Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Shedding a Tear for Those Who made Us Laugh

Alas, no Fred Willard on this poster

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a traditional time for Americans to remember those who lost their lives on the field of battle for the sake of our democracy. Sometimes I observe the day with posts about films like Glory, Dunkirk, and Apocalypse Now, movies that celebrate great hard-fought victories or explore those conflicts in which American lives were sacrificed in vain. This year, given the challenges we’re all facing, I’m going another route. One day after Memorial Day, I’m paying tribute to men and women who are no longer around to amuse us, to lift our spirits in dark times. Yes, I mean entertainers.

Some will associate Jerry Stiller with Seinfeld, or The King of Queens. And of course it’s well known he was Ben’s dad. But oldster that I am, I associate him with his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara, and their very funny radio spots plugging Blue Nun wine. The wine itself was mediocre, but the popular ads—in which he offers her “a little Blue Nun,” and she assumes he means a Catholic sister (see below for an audio clip), helped the distributors sell more than a million cases.

We’re also saying farewell to Fred Willard, the lovable master of mediocrity. (The New York Times described his specialty as playing men “gloriously out of their depth.”) He earned four Emmy nominations on behalf of his roles on Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. But he’d spent 30 years in the entertainment industry before he leaped into the public consciousness through Christopher Guest’s semi-improvised comedies, including Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. Everyone’s favorite Fred Willard portrayal is doubtless that of the clueless TV commentator in Guest’s 2000 hit, Best in Show. Offering color commentary at a prestigious (read: snooty) dog competition, Willard cheerfully reminded viewers that in some nations dogs get eaten.

And then we lost a blast from the distant past. When I was little, Leave it to Beaver was essential TV viewing.  It was the usual family sitcom. Among the younger generation living in the Cleaver household, there was little Theodore (nicknamed The Beaver), and his teenaged brother Wally. And, of course, there was Wally’s smarmy pal, Eddie Haskell, he who was always kissing up to the adults, while also secretly plotting mischief. Eddie was played by Ken Osmond, who died this past week at age 76. Once Beaver went off the air, Ormond found himself typecast, and he eventually quit show biz. Unlikely as it seems, he ended up as an LAPD motorcycle cop. No, not – despite rumors to the contrary – a porn star.

I also salute two actors not specifically known for comedy. Shirley Knight is most associated with stage work, but accrued two Oscar nominations while still in her twenties for roles in screen adaptations of challenging works by Tennessee Williams and William Inge. I’ll never forget her in Dutchman (1966), a terrifying indie based on a rawly racial play by Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) A sexy white woman meets a buttoned-down black man (Al Freeman Jr.) on a steamy subway train: fireworks ensue.

On the international front, we’ve also lost the great Indian actor, Irrfan Khan, dead at 53. Most of Khan’s hundreds of credits are in Indian films, but he also appeared in such American movies as Life of Pi, Jurassic World, and—poignantly—opposite Kelly Macdonald in 2018’s Puzzle. But I’ll always love the dignity he brought to The Lunchbox, the tender Mumbai-set story of an unhappy wife whose lovingly packed lunch gets delivered to a lonely widower .instead of to her ungrateful husband.

Hail and farewell.

Friday, May 22, 2020

YouTubing Our Way Through a Pandemic: Spike Lee Pays Tribute to New York, New York

In these difficult days (boy, how I’ve come to loathe the word “unprecedented”), we’re all looking to be entertained as we hunch in front of our computers or curl up with Zoom on the living room couch. Since we cinema buffs can’t go to the movies, movies are coming to us. And if we miss live theatre, enterprising stage performers are finding ways to do what they do best and then transmitting it over the airwaves. It’s not enough, of course, but for now it will have to do.

A friend alerted me that one of her favorite New York stage companies, the Irish Repertory Theatre, was sharing with its patrons a special Zoom production of Molly Sweeney, a 1994 play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. This production, by an award-winning dramatist who’s been called the Irish Chekhov, is a far cry from the bits of song and storytelling that have been passing as theatre on my iPad of late. It’s a full two-act play, but one superbly suited to the odd-ball medium we’re all using in the era of COVID-19, because it’s entirely made up of monologues. There are a total of three characters: Molly, her husband, and the doctor who restores her sight after forty-some years of blindness. They trade off narrating her story, one that starts with joy and ends in great sadness. Because in many ways this is a play about isolation, the fact that the three characters are filmed in separate venues makes all the dramatic sense in the world. Bravo to a company dedicated to preserving and presenting the work of Ireland’s many dramatic masters.

That production of Molly Sweeney, which starred Geraldine Hughes and two talented actors, was performed on a limited schedule for a limited audience. But on YouTube, anything goes, including Broadway performers (and Broadway wannabes) performing—from their separate spaces—selections from famous musical numbers, like the opening scene from A Chorus Line. Sometimes they aspire to be timely, like this hilarious Covid-inspired version of “The Cell Block Tango” (renamed the Zoom Block Tango) from Chicago. 

In a more serious vein, the ever inventive Spike Lee—filmmaker extraordinaire—has compiled a breathtaking three-minute inematic paean to his home town. To the upbeat strains of Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York,”  he gives us a tour of all the boroughs, emphasizing the charm of their landmarks (skyscrapers, brownstones, bridges, Broadway) along with the fragile beauty of springtime blossoms. It’s only gradually that we glean the fact that the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are nearly bare, rather than teaming with life. Yes, Lee shows us that the city that doesn’t sleep has become something of a ghost town. The usual New York traffic jams are no more. Taxis have been replaced by ambulances speeding toward hospitals, where heroes in masks and gloves whisk desperate bodies into intensive care. Central Park is crammed full of medical tents for COVID sufferers, and a hospital ship is moored just offshore. It’s a poignant view of a town that has starred in hundreds (maybe thousands) of films as a place of optimism, romance, and upward mobility.(See, for instance, Woody Allen’s Manhattan.) But through it all Sinatra’s voice resonates with its signature insouciance. You can take it as irony. But the Sinatra tune also seems to suggest that New York will once again rise from the ashes. And if we can survive the pandemic there, we’ll make it anywhere.

I  love the fact that Lee wears his heart on his sleeve, and that he shares his love for New York City with us all

With thanks to Beth Phillips, Hilary Bienstock Grayver, and Susan Henry for sharing too.