Friday, March 27, 2015

Lee Way

Like many people of her era and political temperament, Lee Grant had an interrupted career.  In the late 1940s, in her early 20s, she got a part on Broadway in Detective Story (she was offered the ingénue role but wisely asked for a smaller but better character part) and got to repeat it in the hit film version, earning an Oscar nomination.  She was on her way up when she got blacklisted.  The prime years where she might have been a leading actress in Hollywood were lost.

In her memoir I Said Yes To Everything, Grant discusses the inner turmoil she went through in great detail.  In fact, much of the book is inner-directed.  Much of it is about troubled personal relationships with her friends, lovers and children.  Often I wish she spent more time talking about her projects.

She was born Lyova Rosenthal in 1927, growing up a fairly pampered only child on the Upper West Side.  She tried a lot of different arts--singing, dancing, etc.--before recognizing her talent lay in acting. Blossoming into a beautiful young woman, she soon got work.  She also trained at the Actors Studio, learning from one of the main exponents of the Method, Sanford Meisner.

Grant had never been particularly political, but working in New York theatre at the time, she naturally fell in with those on the Left, often agreeing with their viewpoints.  When the government started investigating communists, and the blacklist started, Grant was caught up in the net.

She kept working in theatre and TV shot in New York, but Hollywood was out until the mid-1960s.  Grant was now looking at 40--a dangerous age for movie actresses.  She got a facelift and was careful about makeup, but really it was her talent that kept her in the game.  She ended up doing a lot of fascinating projects, appearing in movies such as In The Heat Of The Night, The Landlord, Plaza Suite, Shampoo, Voyage Of The Damned and Defending Your Life.  She won as Oscar for Shampoo.  She also played the lead on Broadway in Neil Simon's hit The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, appeared in numerous TV shows and had a fairly successful career as a TV director.

Though much of the book is about her inner life, there are a fair number of interesting stories about her work.  There was the time she had her period on stage while appearing in Arms And The Man.  Or her trouble with Two For The Seesaw--a play she turned down that became a hit.  She was replacing Anne Bancroft but wasn't ready, so co-star Henry Fonda essentially had to carry her through the second act. On the other hand, late in the run of Prisoner Of Second Avenue, she went up on her lines and co-star Peter Falk looked at the audience and gestured to her--it was traumatic enough that she never went on stage again.  And even in movies and TV she worried about remembering her lines.

Interrupted or not, it's been quite a career.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


People enjoy Downton Abbey partly because it's a romanticized view of the past--an elegant lifestyle where everyone had a place.  Of course, if you were downstairs, your place was drudgery and poverty, but never mind.  Still, even as the audience is fascinated by the class system, no one beleives in it any more.  Which is why so many of the plots are built around people attacking these distinctions, and those who try to uphold such traditions generally look foolish.

What fascinates me is how people could believe in something that seems so artificial--even ridiculous--today, building their society around it.  And how did attitudes change?  The play Pygmalion, which deals with the class system, was first performed in 1912--the same year the story of Downton Abbey starts--and was set in the present.  The successful 1938 film adaptation was also set in its present.  You barely notice, but when Higgins is out on the street dodging cars of the day, it takes you out of it a bit. But My Fair Lady, the musical version, first performed in 1956 and made into a movie in 1964, moves the action back to the original's date.  I'm guessing the creators decided all this class stuff, while not entirely dead, just doesn't play in the 1950s.  Back in the 1910s, the West had conquered the world and was full of itself.  But two world wars, a Depression, the threats of communism and fascism, and growing opposition to imperialism, made the West question itself. (We're still in this phase.)

Which brings me to The Admirable Crichton, J. M. Barrie's play from 1902, which I read recently,  It was a big hit in its day and has a story that's been adapted into film several times.

The plot, as you may know, is about a British Lord, his family, and his servants, especially Crichton, the butler.  They're shipwrecked on an island and nature takes over.  The classes do separate, but not as expected--Crichton is soon running things and all others serve him.  Then they're rescued and things return to the way they were.

The play isn't revived too often--certainly not as much as Pygmalion  Much of this is because Barrie, though talented, is no Shaw.  But also, it's a plot that's hard to believe these days.  It was always a fantasy, but to make it work, you have to believe enough in the class system for it to make a difference when its upended.

In the final act, the upper classes pretend they were the heroes on the island, and Crichton, who could spill the beans, decides instead to leave service.  On the island, he and the Lord's eldest daughter Mary (Lady Mary--where have we heard that before?) were to be married, and she was delighted.  But back in England--"The Other Island," as Barrie calls it--she will marry Lord Brocklehurst, not half the man Crichton is, but a suitable partner socially.  While the play has a bittersweet ending, I'm not sure if it works any more.  If it had to end this way, in a modern writing it'd probably be played as something more tragic.  But more likely we'd have seen the lovers get together despite society's opposition.  Allegedly, Barrie considered this ending, but he realized his audience--especially the ones in the expensive boxes--wouldn't stand for it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


How did I miss Patricia Morrison's 100th birthday last week?  A fine singer and actress, she was the original Kate in Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Preposition Position

Gregory Walcott died a couple days ago.  He appeared in a ton of movies and TV, often Westerns, but would be virtually unknown were it not for the fact he starred in Plan 9 From Outer Space. This led to an odd paragraph in the Hollywood Reporter obit:

Walcott starred as pilot Jeff Trent in 1959’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which is widely considered one of the worst films of all time. Despite its reputation, it gained a large cult following, which Walcott was reluctantly at the center of.

Despite?  Plan 9 was completely forgotten until a couple decades later, thanks to critic Michael Medved, it started appearing on the worst films of all time lists.  From that point on people couldn't wait to see what was the worst film ever. (Not that it deserves it. It's awful, but fairly entertaining.  Just about every week films that are no fun at all come out--that sounds worse to me.) So for almost two generations, the film has been famous solely because it's, allegedly, so bad.

How did Walcott feel about Plan 9?  Let's give him the last word. "I didn't want to be remembered for that. But it's better to be remembered for something than for nothing, don't you think?"

Monday, March 23, 2015

Definitive Review

To no one's surprise, Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent trilogy (which will be split into four movies), was the highest-grossing film of the weekend.  It's also a critical flop.  But that doesn't mean that anything you say against it is true.

Take Amy Nicholson's nasty review in the LA Weekly (and elsewhere).  She thinks the whole dystopian set-up makes no sense.  Lighten up, Amy--the main fun of such books and movies is how their post-apocalyptic worlds operate.

In the Divergent series, the entire community is fenced in, living in and around the ruins of what was Chicago.  Each person's aptitude is tested at a young age, after which they must choose which faction to join. The five groups that makes up society are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slytherin...excuse me, I mean Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite--and congratulations to author Veronica Roth for introducing these vocabulary words to millions.  Most stick with the gang they were raised in, but not our heroine, teenage Tris, who's born into Abnegation but chooses Dauntless. (She better choose Dauntless or we're not going to have much action.)

Abnegation serves others, Amity are the farmers, Candor runs the court system, Dauntless are the police and/or militia, and Erudite are the doctors, scientists and teachers.  Kind of cool, I'd say.  Not really worth picking holes in.  But that doesn't stop Nicholson from grumbling.  Why are Amity farmers, for instance?  Well, why not?  Someone's got to grow the crops, so why shouldn't the easygoing, back-to-nature types prefer a simple bucolic setting, rather than the more harried, confrontational world of the city.

Nicholson also doesn't think the math adds up--why would you want one-fifth of society to be lawyers, for instance?  You wouldn't, but I don't recall the movies saying each clan represents 20% of the population.  In fact, I'd hope that vast majority are Amity, since raising food is the most important activity around.

But Nicholson seems most exercised about Tris, because she doesn't clearly fit into any group, and is thus "divergent."

...there's a [...] furtive faction who register positive for the traits of all five tribes, classifying them as Divergent. One would think that people who combine the separate traits would be called Convergent, but then one would be expecting the source material to exert the barest minimum effort.

Nicholson is wrong--the divergent simply have inconclusive aptitude tests--but let's forget that.  The bigger point is calling this group convergent makes no sense, dramatically or etymologically.  The whole point of this book--indeed, every teen book ever written--is to have a lead character who doesn't fit in. (And discovers it's because she's special, aka, better than everyone else, but that's for later.)  And, in fact, by the dictionary definition, Tris is divergent.  She can develop in different directions, not just one.  Furthermore, in her society, she's divergent as she doesn't fit neatly into any one category.

To put it into terms Nicholson can understand, imagine a society where everyone is divided into racial groups.  Then you get a mixed-race individual, and this person's treated as an outsider.  Would Nicholson complain "they wouldn't do that--this person is more inside than anyone since she shares the traits of all the groups."

Nicholson ends her review lamenting: "If only [the filmmakers had] spent a few bucks on the latest Merriam-Webster." Sounds like she might want to spend some time paging through a dictionary herself.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Open The Door To Season Four

I recently rewatched the dreaded season four of Community.  The first three season the show was at full strength--all the study group seven were there and creator Dan Harmon was in charge.  But then Harmon got fired and new producers were brought in.  The behind-the-scenes people weren't all changed, but without Harmon is wasn't the same, and the first time through the season seemed hollow.

Did I change my mind?  Not entirely.  But while there are a fair number of dreadful episodes, such as "Paranormal Parentage," Alternative History Of The German Invasion" and "Cooperative Escapism In Familial Relations," just as often there are shows that would have at least been considered passable in earlier seasons, such as "Herstory Of Dance," "Intro To Knots" and (written by Community actor and Oscar-winning writer Jim Rash) "Basic Human Anatomy."

Still, it's hard to ignore the problems.  Above all, the show just isn't as clever.  A lot of the lines land with a thud, and rarely surprise, as they so often do when Community is at its best.  About as bad, the show doesn't pay off on the emotional side--changes in relationships are too rushed, and there are too many unearned moments where people simply speak their feelings rather than demonstrate them.

What the fourth season seems like is fan fiction--they know the characters and their plots from the past quite well, but don't generally capture the magic that made them special.  But maybe I'm looking at it as half empty.  Even in so-so episodes, such as "Conventions Of Space And Time" or "Heroic Origins" (which makes a hash of the past) there are some solid  moments.

So, overall, I guess we should consider the season part of the show, not simply a mistake. But if you want to watch the ten top episodes, or even the top fifty, they're not here.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

C'mon, Drudge

I realize Drudge is about the only news organization in the United States--well, okay, much of Fox and some of the WSJ--but is this really necessary?

Obama Admin Tracking Details about Visitors to Government Websites

As probably anyone might guess, it's just web analytics. The story or scandal would be if they didn't do this, not that they do. It's sort of like writing, "McDonalds notes customer preferences and habits." The one thing I hate, and I'm confident anonymous will join with me here, is when somebody wastes my time with a stupid link.

Now, if we were talking NSA or creepy Cass Sunstein tracking and nudging, that's something else again.

Deride And Conquer or Gooooaaaaalllllll!

I was recently in North Hollywood--or as locals call it, Noho--when I walked past their 24 Hour Fitness gym. Looking in, I saw a huge sign on the wall reading "Conquer Your Goals."

Conquer them? Wouldn't it be better to reach them, or achieve them? What good would conquering them do? Conquer your fears, your foes, but not your goals.

So I checked around and apparently this isn't the only place that suggests you conquer your dreams. One place even suggests you conquer the obstacles between you and your goals.  Wouldn't it be better to get around them, or past them? Anyway, once you conquer your obstacles what do you do when you reach your goals, conquer them too? Put them in the same detainee camp holding your obstacles?

Maybe people are too tired to notice, but I can't imagine gym-goers are that inspired by the writing on the wall.

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