Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

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Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing

“You look like Donna Reed …”

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986)

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I was at a wedding reception in the early 1980s – I think it was at a country club in Westlake Village – and I was sweaty and winded from an hour of dancing (to some disco dreck) and drunk, although no more than usual for a night out – not bad wedding drunk – and my one good suit was in decent repair. I needed to sit down for a minute and caught sight of the bride, Pat, still in her wedding gown, seated at a table on the fringes of the reception with an older woman in an expensive-looking black and brown dress. I’d barely spoken to Pat since the ceremony (I considered her a friend by now, but I had met her through Joe, the groom, who was one of my oldest and best friends at the time, although not for much longer) so I sat across the table from her.

I exchanged a few wedding-day pleasantries with Pat, told her how beautiful she looked, how great the ceremony had been, I might have even predicted a long and happy life with Joe although I didn’t believe it … I gave their marriage a year, two at the most, and so did most everyone else who knew Joe. But, all the time I was talking to Pat, I was stealing glances at the woman beside her, who had to be twice my age (I was about 30 at the time) and who, well – I can’t think of a better word – dazzled me. I had already noticed her dress, which was lovely and rich, she was petite and self-composed, she had perfect brown hair, a beautiful barely-lined cameo of a face.

“You look like Donna Reed,” I finally said to her. “I am,” Donna Reed replied. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that she was like a godmother to Pat, a part of her life since childhood, although I have no memory now of how or why. Pat smoothed over my faux pas with a proper introduction and I shook Donna Reed’s gloved hand.

I think I had enough sense – and tenuous sobriety – not to gush, make hee-haw jokes, wonder what it was like to work with Stewart and Sinatra and Monty Clift, ask her if she kept in touch with Shelley Fabares. (And, of course, she had kept in touch, Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never lost her small-town warmth and decency and was a second mother to a lot of people, apparently, famous or not.) I’m fairly certain, however, that we just talked about Pat and how they knew each other and about the wedding and, then, in virtually my only instance of good sense that night, I realized I’d interrupted a private moment and went back to the dance floor.

I remember thinking, as I walked away, that this is why I came to Los Angeles – one of the reasons – because you can go to a wedding and end up talking to Donna Reed.

Donna Reed – as Mary Hatch – was the only reason for George Bailey to stay in Bedford Falls at the Savings & Loan (instead of packing off to Paris) and I think I knew that even when I was eight or however old I was when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). And it was Mary Bailey who people thought they were watching when they tuned in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – 1966). Fifties America liked Donna Reed in good-girl roles, despite the fact she had won an Oscar playing a nightclub “hostess” (Hays Code for prostitute) in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. She was never allowed to repeat that adventure.

Pat’s and Joe’s marriage lasted a little more than a year. Pat’s father had decided to give them a fresh start by paying off all of Joe’s credit-card debt in exchange for his promises to cut up his cards and stop gambling. Joe didn’t cut up the cards, which he borrowed against to pay his new gambling debts. We were regulars together at race tracks and card clubs. Joe usually lost and I won enough to keep going for awhile. Keep wasting more time.

When Pat found the bills Joe hid, the balances were up above what her father had paid and their marriage over. I quit being friends with Joe when I quit gambling. And Donna Reed died of cancer on this date in 1986 – sadly, suddenly – at age 64. Not that long after I had met her – the one time – and been dazzled by her. She’s not someone you forget.

P.S. I changed the names of Pat and Joe to protect their privacy and to preserve my ability to turn what I experienced into fiction. (I’m only half-joking.) The woman who looked like Donna Reed was Donna Reed.

Bad Girl from Where the Boys Are

Yvette Mimieux  (born January 8, 1942) – American Actress

yvette  in boysWhen I was a young boy, my regular babysitter – her name was Linda – had a great singing voice but a bad case of stage fright and she couldn’t manage a single note if anyone was watching her. So we’d sit in the kitchen, which was next to the basement stairs, while Linda went to the basement, put a record on the record player, turned the volume down low, and sang along.  Linda’s favorite singer was Connie Francis and her favorite Connie Francis songs were “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Where the Boys Are,” the theme from the 1960 movie of the same name. My babysitter could sing the hell out of them.

Linda would sometimes be wiping tears when she came back upstairs. Which made sense to my Midwestern parents and their friends in the kitchen: the songs Linda sang were sad. If she’d just finished “Where the Boys Are,” Linda would catch my eye and wink. The wink was because we had a secret and it was my reminder not to tell.  But I also thought  – in my child mind – that she winked at me because I knew the real reason Linda was crying. It had to do with Yvette Mimieux, an actress in the film Where the Boys Are (1960). Yvette Mimieux is 74 today.

Linda sat for me a lot and did things my parents would not have liked. She stole liquor from their liquor bottles, had a boyfriend over for a makeout session on the living room couch (while I watched with inchoate jealousy from the hall), and – on more than one occasion – took me to movies I was “too young” to see. All of which means, I guess, she was a bad babysitter – irresponsible, a terrible influence – but I thought she hung the moon. And I’d never have told on her even if she hadn’t bribed me with quarters, made me promise, winked. Linda’s secrets were safe with me.

where the boys are carOne of the movies Linda shouldn’t have taken me to – and our “secret” – was Where the Boys Are, which tells the story of four Midwestern college girls who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in pursuit of romance, fun, and sun. It was a popular coming-of-age film for the babysitters of Laura’s generation and it was the movie – for good or ill, mostly ill – that cemented Florida as a spring-break destination for generations of college students to come. In addition to Mimieux, it starred Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and – in the lead role – Dolores Hart, a wonderful actress who quit movies soon after to become a Benedictine nun.  I watched Where the Boys Are again not too long ago and it is a surprisingly good movie. Corny in spots, craven by the end, but well-acted, engaging, and daring for the time in its depiction of youthful sexual mores. My childhood memories of the movie were of young people who seemed only a little older than Linda doing a lot of drinking and kissing. I also remember Linda crying through some of the scenes with Melanie, the character played by Yvette Mimieux.

A quick plot summary. In the movie, back in college, there had been some brave talk – led by future nun Hart – about how young women (like the guys) should experiment with sex prior to marriage. The other three friends seem to agree, but the characters played by Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and even Hart return from Florida virgo intacto and it’s only Melanie who takes the bait. She sleeps with her slick Ivy League spring-break fling, truly believes they are madly in love, but finds out different when she goes to a party and is raped by one of his friends. Melanie/Mimieux ends up in the hospital after wandering into the road and being struck by a car. And her three friends come to rue the error of their thoughts. But all that sex talk – and some of the later scenes – pushed the 1960 envelope, which was still more Fifties than Sixties.

yvette in LightA brief bio. Yvette Mimieux was perfect in Where the Boys Are and quite good with Olivia de Havilland and opposite George Hamilton in Guy Green’s Light in the Piazza, but most film buffs will remember her as Rod Taylor’s Eloi love interest, Weena, in George Pal’s version of The Time Machine (1960). She starred or costarred in another ten or so studio films – mostly in the 1960s – followed by TV work and  retirement at the age of 50 to concentrate on her successful business interests. Mimieux grew up in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High. Her first husband was the film director, Stanley Donen.

Linda stopped being my babysitter when I stopped needing one, but our families stayed friends and I would talk to her occasionally.  The last time I remember seeing Linda was at her wedding, a few years later. She was five months pregnant and her father got drunk and refused to dance with her, an act for which I will never forgive him. That was also the last time I saw Linda wiping away tears.

Saint Joan – Great Source Material

Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 – 30 May 1431)

An illiterate French peasant girl devoted to Catholicism, Joan of Arc was 16 years old when she got out of an arranged marriage to a dude she didn’t like, split for a nearby town (where she convinced the locals she was “the virgin who would save France” of folk myth), and got an audience with King Charles where she persuaded him that she spoke to archangels and they answered her back. She went to war against England in men’s clothes and bobbed hair, led French troops to victories in the endless crock of shit known as the Hundred Years War, fell into enemy hands and was tried on trumped-up charges including everything from heresy to cross-dressing to stealing a horse. Joan was 19 when the Brits burned her at the stake.

Sain Joan_Preminger_Seberg

Joan of Arc – nicknamed the Maid of Orleans – is France’s national creation story. She is promoted by many as a feminist symbol … or at least a better role model than Paris Hilton. In 1920, she was awarded saint status by the Catholic Church. Joan has also – with the exception of Jesus – inspired more works of art than anyone in Western history, providing the basis for a raft of novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, operas, oratorios, pop songs, tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Not to mention screensavers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.

A brief list of Joan’s Greatest Hits would include Henry VI, Part I (1590, where good Englishman, William Shakespeare, makes her the villain); the painting Joan of Arc at Prayer by Peter Paul Rubens (1620); Voltaire’s savage epic poem The Maid of Oranges (1756) and its sympathetic answer from Friedrich Schiller in The Maid of Orleans (1801); the two operas based on the Schiller play by Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikovsky in 1878;  Mark Twain’s neglected, uncharacteristically earnest novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); Joan as Chicago labor leader in Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1930); the Leonard Cohen single “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate (1970); and the two-part Joan the Maiden (1994) by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

Distorted-Sets-in-THE-PASSION-OF-JOAN-OF-ARCI am one of the five people who like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), primarily because of the lovely natural portrayal of Joan by Jean Seberg (in her 1st movie) who was panned at the time but whose performance in retrospect seems almost the film’s only good one. The 1923 George Bernard Shaw play – upon which the Preminger movie was based – is the best stage presentation of Joan’s trial (drawing on actual transcripts) and one of Shaw’s finest works.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is an artistic experience with few equals. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance is so compelling that not only do you believe Joan heard voices, you start hearing them yourself … and it’s a silent film.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention former Go Go Jane Weidlin as Joan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the boys’ friendly greeting, “Welcome aboard, Miss Arc.” And the theme song from the Seventies TV series Maude, which has a line that sums it all up: “Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her/she was a sister who really cooked.”

A Wedding to Remember

On this date in 1950, A Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway

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Carson McCullers adapted the play The Member of the Wedding from her novel of the same name about Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy who becomes obsessed with her older brother’s upcoming wedding. The Broadway production was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Julie Harris as Frankie, second-grader Brandon DeWilde (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”) as her cousin John Henry, and the magnificent Ethel Waters as the family housekeeper Bereneice.

The show premiered 65 years ago today and ran at the Empire Theater for 501 performances

Movie director Fred Zinnemann wisely used the Broadway cast for his 1952 film of play. Julie Harris was 25 when she starred as Frankie onstage and 27 in the movie, but she somehow pulls it off.

The top picture is a cast photo from the 1950 stage production; the one below, a backstage shot of Harris smoking a cigarette and Waters with Carson McCullers on opening night.

backstage memeber

New Year’s Eve Safety Tips

picked up from The Movies.

  • Don’t forget to eat,  your dinner rolls will dance (The Gold Rush, 1925)
  • Don’t accept a party invitation from an aging movie queen, you’ll be the only guest and things could get sticky (Sunset Blvd., 1950)
  • Don’t try to spend it with your married boyfriend, he’ll leave early to be with his wife and you’ll be depressed (The Apartment, 1960)
  • Don’t go cheating on your husband, even if you’re a porn star (Boogie Nights, 1997)
  • Don’t underestimate guerrillas or ever betray your brother (The Godfather Part II, 1974)
  • Don’t – whatever else you do – spend it on an ocean liner (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972)

Oh, and – even though I couldn’t find a movie scene about it – don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!

Twilight Cowboy

Jon Voight (born December 29, 1938) – American Actor

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Jon Voight is 77 years old today. If you’ve caught him as the loathsome ex-con Mickey Donovan on TV’s Ray Donovan, you may find that more than a bit surprising. Voight – in his twilight years – is scary in the part and manages to convey threat merely by his physical presence. What is surprising, too, is the fact that it’s only in later years that Voight has been able not only to play villainous roles but to excel at them.

The first time I remember him as a bad guy was in 1985’s Runaway Train. Voight was pushing fifty then, but those cherubic blond good looks – both his blessing and his curse – had yet to give way to a vague seediness, and director Andrei Konchalovsky had to ugly him up for the role of a violent prisoner with makeup scars and pretend metal teeth.

It was more than his looks, though, that made it difficult for Jon Voight to  convey menace. There just seemed to be something weak about him: some fundamental lack of self-esteem, perhaps, or an underlying sadness. And it appeared to be coming from the actor not the part.

When those qualities complemented the role – most notably in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) – the results were unforgettable. Voight was also wonderful in Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974), the story of a young white teacher on an impoverished black South Carolina island that was adapted from an autobiographical work by another wounded man-boy, Pat Conroy.

And then there was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), which costars Jane Fonda and contains Voight’s finest performance as Luke Wilson, a paraplegic Vietnam vet. In that film, weakness has been inflicted on Luke Wilson from the outside – by combat – and Voight inhabits the character body and soul. His speech to a high school (which should be required viewing in every Army recruiting office in America) is largely improvised. It’s a brilliant and deeply moving moment, which brings the tragedy of that war (and all wars) home to us in a way that few films have. Coming Home, oddly enough, is also Jon Voight’s most credible work as a romantic lead. Fonda’s great, too.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

Billie Whitelaw Samuel Beckett

It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

billie as winnie
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.

Bob Hope: Immigrant

On this date in 1920, Bob Hope became a citizen of the United States

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That’s right, folks, that most American of Americans – the Entertainer in Chief to our troops, 14-time host of the Academy Awards, and the darling of conservative politicians of previous generations – was an immigrant.

Born in England to working-class parents, Bob Hope and his family passed through Ellis Island in 1908 on their way to Cleveland, Ohio. The Hopes were poor … as a child, Bob busked in the streets for money … and it was hard to understand their English until they learned to speak  American.

BOB HOPE
FILE–Comedian Bob Hope entertains troops at Cu Chu, 20 miles northwest of Saigon, Vietnam, in a Dec. 1970 file photo. (AP Photo/file)

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m glad we let Bob stay. For one thing, it’s the Christmas season and I love his version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Doris Day. I also admired Hope’s devotion to America’s soldiers, regardless of the merits of the wars they were fighting.

Here’s a couple more photographs of Bob with GIs and others. Post them to Cruz and Trump and company. Or attach them to the latest sure-to-fail version of the Dream Act.

Maybe we should call it the Hope Act?