Sam Shepard, Part II

Smith-My-Buddy

I don’t have to write part two, because Patti Smith has. She writes about what I was going to write about, Sam Shepard as a writer (first, last, always).

Writers write. They read other writers. They talk about writing, more often the writing of others than their own. If they are very very lucky, like Sam Shepard was lucky, they have a writer friend to call in the blue of the night.

Goodbye, Sam.

My Buddy by Patti Smith

Moreau est mort

JulesandJim_image_4_600400_4

Jeanne Moreau has died. She was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century and carried/transported some of the most important movies ever made. Impossible to imagine the menage of Jules and Jim without Moreau in the middle, impossible to imagine La Notte at all, Elevator to the Gallows, Mademoiselle, Bertrand Blier’s Going Places opposite a Gerard Depardieu just starting his career.

Hollywood had no idea what to do with Jeanne Moreau. It never knew what to do with any great European female star back then unless they had big tits to stare at while they learned a little English. And could play the coquette. Come to think of it, Hollywood had no idea what to do with any actress who was a grown-ass woman and wanted to play complex characters. Fuck Them. Moreau was better than Them. Bigger.

I asked a once-famous friend (who worked for Life magazine during its heyday) what he considered the greatest day of his life. Without an instant’s hesitation, he said the day he spent smoking heroin and talking with Jeanne Moreau in a Paris hotel room while the 1968 student riots unfolded underneath their window. I think Didion and Dunne were also there.

My friend is long since dead of drugs. Jeanne Moreau lived to be 89, lived until today. Moreau was big enough to encompass everything, every experience. No one was bigger. Or better.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/gallery/2017/jul/31/jeanne-moreau-a-life-in-pictures

 

You Can Fake It After All

ordinary-people

When I read this morning that Mary Tyler Moore had died, my first thought was not of the TV series bearing her name, but of Ordinary People (1980), the extraordinary debut feature film by Robert Redford about repressed middle-class white Americans who find displays of emotion difficult and expressions of love nearly impossible.  In it, Moore gives the performance of a lifetime as Beth Jarrett, a beautiful, brittle, relentlessly positive Midwestern housewife who carries a not entirely healthy torch for her dead older son and who can’t forgive her younger son for still being alive. Donald Sutherland as her kind but unassertive husband, Timothy Hutton as the surviving son Conrad, and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s shrink are also extraordinary.

I can manage happily without ever again seeing Moore as Mary Richards throw her hat slow-motion in the air to the strains of the relentlessly positive The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.  Not that I hated the show or thought ill of it. Quite the contrary. If I watched more TV and ranked it, it would score high. For TV, it was fairly close to life at times and a good place to start if you want a gentle introduction to 1970s America.

But it was TV – in the 1970s – and a “comedy” – so the characters are “survivors,” none of whom wind up in recovery or the mental hospital or jail, all of whom really love each other under the gruffness, whose darkest days are never that dark or last too long. And my viewing relationship with TV is an odd one. I look below the surface of the show to the writer’s well from whence it sprung, listen not to the actors’ words but to their subtext. In my distorted world, The Andy Griffith Show is about small-town loneliness. People in Mayberry are so lonely it aches. And – to my twisted mind – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the saddest shows ever aired, every single one of whose characters is hanging on by their fingernails, unwilling to think too hard about anything, afraid to feel. Mary saddest of all.

And it is a small leap, really – barely a hop – from the almost real Mary Richards to the painfully real Beth Jarrett, hiding her hate and terror behind the makeup of normalcy, holding tight by her lacquered nails until they finally break – or her tortured son Conrad breaks them – and she can’t go on. Not one more step. Not in the company of her husband and surviving son, who have found their way to the real – and decided to live there – leaving Beth to run away, find others around whom she can pretend again, toss her hat in the air.

There Was Nobody like Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

silver-streak

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

Sad to Hear Pat Conroy Has Died

Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy (October 26, 1945 – March 4, 2016)

conroyHe wrote some very good books, four of which were turned into very good to great movies. Perhaps the best of these movies (Conrack, 1974) is the one you’re least likely to have seen. It was based on The Water Is Wide (1972), a memoir of his year teaching school on an impoverished South Carolina coastal island, and it starred Jon Voight as the young Conroy character. His fiction works The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), and The Prince of the Tides (1986) were also made into films and all four of his film adaptations featured wonderful performances. Conroy’s characters were recognizably real people who good actors could act.

My parents retired to South Carolina near Charleston shortly after I moved to L.A., so I’ve spent a lot of time in Conroy country – including his lovely adopted home of Beaufort, where the movie The Big Chill was filmed – and I know first-hand how well he depicted the colorful people and achingly beautiful places of that divided part of our nation.

big chill shotHe was also among the best poets of divided manhood (for want of a better term) for his whole generation. The generation of American men for whom the military and sports and other traditional male pursuits and roles were no longer sufficient to live a full and satisfying life. And certainly not enough to heal the wounds inflicted by those males (starting with their fathers) for whom traditional male codes of behavior were everything.

great santini scene

James Dean (2/08/1931 -9/30/1955)

dean monkeyI could write a book about James Dean. It probably wouldn’t be a good book, but it would be a long one. Dean spent his boyhood on a farm in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, an hour north on I-69 from my own boyhood home of Indianapolis.  I don’t know for certain that the proximity of my growing-up place to Dean’s growing-up place explains why I so readily identified with the characters he portrayed in his three major films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant), but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

james dean at homeAnd while the characters in Dean’s three main movies were quite different in some ways, they shared one big thing in common: all three young men had unloving, ineffectual, or nonexistent parents.  Dean’s mother died when he was nine and his father sent him to be raised by an aunt and uncle on that farm in Fairmount. I don’t know for certain that Dean’s estrangement from his birth parents by death and abandonment contributed to his effectiveness in essaying young men with similar wounds, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Here’s the deal. When you have no parents or shitty parents, you sort of have to raise yourself. Chance the not always reliable counsel of authority figures at school and in the community. Resist the more tempting types of peer pressure. Find family where you can.

It’s a treacherous, anger-making road and there’s always the risk you’ll do injury to self or others along the way. Like Jim in Rebel. Or that, like Cal in Eden, you’ll torture yourself needlessly by continuing to seek love where it can’t be found. Or that you’ll end up drunk and stunted, incapable of receiving love or giving love, like poor rich Jett in Giant.east-of-edenJames Dean ripped through acting the way he ripped through life. It’s hard to believe that he got as good as he got at the age of only 24 and difficult to imagine where he could have gone from there. Dean was a bright guy with aspirations to write and direct, so maybe that’s the direction he would have taken if his road hadn’t proven so short.acting dean

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.

Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

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.”

amarcord2

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)

From_Here_to_Eternity_Donna_Reed_1

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

Ethel_Waters_Julie_Harris_Brandon_DeWilde_Member_of_the_Wedding_Broadway

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