Friday, May 19, 2017

A Kylo By Any Other Name . . .

I just read a  Los Angeles Times article with a provocative headline: “Naming Babies Goes Over to the Dark Side.” According to data released last week by the federal Social Security Administration, 238 social security cards were issued in 2016 to American newborns named Kylo. That finding makes Kylo the 901st most popular boy’s name for the year. Kylo’s ranking isn’t nearly as impressive as that of old-fashioned names like Noah, William, and James, which (along with Liam and Mason) make up the 2016 top five. But it’s the Hollywood connection that renders the fast-rising popularity of Kylo so noteworthy. 

The name Kylo wasn’t on anybody’s radar until late 2015, and the debut of the hugely popular Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Obviously the character of Kylo Ren, played by a charismatic Adam Driver, captured the imagination of a great many moviegoers, some of whom were soon to become parents.. Thing is – Kylo Ren, the lovechild  of Han Solo and Princess Leia, has been wooed over to the Dark Side. In the course of the film, he takes on many of the characteristics of his evil grandfather, Darth Vader. At the risk of spoiling plot surprises, let’s just say he’s not the sort of son who does his father proud. (As a matter of fact, he does his father in.) So proud parents who bestow this name upon their offspring would seem to me to be asking for trouble.

Nobody asked my advice, of course. And I’m well aware that the American public is susceptible to choosing baby names based on Hollywood celebrities and their most famous roles. The wonderful Bette Midler, who’s now triumphing on Broadway in a revival of Hello, Dolly!, was named after her mother’s favorite star, Bette Davis. (The difference in pronunciation stems from the fact that Midler’s mom, living in Hawaii, had never actually heard the name of the great Davis pronounced aloud.) The mother of Dustin Hoffman gave her firstborn the name of matinee idol Ronald Colman. When a second son arrived, she bestowed on him the moniker of an old-time cowboy star, Dustin Farnum. And I know a Baby Boomer, an African-American woman, who was so impressed with the dignity and courage of Sidney Poitier that she was determined to include the name Sidney on her son’s birth certificate. The only problem was that she didn’t particularly like the name itself. So she agonized throughout her hospital stay, until finally committing to the Nigerian name Kamau.

Popular movies can encourage a whole spate of babynaming. In 1970 it was Love Story, a sappy novel that became a weepy film about a perfect romance that ends in tragedy. I’m certain it was the popularity of Love Story that led to the naming of so many little Jennifers and Olivers shortly thereafter. Long before that era,, Jenny was the name of my elderly great-aunt. But the Seventies ushered in a whole flock of little Jennifers. Many of them are now in their mid-thirties, and busy dubbing their kids Kylo. 

The article in the Times points out that names in the news can discourage as well as encourage babynaming. In the Nineties, with the popularity of TV’s Friends, lots of little girls were dubbed
 Monica after the character played by Courtney Cox. But by the end of the decade, the sex scandal involving President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky made the name suddenly far less attractive.  And Caitlin, in all its variations, plunged in popularity in 2016. This doubtless related to public scrutiny when a certain Bruce was transformed into Caitlyn Jenner. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jeanine Basinger Says “I Do”

 In late 2015, The Hollywood Reporter hosted a gathering of Hollywood insiders, all thirty-three of them former students and acolytes of Wesleyan cinema prof Jeanine Basinger. Such power figures as TV honcho Joss Whedon, action director Michael Bay, Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and  filmmaker Paul Weitz showed up promptly at the early-morning photo shoot, knowing full well that Professor Basinger would never tolerate late arrivals.

Basinger’s students benefit from her encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Actor Bradley Whitford has said, "Every time I'm in a meeting and it comes out that I went to Wesleyan, they ask the same question—how is it possible that so many successful people in Hollywood come out of such a tiny liberal arts school in Connecticut? The answer is Jeanine." And film critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times admits that "I took a job teaching at Wesleyan as an excuse to hang out and talk about movies with Jeanine. There's nothing she doesn't know."

Despite her busy teaching schedule, Basinger has found time to write nearly a dozen books, ranging from movie star biographies (Shirley Temple; Gene Kelly) to 1993’s A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960. I just finished reading her most recent work: I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies (2013). Herself married for half a century, Basinger is understandably interested in how Hollywood movies portray an institution that some now feel is a thing of the past.

Basinger’s detailed account, which begins back in the silent era, makes the case that the film industry has traditionally been far less interested in the workings of a marriage than in getting its characters to the altar. At a time when sex outside of marriage was considered taboo, it was exciting to see how the leading characters overcame obstacles, prejudices, and misunderstandings in order to seal their relationship with a ring and a kiss. In Basinger’s own words, “Not being allowed to have sex created the essential frisson of the romantic comedy; the leading man and woman dying to make love, but unable to do so.”  Today, with most of us far more relaxed about sexuality, she’s convinced that what’s now called the “romcom” is struggling to find a modern equivalent for what kept the lovers apart in days of old.

As for movies that are about the marriage rather than the courtship, Basinger comes up with a number of nifty examples. I was particularly taken with her section on World War II, a time when husbands went off to war and lonely wives abounded. Male stars too enlisted in significant numbers, which meant that Hollywood’s ranks were full of talented women, both established celebrities and talented newcomers. It made total sense for Hollywood during the war years to cater to wives (many of them serving in the workforce) who longed for wholesome and uplifting entertainment. Movies like 1944’s Since You Went Away, starring an appealing Claudette Colbert along with the young Jennifer Jones and teenaged Shirley Temple, focused on the sacrifices made by women on the homefront, reminding them that they too were an integral part of the war effort.

In the post-war 1950s, marriage became the domain of television. Think I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and all those early sitcoms that moved between the living room and the kitchen. On the big screen, though, superheroes have long crowded out husbands and wives. And films showing marriage now generally play up its grimmer aspects. The lethal War of the Roses (1989) is an extreme example of what Basinger wryly calls today’s “nuclear marriage”films.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Harry Belafonte’s Reading Rainbow

Spanish-language poster for "Island in the Sun"
 I last wrote about singer, actor, and social activist Harry Belafonte on the occasion of his 90th birthday. That celebration took place on March 1 of this year. But I’m back to Belafonte again, because he’s just received an honor worth cheering about. The 115th Street Library in New York’s Harlem will henceforth bear his name. What makes this extra-special is the fact that Belafonte grew up in the neighborhood. He struggled with dyslexia and eventually dropped out of high school, but still thirsted for book-learning. That’s where the local library came in. It was a place where he could pursue his education on his own terms. And it was eventually in a theatre group at another Harlem public library, the noble Schomburg Center, that he developed his acting chops.

Belafonte was born in 1927. I first learned about him as a small child while taking classes at the remarkable (and remarkably multi-ethnic) Lester Horton Dance Theater in West Hollywood. His first album was often on the turntable, and I grew to love his way with gentle and humorous American folk ballads. That was 1954, and I doubt his Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites sold many copies. But two years later he was earning gold records for introducing the American public to calypso rhythms. Suddenly the whole country was shaking its hips to a Caribbean beat. The hit albums kept coming, and when a Belafonte ensemble showed up at L.A.’s Greek Theatre or New York’s Carnegie Hall, you were assured of an evening full of song, dance, humor, and a soup├žon of social consciousness.
What was the best thing about Harry Belafonte? He had a warm, strong voice; a supple body; an impish sense of humor; a keen knowledge of showmanship. But beyond all that, he was so electrifyingly handsome that the ladies in the audience were swept away. Take my mother, the ultimate Belafonte fan. When he performed in Los Angeles, she bought tickets months in advance. When he brought his act to Las Vegas, she was there. Fortunately, my father tolerated her obsession. He might not have been quite as rapturous about the man’s sex appeal, but he enjoyed Belafonte too. 

So you can imagine my childhood. When Belafonte was in town, normal household routine came to a standstill. My mother and father would see a performance; then she’d return with me and my little sister. One year, when I was ten, we really had it down to a science. The three of us arrived early and scouted out the spot where the star would arrive. When he got out of his car, there were two little girls waiting with autograph books and big smiles. He politely commented on my dress, at which I proudly announced that my mom had bought it on sale. I don’t have a snapshop of that moment, but years later—at a press luncheon—someone snapped an excellent photo of Belafonte and a college-age me. My mom immediately posted it on the family bulletin board. Occasionally I got covered over by more recent images, but Belafonte’s radiant smile was on full display in the house as long as my mom was alive.    
Belafonte of course was far more than a singer. He did well in a number of acting roles, but largely abandoned Hollywood in order to stump for civil rights and other social causes. I confess I never thought of him in conjunction with libraries. But since books have always been my own magic carpet, I’m thrilled that this idol of my youth will now be associated with the written word.

I'm the one on the left.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Carl and Rob Reiner: Some Big Shoes to Fill

On April 7, two Reiners added their footprints to the forecourt of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater, thus becoming the first father-son duo to make a concrete impression upon the entertainment industry. (Sorry about that!) It was an honor long overdue. Without Carl and Rob Reiner, the world would be a much less funny place. 

There are (or were) other Reiners too. Carl’s wife Estelle, who passed away in 1994 after 64 years of marriage, was a professional singer. But she will forever be known for her scene-stealing line in her son’s 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally—“I’ll have what she’s having.” Rob’s sister Annie is an author, playwright, and poet. And Rob’s kid brother Lucas has been at the helm of several indie film projects. I feel a bit sorry for Lucas, who by all reports is a good guy, because being the junior Reiner can’t be easy. Many years ago, as a fledgling day camp counselor, I was in charge of the bus that picked up young Lucas every day. Knowing what family he came from, I kept waiting for this little tyke to make me laugh.

As for Carl Reiner, where to begin? He won his spurs in early TV, as both writer and second banana on Sid Caesar’s hilarious variety shows. He created The Dick Van Dyke Show, and played one of its most memorable characters, the egomaniacal Alan Brady. He played straight man to Mel Brooks’ unforgettable 2000 Year Old Man, using his improv skills to guide Brooks’ zany performance. He acted in movies like The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. As a film director, he had a cult hit with Where’s Poppa, followed by a huge hit with Oh, God! And he directed and co-wrote four films, including The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, that helped establish Steve Martin as a comedy icon. Still active at 95, he has newly announced an autobiography, to be called Too Busy to Die. In doing all of this, he has made bald look beautiful. 

I first became aware of Rob Reiner when I was a theatre critic for the UCLA Daily Bruin, circa 1969. I was sent to a small theatre in Hollywood to see a pair of comic one-acts. The first has totally slipped from my memory, but I still remember the second, “The Howie Rubin Story.” In it Reiner portrays a young boy with a Walter Mitty-like imagination: he likes to picture himself doing great things. So endearing was Rob in this role that I instantly knew he was destined for stardom. And so it came to pass. After playing some small sitcom roles and doing some writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rob was cast as Michael Stivic, son-in-law and left-leaning nemesis to Archie Bunker on the legendary All in the Family. So completely was he identified with this role by the American public that he’s still known to quip, “"I could win the Nobel Prize and they'd write 'Meathead wins the Nobel Prize'.  

Today he’s highly regarded as a director of comedic tour-de-forces like This is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride. But he’s also been honored for films ranging from the poignant Stand by Me to the creepy Misery to the tough-minded legal drama, A Few Good Men. These days he’s also known as a dedicated social activist, promoting marriage equality and initiatives designed to help young children. In 2006, there was talk of him running to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.  I would love to have seen that campaign: The Terminator versus The Meathead.