Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Honoring Leonard Nimoy, Who Lived Long and Prospered

Like everyone in the world—no, make that everyone in the universe—I’m going to miss Leonard Nimoy. I can’t pretend to be a Star Trek expert, but even those who haven’t seen a single episode know something about the highly logical half-Vulcan with the slanted eyebrows and the pointy ears. What appeals to me about Leonard Nimoy is how he made this role his own, then used it as a stepping-stone to all the other creative things he wanted to do. He took on many roles, both fanciful  parts and highly serious ones, playing a pompous self-help guru in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a survivor of Auschwitz in a 1991 TV drama called Never Forget. He also turned to the stage, touring as Vincent Van Gogh in a one-man play.

His celebrity led him in some curious directions. He published poetry. He became a recording star via an album titled Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space. He launched comic books, provided voiceovers for videogames, got involved with children’s educational television, and appeared on The Simpsons. He also made the leap into the director’s chair, helming several of the Star Trek movies as well as Three Men and a Baby.     

Most seriously, he pursued his lifelong interest in art photography. His work, which hung in galleries and museums, included a controversial series called Shekhina, built around images of nude and sensually draped women, combined with Jewish ritual objects. To Nimoy these photos were intended to suggest the traditionally feminine aspects of Jewish spirituality. His commitment to the religion of his forefathers was never in question. As everyone knows by now, his famous Vulcan salute was respectfully borrowed from the fingers-apart gesture made by the kohanim (or Jewish priests) since ancient times, while blessing their fellow congregants. In his own life, Nimoy made it a point to include among his charitable efforts a deep commitment to Jewish causes, including his home synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In recent years I’ve loved reading about Leonard Nimoy because he was happily married (since 1989) to a long-ago friend of mine. I met Susan Bay when I was a high school kid without a driver’s license, and she was a grown-up college girl. We were both active in drama at a local community center. When The Wizard of Oz was being staged, Susan was cast as Dorothy. As for me, I was lucky to be invited to play a dual role, the head Munchkin as well as the Captain of the Flying Monkeys. After rehearsals and performances, Susan would drive me home; she’d tell me about her college acting courses and advise me to read Stanislavski. (Sorry, Susan—I still haven’t followed through on that.)  Afterwards we lost touch, but I remember being excited to see her featured in a TV drama.

Over the years, Susan has undertaken the occasional acting role and gotten involved with progressive social causes. Since her marriage to Nimoy, the two have worked together on numerous projects. He produced and she directed a one-woman play about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. They’ve donated major sums to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and were important forces behind the spectacular recent renovation of the Griffith Park Observatory, which now houses the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. Once I attended a rather esoteric concert at Temple Israel, and found both of them in the lobby, promoting ticket and CD sales. Susan and I shared a few memories, and her spouse was gracious to me too. Which, after all, was only logical.

The Wizard of Oz: that's Susan Bay on the right, and me as a Flying Monkey crouching at left.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Selma: The Whole World Was Watching

Now that the Oscar ceremony is over, the sound and fury surrounding the movie Selma has largely subsided. All the points of controversy, among them the film’s take on President Lyndon Johnson and the failure of the Academy to nominate director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo, are now pretty much moot. Certainly, I was as surprised as anyone that Oyelowo won no nomination for his stirring, convincing portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King. In a year when the portrayal of real-life heroes (Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Chris Kyle) was being richly rewarded by those with prizes to give, Oyelowo’s work certainly merited recognition. Which was why, of course, the Oscar broadcast was at pains to feature Oyelowo throughout the evening. (I’ve got to say—I loved that maroon tuxedo.)

With the question of statuettes now out of the way, I should add that I’m deeply grateful for Selma. Not so much for its aesthetic achievements, mind you, as for its contribution to the historical record. Needless to say, no feature film can ever hope to be 100% accurate. In telling a story that will connect with viewers over a two-hour period, filmmakers necessarily cut corners and make mental leaps. Still, even those of us who were alive during that tumultuous era need reminding of what happened, and why it did. One key function of movies is to give us visual images that allow the past to live on. With Black History Month just wrapping up, it seems high time to salute Selma for putting before our eyes (even in a necessarily truncated form) what went down on Alabama’s Edward Pettus Bridge in March 1965. What happened fifty years ago has much to teach us about today’s racial divide, and I thank DuVernay and company for the memories.

My viewing of Selma is part of why I approached Marvin J. Wolf’s recent publication, I Will Vote, with excitement. Wolf, a veteran journalist and my colleague in the Southern California chapter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, started out as an aspiring U.S. Army combat photographer. In early March 1965, because the Army needed him at Fort Benning,  Wolf headed in his own car from Los Angeles to Georgia via U.S. Highway 80. His route took him through Montgomery, Alabama. As he approached Selma, fifty miles west of Montgomery, on the morning of March 9, he was surprised to see this normally sleepy country town crawling with cops. He soon learned that Dr. King was in the vicinity, supporting a voting rights demonstration that had quickly turned ugly. (Around the time Wolf arrived, a white Unitarian minister named James Reeb died from injuries inflicted by white racists who’d been deputized by Jim Clark, the notorious sheriff of Alabama’s Dallas County.)

Wolf had with him only three rolls of film. (Remember film cameras?) He shot as many photos as he could, capturing the image of neatly-dressed black protesters, solemn-faced white clergy, alert news reporters, and policemen feeling the heft of their nightsticks. Wolf was particularly taken by the earnest face of a black female college student wearing a button that announced, “I will vote.” Then a rock was thrown in his direction, and a giant of a deputy in bib overalls knocked him to the ground. He prudently left town, and those three rolls of film were forgotten for almost fifty years. How fascinating to see now what he captured then.

By the way, Marv has another new non-fiction book out, Abandoned In Hell, The Fight For Vietnam's Firebase Kate. Old journalists never die . . . thank goodness!  

To look at the Civil Rights era from another perspective, check out my colleague James McGrath Morris’s new Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. It’s gotten terrific reviews, and I look forward to reading it myself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscars 2015: Staying Weird, Staying Alive

So another Oscar ceremony is in the books. I’m not unique, I’m sure, in finding my greatest satisfaction in the unexpectedly pointed remarks of many of the winners, as they received their statuettes for films that touched (however lightly) on serious matters.  There was Patricia Arquette’s shout-out in favor of equal pay for women, which elicited Meryl Streep’s enthusiastic “You go, girl!”  There was Eddie Redmayne, honored for playing Stephen Hawking, symbolically giving his award to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis sufferers (though he made clear the Oscar would live at his house). Soon afterward, winner Julianne Moore was equally eloquent about the need to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Triple-winner Alejandro González Iñarritu needled the audience about immigration issues, and the writers of “Glory” (the Oscar-winning song from Selma) both sang and spoke so powerfully about civil rights that it was no surprise to see Academy members with tears rolling down their cheeks.

Even yawn-worthy categories like Best Documentary Short Subject led to poignant speeches. I had not heard of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, but the words of its co-directors will stay with me, especially Dana Perry’s mention of the son that died by his own hand, and her plea that “We should talk about suicide out loud.” Who would have guessed that an hour or so later, Graham Moore—accepting a screenwriting Oscar for The Imitation Game—would announce that at age sixteen he too had tried to kill himself, “because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.” He addressed himself directly to “that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do.  Stay weird, stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.”

As always, a memorable (though somber) part of the evening was dedicated to those Hollywood figures who had passed away since last year’s ceremony. The painter who’d provided portraits of the deceased beautifully captured the exuberance of Geoffrey Holder, the husband of my very first dance teacher. And I was moved to see recognition for others I’d interviewed over the years: cinematographer Gordon Willis, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., and particularly Charles Champlin, veteran film critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Hollywood generally doesn’t love movie critics (though Life Itself, a documentary feature about the life and career of the late Roger Ebert, was short-listed for one of this year’s nominations.) But the film industry had a rare affection for Charles Champlin, who was considered both knowledgeable and fair-minded. By the time I interviewed Champlin in 2008, he was long retired and suffering from health issues. When I asked about the films of the Sixties, he simply didn’t remember certain matters on which he had once boldly taken a stand.  I came home with one of his books, The Movies Grow Up: 1940-1980, which begins by explaining that “my generation grew up with the movies and without television. The movies entertained us, inspired us, consoled us, shaped us profoundly; taught us (although not invariably wisely or well) and attempted to spare us from some bitter truths about the world.” By the time I met Champlin, though, he was thinking less about movies than about, well, life itself: “The world slips away from us very fast, I think. It’s like sand through your fingers. You think you’ve got it all in your hand, but it’s gone through your fingers.”  Rest in peace, Chuck.  

Coming soon: on Saturday, May 2, 2915, I'll be on a panel discussing "The Secrets of Interviewing Famous People." It's part of the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual three-day conference in New York City. Click here for more info.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Many Faces of Robert Forster

Back in late December, when Christmas music was in the air, I breakfasted with Robert Forster at his favorite West Hollywood café. Oscar season was just heating up, and our chat turned to the possibility that  showbiz veteran J.K. Simmons might score a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in Whiplash. We agreed that any honor coming to Simmons at this point in his career would be a tribute to the years he’s spent paying his dues within the industry. Said Forster, emphatically, “This guy deserves that, and he will get it. I’d say it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s gonna get his turn.”  

Forster can easily put himself in Simmons’ shoes, because in 1998  he was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for Jackie Brown. The accolade from his peers, arriving “quite out of the blue,” filled him with “a feeling of warmth that was unexpected.” It had been a long time since his glory days as a handsome young rising star, and “I thought I was by then forgotten. . . . You know, to catch a little warmth near the end is a nice place to get it.” 

Though Forster freely admits he’s not going to be People Magazine’s next Sexiest Man Alive, he’s hardly finished with his acting career. He may be over seventy, but interesting character parts keep coming his way. There was a time, however, when he seemed to be scraping bottom.  Back in 1967, he had made his film debut under the direction of John Huston. For five years he played important dramatic roles in acclaimed Hollywood productions like The Stalking Moon and Medium Cool. He’s philosophical about his fall from grace: “There is a constant push of new people coming in who get the attention of an agent who goes to town and tries to promote them. There’s only so many jobs, and everybody is trying to find room for their clients in those few jobs.” Still, he had a family to support, and it was tough being relegated to the occasional TV episode and Roger Corman flick.

That’s why, after twenty-five years of struggling, he’s grateful to Quentin Tarantino for returning him to the limelight as good-hearted bail bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. (As he puts it, “I was dead, and this guy gave me life.”) He’s also grateful to Alexander Payne, who cast him in the small but meaty part of George Clooney’s father-in-law in The Descendants. Which, in turn, led to his memorable appearance in Breaking Bad. Not one to blow his own horn, he describes himself as “a very lucky guy.”

Certainly, his start as an actor was remarkably lucky. Accompanying a friend from acting class to see an agent, he ended up featured in a Broadway play. And suddenly John Huston was asking to meet with him for an important dramatic role in Reflections of a Golden Eye, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. Forster admitted to Huston, “I never made a movie, I don’t know how they’re made, I don’t know what the tricks are, but if you hire me I’ll give you your money’s worth.” Next thing he knew, he was in Rome, riding naked on a big white horse.

(Forster does a capital imitation of the deep-voiced Huston explaining to him, just before the cameras rolled, the essence of screen acting. Suffice it to say: “He gave me the responsibility and the authority to deliver whatever is needed inside that frame.”)     

Is there a typical Robert Forster part?  “I always say, whatever comes next is a surprise. It’s always a surprise.”
Publicity Shot for "Medium Cool" (1969)  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fifty Shades of Beverly Gray

After a weekend that’s been . . . uh . . .  dominated by Fifty Shades of Grey, I can’t resist submitting a Valentine to my many namesakes, the Beverly Grays of the world.

Beverly Gray is the moniker I was given at birth. To be honest, the surname Gray does not go very far back in the annals of my family. When my father was a young man, his parents legally simplified the name they’d brought with them from the Old Country. Though not a bad name,
it was longer and far more difficult to pronounce than the all-American “Gray.” (I doubt they realized how often it would be misspelled.)

When my mother married my father, she was delighted by the simplicity of her new last name. My given name, Beverly, honors some long-lost relatives, but I suspect it also reminded my parents of Southern California’s glamour locations: Beverly Hills, Beverly Glen, Beverly Boulevard. Just by happenstance, we ended up in a subdivision called Beverlywood. And one day, when I was still tiny, my parents were surprised to spot a young-adult novel titled Beverly Gray’s First Romance. It turns out there were 26 entries in the Beverly Gray Mystery series, published by Clair Blank between 1934 and 1955. Beverly was a beautiful (of course) red-headed reporter -- someone on the order of Nancy Drew, though slightly older -- who solved mysteries and tracked down  criminals all over the world. As a budding journalist myself, I enjoyed scouting out these volumes, which today are considered collectors’ items. It’s slightly embarrassing to me now that if you do a Google search on my name, most of the references are to my literary alter-ego.

But the Internet shows me there are living Beverly Grays too, along with a number of dead ones. (I’ve stumbled across several obits.) Some are writers, among them the Beverly Ann Gray who has written a number of scholarly books about present-day Africa, like The Nigerian Petroleum Industry, A Guide. I’ve also discovered, via Amazon, a Beverly C. Gray who keeps churning out volumes in the Black Knights of the Hudson series, and another Beverly Gray (definitely not me) who has published The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North.

The Beverly Gray who wrote and marketed sentimental verse seems to have disappeared from view. But I often see references to a Beverly Gray who’s respected as the coordinator of the Southern Region Ohio Underground Railroad Association, headquartered in Chillicothe, Ohio. I once got a friendly email from a Beverly Gray in Florida. Presumably she’s not the Beverly Gray who was arrested in that state on April 23, 2014. (I have a link to her mugshot.)  I’m pleased there’s a Dr. Beverly Gray who’s an obstetrician in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I don’t know how I feel about the Beverly Gray who’s married (according to Twitter) to an “Awesome Man of God.”  One Beverly Gray is a cello teacher in Scotland, while another is a prize-winning equestrienne in Utah. Facebook tells me that Beverly Grays go to church, like the Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, groove to Willie Nelson, work for the IRS, and are students of the University of Life.

If you’re in show biz, it’s important to have a name that’s unique, which is one reason some actors shed their birth names. (Julianne Moore, for instance, was born Julie Smith, but discovered another professional actress had gotten there first.)  On the Internet Movie Database, I’m happy to be the only Beverly Gray. But there’s actually a crew guy named Gray Beverley. Go figure.