Same Old Song?

Turner Classic Movies had Judy Garland Day last week and, being a gay man of a certain age, I couldn’t resist tuning in at one point to this 24-hour Judy film fest.

Don’t judge me.

But of all of the choices available who knew that it would be a 1961 dour melodrama about four German judges being tried before a postwar military tribunal for their collaboration with Hitler and the Third Reich, Judgment at Nuremberg, that would hit me like a ton of bricks.

I can think of at least five other Judy films that would have been more enjoyable. (Note: Okay — A Star Is Born, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter Parade and I Could Go On Singing). Though none that could be more timely.

Realistically, this is how I wish I felt about today’s political climate.

In hindsight I should have predicted it. Like the currently much lauded, breakthrough post apocalyptic Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale (which is about to once again become a multi Emmy winner for its superb second season), you can’t go wrong in 2018 watching a story about a country of people who enable a rabid white nationalist political regime to persecute, maim and/or kill anyone they deem to be a subversive OTHER.

Unless all you want to do is escape and put your _____ in the sand.   In which case, you are not only wrong but veering towards the same sheep-like behavior portrayed by some of your fellow countrymen in that movie, that series and no doubt countless other ____________s about to come out on other platforms that will be, at least thematically, very much like them.

Whether we call it the Nazis, the power brokers of Gilead or simply Trumpism – it’s all the same thing. A regime that wants to demonize anyone outside of a select group of people they don’t judge ‘ideal’ – whether they be Jews, the non-religious or Mexican/Middle Eastern immigrants – in order to rouse a base of loyal voters whose lives they promise to improve and whose country they vow to protect and/or rebuild.

I’m gonna go ahead and add “Crippling Insecurity” to the YES column #tinyhands

This strategy is always advanced with promises to put the people of said country FIRST, declarations that said country is GREAT and proclamations that the rest of the world is NO BETTER morally than they are and usually quite INFERIOR.

Yeah, I don’t like comparing any regime, especially America’s current regime, to the Nazis. But the argument being advanced is not how successful the regime is at achieving their goals or to what ends they will get to go in order to achieve them. Instead, it’s the philosophy and the strategy.

The degree to how far they get to go – well, this is up to their subjects… er….citizenry. In other words – THIS IS UP TO US.

BRB

Again, the comparison seemed a bit reach-y. Until too many lines from Judy’s Nazi film, for which she was nominated as Oscar’s best supporting actress that year along with several other cast members in their own categories, began to ring a bell.

— It started when Marlene Dietrich’s upper crust German woman says of Hitler:

He was in awe of nobility but he hated it.

— Then it continued when Montgomery Clift’s ordinary German man recalled the times he was MOCKED by LEADERS of the power class for speaking in a way that seemed slow even when he demonstrated the ability to understand logic.

I’m with Meryl — this still makes my blood boil

— It continued when Judy’s youngish German woman recalled how her best friend, a 65 year old Jewish man, was laughed at and held up to mockery by the PUBLIC at his trial simply because he was A JEW. The charges were violating the new law outlawing A JEW having sex with A GERMAN ARYAN (Judy), a charge he was found guilty of and put to death for even though, as it turned out, it never happened.

–Then there was Marlene’s defense of herself and the German people over Americans condemning her after the war:

Listen to me, there are things that happenedon BOTH SIDES.

ummmm… WHAT?

— Which all finally led to one of the four judges on trial, eloquently played by Burt Lancaster, exposing the lies he and his fellow Germans told themselves about Hitler and the Third Reich:

We say – what difference does it make – our country is at stake – Hitler (He) will be gone after a while. Things denied to US as a democracy are open to us now…. And then one day we looked around and saw what was going to be a passing phase had become a way of life.

Yes, all of these lines were indeed written – by the great screenwriter Abby Mann – but they were based on actual transcripts and stories he culled from the real Nuremberg trials right after the end of WWII.

.. and with a cast like this to make it come to life.

They were not his thoughts he put into his characters’ mouths so much as a distillation of real sentences and opinions and ideas of the time.

Though perhaps knowing there would be a portion of their audience that still might think they were being too polemic or had gone a bit too far, the filmmakers’ “movie trial” included 5-10 minutes of REAL NEWSREEL FOOTAGE of thousands of actual naked Jewish corpses – as well as others barely alive and starving – to back up their words.

This along with clips and still photos of the real crematoriums, featuring close ups of the popular German oven manufacturer that built them. In addition to historical maps indicating the dozens of specific towns with concentration camps hidden among a significant percentage of German citizenry who either supported Hitler because he was doing some good things or because it was easier to turn a blind eye to the whole ugly mess just because.

It’s difficult to face the truths, or potential truths, of any world, especially our own, but in the end it’s far uglier not to.

or you know, truth becomes relative. #stillcantbelievethishappened

As Spencer Tracy’s presiding American judge lets us know at the end of Judgment at Nuremberg in a way only a presiding American judge played by Spencer Tracy could truly make work:

A country is what it stands for – when it’s the most difficult. We stand for justice, truth and the value of a single human being.

Or to put it in 2018 parlance: There’s a reason why Sen. John McCain, who died on Saturday, chose Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a former Democratic president and a former Republican president, to deliver the eulogies at his Capitol Hill memorial service this week rather than the current sitting President of Trumpism.

 

Advertisements

What Price?

It’s been said many times that everyone has a price.

What this means is that people will do anything if they are paid enough money or given what they want.

So the question we all need to seriously ask ourselves during these very turbulent times is:

What is YOUR price?

Is it safety from real or imagined enemies, foreign or domestic?

That is to say, doing whatever it takes to bar morally unknowable immigrants (Note: nee…all of them?) from entering our country? Or is it prohibiting any morally questionable person in support of such a policy from dining in your restaurant, not to mention, continuing as president?

Perspective

What is YOUR price?

Is it about ensuring our country thrives financially, as well as ethically?

That is to say, making sure you have a president whose first priority is cutting taxes, creating old-fashioned jobs for the long ignored and appointing Supreme Court justices who will once it again make it difficult or illegal for women to get an abortion? Or is it ceasing communication with family and now former friends who believe in all of the above, while screaming at the top of your lungs in their faces, or from the rooftops or on our airwaves, to counter their selling out our most precious American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy for all?

What is YOUR price?

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

You see where this is going. I had planned on continuing but the list and the metaphors could be – and are – endless as we approach July 4, 2018 – the 242nd anniversary of American independence.

Several days ago I watched What Price Hollywood a 1932 film directed by George Cukor about a spunky waitress who serves drinks to a charming, drunken Hollywood director that gives her a bit part in his movie, guides her to stardom and then dissipates into a state of alcoholic disrepair as her life blossoms.

The plot has since been appropriated by numerous movies, including the many versions of A Star Is Born (Note: The new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga one opens Oct. 5, and yes, I’m counting the days). Still, this does not mean it is any less ironic or timely.

Click for the OFFICIAL countdown (to the minute) #really #REALLY

There is no reality where you can get everything you want without it costing you something. It wasn’t the waitress’ fault the director became a hopeless alcoholic and ruined his life but because he was such a great mentor and friend it breaks her heart. That is the way the drama works because that is the way the world is – we achieve things and the norms and/or people we counted on and loved quite suddenly, at least to us, fall by the wayside.

A more contemporary comparison might be Indecent Proposal, a 1993 film where billionaire Robert Redford offers happily married Demi Moore a flat $1,000,000 to spend the night with him, no strings attached. After discussing it with her high school sweetheart husband, the financially strapped Woody Harrelson, and reassuring him of their forever love, the couple agrees to the Faustian bargain and… well… it goes as Faustian bargains go if not for test marketing and a somewhat tacked on Hollywood ending.

Girl how did you think this was going to pan out? #dowagergetsreal

Meaning, if someone is going to pay you $1,000,000 suffice it to say it IS going to cost YOU – a lot – and it may not be measurable by mere currency.

It certainly seems like US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, 81, has the right to retire from the bench anytime he wants. Yet when I read this week that he was not so subtly reassured of his legacy beforehand by the White House, and that his eldest son worked for years with Trump on real estate deals at Deutsche Bank, the institution that loaned Trump a BILLION dollars, I couldn’t help but cynically and rhetorically ask the justice, and myself, – what price?

Me… all week

Of course I will never know if a price was exacted or if this justice – the Republican who was actually the swing vote in making gay marriage the law of the land – was swayed by any of it, or by them.

So it’s instead easier for me to stew over the millions of Americans (Note: And perhaps a handful of Russian bots) who voted for and still support a president who consistently calls the press the enemy of the American people or very bad people on the very day that five journalists were gunned down in their Maryland newsroom by a crazed shooter with a vendetta against their paper. Did Trump’s words contribute to egging the guy on in that particular moment? Again, we’ll never know. But for any of his supporters who still get joy from and continue to revel in how he’s characterized one of the foundations of our democracy – the free press – again I ask – what price?

And then – well, there are the immigrant kids in those cages. Mostly brown. Many fleeing violence in their home country – the way my grandparents and friends’ relatives did when they escaped the Nazis and came here in the 1930s and early forties. Or the way my internist’s family did when he was smuggled out of war torn southeast Asia in the 1970s. Or how my dental hygienist managed it when her family ran for their lives from Iran in the 1980s.

Today in America

None of them were forcibly separated from their parents by the US government when they arrived at our borders seeking asylum (Note: The latter a legal right of ANYONE arriving at our shores. Asylum, that is).

So for those currently chuckling with satisfaction at or apoplectically angered by those of us marching in the streets who are outraged that non-English speaking three year olds are being forced to appear ALONE in court at a hearing where they are responsible for telling their own immigration story THEMSELVES before an adult in a big BLACK ROBE who towers above them, I ask – to every last one – again – what price?

And to consider if what they’re losing is worth what they’re getting in return. Financially, morally or, really, even in practical terms.

Broadway United – “We Are The World”

Not Dead Yet

still got a lot left to burn...

“When you’re dead, lie down,” said an old flame of mine about the performance of an older movie star of the sixties in a film several decades later.  I didn’t think the performance was good but neither was it particularly awful.  However, I did sort of chuckle (or perhaps belly laughed) at the comment because not only was it snide and amusing but it came from the lips of a person who at the time I thought could do no wrong.

Well, now that I’m decades older and much closer in age to the movie star (who it turns out wasn’t that old) – and now that the old flame has flickered out of my life and chronologically is what many of us consider old, or at the very least much OLDER than the sixties movie star (and certainly a lot less rich and famous) – I have to admit that on the subject of “lying down” both of us wiseacres were WRONG – DEAD WRONG.

There is really never a time to stop doing what you love to do simply because your hot streak is over and others think you have overstayed your welcome.  Just as it is never a great idea for the powers-that-be to blanketly ignore people who have mastered their craft solely on the basis of their age (be it young or old) for what is perceived to be the next LIVE thing.

A case in point is Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson, who turns 86 next month.  Mr. Pierson won his Academy Award for a movie starring Al Pacino that you might know, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). In addition, he was also nominated two other times for “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Cool Hand Luke”(1967).  More recently, Mr. Pierson directed the acclaimed HBO TV movies “Citizen Cohn” (1995), “A Soldier’s Girl” (2001) and “Conspiracy” (2003), served as president of the Writers Guild of America from 1981-1983 and as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 2001-2005.  On a personal note, I can also tell you Mr. Pierson is an extremely smart and gracious man who extends himself to young writers but can also gloriously cut his cowardly peers down to the quick as I once witnessed at a very contentious open Writers Guild meeting in the nineties when he publicly challenged his fellow scribes to “grow a pair” (my words, his were a little more colorful) and stand up to the studios because “no one else will and, damn it, that’s what writers have always done” (again, cleaning it up for blog audiences).

Mr. Pierson tells it how it is.

This past week Mr. Pierson had another career triumph for his writing of the fifth episode of the current season of AMC’s “Mad Men” – a disturbing, gutsy, self-possessed hour entitled, “Signal 30.”  Though all of the episodes this season shine for various reasons, this particular one, penned by an 86 year old, has upped the game and officially made the 2012 version of “Mad Men” the BEST WRITTEN SHOW ON TELEVISION.

for Frank's a jolly good fellow!

Without getting too far into the plot elements for non-watchers, suffice it to say any hour-long episode of TV set in 1966 that dares to feature and pull off all of the following:

  • a real live fist fight between two of a company’s wimpiest executives
  • a thirtysomething married man lusting after a young girl in a driver’s ed class only to loser her to a teenage hunk literally named “Handsome”
  • a news report on the real life murderer of young women in Texas that scares the bejeesus out of most of the girls in NYC
  • a bunch of British soccer players winning the World Cup as watched by a group of bar cheering British expatriates
  • an Upper East Side brothel owner deciding on whether to buy a television set to liven up her place
  • And an account guy who moonlights as a science fiction writer of gem-like short stories about a working man who is a mere cog in the machine of the universe

Well, that’s is okay by me.

a real knockout

Actually, it’s more than okay.  It’s pretty terrific.  And not only because of what that episode says about American culture right before the social revolution of the late 1960s but for what it shows us about American culture five decades later.  More than the obvious fact/fiction of the past, the present day workings of the actual television show “Mad Men” prove to us that rather than being dead or basically put out to pasture, it actually is possible to be relevant as an artist in commercial Hollywood once you get past the age of ________ on a non comic-book, non-sequel, non-high concept, non-sitcom piece of material that isn’t based on the life and times of your children, or even grandchildren.

Matt Weiner, “Mad Men’s” creator and show runner, is responsible for Mr. Pierson’s hire and part of the brilliance of his work on the show is that he boldly takes chances not only on the creative direction of each season but on who he chooses to hire.  Given conventional TV wisdom, there is no reason in the world for Mr. Weiner to employ Mr. Pierson except that Mr. Weiner is smart enough to know

a. Mr. Pierson started his writing career in advertising near the time “Mad Men’s” world is set.

b. Mr. Pierson grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., which is pretty close to the area where many of the series characters reside, and

c. Mr. Weiner is secure enough in his writing talent and stewardship of his show to not be threatened by the talent and reputation of an old war horse like Mr. Pierson (who, by the way, famously stood up to the then uberpowerful Barbra Streisand and her producer-boyfriend Jon Peters as the writer-director of their 1976 version of “A Star Is Born”)

Oh yes, there is also

d. Mr. Weiner always has the prerogative to rewrite any writer on his show.

the order says it all..

Of course, so do any other show runners on any other show and you don’t often see them digging in and doing much out of the ordinary. In full disclosure, Mr. Weiner did rewrite Mr. Pierson a bit (as he does with almost everyone on the program) and shares writing credit (as he also does with almost everyone).  But in Mr. Pierson’s case it was not more than 40% of the script (and probably less) since Mr. Pierson’s name is listed first before Mr. Weiner as the writer of that particular episode.  How do I know the percentages?  Mr. Weiner publicly announced it in more than one interview.

I’m not saying Matt Weiner deserves yet another award for hiring Mr. Pierson (who was also a consulting producer on “The Good Wife” sans writing credit in 2010), or for not rewriting him entirely.  But he does deserve high praise for keeping a terrific television show afloat by trying to do something different from the norm both onscreen and off.

It would be nice and perhaps even smart if others took note and followed his lead.

Big Dreams

There’s a great scene in the first act of “A Star Is Born” where the established star, Norman Maine, advises the young talented unknown, Esther Blodgett, about her career.  She admits her big dream is catching a lucky break, getting discovered by a talent scout and having a number one record but also freely admits, “It won’t happen.”  The veteran, a great fan of her work (among other things), counters, “No it might happen very easily.  Only — the dream isn’t big enough.”

He then goes on to tell her, “A career can turn on somebody saying to you,  ‘You’re better than that.  You’re better than you know.’  Don’t settle for the little dream.  Go on to the big one.” (for more go here)

In Esther’s case, having the number one record was not necessarily the wrong dream (she does go on to get a number one record AND a lot more) – just not the right dream at the right time.  In other words, to quote a wise old adage, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Aside from the fact I’m a sucker for old Judy Garland movies, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately.  Do you get just one?  Is working hard and profusely wanting something enough to push you towards your goal?  What if it is the WRONG time?  Or, perish the thought, the WRONG dream?   But wouldn’t I know what the right and wrong dream was for me – I mean, it’s my dream!!  Well, not necessarily.  I mean, no one is right 100% of the time except, well, the 8 Ball– and even it has its occasional limitations.

Hold on, let me get my glasses.

Taking that into the realm of high-class problems, what if you’ve already achieved your dream and you’ve still got half or two-thirds of your life left, and don’t plan to die early.  Do you just coast and sit on or in your mountains of money (while you’re spending it and it keeps magically replenishing through endless tax cuts for you and your millionaire/billionaire friends)?  Do you continue to try and top yourself in your own field even though you feel like you’ve “done it” and it no longer holds its mystery because you’ve reached your version of the mountain top?  Or maybe you, perish the thought again, start from ground zero and try something else with the hopes you can reconnect with the passion you had for your original dream and expand that and more to even greater effect and affect.

Only we can provide the answer for ourselves.  Maybe for you it’s one or all of those.  Or maybe it’s none of the above.  Dreams are funny that way.  Ultimately, they’re extremely personal.

But for guidance – why not look to the best.

No one spoke of dreams more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King, and being this the 48th anniversary of his historic  “I Have A Dream” speech – a speech delivered at a time when the idea of a Black U.S. president seemed as likely as, well, an openly transgender, ultra-liberal, atheist one might one seem today, (and if anyone under 40 thinks I’m exaggerating, ask anyone OVER 40) – it’s important to be reminded of the ever-enduring necessity and universality of having not only commitment to a dream but a great and unlimited personal imagination.

Inspiration

Dr. King didn’t dwell on what was necessarily rational in the south in the summer of 1963 for Black (then called Negro) Americans, but “dreamed” of what he saw (and hoped) was “possible.”  Does it trivialize the civil rights struggle to use it as a metaphor for the individual dreams each of us may or may not have for ourselves in our creative lives?  Absolutely not.  Dreaming of something that seems impossible is always valid and necessary if you’re human and want to make any kind of impact or difference for whatever reason.  And if you’re going to steal (in Hollywood they call it homage), why not steal from the best?  And – at least I’m publicly giving him credit – unlike what Paramount, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have so far done for James Toback, by not informing him they were going to remake his seminal 1974 screenplay “The Gambler,” prompting him to feel he dreamt a bad dream because he first found out about it last week in Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood news item. (Read it all here).

But I digress.

I’ve written before about dream stomping or dream ignoring or dream ______ (fill in your phrase) being very big these days – particularly in the creative arts.  “You’ll never,” “do you know the odds of,” “You have to be practical,” or the dreaded comment – “you’re such a dreamer.”  As if that’s a bad thing.

I, and all of my happy and/or successful friends (uh, they’re not necessarily the same thing), will testify to you that there is no way to achieve anything for yourself without dreaming it up in some fashion for yourself in today’s world.  Especially in the creative arts.  Oh — Hint:  It’s all made up, anyway!

As for having only ONE dream or MANY dreams or not stopping until you find the RIGHT dream for you, the strategy depends on who you are and how busy you want to be.  I can make the case for employing any of those, or, alternately, all three.  Consider:

  1. A very successful SCREENWRITER friend of mine with more movies made than any of his contemporaries always dreamed of being a screenwriter (some of us think from in utero).
  2. A very successful SCREENWRITER I know was in a punk rock band before he ever thought of writing movies or wrote a word in screenplay form.
  3. A very famous ACTOR friend of mine always wanted to act and never considered anything else.
  4. A very famous ACTOR I once worked on a movie with didn’t start acting until mid-life and spent the first half of his life doing, well, a lot of illegal stuff unrelated to show biz (and often behind bars).
  5. A very famous and successful DIRECTOR friend of mine actually finds it torturous to direct and dreamed of doing lots of other things but became most successful at this.  Now, this person is sort of stuck.
  6. A very talented DIRECTOR friend of mine now writes and produces and doesn’t direct at all (except in the mind) and, I believe, finds it infinitely more satisfying.

Oh, and what’s most interesting to me now is that NONE of these six people today ONLY work on their dream of writing, acting and directing.  One of them always dreamt of being a great parent and spends a great chunk of time with his/her children; another works tirelessly reforming convicts; a third spends enormous amounts of time decorating and remodeling.  All of them are on their third, fifth, eight and twentieth dreams.

There are other individuals I know who never quite “made it” on their original dreams but now are dreaming even bigger and better.  To whit:

  1. A brilliant, aspiring AGENT I know left the business and has become a very successful (and happy) family LAWYER.
  2. A talented, lower level STUDIO EXEC I once knew now writes self-help books (imagine that?).
  3. A former AGENT friend of mine and PRODUCER friend of mine each sell and develop real estate (separately), are very good at it and LOVE it (granted, more when the market is a bit better – another subject.  And perhaps another dream).
  4. Three screen and TV WRITER friends are now full-time therapists, helping other dreamers navigate the tricky waters of ambition, reality and, well, dreams.  A fourth has moved on to producing new and exciting content for the web.  (The latter in some way probably being a new, ingenious and inevitable dream to consider and perhaps approach for more than a few younger (and older?) people reading this blog).

Finally, add to that – at a restaurant this week I ran into two different and EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY successful people in the entertainment business.  I mean, you couldn’t GET more successful and famous (you’d know their names).  One of them has nothing to do with film anymore and uses all the money, cachet and power accrued in said business towards charitable works (i.e. helping others fulfill dreams).  The other still pursues dreams in the business but in a very different way and in very different venues.  This person has gone from being unbelievably difficult and, well, not very nice back in the day (how do I know? I was there), to being a warm, open and generally endearing presence who has clearly found that not being in the red hot spotlight is ultimately a lot more dreamily satisfying than drowning in the poisonous kind of heat that public attention sometimes generate for certain types of individuals.

If this sounds tricky, confusing, confounding and littered with endless detours, U-turns and reinventions, rest assured it is.  But — that’s what really BIG dreams are made of.