A Sam Shepard Story

It’s a Friday morning and I am riding in a station wagon headed to the Lower Sierras for a camping weekend with my mostly older, mostly actor friends. The driver is a woman I’ll call Jane (in homage to Jane Fonda) who is smoking pot and telling me story after fascinating story about her life before marriage and mommyhood. Her two small children are in another car, her husband is off on a shoot, and it’s probably been a good long time since Jane was able to a) get stoned at nine in the morning and b) talk. Even if it’s just talking to me, a friend of a friend, a complete stranger. I am, however – in Jane’s defense – a good listener.

Right now I am listening to Jane (relative of a hardcore Weather Underground member) tell me about the time she smuggled money to Abbie Hoffman, post-nosejob and haircut and in hiding from a coke bust in upstate New York. The nose job made such a striking change in Hoffman’s appearance that she was never sure afterward that it was really him. Whoever it was – Steal This Nose! – said he had been set up for the bust by the FBI, which Abbie used to refer to as “a giant PR firm.” Some things never change.

I don’t remember other details from the Underground segment of our conversation, but the next story (featuring today’s subject as star) is fresh. The following year – 1975 – found Jane on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, working on the film made in conjunction with the music tour called Renaldo and Clara, and sleeping with the movie’s writer Sam Shepard. Yes, the four-hour Renaldo and Clara had a writer and that writer was Shepard. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Renaldo and Clara is the only one of Dylan’s self-produced movies that is even watchable. Far better than watchable, and, in parts, almost great. A few years earlier, Shepard had contributed the best and most coherent scenes to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and – little known fact – he wrote sketches for the infamous stage play Oh, Calcutta.

Ten or so years later Shepard would write Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, possibly the best American movie of 1980s and one of the only Eighties movies with what might be called integrity. As a screeenwriter, he specialized in giving movie dreams flesh. Just as – in his plays – he turned the torture of flesh and blood into the stuff of dreams.

“I thought he would be a little mean,” Jane said. “Which he was, especially when he drank. I didn’t expect him to be so sweet. I don’t think I was the only one on tour he was sleeping with, but I didn’t care. I was in love with him,” she smiled. “I still am. The idea of him, anyway.”

I asked Jane what she meant by the “idea” of Sam Shepard. “That face,” she laughed. “Beautiful, but a guy’s guy, too. And what other writer could wear a cowboy hat and pull it off? Not make you want to laugh.” She said that all of Shepard’s ideas were Sixties ideas and they never changed. “He just put them in a shitty house. In an unexpected part of America. He just changed the clothes.”

I’m not ready to say goodbye to Sam Shepard. I’m still in love with the idea of him, too. So … consider this Part I.

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.

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.

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Biff! Bam!? POW!!! Tom Wolfe***!

Thomas KennerlyTomWolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)

I think it was 2004 (when he was in  Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.

Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something  called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.

Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.

What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the thrill I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good and there would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.

Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.

Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.

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Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.

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Dolores Huerta Was Booed at a Trump Rally?

Wait. No. It was at a Democratic Party event? Really? You don’t mean this Dolores Huerta?!

Well, I certainly hope the ignorant assholes who booed and hissed the 85-year-old Huerta were The Donald supporters who got lost on their way to a Funny Car race or WWE cage smackdown. It’s the only explanation that doesn’t reflect badly on Bernie Sanders. If you’re a Bernie supporter, the smart political move (not to mention the only moral one) is to disassociate yourself from that sort of boorish behavior. Apologize for the boneheads in your midst and invite them to find another candidate to support. (Such as Trump.) Because they’re sure as hell not helping yours.

Whatever you do, don’t go on social media and try to distract or deflect with nitpicky fights about  a “neutral translator” – LOL! – or whether the assholes showing Huerta disrespect also shouted “English only.” Who cares? The crowd’s behavior was stupid and trashy enough to warrant an admonition from the event moderator: “It’s Dolores Huerta, my goodness!” Which was caught on tape. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

P.S. I suspect most of the dumbasses at the event (and quite a few of the Twitter et al defenders of their behavior) have no idea who Dolores Huerta is and how important she has been to American history. Which is why God made Google. Get a clue before you boo! Actually, just don’t boo … it’s not a wrestling match … listen politely and act like adults.

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New Photos Emerging of Randall Smoot’s 1970s Activism!

The above pictures provide proof that Randall Smoot (aka Randy or Wildman Smooty) was an active participant in high school dances and after parties during the turbulent 1970s. He can be seen in photographs (including one in color) actively looking for his friend with the flask and for a young woman … any young woman … who would dance with him.

I hope these photos put to rest certain controversies regarding where and with whom Mr. Smoot was active 40 some years ago. And put an end – once and for all – to the brutal swiftboating of an ordinary American’s aimless, callow, and generally misspent youth.

Smoot claims that he accomplished quite a bit during those heady days … far more than his parents ever knew … and that he sometimes misses that important time of fighting for his own right to stay out late, drink while underage, and get to second base without having to pretend he was going steady.

In a separate interview, however, Smoot has stated that he does not miss trying to remove base makeup from his button-down shirts before his mother sees it, nor does he miss Boone’s Farm apple wine.

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.

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.

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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.

I believe in Ellen Burstyn

Actress Ellen Burstyn … born December 7, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan

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I have difficulty suspending my disbelief in horror movies. That difficulty tends to increase with the size of the monster and with the amount of money spent on special effects. And that difficulty increases exponentially if the viewer’s horror is dependent upon religious beliefs that enjoyed their salad days during The Inquisition.

Here comes the Devil or one of his best buds? He’s inside a little girl? The girl’s head swivels all the way around, she vomits pea soup, and  speaks in the voice of a chain-smoking, Oscar-winning actress by the name of Mercedes McCambridge? You want me to suspend my disbelief for that?

No problem. Hire Ellen Burstyn. Her bright, fierce, bitchy, loving, utterly real performance as Chris MacNeil, mother of the pea-soup spewer, is the only reason The Exorcist (1973) held me, that I was able to go with its silly curdled Catholicism for even one minute. If Chris believed, so did I.

Ellen Burstyn turns 83 today and is still going strong.