Ya Gotta Have Faith

from the famous "Jesus is my homeboy" brand

When you mention FAITH in election year 2012 you get a lot of responses.   But for me the response is obvious and it is love.  Not because I’m religious.  But because Faith is my sister’s name.  Literally.  And I do love her.  As I am sure you love your own sister. (Note: Those without sisters, use something else you love aside from yourself and you’ll get there).

Of course, if you’re running for president these days the word Faith wouldn’t be talked about in terms of my Faith (though it would improve things because she’s a lovely, talented person).  It might evoke sound bites that include words like, well: Christianity, Satan, maybe Muslim, perhaps The Devil, or, well,  even poor old Whitney Houston.   But these days you would never, ever, ever follow the word Faith with the word Ginsberg (as in the case with my sister’s full name).  I mean, the closest thing to a Ginsberg in the faith-based national American political stage at the moment is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and everyone knows people with her kind of last name, which is shared by both my Faith and, well, my own Non-Chair moniker, have no relevance at all in the DC fishbowl that we elevate to presidential level.  (Hint:  And it’s not because we Ginsbergs are all three liberals.  Think about it).

Bipartisanship: Faith and Clint

When did one’s religion (nee faith)  or lack of it, become of such outwardly vocal, pressing national concern? At least so publicly.  Hell Heck, I think I much preferred when this stuff was talked about in restricted country clubs or at least under your neighbor’s breath behind closed doors like it’s supposed to.   I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d live to see the day when a viable political candidate leading in many of the major party’s polls uttered statements like “Satan has his eyes on America.”  But then again, I could never have imagined Kim Kardashian, Chase Crawford or even Zack Efron just a few short years ago. Yes, I do admittedly like this faith talk very much from The Church Lady, but she’s a fictional “Saturday Night Live” character (isn’t she?).  There is something about seeing a white man in a sweater vest running for president saying it in reality (not a reality show, though it sure seems like one) that gives me the Rickys, uh, willies.  And even though I have learned to respect people’s religious views even when their religious views have very little respect for me (Hint: I can’t be married to the person I’ve lived with for 25 years but we are both very stylish and like theatre, especially musicals), even I have to say the urge to buy out all of Netflix’s copies of Bill Maher’s “Religilous” and send it on a prepaid loop to these new brands of holy roller whackos is only surpassed by my urge to shake them by their lapels, march them into the O’Neill Theatre and force feed them every lyric to the score of “Book of Mormom.”   That is, if I even knew any theatrical types who could get me tickets to the most popular show now playing on Broadway.  Which is in New York City.  The sacred, holy American city that was attacked on 9/11.

Oh God uh, Gosh.

Of course, politics is not the only arena that has grabbed God by the heart and won’t let him (or Her) go.  The entertainment industry is equally, if not more guilty than most.  I’m not talking about defunct shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia,” or “The Sopranos.” (Come on, the latter WAS a religion!).  I’m talking about performers who use religion as part of their spectacle (thank you Grammy, or any upcoming Academy Award acceptors), and religious events that use entertainment as a way to inform and/or infiltrate the public consciousness.

Or you could go a different route and not thank Jesus... a la Ms. Griffin

As a self-admitted junkie whose religion is entertainment, almost any kind of entertainment except, well, “Toddlers and Tiaras” (sorry, I have to drawn the line somewhere), I’m a sucker for spectacle.  That’s why this past Saturday (Feb 16) morning instead of my usual tuning into “Up With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC and bringing my blood to a proper boil as I see which new hell the religious right are wreaking upon the national stage, I instead found myself mesmerized by an entirely different kind of fire and brimstone.  The pop God funeral of singer Whitney Houston – who died several weeks ago at the age of 48.

Whitney was younger than me, and it gives you pause when you start getting older than people who are dying, even when it’s from unnatural causes.   But what I think really got to me and caused me to watch all four funeral hours, none of which seemed particularly fune-real – was the communal celebration of mourning and life and death within a very cool Black church service – the kind I have never witnessed before.  It also didn’t hurt having songs sung by Alicia Keyes and Stevie Wonder, a eulogy by Kevin Costner, and the potential reality show debacle of a Bobby Brown encounter (See, I told you I was an entertainment junkie).  As more than one pastor said that day – the family’s decision to allow Whitney’s funeral to be televised was particularly valuable because it allowed all of America to go to Church.  Hmm, and I thought it was more of a funeral.  Amen, to that.  I think.

Amen, indeed.

Now just because I can be had by some names, a movie star and tacky, cheap voyeurism doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the spirituality of the moment or respect my time in church.  I have appreciation and respect. I also feel more than bad that yet another very talented person died due to what looks like, in part at least, a long period of addiction she was never able to conquer.  In fact, I found the whole thing mesmerizing.  Actually more than mesmerizing — hypnotic.

As a white Jewish kid who went to temple but was never moved, I was surprised at the intensity of belief I witnessed – the sheer power of a kind of “divine logic” that everyone could understand and relate to as religion.  Sure – it wasn’t predominantly realistic or entirely logical or at least reflects the reality of life as I know it, but that was also its beauty and attraction.  And, I suppose for the believers, the benefits.  The congregtion/chuch/attendees really seemed to believe in the preacher’s message as it applied to real life even if they all didn’t walk the walk each day.  Of course, the sermonizers even made accommodations for that.  That God makes NO mistakes – that he calls people when HE decides it is their time no matter how you live your life.  And that no matter what people do HIS love is infinite and bountiful and can always let you back in to love and happiness.  Pretty powerful stuff.  If you can make the leap and believe.  Unfortunately for me – I don’t.  Or didn’t.  Well, not entirely.

Don’t think I don’t want to.  But writing is my religion (not merely entertainment – I sinned lied and the power of art is divine to me – call it a higher power if you want to.  And if I am being totally honest I have to admit I worship at the altar of Meryl Streep, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen (yeah, I know he’s a heathen, that’s part of the fun), Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and a host of others.  Perhaps  my real religion is simply the creative spirit, or the power of it.

So – if I accept everyone else’s, how come they can’t accept the validity of mine?  Why are my beliefs any less than the ones they have come to on their own.  You say what I’m talking about is not a religion?  Who says?  Okay, fine.  Then substitute just about any other religion other than Christianity or Jesus.  Why would that religious belief be any less valid to be a guiding principle of the world?  Why should that religion not be the ultimate faith litmus test for anyone running for the highest office in our land, or to otherwise be known as – The Leader of the Free World.

Because no religion should.  Because faith is personal and should have nothing to do with any of it.   Because the idea behind America is that it’s a place where anyone can come and worship in any way that they choose.  I should know because I literally grew up with Faith. And though I can’t image your Faith could be any better than mine, I certainly can’t get into an argument with you about it.  Cause how can you ever objectively debate about who or what you love?

———————

Oscar Note: The Chair and the Chair’s mate are going to this year’s Oscars.  Here are you NotesfromaChair Oscar Pool Tie-breaker Questions:

1.  Will Meryl Streep’s dress have a collar?

Exhibit A

2. How many Yiddish words will be uttered by Billy Crystal?

3. Which movie clip will they show for Elizabeth Taylor as part of the “In Memoriam?”   Or will there be a separate tribute and, if so, who will introduce it?

4. How many times will Harvey Weinstein be thanked?

5. (Tie breaker) The inevitable Variety headline when The Artist wins best picture will be “Silence is Golden.”  But – can you come up with something better????

Something for Everyone?

William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry:  “Nobody knows anything.”  I never truly believed this, though I said I did.  After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.

Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit.  You might not believe me because, well, why should you?  Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s.  But trust me, it’s true.

Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime.  It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway.  Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”

Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.

Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.

Oh please.

All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck.  But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad.  If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count.  And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper.  Would that be considered your good luck?  Well, I certainly think so.

I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent):  Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star).  Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.

Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know?  Or anyone know? Hint:  If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t.  And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too.  Google or IMDB him.  You’ll see.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001279/bio

If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY.  As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing.  The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)

Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott.  This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago.  (see this or this).

But that’s not the only thing.  Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence?  What changed?  Was it CHANCE?  Or were they the EXCEPTION?  Or —

Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them?  Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway.  And not even gay.  (As far as I know).  Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.

Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of)  is a man named Larry Kramer.  For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds.  Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action.  He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self.  Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time.  As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance.    (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).

The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR?  WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT?  Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it.  It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun).  Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone.   But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable.  Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.”  Or much more than that.  Ask Larry or Trey or Matt.  Chance is strange that way.

Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:

“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”

Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.

But isn’t it all the same thing?  Take a chance.