The reality of these last few pandemic years and their political, economic and overall societal impact has been soul crushing. Up is down, and down seems to have no real bottom.
So what do you do when things turn sour?
I don’t know about you but I turn to art.
More specifically – music, movies, television, books, painting, architecture and pretty much anything else that can existentially lighten the load.
It’s not that any of the above will solve the problems of the day, or my day.
It’s that it makes me feel human and allows the rest to be more tolerable.
It reminds me of what is pure, reflective, accurate, assured or even appropriately messy.
It tells me I am not alone in my misery, crisis or ennui and that someone, somewhere has not only asked the same questions and felt the same things but has, in some way, made some sense of it.
Bottom line: It gives me hope.
So it pleased me to no end this week to find hope in the work and attitudes of three masters who somehow made me appreciate and feel better about, well, everything–
Joni Mitchell, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
And what’s particularly interesting to me is that I only once again came upon their artistry because of the miracle of technology that enables all of us to experience them, their work and their words, new and old, in ways we never have before.
Joni Mitchell re-emerged last week at the Newport Folk Festival where she gave her first concert since a near fatal brain aneurysm seven years ago, which went viral.
Many million of views later she emerged at 78 years old as not only an enduring musical sage and heroic role model, but as living proof that there is no limit to what creative efforts can mean to both an audience and a creator.
We can hear the exact same words in the same song sung by the very same person and, depending on where we, they and the world all are, be provided with entirely new, exciting and reinvigorating energy to conquer our particular worlds all over again.
What her fans have always known is that Joni Mitchell is a brilliant, poetic truth teller that doesn’t hold back, doesn’t try to please and definitely doesn’t suffer fools.
But what we, and likely she, didn’t quite expect after all this time is that her determination to keep going and redefine herself in a new space and body would touch so many so quickly and provide at least a momentary lifeline out of our own darkness.
It’s not merely because of her persistent dedication to teach herself to sing and play guitar again by incessantly watching old YouTube clips of her performing that the media and we once again sat up and took notice of Ms. Mitchell so en masse.
It is rather that in doing so, Joni Mitchell managed to create something entirely new.
I mean, it’s one thing for a 23-year-old singer-songwriter to write and perform classic songs like Both Sides Now and The Circle Game and, through her lilting soprano and folk/hippie garb casually reflect on the cyclical nature of life and the elusive vagaries of love.
But it’s quite another to hear someone who briefly touched death (Note: As she recently explained), frailly sit down on an overstuffed chair center stage (Note: Because it’s too difficult to stand for very long) and in now basso tones, adorned in flowing gray robes while wearing dark sunglasses shielding her often closed eyes, more than a half century later persist in admitting to us that:
You can’t return you can only look
Behind from where you came
And go round and round in the Circle Game.
Or once again confess to us:
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.
When you’re searching for answers somehow it’s infinitely reassuring to know that there are none. It’s only the forward motion of the search for them, and each other, that we can embrace and, if we’re lucky, celebrate.
The Last Movie Stars is a six-part documentary on the lives and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, directed by the actor Ethan Hawke, now streaming on HBO Max.
It’s a largely pandemic-made, almost logic-defying work that does a deep dive into two long married, multi-faceted American acting legends who were born to non-show business families in the south (Ms. Woodward) and Midwest (Mr. Newman).
But unlike their peers, they went to NYC and were accepted to study at the Actors Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, along with the likes of other then unknowns such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. And, within a decade, became two of the biggest movie stars and/or persistently best actors (Note: depending on the decade and one’s POV) on the planet.
Cleverly employing hundreds of thousands of pages of transcripts of many years of secret taped interviews the couple did privately with their longtime friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern (Note: Rachel, Rachel, Sybil, Rebel Without A Cause), we are given insights into their work and times by both the couple themselves and dozens of contemporaries, family members and collaborators in talking head interviews.
The recorded comments, which Newman one day burned after deciding to abandon the project in the 1990s, are sometimes voiced by the likes of George Clooney, Laura Linney, Sam Rockwell, Vincent D’Onofrio and Zoe Kazan, interspersed with actual public interviews with the couple by the media through the years.
There are a few too many Zoom clips of Mr. Hawke interjecting his thoughts and comments on his subjects, along with those from the actor friends he enlisted, that get in the way.
But mostly this is six hours of a pretty unvarnished and compelling portrait of Paul and Joanne, their many dozens of films and the historical times through which they managed to live though and alternately triumph, fail and once again triumph in.
Watching the world and the movies through their lives gives us a crystal clear picture of the phony repressive 1950s, the social revolution of the 1960s, the permissiveness and optimism in the 1970s, the corporate avarice and indulgence that the 1980s wrought, and how the 1990s and beyond allowed the world and so many in it, including them, to reinvent for the better and, sometimes, for the worse.
The Newmans were not perfect; in fact, far from it. But their unabashed devotion to themselves, their craft and then, others, is a consistently real and unexpectedly inspiring thread.
When they meet as Broadway understudies in the 1950s, the twenty something Newman was already married with three young children. Nevertheless, their romance continues hot and heavy for five years before he divorces his wife and starts a new life with three more children.
Woodward was universally felt to be the far better actor, particularly by Newman, winning an Oscar for Three Faces of Eve (1957) by the time she was twenty-seven. But Newman goes on to be the movie STAR and in the sixties and seventies, as Woodward has the kids and raises their blended family, he remains emotionally aloof, drinks heavily and remains what his surviving children and then peers refer to as a “functional” alcoholic for many decades.
Newman gets mostly all the attention as Woodward receives glowing reviews as a great mom who held the family together from all five or their six remaining children, as well as high accolades from the outside world for her then sporadic work in movies and in television. Nevertheless, she freely admits publicly more than once that if she had it to do over she probably wouldn’t have had children to begin with because of all of the costs to her career.
First world problems, to be sure, but that and all the sticky family dynamics of cheating, drug abuse, early death, anger, rage and yet still unyielding, illogical devotion to either a cause or each other will sound vaguely familiar to any one of us who has tried, and failed, to consistently be at peace or have it all.
While Newman is best known for classic films like The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict and his Oscar turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, one of his greatest achievements turned out to be the hundreds of millions of dollars he raised for charity through the manufacture of salad dressing, cookies and pretzels without ever taking a dime. Among those charities funded through his Newman Foundation is a still operating camp for seriously and/or terminally ill children, The Hole In The Wall Gang.
Woodward worked for those and other charities like Alzheimer’s disease. This led to her starring role and Emmy win for Do You Remember Love, a TV movie about a college professor stricken with it in middle age. The illness had struck her late mother and in the last decade has also taken over the life of Ms. Woodward, now 92.
While it’s admittedly transporting and at best escapist to revisit and re-experience the movies, TV shows and music of some of our icons, it’s even better to be reminded that imperfection is and has always been the definition of every human life.
Spending the week with Joni, Paul and Joanne was not so much a look back at the past but a reminder to embrace the future and not get stuck in the circles of lows and highs, and highs and lows and highs that come seemingly from out of nowhere.
Better to enjoy them, try to do better and not give a crap about judgments made about any of them, most especially our own.