The Crowning Achievement

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The major strength of Netflix’s acclaimed series The Crown is that finally and once and for all an outsider (Note: Me) understands the pros and cons behind the idea of a King or Queen.

That is not to say that one (Note: Me) likes or accepts the idea of a hierarchy of humanity – i.e. a whole country required to bow and curtsy to another citizen wearing a crown – but at least the tradition and the people wearing the hardware are both clear and recognizable as something approaching human.

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

I’m not much for bowing down to idols – true, false or otherwise – but in one brief scene in its season one 10-episode arc, The Crown is succinct on this one heretofore elusive point:

The monarchy represents something Divine that can serve as a sort of model for what mankind can aspire to. (Note: One assumes that includes lowly females).

So despite the fact that the actual monarch, be it female or male, is indeed human, once he/she is anointed with oil by a leading British religious figure, he/she also all at once (and forever) becomes Divine He/She and therefore worthy of genuflection and ring kissing by everyone in It’s orbit.

Or so the thought processes go.

Not to mention, and to its further credit, this fine series also shows that a Queen (The British kind, that is) doesn’t necessarily want or is even qualified to be a Deity and that more than a few in the inner circle have their own worries that this vast spectacle is indeed nothing more than their own high-priced version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  

... which most certainly includes The Crown's Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

… which most certainly includes The Crown’s Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

Moreover, it ultimately and finally posits (and this is the what really brings it all home), that despite all of the doubts and handwringing about it, the vast majority of its SUBJECTS are indeed on some level TRUE BELIEVERS in it all and will actually VOLUNTARILY indulge en masse in the tradition of genuflection to this Chosen Human Deity.

This thus reinforces the point of the monarchy to whatever doubting royals there may be and, judging by the continued fascination with them across the globe, proves an even larger point about societies in general:

The PEOPLE indeed do WANT and NEED a HIGHER IDEAL in which to BELIEVE IN and strive towards.

We Americans, of course, have no such thing as a national royalty and if we did it certainly wouldn’t be in Washington, D.C. – at least at the moment.   Except, of course, for one thing —

THE OSCARS.

Behold... our golden god!

Behold… our golden god!

Yes, I know this is a long way to go for an analogy and moan and groan at HOLLYWOOD all you like – led by PRETEND POTUS DJT (aka The Non-Deity who lost the Popular vote by 2.86 million). But let’s be honest:

The vast majority of the TV watchers here and worldwide WILL tune in to the television coronation of Oscar. And even if they don’t and/or claim not to – see what happens when the BIGGEST MOVIE STAR IN THE WORLD walks into a room, a bar, a party, a restaurant or a hardware store in your neighborhood in your presence.   You will see the closest thing approaching GENUFLECTION you will EVER, EVER WITNESS IN YOUR LIFETIME ON AMERICAN SOIL.

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

(Note: If this hasn’t happened to you yet or you think it never will take my word for it. I have witnessed it in more than several cities big and small across the country over several decades in my lifetime and it is ALWAYS the same unmistakably American version of a mass CURTSY and BOW).

(Note 2: And please don’t write in and say what about The Pope? America is a secular country (so far) and He (It?) doesn’t count).

This is not a defense of the Oscars because that would be a defense of an indefensible DEITY. It is just an effort on the part of a lover of this year’s favorite for best picture, La La Land, to get the movie fans and pop culture lovers and prognosticators worldwide to calm the f-k down and, as the young people say (right?), get out of my grill.

I say believe the hype

I say believe the hype

Those of us who adore this movie for its reinforcement of hope and belief in the creative dream and Hollywood-ized version of love and romance, are not the intellectual equivalent of “Make America Great Again” as one essayist whose name I won’t mention recently pondered. Nor do we have crappy taste in films or suffer from too much white privilege (though which White person among us White people doesn’t?). In fact, we simply were transported by something we’ve never quite seen before on the Big Screen and want to sing its praises and share it with you.

Which brings me to another chief complaint about the movie – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not… Hugh Jackman and Barbra Streisand? Beyonce and Jay-Z?   Adele and Sam Smith? (You sooo don’t want that even though you think you do). Jennifer Hudson and Pharrell?

... or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller. #HermoinegetsWhiplash

… or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller #HermoinegetsWhiplash

Listen up. It’s not always about the notes you can hit and how well you can sing – especially in a movie musical where performance is everything. It’s about telling the story, the emotion, the passion, the joy and the sadness.   And consider that after five decades of concert tours, Bob Dylan still can’t sing a lick. No, honestly. Can he really “sing” – as you crave? Yet he’s captivating. As are many singer-songwriter-actors. Rappers don’t sing the way Sinatra did. Which is fine. Aretha Franklin is still the Queen of Soul and the late Karen Carpenter will always have perfect pitch. That’s a whole other subject and has nothing to do with carrying the story of a movie with your performance in a slightly imperfect yet surreal world.

Which brings us to what looks to be the three-way race for best picture between La La Land, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.

Ready to place your bets?

Ready to place your bets?

They’re all wonderful films in their own way and yeah, perhaps you don’t agree that La La Land has the inside shot at being this year’s DEITY. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the story and its filmic luster for many or change the fact that in the system you are choosing to participate in there can only be one QUEEN. (Note: Ahem).

So instead take a broader cosmic view of the whole process. Think of them each as planets. La La Land is Earth, Hidden Figures is Saturn and Moonlight is Pluto.

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Pluto is the furthest away from mass reality and therefore probably won’t win. Hidden Figures is certainly the most enjoyable to look at and understand from an en masse point of view.   But La La Land is not only surreal and visually interesting – it has managed to capture something else in the minds of many – a kind of magic that feels like home to the majority. It doesn’t mean we’re right and you’re wrong. That we worship The Deity and you are heathens.

NOR, does it mean the reverse.

We’re talking movies and planets – each floating in their own solar systems. I mean, can you compare Uranus with Venus? Or would you be too embarrassed to even try? Well, if you wouldn’t be, you should be.

Crown or not, in the end we’re all the King and Queen of our Own Existence and the stars of our Own Movies.

The point is not to be swayed by someone else’s version of royalty. And to never genuflect

To anyone.

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THE RISE OF THE ___________

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I want to do anything but write about ________ today.

Literally anything. Except jump out of an airplane or die. Which in my mind is the same thing.

And, he referred to my hands –‘ if they’re small, something else must be small.‘ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.’

I'm just gonna leave this here...

I’m just gonna leave this here…

Here’s what Modern Family writer @DannyZuker recently tweeted on the subject.

In the spirit of that, here’s a line from one of my favorite films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) –

He has his father’s eyes…Satan is his father… 

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Drumpf.

Get ‘em out, get’ em out, get ‘em outa here!

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And suddenly all the Black people were gone – pushed and dragged away by large burly men when they dared to speak out in a public place. Or dared to just be standing around doing nothing but listening.

Bill Maher played the Hitler card in a short, hilarious reference on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher on Friday.

I suggest watching for its mere 2 minutes. But if you don’t want to it involves a visual of the Fuhrer shouting loudly and hysterically to thousands of rabid, cheering supporters in the 1940s. Yet instead of listening to words from the leader of The Third Reich we’re hearing recent 2015/16 sound bites from ________  as if they were utterances from Heil You Know Who.

The transitions are seamless. I mean, you’d never ever know. Even the occasional joke feels real. It all works.

Here’s part of the climactic monologue/speech from another movie I love, Tootsie (1982), when the hero-in-female drag explains why in the end female leaders are in much more preferable to their male counterparts.

…Now you all know that my father was a brilliant man; he built this hospital. What you don’t know is that to his family, he was an unmerciful tyrant – a absolute dodo bird. He drove my mother, his wife, to – to drink…

Dorothy tells it how it is

Dorothy tells it how it is

I don’t drink much myself but I can’t say a nice stiff Scotch wouldn’t hit the spot just about now. Perhaps even a sip would do it for me. Yes, I’m a lightweight. But at least I know it. Unlike some people.

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The grammar mistakes are________ ‘s, not mine. Just in case it was confirming his thoughts about how inaccurate journalists are. Well, I used to be a journalist. Now I’m just a blogger. Or, to use ________ ’s language, a loser. Of course, so is the New York Times, according to ________ . So, journalistically speaking, I’m in good company.

Louis C.K. wrote an open letter to his fans this week about the Person of Color (Note: Orange) whose name we dare not speak. It was funny, honest and intelligent. Creative reportage is perhaps the best description. Much like the new journalism writings of people like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson in the 1970s. But given the informality of Twitterverse and emailspeak of the new millennium, a quote like this speaks volumes:

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Of course, there was a lot more to what he said than that – a whole letter to the public, actually. You can read it here.

If you don’t, just know that preceding the above quote was this thought from Mr. C.K. (Note: Calling him that seems so weird, doesn’t it? #Louie) – he’s okay with the next president being from the other side of the aisle.

We are about 40 percent conservative and 40 percent liberal…And it always made sense that everyone gets a president they like for a while and then hates the president for a while. But it only works if the conservatives put up a good candidate. A good smart conservative to face the liberal candidate so they can have a good argument and the country can decide which way to go this time.

Though this is what Robert Redford had to say in one of the most romantic movies ever made – The Way We Were (1973). He plays a pretty boy aspiring novelist and eventual screenwriter who is speaking to mousy, brainy political activist/Jewish girl Barbra Streisand, a college classmate who he will marry, cheat on and years later divorce right after she gives birth to his only daughter.

Well, you make fun of politicians. What else can you do with them?

BRB watching this for the 1,000th time

BRB watching this for the 1,000th time

You can call them out – or not vote for them.

Actually, ________ ’s competitors are doing the former in great big shouts all over the country and every time you tune into our many airwaves. But none are willing to say they’ll do the latter. In fact, at their most recent debate this week, they all vowed to vote for him if he is their nominee. That’s exactly the opposite.

It sort of reminds me of a line from one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures – Postcards From The Edge (1990).

…I’m not a box, I don’t have sides. This is it, one side fits all!

It is interesting to note the character saying that is a reformed drug addict.

... or in the same condition I am when I watch any GOP debate

… or in the same condition I am when I watch any GOP debate

Movies, like history, repeat themselves and their messages. And often in the form of history – both past and present.   Much as I love film, there are times when I so wish this weren’t true.

Oscar Post (Mortem)

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Here’s the absolute truth:

I look forward to watching the Oscars every year. This started even before there was an international avenue on which to snark. And it was certainly waaaay before I ever even dreamt I’d see an openly gay actor serve as the host while accompanied down the red carpet prior to the ceremony by his HUSBAND. Those were the days of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson – a time when John Wayne won the Oscar for True Grit over Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for Midnight Cowboy. Meaning: #OscarsSoWhite #OscarsSoStraight.

BRB going to the gym right now

BRB going to the gym right now

So thanks Neil Patrick Harris for providing a new reality to a fantasy I never even had the vision to have. Not to mention Sunday night’s nifty Sound of Music tribute by Lady Gaga that all culminated with the entrance of Julie Andrews in the ultimate torch-passing moment. That alone is the best of what the movies can do – create not only an unimaginable dream for me but have it all take place in gay heaven.

On the other hand —

Oy.

Despite the fact that I have now lived to hear Ms. Andrews utter the indelible phrase Dear Gaga while moving her into an embrace – well, we still all do have A LOT of work to do.

Brb head exploded

Savoring the moment

I’m not saying the three-hour and forty plus minute show was long but….is it still going on? And why pick on the brilliantly talented Octavia Spencer to hold a suitcase with NPH’s supposed Oscar predictions in inevitable and unfunny cutbacks all through the show? Don’t they remember Uma/Oprah? Isn’t it tough enough for non-white actresses in Hollywood? Why position her as the Oscar telecast version of her character from The Help? She is NOT a maid.

Not to mention: Why did Eddie Murphy present best screenplay? Does he immediately bring to mind great writing or was THAT the joke? No, that was, well…there weren’t too many. I guess saying you could eat up Reese With-Her-Spoon took care of that. Very punny. But not as much fun as Prom Pixie Jesus Jared Leto. I am NOT being sarcastic here. I live for those tuxedos!!

His assistant is holding my corsage.

His assistant is holding my corsage.

On the other hand, we have the great moment of supporting actress Oscar winner Patricia Arquette speaking out for equal pay for working women – an appropriate plea as someone who played what is now THE version of America’s working Mom in Boyhood.

Meryl approved.

Meryl approved.

There was also the great John Legend/Common performance of best song winner Glory from the film Selma and their all inclusive acceptance speech afterwards. And let’s not forget the spontaneous verve of Eddie Redmayne winning best actor for Theory of Everything or the similar exuberance of the very talented Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski, of Ida. (Note: I loved the film but who knew it was pronounced Eeda? Did I block that out or, as one tweeter mentioned, do I simply choose to remember the name of the film as Rhoda’s mother?).

Red Carpet Ready!

Red Carpet Ready!

Still, despite those peaks something about the whole affair felt flat and odd. NPH is a great song and dance man. Anna Kendrick and Jack Black are funny and spunky and, most importantly, can really sing. So then why did their opening number feel like it was something out of a Disney tribute to the movies? Was this because we were watching on ABC/Disney or because the writers of the medley also penned Disney/Frozen’s Let It Go? Or both?

As NPH joked about Oprah being rich and then tried to explain it, or strode through the audience while the Big O attempted to suppress the look of sheer terror on her face that he’d come over (Note: Adjacent to the expression of don’t even think about it, Sonny on the face of fellow audience member Clint Eastwood), one longed for the Tony Awards, Tina and Amy at the Golden Globes or even a clip from #SNL40’s Celebrity Jeopardy. Hell, that would’ve been a lot more fun. Or get all the stars together to do The Californians sketch and then take the 2015 version of the #EllenSelfie.

At least there was this

At least there was this

Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I’m being unfair. I’m a really big Sean Penn fan but he was so sinister delivering this year’s best picture winner I started to think we were all being lured back into Mystic River, where he would then make us all morph into Tim Robbins’ Oscar-winning character and everyone one of us would wind up…well, look it up if you don’t recall.

Did you find it odd that Michael Keaton, the star of Birdman – the big winner of the night with best picture, director and screenplay – was not mentioned by anyone other than his director most of the evening while jokes abounded about all kinds of well, strange things? Though I will admit it was particularly gratifying that when we finally did get to hear Mr. Keaton speak briefly during the best picture acceptance speech by what seemed like the entire above-the-line cast and crew he had the grace to step to the mic and simply say, it’s great to be here, who are we kiddin.

Well, perhaps this was not as odd as John Travolta , who tried to make up with Idina Menzel after calling her Adele Dazeem last year but instead wound up touching her face far too many times in the space of a minute. Once again – odd AND strange. But not as odd and strange as John’s…

The dog chain.. the hair.... ??

The dog chain.. the hair…. ??

You know what, I’m not going there.

See, the truth is — it’s easy to snark. But it’s not easy to get nominated for an Oscar  and Travolta has done it twice. So at the end of the day I suppose for many of us – especially those of us who work, have worked, ever aspired to work, or even ever fantasized about one day working in the entertainment industry – there is a kind of fantasy wish fulfillment to it all that never quite gets fulfilled.

We wonder what would it be like to be on that stage or, more to the point, we use the Oscars to pretend we ARE one of those people we see on that stage doing either as well or WAAAAY better than them. Even if we don’t understand in our heart of hearts what that really means or how the reality of being there would actually feel and/or be if we really did get there

Perhaps this IS the reason why the Oscars so often disappoint. How CAN you live up to all the fantasy and hype? It’s like going on a date with the hottest person in school and wondering why they don’t match the over-the-top scenario you created in your head for them.

Except him. He really is the coolest.

Except him. He really is the coolest. #marryme

Of course, that’s how I imagine it would have been like to date the hottest person in school. So I could be wrong. At the end of the day this is all about personal fantasy anyway and it’s up to you to decide.

As for me, I’m going to bask in the afterglow of Gaga and Julie once more and see if I can pretend I’m back in gay heaven. Or perhaps I’ll just put on Mary Poppins (Note: I do like The Sound of Music but Mary Poppins always was my fave) and call it a night as Julie/Mary sings me to sleep. Where I promise you I WILL dream. Splendidly.

… and in case you’re keeping score, the Chair correctly predicted 15 out of 24 winners, giving him score of 62.5% (This is even a lower grade than the Chair received in gym class). The Chair offers no excuses – only promises of doing better next year. #ItsnoteasybeinganOracle

Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

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Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

The Valedictorian

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The visual imagery director Mike Nichols brought to The Graduate was so strongly persuasive that for several days after I saw it he had the clearly gay, not yet out, early adolescent me convinced that I could actually be straight. The stocking leg of sleekly sexy Mrs. Robinson beckoning the scared and too internally worried young boy/man – it all worked and made me wonder, “Hmmmm, perhaps there’s a…chance?”

meeeeeowwwww

meeeeeowwwww

I’m not sure whether this was a good or bad thing. But I do know for certain it was as effective as it was unlikely. And any resentment I might have had towards Mr. Nichols for prompting that momentary confusion is forgiven not due to the fact that he died this past week but because it all worked out so gloriously for both of us in the end.

Mr. Nichols died at the age of 83 and accolades have sprung up, as they do, all over the globe for someone who has had such a prodigious career and was, incidentally, also married to one of the most famous newswomen in the world.   It’s also what will inevitably happen when one of a dozen proud earners of the EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – passes away. A merely talented person can get fortunate and as a fluke be awarded any one of these in their field in an off year. But all four – and in this case awarded multiple times – it seems like the overused title of “genius” is for once earned.

Make room on the mantle!

Make room on the mantle!

I have many friends who have met, hung out and worked with Mr. Nichols over the years. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to do any of the three. But I feel as if I have because their stories are endless. They alternate between his brilliance as a director, the extreme smarts he brought to everything he touched in work and in life and an unrelenting and often quite scabrous wit. Not to mention his sophistication, occasional superiority, playfulness, penchant for secrets, kindness, generosity and yes – sheer, unadulterated genius.

Ugh, not that word again. Well, as my little sister used to say when that early adolescent me also begged her to let me play with her jacks on the kitchen floor – tough.

To be a recognized genius in show business is no easy feat – mostly because the arts are in the end so utterly subjective.   Still, in Mr. Nichols’ case any rational person measuring “genius” by any rational standard could be overwhelmed by his canon in just film alone. Very few directors make one or two memorable movies in their lives, much less five, six, seven or eight over almost half a century. That might not seem as impressive as I hoped to make it sound – that is until I start listing the films.

How many directors among us, or those aspiring to do anything meaningful in the movies, are capable of making their debut with something on the caliber of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Think you can? I invite you to Netflix it or rent it or even borrow my copy and then get back to me.

That pretty much sums it  up

That pretty much sums it up

If after watching one of the best movie adaptations of one of the best plays ever written with one of the biggest movie star couples that ever lived, then watch his follow-up film – a little throwaway classic we like to call The Graduate. These two releases in two consecutive years? Are you kidding? Not only will the latter live on as a seminal work in the history of movies, it also happens to be one of the few films that captured the tumultuous themes the 1960s and manages to stay relevant today. Don’t believe me on that either? Sit in on one of my college screenwriting classes, or the film classes of any of my colleagues at pretty much any university across the country and do an informal survey of this younger generation’s view of The Graduate – something I have done on and off for more than a decade.   Not a negative word about a movie that was shot nearly five decades ago (Note: Rare in itself) – a time not long after most of their parents were born.

Where do you even begin?

Where do you even begin?

Then there were other classics like Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge (Note: One of the truest and funniest movies about show business that I’ve ever seen) and Primary Colors. Not to mention the brilliant and seemingly inadaptable epic play Angels in America as a multi-part HBO movie. Which begs the question of Silkwood and Heartburn – about as different as two films can get but both equally affecting and chilling in very different ways. There’s no time to get into those or any others of the above or we’ll be here all night. Better to spend your time watching or re-watching any of them instead of spending one more second reading any more of what I or anybody else chooses to write about them.

We could stop there but we haven’t gotten to the theatre. I’ll try to make this brief but what do you say about an eight time Tony Award winner who directed so many of Neil Simon’s most seminal and successful early Broadway comedies – including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite – only to produce the megahit musical Annie a decade later, follow it up by directing the even meggier hit musical Spamalot thirty years after that, only to follow that by winning a Tony Award less than a decade later for directing the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a much-acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s classic American play Death of a Salesman?

And he looked so freakin' cool doing it

Right at home

Had enough yet? It might surprise young people to know that Mr. Nichols began his career as a performer. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator over the years – Elaine May – he was one half of one of the most successful comic duos of the 1950s and 60s – Nichols and May. They played clubs around the world, guested all over television and sold millions of records – earning him his first “G” in the EGOT – the Grammy award.

The dynamic duo

The dynamic duo

For those who believe to be a brilliant director or artist of any kind means that one must create a very specific and very individual style that permeates their entire output, it is particularly interesting to note that as a filmmaker, man of the theatre, and performer Mike Nichols had no such signature or even strategy. Of all the many thoughtful quotes I’ve read and heard from him since his death the one that stayed with me is probably the simplest. When asked about how he directs scenes in comedy vs. drama he noted that all he really tries to do is figure out “what’s really going on” between the people. That search for “the truth” among human beings could be why he so easily cuts across so many genres and styles. On the other hand, it could just be that he was smarter and more perceptive than the rest of us.

Of course, EGOTS – or in layman terms: little statuettes voted to you by your peers – don’t account for or even prove genius beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it’s one of the only measures we have for the immeasurable. But if you still don’t buy that reflect on what Mr. Nichols has left behind in the aftermath of his death. No, I’m not talking about the massive tributes throughout the world from all of the top people across the board in the entertainment industry. Consider the work.

Oh.. and he was besties with Meryl Streep.

Oh.. and plus he was besties with Meryl Streep.

One final note: Mike Nichols was an immigrant.   He was born in Berlin with the name Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky and arrived in the U.S when he was seven years old with his family in order to escape the Nazi regime. He recalled that at the time he could only speak two phrases in English. One was: I do not speak English and the other was: Please don’t kiss me.

Clearly he was a dreamer to have achieved as much as he did.  So perhaps it stands to reason we give a few others the chance to follow in his footsteps and at least attempt to begin to fill the void. I think he’d approve. Though certainly he would say it more elegantly and with a dash more humor. Which sort of proves my point.

Plastic Wrap

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 8.04.23 AM

As I sat staring aghast at the before and after pictures of Renee Zellweger that circulated all over social media this week I wondered – am I against plastic surgery or just bad plastic surgery? Or at least the extensive kind since bad is clearly in the eye of the beholder when it applies to things like elective medical procedures and reupholstery which, when you stop to think about it, are sort of the same thing.

For those not up to snuff, some rather shocking photos emerged of Ms. Zellweger at a red carpet event where her face was very much unlike the quite famous one we have all come to know since she emerged seemingly out of nowhere as a full blown movie star in Jerry Maguire – a film where she not only held her own against the megawatt presence of a younger Tom Cruise but matched his charisma frame for frame. Needless to say, anyone who has made following the movies their business or even hobby knows that aside from this being not an easy feat to pull off it is actually pretty near impossible to do against the handful of actors we in the public vaunt into cinema royalty in any given generation.

The making of America's sweetheart

The making of America’s sweetheart

Of course, it’s been almost 20 years since Jerry Maguire and both Ms. Zellweger, all of you and, most importantly, myself are also almost two decades older. Perhaps that is why I was so taken aback by this now unfamiliar image staring at me in the face that was identified as her face. Even though I am more than a decade older than Ms. Zellweger and on a given day absolutely as vain as any movie star I’ve ever met, I couldn’t help wonder why anyone as talented, accomplished and yes – attractive as she – would choose to alter their physical self to such a very large extent.

Honey, we can all tell you've had work

Honey, we can all tell you’ve had work

Then it hit me – if her alterations simply made her look like a younger version of herself rather than an altered version of, let’s say, her distant cousin raised in Slabovia twice removed – would I have been so troubled by it? Or even noticed? I was quick to comment that this new RZ decision was “sad” and wrote/told those within ear or eye shot on social media to “be themselves” and not adhere to the pressure to “do that to yourself.” Well, whom was I kidding? It didn’t seem to matter to me when I met Jane Fonda last year that at 73 she suddenly looked about 20 years younger. Or that somehow, clearly only through exercise and Scientology, 52 year-old Tom Cruise seems permanently frozen at 38. On the other hand, I was appalled several years ago when I saw the shiny, waxily frozen face of Sylvester Stallone to my right waiting for the valet to bring around his car or the alternately scary images of Mickey Rourke, Kim Novak, Barbara Hershey and Burt Reynolds in recent years in photographs, awards shows, on film and yes, regrettably even in person at the supermarket.

Hey Mickey!

Hey Mickey!

Age is a very, very tricky thing, let me tell you. Physically, psychologically – and in all other ways you can think of. But let’s not get into our mutual expiration dates for fear of depressing the hell out of the room and just stick with the outside wrapping. You don’t want to look like you belong in a rocking chair but at the same time you don’t want to live a pathetically striving existence of trying to compete with people 20 years your junior and then lie yourself into thinking that you appear as refreshed as those that age who are not excessively drinking or drugging up daily over the top doses of some lethal co-combinations or quantities of said substances. Stand next to any healthy individual of that age at your age and the lie becomes too obvious. That is, if you choose to live in reality.

OK, we get it, Meryl. You rule.

OK, we get it, Meryl.

Well, luckily the entertainment business has perfected the art of creating alternate realities and we have perfected incorporating what they sell into our everyday existences. With so much available, the fountain of youth is just one more item to be obtained with one, two or three clicks at the most. True – virtues like intellect, humor, love and decency are what we say we want but they can’t stare back at you in the mirror – either rear view, bathroom or vanity style.

Which brings us back to Ms. Zellweger. In answer to the outpouring of…reaction…to her new look, she issued the following series of statements:

“I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows…

My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy. For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn’t allow for taking care of myself. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion. I was aware of the chaos and finally chose different things.”

Reaction?

Reaction?

That is a lot more than any of us want to know about her life or even have the right to know but let’s not try to pretend it answers the question which is – why does an accomplished, more than reasonably attractive person (Note: I always thought she was flirty and really pretty but lets go with the former) endure the risks of major surgery and perhaps a life-altering change in appearance in order to look…younger? More attractive? Or less or more….???????????

Certainly, Ms. Zellweger is under no obligation to say anything at all. And for those who want to advance arguments, the correct answers are not things like:

  1. She makes her living as an actress and at 45 years old this is the price that must be paid.
  2. Plastic surgery is always a gamble and she just got unlucky. Besides, she doesn’t look all that different.
  3. Why are you specifically raking her over the coals, anyway?

Actors the caliber of RZ play real characters and as they age they have the ability to adapt and become all kinds of more interesting and even older people; to say she doesn’t look all that different is like me trying to pose as a full on Divan rather than a mere Chair; and I am a huge RZ fan not only for her commercial hits like Bridget Jones, Chicago, Jerry Maguire and Cold Mountain but in lesser known films like The Whole Wide World, Nurse Betty and My One and Only. In fact, in the latter 2009 road movie she gives a charming performance as the fictionalized version of actor George Hamilton’s beautiful Southern belle mother who determinedly drives cross country with the younger George in tow as life lessons abound. Watch it on DVD or Netflix and see if you don’t agree.

... this film is from 2009 (yes, that's 5 years ago)

… this film is from 2009 (yes, that’s 5 years ago)

The truth is there is something truly insidious about what the scientific advances in beautifying medical procedures have wrought on our culture. I live in L.A. where so many are surgically enhanced. But this is not limited just to the movies or on the left coast anymore. It’s in most big cities. And smaller ones, too. Go to an upscale restaurant and you see it everywhere. And not just on women. I go to the gym and I see it in the faces of guys I used to know who now have foreheads and cheeks (not to mention other body parts, I presume) that you could bounce a quarter off of. This is the same city I came to more than thirty years ago where I spotted a still dazzling attractive man in his late seventies stumbling a bit tipsy down the streets of Beverly Hills. He was tanned and had deep bags under his eyes and lines on his forehead and cheeks but wouldn’t you know that with his thick black glasses and gray black hair Dean Martin was still devastatingly handsome. And he wasn’t even sober! Not to mention a few years ago at a private screening for eight I also found myself wildly attracted to sixty something year old Helen Mirren, sexy as hell despite wrinkles in her face after a day of filming but with a healthy, quite upright body and refreshingly blunt intellect to match.

What's your shelf life?

What’s your shelf life?

We can dismiss all this by saying these are exceptionally attractive people who have aged well but that doesn’t address the very fact that there is a way to still look great on the outside to both strangers and yourself without going under the knife and taking the risk that if she were not forewarned even your own mother might pass you by on the street. That kind of extreme alteration used to be reserved for fictional characters in soap operas and murder mysteries who had committed a crime and needed to change their identities. Getting older is not a cause for either of those.

... or 1980s stardom

… or 1980s stardom

All of this is not so say one can’t be well groomed and use beauty aids. Do NOT get cute and try to employ the where do you draw the line argument here. You’re in charge of the line and you’re the master (or mistress) of how you look.

Cher, the ultimate show business survivor and, among other things, admitted plastic surgery user, had the best answer to those who questioned her employment of cosmetic procedures to look good and, as she says, “keep the package viable.” And that is:

If I want to put my tits on my back, it’s nobody’s business but my own.

I would only add to that statement: There are lots of people who will still find you equally or even more attractive if you choose NOT to do that. Perhaps even yourself.

And that goes double for anyone else – famous, unknown or even infamous – who might be considering cutting into their face now or at some future date. This gets harder to say as you get older but it’s a lot easier to maintain as an alternative as the years go on.

A Little Bit of Magic

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 2.04.55 PMTruly great screen actors are amazing and quite rare. Even Meryl Streep, one of our best living examples, has said numerous times she chooses not to analyze the process too much for fear of the magic disappearing.

So what are the rest of us to do when routinely questioned about that magic in reference to almost every film or TV show that passes before our eyes these days? Well, fall back on the famous quote given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he was asked to define obscenity.

I know it when I see it.

I sat for two hours watching the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in a John le Carre spy thriller called A Most Wanted Man this week knowing in my heart of hearts that the movie must really star some middle-aged German guy who physically bore some resemblance to Mr. Hoffman but most certainly had no real relation on any other viable plane of existence to him. Wrong. Unfortunately I was with a friend who managed to convince me, with the help of IMDB, dreaded logic and the contractually agreed upon billing on the movie poster (which can never really lie to that extreme) that somehow this guy in that film was actually and indeed the late Mr. Hoffman in his final leading role.

The Magic Man

The Magic Man

My first, almost immediate thought – and I’m extremely embarrassed to reveal this but then what else is a blog for – was that I have an easier time believing Mr. Hoffman is dead of a drug overdose than accepting the fact that no film ever again will in any way, shape or form have him as its star. (Note: Hunger Games: Mockingjay? You’re not seriously going to go there, are you?). How selfish can I be in the name of being in the presence of something so rare and, well, great? I guess very.

Great art is certainly not even a fraction as important to the average person as a great life but it’s also been said that a life lived entirely without being exposed to a little great art in there somewhere – whether by observation or one’s own actions in pursuit of such – can’t truly be all that great at all. Who exactly said that? Well, um, I did just now.

Maybe it was Jebediah?

Maybe it was Jebediah?

The above statement already begins to deflate a bit of the fairy type dust Ms. Streep eludes to but I for one periodically need reminding that there’s artistic brilliance to strive for and view in the world – and that there are also those among us who capable of delivering it. No, most of us will not reach the aforementioned peak but that is not the point. The idea is in some way to continue to both aspire and inspire as an artist rather than to try and fit in to some non-existent current standards of the day. Even in the likely event we don’t reach the pinnacle we will most very certainly come across someone or something in our travels that did. And be all the richer for it not so much in dollars and cents but in the ability to see the world in a new or slightly altered way that has the chance of initiating a profound and just possibly life-altering change in us for the better. And, in turn – who knows –the world

How do I absolutely believe in this stuff?   Because I know it to be absolutely true for myself.

The first time I read an Edward Albee play, The Zoo Story, I knew I had picked up something created by the kind of writer I wanted to be – or at least read. He managed to write about situations I hadn’t lived but somehow tapped into profound feelings I had certainly experienced – even at 18 years old. I felt the same way when I saw a small theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Or watched Bette Midler perform onstage live at the Palace theatre in the 1970s for the very first time as a very wee (well, teenage) lad. Or got to go standing room and witness the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line. And all of them, each and every one, contribute to what you’re reading now, which you will do with as you will. I might not be a great artist (yet) but I just might possibly influence one. Or some great artist might be influenced by some lesser artist than myself who passed on information about some even greater artist or piece of art that they had read about here or experienced elsewhere.

"I'd like to thank Notes From A Chair..."

“I’d like to thank Notes From A Chair…”

But let’s get back to actors. Their performances are the most popular to categorize as great probably due to the fact they are the easiest for us to review, at least on a superficial basis. After all, the actor must individually physicalize a role and LITTERALLY transform into another person long before one millimeter of film/digital whatever is shot. Never mind that there are countless technical people, including the guy or gal (aka writer) who first created the damned person you’re seeing onscreen to begin with. Every reasonably intelligent screenwriter knows that despite whatever has been conceived, once an actor is cast he or she will forever BE the character in the audience’s minds and that person you wrote/intended will now and forever (Note: Do NOT think Cats) only be seen as on offshoot of them. This doesn’t seem fair, you say? Well, few things in life are.

Ralph who?

I used to be called Ralph Fiennes

In any event, this is why truly great screen acting is so valued. It appears in that moment and is the literal manifestation of that person. Mr. Hoffman does this with little makeup, ordinary clothing, and sans little gunfire or exploding dramatic flourishes in A Most Wanted Man. He is merely a man – taking small actions like speaking, looking and staring. As he discreetly interacts with others of all ages and nationalities he himself comes across only as a middle-aged, slightly out of shape German guy who has been working undercover too hard and too long with too few examples of success.   In fact, the accent and mannerisms are so convincing that after a while we can’t help but feel like we’re watching an unknown German character actor given a chance at his first meaty role in what becomes a decidedly un-American styled film the longer it continues. Yet in the end what is ultimately most astounding is that an American actor from a small town in upstate New York could so thoroughly convince us he bears so little affinity or understanding of anything to do with the Western Hemisphere.  At least onscreen.

How did you do it?

How did you do it?

If you’re looking for an answer as to how or an analysis of the magic, you won’t find it. But I do know that watching a performance like that in a 2014 release once again reminded me of what is possible in the film industry ever so often – a person reaching the pinnacle of their work, even within the parameters of today’s commercial market. At this stage in my career and life I somehow find that not only profoundly important and encouraging but also thrilling and informative.

It’s not the same but akin to how I felt as a gay man when this summer I stood in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and saw Michelangelo’s statue of the David live for the first time. I was not only astounded by the talent, workmanship and beauty but also reminded that even in the 15 century there were men who saw other men as quite hot – that’s how NOT NEW being gay truly is in the world. Take that National Organization for Marriage.

I'm sexy and I know it.

I’m sexy and I know it.

You can’t talk about great, or your version of it, without sounding a bit like a pretentious windbag. This is especially so when innocent children are exploding in the Middle East and people are starving to death or dying from known and unknown viruses all over the world. But one has to wonder what we are all fighting for if not the right to live our peaceful everyday lives – which by very definition have at their peak moments the potential to experience, at the very least, a few little bits of the aforementioned Streepian-type magic. Isn’t that the point of this entire thing?

What is magical to you might not be magical to me. But in that highest and much lauded tip-top layer of work, the vast majority of us do agree. Oh, you can be a naysayer and opine Ms. Streep has too much technique or Mr. Hoffman is now overrated due to his untimely death. But on the same token you can also stand on your head in Macy’s window and complain when you’re being arrested or stubbornly defy medical science and keep claiming the earth is not getting hotter as our annual temperatures consistently rise with each passing year. In other words, that still does not make any of it so.

Oh Meryl... I want to believe

Oh Meryl… I want to believe

Nevertheless, in the arts we all deserve to believe in whatever magic we choose to believe in wherever we see it. That is why I, for one, will not express my concern here that the trailer that broke this week for Disney’s big Christmas release – the long-awaited film version of the Broadway musical, Into the Woods – looks to me like a not very special episode of ABC’s Once Upon A Time – Meryl Streep or not. Or voice my sense that NBC’s just announced upcoming live production of Peter Pan this Thanksgiving starring Girls’ Allison Williams will be a festival in bland-ola save for Christopher Walken’s canny tap dancing turn as Captain Hook.   I know both can simply just be – well – uh – very entertaining. To lots of people…all over the world…meaning worldwide…to see and to enjoy.

Great fun as all that is, it’s not the same as what Mr. Hoffman is doing onscreen in A Most Wanted Man. Not by a long shot. And that’s important to remember and to experience – for both artists and audiences alike. A more, or even less pretentious writer might go so far as to call it his legacy – to us.