The Trump and Judy Show

Let’s talk about legends and the people who inhabit them.  The common dictionary definition:

Legend:  An extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.

Of course, that’s only part of the story.

Renee Zellweger gives an astonishing performance as the legendary Judy Garland in the self-titled new film, Judy.  It’s not so much that Ms. Zellweger exactly recreates her singing voice or her entire autobiography during the last few years of her life.  It’s that somehow, and in so many ways, she captures the essence of Judy’s legend.

Make room on your shelf, Renee!

Or at least what we believe was, or could have been, her essence.

It’s there in her tremulous voice, her humor, her raw vulnerability, her fight, the nuances of her mannerisms and her underfed yet somehow still powerful physicality.

Not only is a tour de force of determination in her every and many close-up(s), it’s a channeling of duality.  She shows us the core of what we publicly saw of Judy in her many stage, screen and TV appearances AND she gives us a peak into the charming and yet not always admirable part of her humanity that we never knew and might not have ever imagined.

None of us are ever one thing all the time.  We are a mix of light and dark, good and bad, strong and vulnerable and, trite as it may sound, love and hate.

This is amplified ten times over with those we’ve crowned as our legends.

No doubt Donald J. Trump will go down as an extremely different type of legend in our history, but a legend nevertheless.  Most American presidents in history occupy legendary status during their era and for many the legend manages to sustain through generations and even centuries. (Note: See above definition).

Sigh… I really need to stop looking at pictures like this #coolobama #sighagain

The breadth of career, the various distinctive looks, the marriages, the overly insistent publicity, the rise and fall and rise again – these are among the many things Trump and Judy share.  It may be a sobering thought but it doesn’t make it any less true.

What is also true is that ultimately those are artificial markers we, as society, have constructed for ourselves in order to understand how one human rises into the public consciousness and manages to stay there for years, decades and very often even beyond that.

Roughly as long as the shelf life of a Twinkie #thatsalongtime

Trump and Judy might both be modern day legends but in so many other, more important ways, they couldn’t be more different.

Trump from the beginning used his role as a renowned entertainer to divide people.  The phrase that cemented his stardom in the mass media zeitgeist was, YOU’RE FIRED!  He ran for the presidency on a platform of Make America Great Again but never before in American history has the country been this divided.  While Trump certainly did unite a significant subset of the country he polarized us a whole and continues to do so as he and his presidency amble towards impeachment.

Haven’t we been crawling there all along? #itstime

A deeper dive into specifics allows us to see this is not where it ends.  Trump’s talent is self-promotion, grievance and sheer rage/anger.  It can be amusing in cynical, seemingly too politically correct times but it doesn’t cause true pleasure like the lilt of a spectacular musical note.  Nor does it allow us to relax and let down our guard when we watch a scene in a film or on TV where a performer is bold enough to expose publicly the kind of vulnerabilities we keep secret for fear of risking our own personal shame.

With Trump weakness is BAD, not a given.  It is an aspect of our ourselves so impossible to admit that it must be put through his own personal, branded wood chipper and spew out as aggressive disdain and a call for destruction of whomever we deem as the other.

What my brain will do to 2016 – 2020

Rather than cleanse ourselves through a good cry or the spontaneous live energy of a song delivered by a legendary vocalist, we cloak ourselves in an adrenalin rush of negative performance art that blocks out everything else.  We are assured that no matter what our problems are it’s the outside world that is responsible for them.

The system that’s failed the collective us has made us believe that what we deem as our many rights have only been made wrong by weak leaders in today’s age.

The Trump worldview harkens back to his late eighties mantra that it’s you against the world and that greed and gold and gilt for you and your family are what’s good.

Gee thanks, Gordy #UGH

If you don’t have those it’s the fault of the Mexicans, the drug lords, the non-white invaders, the too privileged leaders who are a disgrace for selling out the real Americans, those people whose bodies they used and willingly stepped on and over to get them where they are today.

What made Trump legendary from the beginning was his lack of shame and ability to vomit out his authentic self no matter what the elite thought of his antics.  He was a crude, trash-talking, show-off with seemingly endless cash, with an amusing glint in his eye and an ability to crack an off-color double entendre or blatantly dirty jokes in public the way we and our families all did in private behind closed doors.

Trying to think about Trump as a legend #imtrying

Whatever we say about Trump he evokes for many what publicly passes as an authentic self.  Many would argue Judy did the same, from her Wizard of Oz days on through the territory covered in this latest film of her life.

Certainly, the public persona of any legend is not truly authentic.  No persona, light or dark, good or bad, can ever be all things any human being is in any given moment or in total.

Except Julie Andrews… she is EVERYTHING

What is most important when we speak of our legends is considering not who they are or were but what they truly do for us and why.  In whose company do we want to live in through our eternities?  Which of these legends, despite their humanness, gave us something positive to consider, and which others of them brought us down as a collective whole?

Renee Zellweger – “Over the Rainbow” (From Judy Soundtrack)

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Truth Bombs

It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in this country, said the hate-filled man who spreads it daily.

We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t have to specify whom.

Suffice it to say you want him as far away as possible in the aftermath of the largest attack on a Jewish synagogue in U.S. history.  If only in respect for the 11 dead worshippers and their families, as well as for the six members of the police force shot trying to save them.

Sadly, this is impossible when he occupies the most powerful bully pulpit in the land.

Chairy, it’s really been a rough week

Oh, and for the record, blackface was not okay when Megyn Kelly was a kid. In much the same way race baiting tweets are no-no’s today.  At least for some people.

She might have thought so because she was a kid in the eighties, a time when lots of people adopted tone-deaf insensitivity as their overpowering scent.   The greed is good mantra/catchphrase of Oliver Stone’s fictional antihero/villain, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, was their guiding North Star and it extended to far more than money.

I can’t even look at him without wanting to barf

And luckily, we’ve gotten soooo beyond that.

People nowadays remember the eighties quite nostalgically. They quickly, very quickly, get all Goonies on you.  Soon after they might start singing the Ghostbusters theme or even begin quizzing you on who your favorite Back to the Future character is. 

Well, we know it certainly isn’t BIF #canteven

I didn’t have a favorite character from that particular film, nor did I think a bunch of guys pretending to kill ghosts or a group of kids fighting special effects thingies were particularly amusing at the time.

That is because back in the eighties, when I wasn’t tripping over homeless people in the street or watching many of my contemporaries being wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, I was marveling at how a second-rate actor clearly in over his head pretended to be president for eight years.  And to such acclaim by so vociferous of a base.

This isn’t meant to be political.  Seriously, I didn’t get it.  Because if you look at Ronald Reagan’s old movies they were truly not very good.  It was the same watching his TV performances as president.  Bad Hollywood dialogue he didn’t write delivered with the faux sincerity of a television pitchman, which was what he was before he slid into California’s governor’s mansion and later the White House.

Frances McD knows what I’m talking about

To this day it’s a wonder to me and to my friends how it happened.  So put that in your pot pipe and inhale before you dismiss the crazies in 2018.

One might say my friends and I hold a very niche minority opinion on Mr. Reagan and that the 1980s are not the twenty-teens.  But anyone who says that clearly didn’t bear witness to that president committing passive genocide daily in the eight years he was in office against thousands in the gay community, dozens of whom were my friends and several of whom were former lovers.  Our then president’s refusal to take the lead as the leader of the free world in a clearly growing pandemic because it primarily affected a minority group outside his base, (Note: Not to mention, one they didn’t care for), or to vaguely step up or, to even do anything meaningful at all on the issue ever, is a matter of public record.  And as such, it is irrefutable.

PREACH

I know this because I’ve silenced many a room over the decades that were singing his praises by staring coldly at anything human in my eye line and proclaiming in my most non-hysterical, deepest and resolute voice:

DO NOT TALK TO A GAY MAN OF A CERTAIN AGE ABOUT THE VIRTUES OF RONALD REAGAN.  DO NOT.   I WAS THERE.

The same will be said about Donald J. Trump one day, but not only by gay men.  It will be said by African-Americans, by Mexicans, and by any person of color vaguely paying attention.  It will also be voiced by the disabled, by the sick, by the uninsured and by all those who like to drink clean water or breathe fresh air.

You know, everyone but these guys

It will particularly be voiced by women, who, by then, will likely outnumber the men in leadership roles.  Assuming, that is, we are still united enough to lead and there are enough of us left.

One supposes this depends on how far off that said future is and how fatalistic one chooses to be.

A president doesn’t need to personally fire a gun or inject someone with a virus in order to be held responsible for presiding over the mass carnage left in the wake of domestic terrorism or disease.

A glimpse into the white house

When you are the person at the top, the place where the buck stops, it is enough to fan the flames of hate against particular minority groups or political foes from the opposite end of the spectrum and then watch in faux horror as the chips fall where they may.  In that sense nothing has changed since the 1980s, though ads featuring Black Welfare Queens seem almost quaint in comparison to today’s not so passive presidential endorsement of white nationalism and the KKK rallies from which they draw (Note: Drew?) their power.

It is infuriating, as a gay Jewish man of a certain age, to have to once again bear witness to a U.S. president who offers nothing but insincere hollow platitudes and a crystal clear lack of intent to do ANYTHING AT ALL to stem the tides of hate.  One hopes it is equally infuriating to those of any heritage or sexual persuasion at any age.

reality

Still, what makes it worse this time is that the platitudes offered don’t even attempt to be soothing.  Instead, they are tinged with threats of law and order violence and a recommendation for more guns, along with a promise of capital punishment retribution.

And that’s on the day that it happened, before we’ve buried even one of the 11 latest bodies we’ve yet to mourn.

It’s unclear where we go from here when almost half the country doesn’t understand what the big deal is in supporting a TV host who thinks Blackface isn’t any big deal.  But certainly let’s not go back to the 1980s, or the 1950s, for that matter.

Huey Lewis – “The Power of Love”

Sorkin Says

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.58.19 AM

There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.