Friday, July 25, 2014

There Will Be Blood: The Hatfields and the McCoys

It sometimes feels, in this world of ours, that everyone hates everyone. The newspapers are full of feuds: between Ukraine and Russia, between Sunni and Shia, between Democrat and Republican. Thanks to modern technology, the globe is much smaller than it used to be. That’s why hostilities between factions near the Black Sea can (alas) destroy the lives of innocents from Holland and Malaysia. I guess you can call it progress.

Back in the nineteenth century, feuds may have been equally brutal, but they covered much less territory. Take the famous case of the Hatfields and the McCoys, which played out from 1865 to 1890 in a small valley traversed by the Tug River, separating Kentucky from West Virginia. The long-standing vendetta between these two interrelated mountain families eventually grew so fierce that it nearly reignited the Civil War. Before it petered out, it had captured the imagination of readers across the U.S., thanks to the big-city newsmen who descended on the Tug Valley to get the scoop.

My knowledge of the Hatfields and McCoys does not come from the much-lauded miniseries that ran on the History Channel in 2012. From the looks of the cast list, the producers tried hard to reflect the actual doings of the feud’s main participants. But showbiz understandably needs to cut corners. Anyone wanting the full saga should check out a book that was published in 2013. Dean King’s The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story is the result of years of research, including the author’s discovery of source material that had remained untapped for over a century.

And what a story King tells! It features moonshiners, yellow journalists, bounty hunters, hotheads, deadbeats, crooked lawmen, avengers, turncoats, a Romeo and Juliet romance, kinfolk who die of broken hearts, a public hanging, and the Supreme Court. I learned about the local flora and fauna, and got clued in about the role of razorback hogs (the source of the political term “earmark”) in helping ignite the feud. I also got up to speed on the region’s enthusiastic mating habits: it was not unheard of for a couple like Randall and Sally McCoy to have sixteen children, with the eldest and the youngest born 25 years apart. (Eight of those children would be feud victims.)

Of all the instances of senseless bloodshed, the one that still haunts me took place in 1888. In a New Year’s Day raid, Hatfield marauders attacked a McCoy cabin, killing and maiming several women. Through the long night afterwards, five McCoys huddled around a campfire, watching their home burn to the ground. Writes King, “Sally [McCoy], whose ribs had been broken near the spinal column, was unable to walk, and her bloody hair was frozen to the ground.” Later, he cinematically describes a shootout between a lawman and someone from the Hatfield camp: “Both men squeezed their triggers. Crazy Jim’s hat flew ten feet above his head, like a cap tossed in victory. Some of his brains were inside it.”
It’s a story not short of colorful characters (with names like Devil Anse, Hog Floyd, Bad Frank, and Squirrel Huntin’ Sam), but this was no Li’l Abner cartoon. The violence persisted, egged on by bounty seekers and the national press, almost into the twentieth century. Remarkably, in 1913, a later Hatfield, a physican, became a progressive governor of West Virginia. And in 2003, an official peace treaty was signed by the two families’ descendants to symbolize American unity in a post-9/11 world. 

I wonder if we’ll need to wait 100 years for today’s international feuds to run their course.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Peggy Sue Goes Back to the Future

Last weekend I attended a major reunion of my high school class. I will not divulge how long it’s been since we all graduated from Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles, but there’ve been some serious changes among us: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, expanding waistlines, hair that changed colors or disappeared altogether. Not that my reunion was nearly as eventful as the one portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married. I don’t think anyone there was time-traveling, and our shindig wasn’t graced by the presence of a one-time dweeb who has now blossomed into a computer zillionaire.

Nonetheless, a good time was had by all. I’ve been to enough reunions to realize that the urge to impress one’s former classmates has long since faded. Instead, we’re all simply grateful that we’re still here, standing on our own two feet (most of us), and happily spinning stories of what we’ve survived and what lessons we’ve learned along the way. Admittedly, my reunion wouldn’t have made for a terribly good movie. The juicy stuff – the diva out to flabbergast, the drunken confessions at the bar, the reuniting of lost lovers who promptly decide to dump their longtime spouses – either didn’t happen or escaped my attention because I was too busy comparing notes about dead parents and favorite teachers. I must say, I didn’t mind at all that the drama of the evening was so muted.

On screen, though, reunions can be potent things. The classic reunion movie, one that remains a touchstone for my generation, is Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, released in 1983. It’s not about a formal reunion, but rather chronicles a gathering of some Baby Boomers who’d been college chums in the Sixties, and have now gathered fifteen years later to mourn the loss of one of their own. In reviewing The Big Chill for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin'. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the '60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B.”  Corliss’s description fits my classmates and me as well. We vividly remember the politics of our high school and college days, the loss of JFK, the fear of being drafted, the music by which we lived our lives. One of Saturday night’s highlights for me was the moment the deejay put on the old tunes and some of us bravely bopped to everything from “The Stroll” to “Unchained Melody” to “Honky-Tonk Woman,” in defiance of the passing years.

The Big Chill always puts me in mind of John Sayles’ 1980 indie, The Return of the Secaucus Seven.. Because Sayles broke into movies via the Roger Corman Graduate School of Film, I spoke to him at length while researching my inside bio, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. With $40,000 in the bank, the use of someone’s house, and a gaggle of non-SAG actors all turning thirty, Sayles chose to craft a story about former college friends gathering to commemorate the day, ten years earlier, when they all got arrested en route to a D.C. protest march. The film, Sayles’ directorial debut, beautifully fulfills an important Corman maxim: take advantage of what you’ve got.

I’d like to think that my Hami High classmates have done the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Getting Naked, I’m Afraid

I’m just back from an outdoor wedding in Northern California. Both bride and groom kept their clothes on. This made for a lovely event, but it would have had no cred on today’s reality TV. As I’ve discovered, the new trend is for total nudity. Yesterday, VH1 launched a series called Dating Naked, to compete with such shows as Buying Naked and Naked Vegas.

I stumbled onto the nudity trend via my treadmill TV. Channel-surfing on a Sunday morning, I came across Naked and Afraid, which was launched by the once-dignified Discovery Channel in June 2013. It’s a survivor-type show with a titillating twist: two healthy young Americans of different genders are stranded in some sort of exotic wilderness area, where they must manage to live off the land. For the 21 days of the challenge, they are given no food, no water, and no clothing. 

The episode I partly saw, “Mayan Misery,” was set in the jungles of Belize. Cass, a strapping former soldier with a family back home, started out armed with plenty of brute strength. Shannon, a willowy earth-mother type, was touted as an expert on herbs and alternative medicines. Both sported lightweight cross-body satchels containing a diary, a map and one useful item of their own choosing, like a fire-starter or knife. Other than that, they were buck-naked except for their tattoos.

I watched this couple, nearly dying of thirst, risk serious illness by drinking out of local streams. I watched them, faced with torrential rains, crouch in a spooky cave inhabited by bats and who-knows-what. As time passed, I saw the damage done to their skin and bare feet. Basically, they looked like hell. Their nudity (with genitalia discreetly blurred for TV viewers) was hardly a turn-on for me, nor (I presume) for one another. But what was the point, exactly?

In the New York Times for July 17, 2014, Neil Genzlinger published an amusing piece called “Say Yes to Undress,” in which he predicts that someday soon, in deference to “14-year-old viewers and those who wish they still were,” we’ll have All-Bare TV. This trend, he frets, “is going to cost the jobs of countless costume designers, seamstresses, ironers, dry cleaners. Several Emmy Award categories will disappear, though in fairness, one will surely be added for outstanding blurring of crotches and nipples.” He’s not looking forward to Naked Downton Abbey.

My own thoughts have gone in a different direction. Yes, the featured couple in Naked and Afraid  is bug-bitten and defenseless, but they’re hardly alone out there in the jungle. This is a TV show, after all. So there’s got to be a camera crew recording their every move. Even with today’s lightweight and versatile equipment, I presume our couple is being tailed 24/7 by a cameraman, a sound recorder, maybe a lighting expert, and likely a producer to keep things running smoothly. None of those folks, I’m guessing, is going without food or water. And I’m quite sure they aren’t required to work in the buff, with their primal parts flapping in the breeze.

Oddly, I’m reminded of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As I learned when researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, the Grinch’s heavy costume and makeup made star Jim Carrey so acutely claustrophobic that one afternoon shooting had to be halted hours earlier than planned. The next day, director Ron Howard showed up in identical Grinch garb out of sympathy for his leading man. Seems only fair that the behind-the-scenes team on Naked and Afraid show some solidarity with their nekkid stars, right?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Eli Wallach: Two to Tango

The late Mickey Knox once told me he’d thought of calling his 2004 memoir The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This seemed apt, because it was Mickey who – while sojourning in Italy during the blacklist era – adapted the script of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western into American English. But upon learning that his longtime pal Eli Wallach was considering the phrase for the cover of his own upcoming book, Mickey quickly stepped aside. He figured that Wallach had earned the right to borrow the title of Leone’s second Fistful of Dollars follow-up. After all, the movie’s most famous moments involve the scruffy Tuco, the cheerfully malicious and notably “ugly” character played by Wallach with infectious zest. Clint Eastwood may have been the film’s leading man, but it’s Tuco we most fondly remember. 

Mickey’s book about his oddball career ended up being called The Good, The Bad, and the Dolce Vita: The Adventures of an Actor in Hollywood, Paris, and Rome. Wallach’s own memoir, which came out a year later, bears the puckish title The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. You can be sure it contains some lively reminiscences about working with Leone. It also covers his other celebrated bandido role, that of the gold-toothed Calvera in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. There’s no telling why a short Jewish Method Actor from Brooklyn became typecast by Hollywood as a South-of-the-Border outlaw, but Wallach made the two roles his own in a way that the movie industry has never forgotten. Thereafter he was offered a long string of colorful bad-guy parts (thieves, hitmen, Mafia dons) and seemed to relish every one of them. 

But despite his lucrative movie career, he continued to return to the New York stage, where he took on roles by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ionesco, Arthur Miller, and his longtime friend, Tennessee Williams. Six years after making his Broadway debut, he won a Tony for Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.  He also created the role of Kilroy in Williams’ ambitious Camino Real, thereby missing out on playing Maggio in a hit film, From Here to Eternity. His part went to Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar. 

Wallach was remarkable not only for living long but for living well. By the time he died on June 24 at age 98, he had wracked up 90 film credits. His final feature, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, appeared in 2010, when he was a mere 94. A video interview appeared in the New York Times that same year, just prior to Wallach receiving the Motion Picture Academy’s Governors Award “for a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.” The interviewer was Times critic A.O. Scott, who addressed his subject as Uncle Eli for good reason: Scott’s late grandfather was Eli’s older brother. The footage reveals a man who, though aged, is still very much alive. Given how many youngish actors we’ve lost recently – Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind – it’s encouraging to see an oldster with a functioning body and an unquenchable spirit.

 Not only was the elderly Eli Wallach still capable of being charming. He was also a participant in a love story that lasted sixty-six years. He met Anne Jackson in 1946, when they were cast opposite one another in Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned. They married in 1948, raised three children, and continued to appear in plays together as late as 2000. (Cautioned Jackson, “We're not the couple we play onstage. For us, it's fun to separate the two.")  

Long life; long marriage. Who in Hollywood is ever going to be able to equal that record?