—one after another home filled with balconies, belvederes, turrets, multiple porches, and generously applied dashes of color, on properties lining the Hudson River.

I photographed the exteriors of several of these houses, but I decided to highlight this one because of its combination of so many of these elements.

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on ‘The Fulfilled Future and the Wistful Past’)

"The man who blooms at thirty blooms in summer. But the compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fair years to waste, years that I can't honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea. Once in the middle twenties I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bath-robe—the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: ‘Ah me! Ah me!’ It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again—for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream."—American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), from “Early Success,” in The Crack-Up, edited by Edmund Wilson (1945)

Happy 124th birthday to my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

This Day in Film History (Mickey Rooney, Energetic, Enduring Entertainer, Born)

Sept. 23, 1920—Mickey Rooney, who, with an infectious smile and boundless energy, entertained millions of Americans—not to mention eight wives— in nine decades, was born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, NY, to vaudevillian parents.

Rooney first came to the attention of film fans in a series of two-reel silent shorts playing “Mickey McGuire.” At age 14, at his mother’s suggestion, he changed it to Mickey Rooney—at just the moment when his career was about to skyrocket.

He may have been short (some contested even his listed height of five feet three inches), but Rooney made sure you never overlooked him. He could sing, dance, joke, and, audiences would discover, act in serious drama.

A strong hint of his magnetism could be seen in Warner Brother’s 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, amid an impressive cast (James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Frank McHugh), the 15-year-old stole the show as the impish sprite Puck.

But he really made his mark at MGM, where, from 1939 through 1941, he was the nation’s number-one box-office draw—even replacing the studio’s “King,” Clark Gable, in that slot. His most prominent role, the prototypical all-American boy, Andy Hardy, earned him a special Juvenile Oscar in 1939, and kept him firmly in the public eye in 15 films from 1937 to 1946.

In a blog post from 2009, I related how Rooney appeared with Judy Garland in eight films, and how, in a special promotional blitz for The Wizard of Oz, she simply couldn’t keep up with him. Amazingly, there was still a superabundance of all that energy left over for offscreen pursuits.

In his later years, Rooney joked about his penchant for going to divorce court (six times, to go with eight marriages). But most often, his rampant infidelity caused these trips.

The template for what would follow was his marriage to Ava Gardner. In the late 1980s, a few years before she died, she told would-be ghostwriter Peter Evans, in an interview later collected in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations (2013), about her initial impressions of him:

“He wasn’t what I’d call a handsome may-an, and his shortness surprised me, but there was definitely something appealing about him. He had thick, red-blond wavy hair, crinkly Irish green eyes, and a grin that was … well, it definitely wasn’t innocent, honey, I can tell you that!” 

Despite her strong suspicions that he had bedded numerous MGM starlets (including her good friend, Lana Turner), the 19-year-old beauty succumbed to his irresistible charm.

Within a month of their honeymoon and Gardner’s hospitalization for a misplaced appendix, she came home to find “evidence that Mick had been screwing somebody in our bed.” The relationship soon entered a cycle—accusations, denials, reconciliation attempts, then open arguments.  

“Mickey was never going to change his ways,” Gardner explained. “I knew that if I had sued Mick for adultery, and named some of the girls he’d been f-----g, it would have blown his whole Andy Hardy image right out of the water. It could have destroyed his career stone dead. I knew that citing ‘incompatibility’ was the cleanest and fastest route of the marriage.”

The marriage only lasted a year and a half. By this time, Rooney was less concerned with marital conflict than an international one: World War II. He ended up serving 22 months (five of them with Gen. George Patton's famous Third Army), entertaining two million troops on stage and radio, becoming a sergeant and earning a Bronze Star. 

He returned to find his place diminished in postwar Hollywood: with savings depleted by a manager, aging out of his teenage roles.

At a career crossroads, Rooney cast about for other, more adult roles. He made only a couple of films in this new set of circumstances when he was informed his contract was being terminated. 

With his education having been confined to studio tutors, he was ill-prepared for what now greeted him. He gambled, drank, popped pills, and fooled around; his impatience and (according to biographer Richard A. Lertzman) bipolar disorder made him difficult to live with; and his ego prevented him from landing better roles (as I discussed in this post about how he blew the chance to play Archie Bunker in All in the Family).

Still, he kept working, even if it was usually not in a leading role, or even in vehicles not worthy of his talents (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, appearances on game shows like Hollywood Squares). Occasionally, he could rise to the occasion with a vivid reminder of the greatness still ready to be tapped, as with his blistering portrayal of a beloved TV star who tyrannizes staff and even his own brother in a classic episode of the anthology series Playhouse 90, in the Rod Serling teleplay “The Comedian.”

By 1979, he enjoyed a comeback with his fourth Oscar nomination, for Black Stallion (reminding older moviegoers of a similar role in National Velvet, with Elizabeth Taylor) and a Tony nomination for the burlesque revue Sugar Babies.   

By this time, Rooney was doing his best to settle down, becoming a devout Christian and determined that his eighth marriage would last. But there remained signs of trouble, including a declaration of bankruptcy in 1996.

In 2011, Rooney shocked fans, in a Congressional hearing on elder abuse, when he testified that a stepson had misused his money. Three years later—remarkably, still working, on a movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—he died, at age 94.  

Another year and a half would pass before The Hollywood Reporter published allegations of beatings at the hands of his wife Jan (who had often used him to grasp at her own elusive dreams of stardom) and misuse of his earnings by his stepson Chris. (Rooney’s widow sued the publication in 2017.) 

While the exact circumstances of these relationships remain disputed, it is not that the actor died, after a lifetime of nonstop working and the unqualified praise of admirers like Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal, leaving an estate of only $18,000.

Quote of the Day (Sarah Gordon, on the ‘Overweening Power’ Behind the Last Recession)

“The failures which led to the [2008 financial] crisis were more of behaviour and character than of financial instruments or processes. The tales of casual greed and of ordinary people misled and deceived by irresponsible bankers are familiar. But there was one element to the crisis that I have seen repeated in many different forms: overweening power. In the business world this breeds all sorts of crises, from the personal to the systemic.”— Impact Investing Institute Chief Executive—and former business journalist—Sarah Gordon, “Making Sense of the City,” Financial Times, March 9-10, 2019

As it was a dozen years ago, as outlined by Ms. Gordon, so it is now—except that the “overweening power” was exercised not by a group of “irresponsible bankers” but by one individual, placed far higher.

In August 2019, Alex Shephard of The New Republic accurately predicted what might happen if a recession arrived during the last year of the President’s first term (though he missed the particular circumstance—COVID-19): “Not a disciplined, unified response to a crisis from this White House; instead, an unhinged president issuing feeble edicts from his bed, many of which could cause a sputtering economy to spiral.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Song Lyric of the Day (Neil Young, on ‘Mother Nature on the Run’)

“There was a fanfare blowin' to the sun
That was floating on the breeze
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 1970s.”—Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush,” from his LP of the same name (1970)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Neil Young’s third solo album—one that many observers see as the best of his career. The most enigmatic of its 11 songs might be the title tune.

This was supposed to be part of a soundtrack Young hoped to compose for an aborted project by actor Dean Stockwell about a tidal wave sweeping over Southern California. Linda Ronstadt (who later covered it, with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, on their “Trio” CD) recalled, “I would listen to Neil singing that all the time on the road. I would think, ‘This is the future.’”

Certainly, that line about “Mother Nature on the run” feels less like trippy vision than reality in 2020.

Quote of the Day (Edward Hirsch, on a ‘Boy With a Headset’)

“He is a fifteen-year-old in the city—no more, no less—
but I imagine him as a colorful unnamed bird
warbling his difference from the robins and sparrows
and scissoring past the vendors on every corner.”—American poet Edward Hirsch, “Boy With a Headset,” The New Yorker, Oct. 8, 2004

(Photo of Edward Hirsch taken by Michael Lionstar.)

Monday, September 21, 2020

Photo of the Day: Overpeck County Park Extension, Ridgefield Park NJ

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”—New England essayist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), journal entry for Aug. 23, 1853, in The Thoughts of Thoreau, edited by Edwin Way Teale (1962)

For the last several days in my area of the Northeast, as the fierce heat and humidity rampant in July and August finally gave way, I yielded to the spirit of Thoreau, and tried to get in as much walking (my favorite form of exercise) as I could.

Sunday seemed a particular harbinger of what is to come. The sun was glorious, pouring down, as Joni Mitchell might sing, “like butterscotch,” but there was such a crispness and even wind in the air that I felt obliged not just to wear a windbreaker but a sweatshirt as well.

None of that stopped me and many others from circulating throughout the Overpeck County Park Extension, not far from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. 

The bright sunshine beckoned us to come out and treat this as we would any other day, to take in the broad suburban landscape of broad fields and looming office towers in the distance. But the presence of masks among the many walkers reminded us that even with all the evidence of our senses, the end of this season has been unlike any other in our time.

Quote of the Day (Patricia Marx, Imagining a CEO Memo From the Last Recession)

“It has come to our attention that certain persons feel that executive-compensation packages have been unduly awarded. Management has zero tolerance for negativity. Moreover, now is not the time to play ‘the blame game.’ In days like these, we must tighten our belts and be team players. Note: Anyone who received a signing bonus will be required to return it, posthaste, with interest. In fairness, senior V.P.s were asked to give back the income from last year’s exercised options, but they concluded that the calculation would be difficult and onerous.”— American humorist Patricia Marx, “Shouts and Murmurs: Memo from the C.E.O.,” The New Yorker, Mar. 9, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Essay: COVID-19 and the School Reopening Crisis

“For schools, COVID-19 is a new crisis stacked on top of a very old one. Funding for public education has dropped precipitously since the Great Recession: In 2015 more than half of states were spending less per student than they did in 2008. Many of the equity issues that [Donald] Trump and [Secretary of Education Betsy] DeVos cite in their push to reopen schools are long-standing, exacerbated by funding schemes that tie school resources to the local tax base and by segregation. Both are political choices; neither will be resolved simply by reopening schools this fall. Other choices loom on the horizon as the virus decimates state revenues. The pandemic may have reminded Americans of how much they need schools and teachers. It’s also made it clear that the country is a long way from making them a priority.”— Zoe Carpenter, “Back to School? We’ve Squandered Our Chance to Reopen Safely,” The Nation, Sept. 7/14, 2020

A teacher friend of mine from the Midwest told me several weeks ago that, though schools refer to “remote” or “distance” learning, the correct phrase might be “crisis education.” I don’t envy the task that she and her colleagues face this year.

As with so much else that has happened in 2020, COVID-19 has created one more burden on a society buckling under the strain. It has not only magnified issues of inequality long latent in U.S. public schools, but has now put the safety of teachers at cross-purposes to lower-wage service workers who lack the luxury of supervising their children’s online learning while working remotely themselves.

Politicians blew their chance of extricating America from Stage 1 of the pandemic, so we are now seriously contemplating putting in harm’s way thousands of teachers nationwide that we profess to value.

My teacher friend will face a different half of her students each day. That was supposed to decrease children’s exposure to the virus, anyway, if not teachers’, but the plan doesn’t look like it’s working. It’s only a week into the school year, and already half a dozen students have tested positive for the virus at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Anyone pressing for an immediate school reopening should remember this: according to a U.S. News and World Report article from this past May, nearly one-third of U.S. public school teachers are over 50—the demographic group that in our educational institutions, by virtue of the “co-morbidities” of this age segment, will run the greatest risk of severe infection.

Imagine that: parents oblivious to the possibility of America’s most experienced educators being decimated by a new disease whose after-effects are still not completely known. If you ask me, that’s a new form of age discrimination. Is that really the best way to run our schools?

Adult advocates of reopening are also ignoring an enduring, age-old reality: youths’ propensity for risky behavior. Are they forgetting what they were like as teenagers? Do they really think that their children will magically stop drinking, taking drugs, or congregating in mass groups—the type of misbehavior most likely to spread the virus?

We are already seeing the consequences of hasty school reopenings. As of when I wrote this post,  this map and database maintained by the National Education Association and volunteers shows that 3,615 American schools and campuses had reported COVID-19 cases from July 16 to September 18, resulting in 11,712 cases, 1,246 possible outbreaks—and 43 deaths.

Americans have long prided themselves on being an exceptional people. But this year, we are an object of pity and fear to the rest of the world on the spiraling consequences when ignorance and orneriness replace reason and calm in public debates. They are the kind of “substitutes” we should never allow in schools.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Reinhold Niebuhr, on How We Are Saved by Faith, Hope and Love)

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” — American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), The Irony of American History (1952)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

This Day in TV History (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Standard-Setting Workplace Comedy, Premieres)

Sept. 19, 1970—Premiering on CBS, The Mary Tyler Moore Show not only provided its titular star with an even longer-running series than the one that propelled her to star, The Dick Van Dyke Show, but also set new standards for adult, character-driven situation comedy.

I posted previously on the 75th birthday on the luminous Mary Tyler Moore and how she created an immensely appealing role model for the millions of “character women” thronging the American workplace as a result of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s

But one aspect of her career that deserves further exploration here is her generosity in ceding significant air time to fellow cast members—and her shrewdness in understanding that the sitcom’s success could be sustained through this attention to others, even to the point of allowing them to have many of the funniest lines in episodes.

For Mary Richards, a heartbroken runaway from a broken relationship, the workplace becomes a new form of family. By necessity, the show’s scripts needed to bring out the fun and caring of these new people in her new life in Minnesota.

Far more than The Dick Van Dyke Show, then, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would depend on its ensemble cast—wider, deeper, wringing laughter more from the nuances of character than from the laugh-a-minute pace of prior comedies.

The series was as strong on its last night on the air in 1977 as its first. For that, series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns required sturdy script architecture rather than interior decorating—multiple quirky but realistic characters that opened up near-endless comic possibilities, while taking the burden off the group’s first among equals, Ms. Moore. 

As I mentioned in a prior post, the two were delving more deeply into a dynamic they had touched on the year before with their ABC dramedy Room 222: a middle manager who functioned as the calm eye in a storm--in this case, a fast-paced newsroom.

Amazingly, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would manage to survive the departure of significant characters like Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom (each getting a spinoff series) while slotting in others that took up the slack—notably, daffy Georgette Franklin Baxter and “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens.

Moore and husband Grant Tinker, the co-head of their production company, MTM Enterprises, had received a commitment for 13 episodes from CBS, giving them four months to cast the show—an unusually long time. Ultimately, they would need every bit of it.

The best explanations for the course of this casting can be found in two interviews conducted by the Archive of American Television with Allan Burns and Mary Tyler Moore.

Gavin MacLeod was the first of the supporting players to be cast. Though called in to try out for the role of gruff Lou Grant, he asked if he could take a shot at Murray Slaughter. While Brooks and Burns had envisioned Murray as a comic nemesis for Mary Richards—something like a pesky mosquito, irritating her in close proximity from the adjacent newsroom desk—MacLeod’s warm conception led them to rethink Murray as an ally for Mary. 

Brooks and Burns were similarly unexpectedly impressed by Cloris Leachman as intrusive neighbor Phyllis, and quickly cast her, too.

Then, the show entered a prolonged casting void, as Brooks, Burns, Moore and Tinker tried to achieve the right alchemy of actor and character.

Silver-haired Ted Knight was different from the tall, dark and handsome anchorman—and possible Mary love interest—Ted Baxter was expected to be. But a terrific nightclub appearance by Knight led them to rethink him. (Two L.A. newscasters, George Putnam and Jerry Dunphy, along with actor Jack Cassidy, are believed to have inspired the creation of the buffoonish Baxter.)

Ed Asner was masterful in his initial audition as Mary’s bearish but lovable boss Lou Grant. But, when he performed with Ms. Moore, the magic of that earlier effort mysteriously vanished. But, just before he left, he also to try it again. This time, according to Ms. Moore, he pulled “gold from his pocket.”

Much like Ms. Moore’s casting on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Valerie Harper came aboard at the last minute. In certain ways, it was the trickiest character to deal with. Ms. Harper recalled that reading as “the easiest, most pleasant audition process I ever went through,” but the initial studio audience reaction to her brash, bandana-wearing Rhoda Morgenstern was frosty. 

It required an astute adjustment of dialogue to turn that around. Instead of leaving the audience simply with Phyllis’ characterization of “that dumb awful woman that lives upstairs,” they included the assessment of Phyllis’ precocious daughter Bess that “Aunt Rhoda's really a lot of fun--Mom hates her,” thereby considering softening perceptions of the woman contesting Mary’s right to the apartment who will eventually become her dearest friend.

The influence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be seen in such later ensemble sitcoms as Cheers, 30 Rock, Friends, Murphy Brown, and The Office, as well as other critically acclaimed but now less well-remembered Eighties shows as Blair Brown’s The Days and Nights of Molly Brown and Geena Davis’ Sara. But it was difficult for any of these latter series to match the intricate craftsmanship of the original, and impossible to match its warmth.

Moore, Tinker, Burns and Brooks fashioned something miraculous: not merely brilliant writing, but actors who performed with consistent professionalism and ease with each other. For all the wit of the dialogue, the appropriate enduring impression of the final episode is of a group hug among perhaps the finest ensemble in sitcom history.  

Quote of the Day (Hilary Mantel, on Fear of Commitment and Fear of Writing)

“The experienced writer says to the anguished novice: just do it; get something, anything, on to the screen or page, just establish a flow of words, and criticise them later. You give this advice but can't always take it. You dread setting off down any one narrative path, because you know your choice will make most of the others impossible. Select one, write it, and it begins to seem in some sense pre-ordained, natural, correct; the other options fade from memory. Fear of commitment lies behind the fear of writing. Writers, as generations of jealous spouses have learned to their cost, are not naturally monogamous. We don't want to choose; we want to keep open all the possibilities, fill a lifetime with fresh and less-than-final versions.”—English novelist (Wolf Hall) Hilary Mantel, “Author, Author: Persons from Porlock,” The Guardian, Mar. 6, 2009