Sunday, December 31, 2023

Flashback, December 1973: Murdoch Gains American Toehold With San Antonio Paper Acquisition

Completing a $19.7 million purchase of the morning San Antonio Express and afternoon San Antonio News from Harte-Hanks Newspapers Inc., Rupert Murdoch was able to secure his first American properties 50 years ago this month.

The purchase launched the Australian on a course that made him the most formidable media baron of the 20th and 21st centuries, with properties around the world, a perch from which he finally stepped down a few months ago at age 92.

At age 21, Murdoch inherited a single afternoon Australian tabloid from his father, the foundation of what became News Corp. In 1969, having bought a string of papers in his own country, he turned to the British market when he bought the weekly News of the World and the daily London Sun.  

With his San Antonio acquisitions, he planned to import the same formula that had made him a success on Fleet Street, what I would call “3C X S”: i.e., crime, controversy, and cheesecake times scandal.

More specifically, it meant in his papers screaming headlines, faux anti-elitism, and manufactured outrage—and, in the newsroom, ousters of key managers and staffers as well as broken promises about editorial independence.

Murdoch entered the American market just as the Watergate scandal was slowly but steadily eroding support for Richard Nixon. Disdain for Tricky Dick’s opponents was as much a part of the publisher’s DNA as scorn for journalistic objectivity or ethical newsgathering methods. (“The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,” he said, “but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West.” He could never imagine a world in which both Nixon and “the Commies” would be gone.)

Given that Murdoch was far more enthusiastic about Nixon than he has been in private about Donald Trump, I think it highly probable that Nixon could have survived his growing scandals if he had Murdoch’s backing when the publisher’s American holdings reached their eventual peak.

Even as he was getting ready to invade San Antonio, he was seeking a wider arena for his outsized ambitions. He would have those in just a couple of years, launching The National Star (later, renamed simply The Star) as a supermarket tabloid competitor of The National Enquirer in February 1974 and transforming the faded liberal daily The New York Post into a rabid right-wing publication after his acquisition in 1976.

Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of the past half-century, when daily newspapers withered successively under the assault of the evening news, 24-hour cable stations, and the Internet, Murdoch remained one of the most enthusiastic supporters or print against electronic journalism. 

(The newspaper portion of his empire might be considerably slimmed down, if his successor, son Lachlan Murdoch—notably less enthusiastic about the old medium—has his way, according to this September 2023 AP article by Pan Pylas and Jill Lawless.)

Though the Murdoch empire has, with more than a little truth, been credited with creating the conditions for Trumpism, the denial of climate science may be the most lasting and pernicious legacy of the publisher’s.

Had Murdoch’s influence merely extended to America, he would just bear responsibility for the rise of a homegrown demagogue. But because he is invested in six continents, he has been able to undermine climate-science advocates and erode diplomatic and legislative efforts to curb the greatest existential threat of our time.

It took two screenwriters, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, to depict in fictional terms one of the early “yellow journalists”: William Randolph Hearst, in “Citizen Kane.”

In contrast, Murdoch was translated into fiction by the novelist Edward St Aubyn, in Dunbar, a 2017 retelling of King Lear, and Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers for the recently concluded series Succession.

Compared with other newspapers that he kept alive despite constant losses (notably, The New York Post, which only recorded its first annual profit in modern history this past year), San Antonio’s News and Express fell by the wayside relatively quickly in the Murdoch stable of newspapers.

After bamboozling readers for a decade with headlines like “Ax Attacker Kills Sleeper,” “Armies of Insects Marching on S.A.,” and “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” Murdoch began to hedge his bets with the two papers he’d bought, closing the News in favor of a reconstituted Express-News in 1984, then selling that to his longtime rival in the San Antonio market, the Hearst Corp.

Now, it was America, not just San Antonio, that he was looking to conquer. In the end, it would involve telling people what they most wanted to hear, even if his private views were far different.

To satisfy the legal requirement that only American citizens could own U.S. TV stations, Murdoch became a naturalized citizen in September 1985. Still, there is reason to wonder if he has anything other than contempt for the great mass of his adopted countrymen—or if he feels any sensitivity at all to those less fortunate than him.

In Michael Wolff’s recent book about the Murdochs and their empire, The Fall, Rupert is quoted taking a swipe at both his Fox evening anchor, Sean Hannity, and, implicitly, in the most insulting manner possible, many in the latter’s audience: “He’s retarded, like most Americans.”

In word and action, Murdoch might be the best example of what columnist H.L. Mencken meant nearly a century ago in concluding, “No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Christina Rossetti, on a Star and ‘The Song of the Angel Throng’)

“Beyond all clouds and all mistiness
I float in the strength of my loveliness;
And I move round the sun with a measured motion
In the blue expanse of the skyey ocean;
And I hear the song of the Angel throng
In a river of extasy flow along,
Without a pausing, without a hushing,
Like an everlasting fountain's gushing
That of its own will bubbles up
From a white untainted cup.”— English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), “The Song of the Star,” originally published in 1847, republished in The Complete Poems, edited by R.W. Crump (2001)

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Centennial Appreciation: Willa Cather’s ‘A Lost Lady’

In the fourth quarter a century ago, Alfred A. Knopf published a new novella by perhaps the hottest in its stable of authors at that point: Willa Cather, who had received the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in May.

A Lost Lady reflected Cather’s recognition, as she put it, that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." The period it covers—1873 to 1916 to the early 1920s—marked the passage of the Old West from the pioneers, “dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were impractical to the point of magnificence,” to a new, rapacious generation who would “dispel the morning freshness, [and] root out the great spirit of freedom.”

After a few false starts (including a first-person narrator), Cather settled into a more comfortable narrative mode. Soon, everything fell into place. The plot, tightly sprung, moves swiftly; the characters are rendered in pinpoint detail; and, most of all, Cather exhibits her usual exquisite feeling for how setting molds their lives, in this case Sweet Water, Colorado, a frontier town “of which great things were expected.”

In the idyllic early days of the plot, for instance, a group of boys “behaved like wild creatures all morning; shouting from the breezy bluffs, dashing down into the silvery marsh through the dewy cobwebs that glistened on the tall weeds, swishing among the pale tan cattails, wading in the sandy creek bed, chasing a striped water snake from the old willow stump where he was sunning himself, cutting sling-shot crotches, throwing themselves on their stomachs to drink at the cool spring that flowed out from under a bank into a thatch of dark watercress.”

For her two main characters, Captain Daniel Forrester and his graceful, vivacious second wife Lyra, the novelist overcame her reluctance to rely too heavily on real-life models to summon memories of the magnetic couple in her childhood town of Red Cloud, Neb.: Silas Garber, a banker and former governor of the state, and his much younger spouse, Lyra.

So strongly did this magnetic couple affect the social consciousness of Red Cloud that Cather had stayed abreast of their doings even years after she left the prairie town. The news of the 1921 death of Lyra, a woman that Cather "loved very much in [her] childhood," shook and saddened her, then catalyzed her into finishing the novella in only five months.

As much as Cather had tried to camouflage details of the Garbers’ lives, in the end she couldn’t help herself, and the real-life story of the couple becomes incorporated in the Forresters’ history: the two-decade difference in their ages, “The Captain’s” deterioration from physical vigor to invalidism, the decline in their fortunes after the Panic of 1893, and Mrs. Garber’s move out of state and remarriage after her husband’s death.

Though Cather frequently resorted to composite characters to camouflage the sources of her characterization, she stuck quite closely to a woman she knew in creating Marian Forrester: Lyra Garber. She ended up with a vividly realized protagonist who ranks with Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Edith Wharton's Lily Bart among literature's most vibrant but complicated beauties.

When seen early on by the admiring boy Niel Herbert, Marian brings heightened sophistication, grace, and beauty to her husband’s circle, standing “in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not in the least obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks,—her skin had always the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs. Mrs. Forrester looked at one, and one knew that she was bewitching. It was instantaneous, and it pierced the thickest hide. The Swede farmer was now grinning from ear to ear, and he, too, had shuffled to his feet. There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs. Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking.”

As Niel sets off for college, a seismic shift occurs in the dynamics of the Forresters’ relationship. “The Captain” suffers physical and financial reverses, and Marian embarks on an affair with a bachelor friend of her husband’s that, from Niel’s judgmental perspective, results in her moral degradation.

The novella ends with yet another reversal: After Daniel Forrester’s death, Marian moves out of state, remarries, and Niel comes to feel “very glad that he had known her, and that she had a hand in breaking him in to life….She had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.”

Just as Marian Forrester had many admirers, so did her creator, in the artistic sense. One of them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was then hard at work on a novel that he hoped would demonstrate that the witty, youthful promise of his initial books was now being invested with a mature perspective.

After finishing The Great Gatsby, the 29-year-old author wrote to the veteran writer from the island of Capri “to explain an instance of apparent plagiarism” in how he described the voice of Daisy Buchanan in one sentence. Cather generously reassured him that there were only so many ways of conveying beauty, so she did not perceive any plagiarism on his part.

In less obvious ways than style, A Lost Lady may have helped influence the structure and themes of The Great Gatsby.

Both novels feature an ambivalent character: a male moved, despite moral misgivings, by the romantic instincts of the title characters, and an elegiac sense that the men who built “built up the country” had been replaced by “careless people” lacking scruples or a sense of responsibility (Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby).

Hollywood, with its appetite for tragic women’s pictures in its early days, seized on Cather’s property twice, for a 1924 silent and a 1934 talkie starring Barbara Stanwyck.

TCM has evidently run the latter at some point, but I doubt very much that I will ever get around to seeing it, and not just because the cable station runs it in ungodly hours. From its plot summary, it’s immediately evident that Warner Brothers made wholesale changes that upset Cather so much that her will prohibited further adaptations.

More than 30 years after her death, that restriction was relaxed, allowing viewers to see TV adaptations of her short story “Paul’s Case” and novels O Pioneers! My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark (starring, respectively, Eric Roberts, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards and Alison Elliott).

Beginning in the Great Depression and continuing for several decades, critics such as Granville Hicks and Lionel Trilling, writing from an urban, sometimes Marxist, perspective, thrust Cather, with her focus on agrarian environments and the past, outside the circle of “major” writers.

Time has blunted the force of such arguments. In particular, A Lost Lady is now seen, in the words of Benjamin Taylor in his new biography of the novelist, Chasing Bright Medusas, as inaugurating her “late style,” constituting a breakthrough to “a simplified manner in which earlier preoccupations are dispensed with in favor of a new expressiveness, a new simplicity.”

Quote of the Day (Thomas Wolfe, on Paris at Year’s End, Nearly A Century Ago)

“The whole earth seemed to come to life at once. Now that [Francis] Starwick was here, this unfamiliar world, in whose alien life he had struggled like a drowning swimmer, became in a moment wonderful and good. The feeling of numb, nameless terror, rootless desolation, the intolerable sick anguish of homelessness, insecurity, and homesickness, against which he had fought since coming to Paris, and which he had been ashamed and afraid to admit, was now instantly banished. Even the strange dark faces of the French as they streamed past no longer seemed strange, but friendly and familiar, and the moist and languorous air, the soft thick grayness of the skies which had seemed to press down on his naked sides, to permeate his houseless soul like a palpable and viscous substance of numb terror and despair, were now impregnated with all the vital energies of living, with the intoxication of an unspeakable, nameless, infinitely strange and various joy. As they walked across the vast court of the Louvre towards the great arched gateway and all the brilliant traffic of the streets, the enormous dynamic murmur of the mysterious city came to him and stirred his entrails with the sensual premonitions of unknown, glamorous and seductive pleasure. Even the little taxis, boring past with wasp-like speed across the great space of the Louvre and through the sounding arches, now contributed to this sense of excitement, luxury and joy. The shrill and irritating horns sounded constantly through the humid air, and filled his heart with thoughts of New Year: already the whole city seemed astir, alive now with the great carnival of New Year's Eve.”— American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth (1935)

This description of Paris at New Year’s Eve reflected Wolfe’s own time in the city in December 1924.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on Surprise at Things Done Well by Others)

“We are constantly being surprised that people did things well before we were born. We are constantly remarking on the fact that things are done well by people other than ourselves. The Japanese are a remarkable little people, we say, as if we were doing them a favor. He is an Arab, but you ought to hear him play the zither. Why but?” —American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945), “Isn't It Remarkable?”, in The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of His Favorites (1954)

Thursday, December 28, 2023

This Day in Theater History (Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ Hailed as Career Zenith)

Dec. 28, 1923—Even though critics had derided the most recent play of George Bernard Shaw as too verbose and long, the Anglo-Irish playwright’s new comedy-drama was in much the same vein: Saint Joan, which premiered at New York’s Garrick Theatre.

Instead of driving audiences away, however, the six-act (with epilogue), 3½ hour comedy-drama-historical epic about Joan of Arc proved to be a great success. It was acclaimed as the capstone of his nearly three-decade career as a dramatist, propelling him towards the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

At the same time, this success boosted the faith of the playwright in—as well as the box-office take of— the most influential producing company of the 1920s and 1930s, the Theatre Guild, which became the major American sponsor of new work by not only Shaw but also emerging homegrown dramatists such as Eugene O’Neill, Philip Barry, Maxwell Anderson, Robert Sherwood, Sidney Howard, and William Saroyan.

The Guild—which pioneered the subscription plan as a means of assuring a constant stream of avid playgoers more disposed to experimental, challenging fare—had done well with Shaw's Heartbreak House in 1920. But with Back to Methusaleh, a five-play series that represented the closest the playwright came to science fiction, the company lost $20,000—a failure that Shaw attributed to the Guild's management rather than to himself.

In contrast, the Guild's board of directors was more enthusiastic about Saint Joan. But, as the play approached its premiere, the board became concerned that the same issues that plagued its predecessor would hinder the success of this new entry. 

More was riding on the American success of the dramatist whose wife playfully nicknamed "The Genius." The London production of Saint Joan, starring one of Shaw’s favorite actresses, Sybil Thorndike, ended up being delayed until March 1924, so the Guild’s staging became the de facto world premiere, and news about its effectiveness would be transmitted overseas.

As was his wont, Shaw conducted his business with the American theater from across the Atlantic Ocean. 

Despite the importance of America to Shaw’s long-term commercial viability (it represented his largest source of income from 1894 to his death in 1950), the playwright did not visit the nation until 1933, and in general regarded it, according to L. W. Conolly’s Bernard Shaw on the American Stage, with “a toxic mix of contempt and mockery."

Alhough Katharine Cornell, fast acquiring a reputation as one of the greatest American stage actresses, passed on this initial production, the Guild board of directors ended up delighted with the blue-eyed Brooklyn beauty who took on the title role: Winifred Lenihan, who made of it a career triumph.

First after the dress rehearsal, then again after opening night, the Guild noticed that some attendees, especially from the suburbs, were departing early. Their initial cables urged Shaw to cut some of the dialogue to reduce that, but they received no reply. 

Only after the company management prevailed on the 25-year-old Lenihan to send her own cable with a similar request did the playwright respond. They might not have wished they had sent all these messages when they saw Shaw's follow-up.

To Ms. Lenihan, the playwright’s cable was short and ironic: “THE GUILD IS SENDING ME TELEGRAMS IN YOUR NAME. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THEM.” The organization’s management must have winced at his longer, more lacerating letter to them: “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for getting a young actress into trouble with an author like that…. You have wasted a whole morning for me with your panic-stricken nonsense, confound you!”

In the end, it didn’t matter: the public ignored reviewers who complained about the length by purchasing tickets. Despite his waspish transatlantic exchanges with the Theatre Guild's management, Shaw elected to stay with it as the principal American agent for his plays, with a total of 15 plays under its aegis.

Although Shaw wrote over 60 plays, Saint Joan ranks among his most popular, probably trailing only Pygmalion (which has the benefit of not only inspiring the musical My Fair Lady, but is also logistically easier to mount, with fewer characters and sets).

Over the centuries, Joan has provided fodder for a lengthy parade of novelists and dramatists, including William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Friedrich Schiller, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Anouilh, and others. But it’s Shaw’s depiction that has captured the popular imagination the most.

In the early postwar period, Saint Joan exerted an unusual appeal for colonial audiences that, like France in Joan’s time, was feeling the stirrings of nationalism. 

Yet even then, in the McCarthy period, it was also seen as a broadside against intolerance, and more recently has appealed to those who sympathize with her plight at the hands of men who hope to squash what Shaw ironically termed “unwomanly and insufferable presumption.”

It is a curious fact of Joan of Arc’s posthumous appeal that two religious skeptics like Twain and Shaw could be so powerfully drawn to the story of this saint. Leave aside the odd contention, in Shaw’s preface to the play, that Joan was “one of the first Protestant martyrs.”

Remember instead: the recollection of Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner, in his 1963 memoir, GBS and the Lunatic, that Shaw attributed the enormous speed with which he wrote the play to Joan herself: “As I wrote, she guided my hand, and the words came tumbling out at such a speed that my pen rushed across the paper and I could barely write fast enough to put them down."

In 1934, Shaw predicted correctly, “It is quite likely that sixty years hence, every great English and American actress will have a shot at ‘Saint Joan,’ just as every great actor will have a shot at Hamlet.”

 Among those who have played Shaw’s version of the Maid of Orleans: Katharine Cornell (catching it on the rebound), Wendy Hiller, Zoe Atkins, Judi Dench, Uta Hagen, Joan Plowright, Lynn Redgrave, and Kim Stanley.

I myself have seen two productions: one at Manhattan's Paley Center for Media, a 1967 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV presentation starring Genevieve Bujold; the other a 2018 Manhattan Theatre Club performance with Condola Rashad in the title role. 

Both productions shortened the text—an eventuality that Shaw dourly predicted in the preface to the play, when he noted that "well intentioned but disastrous counsellors" would have their way "when I am no longer in control of the performing rights."

Quote of the Day (Samuel Johnson, on Distractions Created by Evil Men)

“Every whisper of infamy is industriously circulated, every hint of suspicion eagerly improved, and every failure of conduct joyfully published by those whose interest it is that the eye and voice of the publick should be employed on any rather than on themselves.”—English man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), originally published in The Rambler, No. 76, Dec. 8, 1750 [How bad men are reconciled to themselves], republished in Samuel Johnson: Selected Works, edited by Robert DeMaria, Jr., Stephen Fix, and Howard Weinbrot (2021)

Samuel Johnson was born nearly a century and a half before Sigmund Freud, but in the above quote the English essayist shrewdly anticipated, from an ethical and religious perspective, what the founder of psychoanalysis termed “projection,” or the habit of attributing to others what are faults of one’s own.

This defense mechanism did not die with Johnson, or with Freud for that matter. Instead, it continues to be practiced, with various degrees of adroitness, in the political sphere.

One Presidential candidate, however, employs projection compulsively, and he’s been doing so since he first burst on the political scene.

Five years ago, CNN senior political analyst John Avlon analyzed how that candidate did so. What is so extraordinary is not the degree to which this politician tries to throw others off his scent (perhaps, given a revelation of the last few days, quite literally off his “scent”), but rather the eagerness with which so many of this individual’s diehard supporters fall for his instinctive acts of desperation.

(Dr. Johnson's relevance to current events—and, specifically, to the politician discussed above—is also stressed in Jeff Kaplan’s post on the “Conflict of Interest” blog, which contains this quote from James Boswell’s great biography of the older English writer: “It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.”)

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Quote of the Day (Shane O’Mara, on Writing and ‘A Walking Brain’)

“Before you start a creatively demanding piece of work, prime yourself by writing down a few questions about what you need to do. Then head off for a 20-minute stroll and bring a voice recorder or a notebook. You’re likely to find that you generate more ideas than you would have while sitting at your desk. A walking brain is a more active brain, and more activity in the brain can bring colliding ideas and associations at the edge of consciousness to mind—resulting in the ‘a-ha’ moment of insight.”— Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research, Trinity College, Dublin, In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration (2020)

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

This Day in Film History (‘Exorcist’ Scares the Devil Out of Audiences)

Dec. 26, 1973— The Exorcist, released on this day in the United States, capped Hollywood’s five-year search since the premiere of Rosemary’s Baby for another box-office success that would tap into audiences’ fears about the existence of evil.

The Mephisto Waltz and Season of the Witch, among other, more low-budget ripoffs, had come and gone in the supernatural horror genre, leaving little in their wake.

But The Exorcist—with hot, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin in charge, featuring Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Burstyn, and based on a bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty—capitalized on more visible assets than those earlier cheap imitations, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time ($223 million in domestic box office, or $1.5 billion adjusted for inflation in 2023), and the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

These cold facts, though, don’t begin to convey how audiences experienced The Exorcist, though. So, let me try this analogy:

In one of my college American literature classes, my professor described the effect of Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: Even as the minister enumerated the torments of Hell in the quietest of tones, listeners wept, screamed, fainted. “In other words," my professor concluded ironically, “it was a roaring success.”

So it proved with The Exorcist, in which, in the supposedly science-based late 20th century, thousands took fright over the struggle with a demon for the soul of a young girl waged by her mother and two Roman Catholic priests

In the months after its release, the media featured all kinds of stories about viewers’ reactions, including:

* Paramedics called to treat people who fainted and others who went into hysterics;

* Burstyn herself went to the aid of a woman who fainted in one theater—then, realizing the lady might have an even worse reaction when she saw who was helping her, called on someone else in the theater to assist;

* In a case eventually settled out of court, one filmgoer who fainted and broke her jaw on the seat in front of her sued Warner Bros. and the filmmakers, claiming that the film’s subliminal imagery caused the incident;

*A plumber was kept on constant call in a Canadian cinema, because, as one theater manager informed The Toronto Star, "The smell in the bathroom is awful. People are rushing in and they're missing the toilet seat by inches."

*The film did not play in Iran, Burstyn related in her memoir Lessons in Becoming Myself, because “each of the three times they [Tehran Film Festival officials] tried to dub it, the dubbing cast got too frightened and couldn't complete;

* None other than the Rev. Billy Graham claimed, “The Devil is in every frame of this film.”

In the past 50 years, multiple cultural commentators have sought to explain The Exorcist’s impact, or even what it meant to them specifically (see, for instance, these New York Times analyses in late October, with one calling it “Essentially a Women’s Picture” and the other “A Subversively Queer Movie”).

I prefer wider perspectives, the better to demonstrate the film’s broad-based appeal. As far as I’m concerned, the best summary of this kind comes from Dublin-based pop culture critic Darren Mooney’s October article in The Escapist Magazine, which identified aspects of the plot directly relevant to its time, including:

*The generation gap. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the postwar concern with issues such as juvenile delinquency now encompassed drugs, political dissent, and questioning of religion and the economic system. Many parents were finding their kids unrecognizable as they matured—mirroring Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil trying to make sense of Linda Blair’s Regan. For many parents of the time, even the best scientific professionals (psychiatrists and doctors) seemed powerless to cure what ailed their children.

*The sexual revolution. One of the movie’s most notorious scenes involves what the possessed Regan does with a crucifix. Yet she also assaults a psychiatrist and spews sexual obscenities at her mother and the two priests called on to save her, Fr. Lankester Merrin and Fr. Damien Karras. She is not yet interested in boys, but by raising Regan's age by a year, to twelve, the film places her on the cusp of adolescence, with all the sexual problems that may come with that. At the same time, some viewers have speculated whether Fr. Karras and his confidante Fr. Dyer were gay, and whether Burke Dennings—the film director that Chris used to babysit Regan—might have violated the child before his murder, or, alternatively, if the girl suspected that her mother might marry him.

*The breakdown of the family. It has been frequently remarked upon that Regan is the child of a broken home, with Chris an actress called on to leave the girl alone for considerable time when shooting a film. The separation anxiety that many children experience in such situations leads Chris and the male authority figures she consults to initially believe that only psychiatric treatment (rather than spiritual intervention) is called for to deal with the girl's problems. At the same time, failed obligations towards family members in the last stage of life provide a perhaps even more potent avenue for the demon to exploit, as Fr. Karras can’t stop blaming himself for his aged mother dying alone.

*The Mideast as a breeding ground for unrest. The film’s prologue occurs on an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Fr. Merrin comes across an amulet of a demon (left unnamed in the film, but called Pazuzu in Blatty’s novel)—setting up the confrontation between the cleric and the demon in the last half-hour. Many viewers at the time of the film's release would have seen the disorders emanating from the Mideast in the last several years (two wars aimed at Israel, Palestinian terrorism, and—only two months before the movie's premiere—the Arab oil embargo) as natural sources for disturbances and strife.

*Washington, DC as a symbolic nest of deceit and corruption—and as the site of a real-life exorcism. Much of the film was shot on location in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC. While a student at the school in 1949, Blatty read about this ancient Catholic ritual performed on a teenaged boy in the area. Years later, the writer changed the sex and lowered the age of the victim, and, while updating the period to the present, kept the setting and other details of the exorcism intact. In Friedkin’s vision, the Washington of this time is a symbol of urban decay, rife with homelessness and crime—and many Americans ardently believed that the White House was a focus of government-sponsored crime in the Vietnam and Watergate eras.

Two other aspects of the characters’ environment, I would argue, play a part in what is about to unfold:

*Hollywood. Blatty, a longtime screenwriter and producer, based Chris and Regan MacNeil on Shirley MacLaine (another globe-trotting redhead actress) and her only daughter, Sachi Parker, and Dennings on the English director J. Lee Thompson. While Chris is a caring mother, her active lifestyle and the secular outlook of her friends make it inevitable that she will have no strong set of religious beliefs that might help her cope with this crisis.

*The contrast between traditional Roman Catholicism and a more modern, rational mode. This is represented by, respectively, Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras (played by the omnipresent character actor Max von Sydow and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller). Karras, a psychiatrist, now doubts the beliefs that drew him towards the priesthood. It is Merrin who spearheads the charge against the demon, even telling the younger priest to leave the room when he senses him wavering in their struggle against radical evil.

The film’s visceral impact derived primarily from two men: Blatty, a practicing, even conservative, Catholic, and Friedkin, an agnostic Jew. The pair quarreled over the film’s ending but reconciled a quarter century later (and Friedkin even agreed to include the ending Blatty wanted on the anniversary DVD).

It is to Blatty’s novel and the Oscar-winning screenplay that we have the characters, setting and themes. But it is to Friedkin that we owe the firm hand on the acting and atmosphere that elevated this from B-movie schlock to a tense drama of faith pushed to the breaking point.

Friedkin—brilliant and exacting, but also arrogant and imperious—drove cast, crew, and himself to dangerous lengths to secure his desired hyper-realism, pushing the film’s production schedule from 85 days to 224.

Today, Friedkin—who died four months ago— might be seriously embarrassed by, maybe even “canceled”for, his bullying tactics and unsafe work environments.

But at this point in the early 1970s, European-style “auteurs” of the New Hollywood such as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Friedkin were at their commercial and critical zeniths, enjoying perhaps even more deference than past giants like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock had been accorded in the past.

At the time of his death, Burstyn issued this graceful and, so far as it went, truthful, tribute to the director: “My friend Bill Friedkin was an original; smart, cultured, fearless and wildly talented. On the set, he knew what he wanted, would go to any length to get it and was able to let it go if he saw something better happening. He was undoubtedly a genius.”

Nevertheless, in that drive to get “what he wanted,” Friedkin abused personnel and endangered the health of Burstyn and others:

*He slapped a real-life priest, cast for reasons of verisimilitude, when he didn’t get the reaction he wanted. Technical consultant Fr. William O’Malley, also acting, in the subsidiary role of Fr. Dyer, wasn’t conveying the sense of shock that Friedkin wanted in the movie's conclusion. Suddenly the director struck the face of the cleric, then immediately ordered the cameras to roll.

*Burstyn hurt her back badly, even after telling Friedkin that he was risking injuring her. In the scene where Regan pushes Chris to the floor, the harness jerked Burstyn back too hard, resulting in a fractured coccyx and pain that continues to this day for the actress. Friedkin's reaction at the time? Instructing the cameraman to continue shooting Burstyn in pain, footage that ended up in the film.

*Linda Blair also suffered an injury resulting in lifelong pain. For a scene in which Regan convulses, a harness (again) led to Blair fracturing her lower back, leading to long-term scoliosis.

*In separate scenes, Friedkin fired guns near Miller and Rudolf Sch√ľndler (who played Karl) to startle them. Schundler blew his lines and almost fell down the stairs; Miller got into a heated argument with the director, telling him that, as an actor, he didn’t require such inducements to a better performance.

*Friedkin delayed filming by firing the first production designer. What led to the decision: Friedkin's desire to change the wallpaper in Regan's room and to widen all the door frames to allow for more camera accessibility.

*Friedkin fired famed film composer Bernard Herrmann. This may have been the most justifiable decision the driven director made in running roughshod over someone who didn't meet his creative standard. For all his brilliant work on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Hitchcock's Psycho, Herrmann was also famously crusty. This time, the composer loudly derided the footage he would set to music, and said that the Iraq prologue especially had to go. Friedkin sacked him, and instead used Mike Oldfield's eerie and evocative "Tubular Bells," which became an instrumental hit. 

Friedkin's despotic attitude, often heedless about safety, was of a piece with his behavior the year before in filming the classic chase scene in The French Connection. "I was like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale," he told The New York Post two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of that film's release. "I had a supreme confidence, a sleepwalker's assurance. As successful as the film was, I wouldn't do that now. I had put people's lives in danger." 

With filming methods like these and those used in The Exorcist, Friedkin could easily have become embroiled in the kind of legal mess besetting director John Landis after the accident that killed actor Vic Morrow during production of The Twilight Zone: The Movie

Instead, he was lucky to have helmed one of the great, gritty police procedurals ever put on screen, as well as The Exorcist, which, 50 years later, is still on the short list of the scariest movies of all time.

Quote of the Day (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, on Circumstance)

“Sift each of us through the great sieve of circumstance and you have a residue, great or small as the case may be, that is the man or the woman.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and memoirist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), Cross Creek (1942)

Monday, December 25, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Ignatius of Antioch, on Jesus and the Star over Bethlehem)

“How, then, was [God] manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.”—Syrian-born early Christian writer and martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 50 AD-108 AD), “Epistle to the Ephesians

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Fyodor Dostoevsky, on Children and ‘Christ's Christmas Tree’)

“'This is Christ's Christmas Tree,' they tell him. 'Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own...' And he discovered that all these boys and girls had been children just like himself, but some of them had been frozen in the baskets in which they had been abandoned, on the staircases in front of the doors of Petersburg officials; others had been boarded out to Finnish women by the foundlings’ hospital, and been suffocated;… yet others had choked on the poisonous air in third-class railway carriages; but now they were all here, all of them like angels, all of them in Christ’s case, and he himself was one of them, holding out his hands to them and blessing them and their sinful mothers... And the mothers of these children were all standing there too, to one side, and weeping; each one knew her little boy or girl, and the children would fly up to them and kiss them, and dry their tears with their little hands, and beg them not to cry, because they were so happy here."—Russian novelist and short-story writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1880), “The Heavenly Christmas Tree,” originally published in 1876, republished in A Bad Business: Essential Stories, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater (2021)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Appreciations: Barbra Streisand’s ‘Yentl,’ 40 Years On

Forty years ago this holiday season, moviegoers—and, especially, the all-important Oscar voters—watched with more than the usual amount of interest one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars bring to the screen what many thought was, at best, a niche product.

But Barbra Streisand had the drive, the clout, and the money to put her vision before a mass audience.

Though not a blockbuster, Yentl, an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” performed well enough ($40 million on a $16 million budget) that the singer-actress would be able to get behind the cameras again a few more times in the next dozen years.

I had never viewed the film until I watched a DVD in preparation for writing this blog. My reaction may well have been different had I seen it when it premiered. 

For all its imperfections, I still can’t help but respect the zeal and craftsmanship with which the singer-actress made this labor of love.

You will notice that my headline for this post has the phrase, “Barbra Streisand’s ‘Yentl.’” I don’t think a truer three words were ever put on this blog.

It wasn’t “Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Yentl.’” Great storyteller that the Nobel Literature laureate was, his tale left enormous gaps in the narrative that he felt no need to fill. The way that fiction such as his describes thought and time diverges from the methods of film. And what he felt the story was “about” differed quite a bit from Streisand’s.

This is one instance in which Hollywood’s annoying habit of saying “A Film By [director's name],” without acknowledging collaborators, makes sense. Streisand played multiple roles throughout the production: star, singer, co-screenwriter, producer, and director.

The last actress who had performed this actor-hyphenate role was Ida Lupino in the late Forties to mid-Fifties. But the pictures Lupino made were low-budget. Streisand's was far more high-profile. 

For all her admitted large ego (which, she believed, gave her "strength" to achieve), she was also acutely aware, in a sexist industry, that Yentl's failure could set back progress not just for her but also for other women who hoped to helm a project. 

To her credit, Streisand saw the movie through, from beginning to end—doubly extraordinary since it took 15 years to get it made.

The seeds of the project took root in Streisand’s mind even before 1968 acting screen debut, Funny Girl, when she came upon the opening phrase of the story: “After her father's death.”

The inscription on the tombstone of her own father, who died when she was only 15 months old, reminded her more than a little of Yentl’s deceased parent: “Beloved Teacher and Scholar.” (The film ended up “dedicated to my father...and to all our fathers.”)

Among the difficulties Streisand faced in bringing the story to the screen:

*The disbelief of movie industry associates, even her intimates, about commercial prospects for such subject matter. Streisand’s agent in 1968, David Begelman, strongly advised her that taking on a character so identified as Jewish right after Funny Girl risked stereotyped her, and would not fly with moviegoers anyway. The star broke with a later agent, the legendary Sue Mengers, in part for expressing similar doubts. Her commitment to the project also severely strained her relationship with then-lover Jon Peters. By my count, at least three studios—Orion, Columbia, and Polygram Pictures—passed on the proposal until United Artists agreed, on the basis of several concessions by Streisand.

*Skepticism from some of the same sources about whether Streisand was the right person for the role. Singer did not specifically state Yentl’s age, but most people who’ve read the story (myself included) believe she’s no more than 20. By the time Streisand came across the tale, she was already in her mid-20s. The longer the project took, the older she looked for a yeshiva student. Streisand herself thought her character was about 28. By taking care of herself (and with the right lighting and hairstyle), Streisand may have felt that, even at age 40 (when she was finally able to go before the cameras), she could pass for someone in her late 20s. That was surely wishful thinking, but the history of Hollywood is filled with actors who try to pass themselves off for younger.

*The gender-bending plot was one that neither Hollywood nor audiences was accustomed to. Yentl loves the Torah so much that she is willing to dress as a male to be in the one environment where she can study it to her heart's content: a yeshiva, a traditional Jewish school centering on the teaching of Rabbinic literature. The film's script explored the complications of cross-dressing, including how both a male and female come to care for her in different ways. Even Streisand admitted to concentrating more on the feminist aspects of the story rather than its gender-bending ones. But the subtext was hard to miss, and the movie is now regarded as something of a landmark in LBGT depictions.

*Streisand had to direct this because her initial choices passed on it. One, Ivan Passer, told the actress in 1971 that she was too old and famous to play the role. Another, Milos Forman, upon hearing her pitch, gave her the same advice as Passer: Given her strong feelings on how the movie should be made, she should direct it herself.

*Much of the film was shot on location in Czechoslovakia—which, while it placed her far away from interfering Hollywood “suits,” also meant she was cut off from the many resources and personnel available for domestic shooting. (Filming at a British studio went more smoothly.)

*Amy Irving initially resisted being cast as Hadass Vishkower, the unwitting center of an unwitting love triangle. She might have felt better when all was said and done, as she was nominated for an Academy Award—the only one she ever received.

*Her leading man made a clumsy pass at her. In her new memoir, My Name Is Barbra, the star recalled her astonishment when, in pressing Mandy Patinkin for why he had acted so oddly in a recent scene, he blurted out, “I thought we were going to have a more personal relationship”—i.e., an affair. After she threatened to replace him if he didn’t act more professionally, he complied, but he still unnerved her enough that she scrapped a planned love scene with him. (That last decision may have been for the best, because there was nothing like this in Singer's story.)

*An actor cast as the rabbi died right after his run-through. Harold Goldblatt made an excellent impression, but Streisand (who had cradled his head until the ambulance arrived) was flabbergasted to learn that he’d understated his years by 20 years to get his role.

*Rumors circulated that Streisand was flubbing her shot at directing. The actress’ penchant for asking for advice led some to wonder if she knew what she was doing, according to Gregg Kilday's December 2015 profile of her for The Hollywood Reporter. Conversely, her reputation for being difficult sparked rumors that she was driving the crew crazy. (Streisand was so sensitive to such talk that, for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the accompanying DVD included the studio crew’s typed letter to a London paper denying any discord—the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this in a product meant to celebrate, rather than defend, work from long ago. Streisand might have been a force of nature, but that didn’t lessen her sensitivity to charges that she was a perfectionist diva.)

*The insurance company was ready to yank control away from her just as she began shooting. In a prior post on Tyrone Power’s fatal 1958 heart attack on location for Solomon and Sheba, I demonstrated one of the lesser-known aspects of moviemaking: how insurance affects production in ways that a layman can’t imagine. Streisand experienced her own moments of stress at the hands of an insurance company when, just before shooting, she was told she’d have to sign a completion bond, or a written contract guaranteeing a movie will be finished and delivered on schedule and within budget. At one point, when she was $1 million over the budget, the company working with United Artists, Completion Bond Co., told her they’d take control of the movie away from her if she didn’t complete dubbing within six weeks rather than the 10 she believed she needed, according to Streisand’s February 1984 interview with Dale Pollack for Playgirl Magazine. (Completion Bond was not making an idle threat: In 1992, Spike Lee required financial assistance from prominent African-Americans like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Janet Jackson, and Prince to retain control of Malcolm X from the company after he went $5 million over budget.)

*Staying on budget entailed other financial sacrifices and even risks for Streisand. As she told Pollack, she didn't get paid for co-writing the script, was compensated only scale for directing, and had to agree to give back half her salary if she went over budget.

A compromised, but still impressive, product

Although as a woman, Streisand was operating under greater constraints than any studio would allow a man, it's also true that she was now working in an environment in which directors of both sexes were being scrutinized more heavily than they had been in years. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate fiasco had curtailed director-driven cinema and given carte-blanche to studio execs and their bean-counters.

That swing in power not only meant that Yentl would be a musical, but dictated what kind of musical it would be.

Adding songs to the screenplay was suggested to Streisand by United Artists, as a means of bolstering its box-office appeal. The soundtrack would, in effect, cross-promote the film as well. 

Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, whom Streisand had used, to Oscar-winning impact, on The Way We Were, had the idea of creating the songs as interior monologues by Yentl. It was a fascinating, unusual, even distinctive form of a musical. 

Both Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving were accomplished singers (he, on Broadway in Evita; she, onscreen, as a country-and-western singer, in Honeysuckle Rose), but the soundtrack for Yentl made no use of their talents. In fact, nobody else but Streisand sings in the film.

Onscreen, then, there is no interaction between the characters in these minutes. Additionally, with only nine days for rehearsing actors for musical numbers, Streisand kept dancing to a minimum, retaining highly respected Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne basically for a wedding scene. Although director of photography David Watkin provided Streisand with beautifully lit scenes, her preference for a long lens kept variety to a minimum.  

The upshot was not merely that the camera was largely stationary for this "motion picture," but also that the focus would be squarely on Streisand, opening her to the familiar charge that she was egocentric.

 And, with the director persuading United Artists to allow her to go beyond their two-hour limit by 12 minutes (and with an additional four minutes inserted for the DVD "director's cut"), the overall pace can be languid.

After the film's release, Singer wrote an article for The New York Times that criticized the movie on three points: 

1) Streisand did not understand the character as well as Tovah Feldshuh, who had played Yentl on Broadway in 1976 (and who, at 27, was admittedly more age-appropriate than Streisand); 

2) as a director, Streisand allowed herself to "monopolize" the action at the expense of other cast members; and 

3) the "kitsch ending" (which is reminiscent of Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the film Funny Girl) "was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement."

Predictably, Streisand (who had rejected Singer's script in 1969) dismissed him as a misogynist. My own feeling is that, though the author's points are well-taken, he might not have grasped that a work of creation can have a very different meaning among those who encounter and embrace it than he might have originally intended.

I agree, then, with Pauline Kael's assessment in The New Yorker, that Yentl “has a distinctive and surprising spirit. It's funny, delicate, and intenseall at the same time.”

More specifically, the movie was well-cast, with Streisand eliciting excellent performances all around (including, in the end, the troublesome Patinkin); she sings the Bergman-Michel Legrand tunes with unrivaled psychological insight and purity of tone; and, from its first shot, it pays full tribute to Judaism as a culture with a deep reverence bordering on passion for the book.

Though winning a Golden Globe for her direction, Streisand remains peeved that she was not nominated for either this movie nor her follow-up behind the director's chair, The Prince of Tides

But she can take comfort in the fact that her success with Yentl made it possible for women to advance from outside the mainstream (where Lupino and Italian director Lina Wertmuller had been confined) to studio fare previously reserved entirely for men. I hope that, if Greta Gerwig wins an Oscar in 2024 for Barbie, she makes sure to thank Streisand for paving the way years before.




Quote of the Day (Bob Dylan, on Music and Time)

“[M]usic… is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it.”—American singer-songwriter—and Nobel Literature laureate—Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (2022)