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?”

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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.

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Learning to Shut Up

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There’s nothing like an international tragedy to bring out the wit in people. One doesn’t have to imagine the comic potential in Malaysia Airlines’ second airplane disaster killing hundreds of people because Jason Biggs does it for you.

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Hard up for a Hamas joke for the next cocktail party you attend this week? Hey, Bill Maher can take care of it on your end:

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And if you happen to be on TV hosting a live show when some horrific news story happens (which, let’s face it, is not an impossibility given the explosion of regular people like us on TV these days), you can always count on some random prankster to call in and lighten things the way this guy, posing as an eyewitness military expert, did for MSNBC’s Krystal Ball this week.

KB: Please tell us what you saw on the ground there in the Ukraine?

Prankster: Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky, and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.

KB: So it would appear the plane was shot down – can you tell us any more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?

Prankster: Boy, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

Click here to watch the unfortunate interview

Click here to watch the clip… if you can.

We’re all quite witty these days, aren’t we? And nothing’s off limits. Because if you think it is then you don’t understand comedy at all. And you’re too politically correct. Or a hypocrite who will laugh AT things YOU DO like but will become offended if someone pokes fun at something that hits too close to home – like a plane crash.

I mean, hell, even Dick Cheney chuckles in evil, ironic delight at being referred to as Darth Vader – what’s wrong with you?

The new way to be au courant, hip, happening and oh so clever is to publicly comment somewhere on something or, well, anything that is breaking news. And thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Twitter, Instagram and a handful of other people and stuff we all have ample means to do it. Yes, you get Warhol’s 15 promised minutes of fame for doing very little. What he didn’t bargain for is that the words and images you put out there will resonate for days, months or years later – long after your name has faded. Or perhaps even forever, which is a lot longer than that.

Unfortunately, this button does not exist.

Unfortunately, this button does not exist.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this too.   I mean, who could pass up a good rant against the extreme right wing, the US Supreme Court or the uncreative choices that double for mass entertainment from the Hollywood film and television industrial complex these days? Not me, it would seem.

Like many of us, I long to be heard by a world that too often seems either too noisy or indifferent to take the time out to listen to my pearls of wit and wisdom. How great that I get to be alive and in the orbit of Facebook, Twitter and many yet to be discovered systems that will now allow me to get my thoughts out there even faster –- perhaps even by boring a virtual hole through the cerebral cortex-ae of all of my millions of followers? You think I’m exaggerating? Hmmph – that’s what she (he?) said years ago.

It took the sudden death of a dear friend of 30 plus years yesterday to make me remember: Waitit’s actually okay NOT to weigh in on everything – or even anything – if you don’t care to.

This friend, who had an illustrious show biz career in his field and had been sick but died rather suddenly, left very specific instructions for no funeral, no obituary and, really, nothing at all organized to commemorate his death. Having spent a lifetime behind-the scenes presenting the public lives of more famous people than you or I could count in an afternoon, it is not surprising that at some point he learned the hard earned lesson that many of us will eventually realize (and I’m paraphrasing here):

…in the end the spotlight means nothing except the heat of the moment. It’s irrelevant to who you really are or what, if anything, your life was really about. And if you keep chasing it, it will eventually bore a real hole so deep into your soul (Note: your brain will already be gone by this time) that there will literally be nothing left to you at all…

This friend also taught me another valuable lesson, among so many others. And that is that sometimes, more often than one imagines, not commenting might be the best strategy of all. Or at least withholding comments until you’ve had time to think awhile about what’s happened.

First steps are the hardest

First steps are the hardest

My friend lived a lifetime of strategizing in both how to help people sell themselves and also speak to the media and was darned successful at it. It’s not that he wasn’t outspoken and didn’t speak up – it’s just that he knew that to do it all the time meant you were surrendering what little effect one has in the world. But to listen, and then think, and then listen some more before formulating your final thoughts and saying what was on your mind – was not only wiser but ultimately the most potent way of getting your own way.

Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who died one day prior to my friend and whom I didn’t know personally, might disagree. She spent a lifetime speaking before she fully thought out anything and it seemed to work quite well for her. At least publicly. Or perhaps that was just acting and she kept much of what she really felt deep down inside. The latter just might be more likely, I can hear my friend saying to me and who am I to disagree with him.

She did it her way

She did it her way

No one knew their way around a celebrity better than he did and said celebrities adored him. I mean, can you say you turned down a full-time retainer with show biz’s one-time queen of media manipulation, Madonna, in her eighties heyday – – a moment when a truly skilled person could manage it all and a time, if you can imagine it , long before media was social and when tweeting was the sound of the noisy bird outside your bedroom window you wanted to shoot?

No, I didn’t think so. I thought he was a bit crazy to do so back then but years later I totally get the perils of working for a TRUE QUEEN. Though clearly all he had to do at the time was to take a bit of time to really, really, really think about it.

(Note: I do hope he can forgive me for dropping that one name when referring to him. Though if it’s any consolation, before writing, I did think about it).

In any event, back to the public’s right to know what you and I think about – everything. Do YOU stop and consider why anyone should even care what you think? OK, well I don’t. Not often enough. Forget about cats on Facebook and Instagram – we’re talking about off-the-cuff and immediate thoughts on death, carnage, politics, other people’s family members thrust into the public eye through rape, theft, divorce, robbery, pillaging, as well as attempted murder. On the other hand, it feels good to get it off your chest, doesn’t it? Okay, I’ll answer that, too – yes.

Of course, it is the height of personal irony that all of this is being written to you in a blog – a vehicle whose inherent purpose is to express personal views on a variety of subjects for public consumption. It is also quite paradoxical that you are most likely reading what is being said here through some social media tool whose entire existence has just been tried and found guilty by a jury of one (moi) for the deadened senses of the corrupt social culture we are all so (cue appropriate sarcasm) privileged to live in nowadays.

The Chair excluded, of course

The Chair excluded, of course

Well, yes, I am nothing if not a contrarian, and an often ironic one at that. But in tribute to my late friend, who was quite savvy about this kind of thing even though he didn’t subscribe to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – I’m going to from now on take a beat or two, or maybe even ten or twenty-three, before I open up my mouth, pen and fingers to type out my reaction to the grizzly events of the day. Or, well, at least think about doing so. Who knows, with all the pent up, thought out frustration I might become even more contrarily sarcastic than usual in a much more ironically intelligent way – lest you be concerned all of that self-reflection would cause me to lose my edge.

That’s probably the most fitting tribute I can give to a person who always did both – that is aside from shutting up entirely. Which, god knows, is not a real possibility for any of us anymore. Is it?