Monday, November 5, 2012

Cool Hand Barack and Boss Man Mitt: Failure to Communicate?

The first Tuesday in November is coming up fast, and once again Americans are about to elect a president. We’ve been through all the rituals -- the nomination fights, the conventions, the debates, the alternately snarling and cajoling TV ads -- and soon the day of reckoning will be here. This isn’t the place to endorse my chosen candidate. But what this season has taught me is that the classic 1967 film Cool Hand Luke had it right: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication is what political speech is supposed to be all about. Too often, though, we support politicians based on style instead of substance. President Ronald Reagan was revered by many Americans as “The Great Communicator,” partly for his message, but perhaps even more for the comfortable, reassuring way he could put it across. From our first actor-president, I wouldn’t have expected less.

Years ago, John F. Kennedy won his televised debate with Richard Nixon (and thereby the 1960 presidential election) because he wore makeup, didn’t sweat profusely, and looked comfortable in front of the camera. Today we watch conventions and debates seeking equally superficial clues to the candidates’ qualifications for high office. Who looks most at ease? Who has the better smile? And the wittiest one-liners? Who could boast the best-looking set at his convention, and the best-dressed wife, and the most glamorous celebrity endorsers?

Cool Hand Luke takes place worlds away from Washington politics, but it has much to say about the clash between style and substance. Based on the actual experiences of novelist Donn Pearce, the film explores day-to-day life on a Southern chain-gang. Though British critics of the day saw Cool Hand Luke as yet another exposé of prison abuses south of the Mason-Dixon line (and thus a direct descendant of 1932’s influential I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Americans understood that Cool Hand Luke was meant as allegorical: a tale of a non-conformist whose assault against authority turns him into a mythic hero.

Luke (as vividly played by Paul Newman) is first seen on a drunken bender, decapitating a row of parking meters. His infraction may be minor, as well as pointless, but when he encounters a warden determined to crush his spirit, he instinctively begins to establish himself as a defender of individual freedom. His acts of rebellion are often grotesque and sometimes comic (like the bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour), but we’re not surprised when tragedy looms. Why does the audience warm to this unlikely champion? Partly because this was the Sixties, and young viewers were conditioned to endorse outrageous revolts against the status quo. And also because Luke –- for all his irrational behavior -– was at base a man of style, one whose intrinsic panache made him a natural-born leader. Here’s Luke being eulogized by his follower, Dragline (an Oscar-winning George Kennedy): “He was smiling . . .You know, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him.”

The screenplay of Cool Hand Luke is credited to Donn Pearce and also industry veteran Frank Pierson, who was Oscar-nominated for both Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke before finally winning for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Pierson died in July 2012, busy to the end (he was a consulting producer on Mad Men). I salute his memory, and hope that the winner of the 2012 election has both style and substance, plus a great speech-writer.


  1. We'll be in for four more years of things not changing much, and half the people screaming that we're flying to hell in a handbasket with THAT GUY in charge, and the other half pointing fingers back at the last representative from the other camp to hold the office. Business as usual.

    Now, let's talk about Cool Hand Luke!

    What a classic movie. It contributed that line to pop culture - spoken now by people who likely have never seen the movie. It's one of Newman's finest roles in my opinion - and that's a long line of fine roles on his resume, too. I missed out on meeting him when he was here for The Hudsucker Proxy in 1993, and I'm very sorry about that now. I did get to work with Lou Antonio - the "cold drank" guy from CHL - now a fine director of TV drama. I worked on two different shows with him - probably a dozen episodes all told. He told great stories of working on Cool Hand Luke - and happily signed the 8X10 I procured of him and Frank Gorshin on the iconic Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." That's the episode where the gentlemen play the Cherons - half chalk white on one side and half midnight black on the other - who have an eternal racial struggle because one is black on the right, and the other is black on the left. We called him Uncle Lou on set, and he was professional, courteous, and fast - which delighted everyone who met him and was the reason he worked so much.

    I am sorry to hear of Frank Pierson's passing - but it's awesome that he was still working and on a highly regarded series like Mad Men when he passed. I salute his memory as well. Now let's get this election thing over with!