Friday, December 30, 2016

Debbie Reynolds: Star Mother

What a terrible irony—in death, Golden Age star Debbie Reynolds is mostly being referred to as Carrie Fisher’s mother. Over the course of her forty-year career, Fisher never achieved the level of moviestardom that her mother enjoyed. On the other hand, Reynolds’ fatal stroke (at 84) just one day after Fisher succumbed to heart failure (at 60) is so very startling that I suspect the two will always find themselves linked in the public mind.

It was not always so. Back in 1952 the barely 20-year-old Reynolds was the toast of the town after nabbing the ingénue role in Singin’ in the Rain. The part of Kathy Selden, a pert chorus girl in the early days of talkies, required her to sing (something she was good at) and dance (something she was not). To keep up with expert hoofers Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly, she was coached by Kelly, a stern taskmaster. So grueling were their practice sessions that it’s remarkable she looks so carefree in numbers like “Good Morning.” (One charming bit of trivia: as part of the story, Reynolds’ low, sweet speaking voice replaces the shrill and nasal on-camera enunciations of Lina Lamont, the screen diva played by Jean Hagen. The problem was that Reynolds’ slight Texas twang lacked the elegant sound the script required. So Hagen herself was called upon to dub in the lines, using her own natural register rather than Lina Lamont’s unforgettable squawk. Got that?)

Early on, Reynolds consistently played women who are spunky, but still subscribe to conventional values. In The Tender Trap (1955), 23-year-old Reynolds lands 40-year-old Frank Sinatra. He plays a ladies’ man with no use for domesticity, until the adorable Debbie convinces him he’d be happier with a home and babies. Similar roles marked other films, including Tammy and the Bachelor. In the next decade, she stretched, but just a bit, playing a spunky frontier woman in How the West Was Won (1962), and then the really spunky lead in the screen version of a Broadway musical hit, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her theme song in that film, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” served to sum up the rest of her career, as well as her turbulent personal life.

In 1955 she had married nice-boy crooner Eddie Fisher. The two of them starred in a 1956 comedy, Bundle of Joy, that was meant to reflect their status as the perfect Hollywood young-marrieds. That same year, Debbie gave birth to Carrie; son Todd followed in 1958. But a year later the perfect marriage was on the rocks, thanks to Eddie Fisher’s dalliance with the newly-widowed Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal enveloped everyone: I remember reading at the time that Debbie’s publicist made sure she had diaper pins affixed to her blouse to help ratchet up sympathy when the press came to visit. (A second marriage, to millionaire businessman Harry Karl, was also a disaster – his gambling habit sapped her fortune as well as his own.)

Throughout it all, Reynolds remained active, in both business matters and humanitarian endeavors. She also kept performing, most notably playing an addled mom in Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996)/ In 1990 the rumor was that her daughter’s deeply satiric Postcards from the Edge reflected her own imperious style of mothering. No question that there was strain, at times, between Carrie Fisher and her mom. But in early 2017, HBO will air Bright Lights, an acclaimed documentary chronicling the connection between Debbie and Carrie, with a focus on the unshakable bond between them. No one who worked on it could have guessed that it would be their valedictory. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher and Zsa Zsa: Chutzpah a la Carte

It’s not a good time for pop music. The sudden death of singer George Michael adds his name to a list of musical superstars who will not make it to 2017: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen.

And this morning brought the news of the passing of Carrie Fisher. She had seemed to be stable after suffering a heart stoppage on December 23 while flying from London to L.A. But her death was a final twist in a life that had already had many. Fisher, of course, was best known for playing Princess Leia in the original Star Wars films. I admit I’m not a huge fan of what George Lucas wrought, beginning in 1977. And Fisher’s bagel-haired character never held much charm for me. I was, however, taken with her presence in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where she appeared as a strong, mature, and knowing woman. Her interaction in that film with a greying Harrison Ford was particularly striking because (as all of us learned from her 2016 memoir) she had plunged into a three-month affair with the very married Ford on the set of the original Star Wars film.

The title of Fisher’s new memoir, The Princess Diarist, reveals the wit she always had in spades. In fact, I’m far more interested in Fisher the writer than in Fisher the actress. She always seemed supremely honest about her eventful time on earth: she wrote about her bipolar diagnosis and about her abuse of drugs and alcohol in a 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking. She was also one of Hollywood’s most go-to script doctors, having polished and sharpened such hit screenplays as Sister Act and The Wedding Singer. She adapted her first novel, Postcards from the Edge, into a successful Hollywood film, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. This story of a young actress trying to recover from drug addiction while living with her ageing screen-star mother was by all accounts a reflection of Fisher’s own tense relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds, of course, was once known as a winsome ingénue who lost husband Eddie Fisher to homewrecker Elizabeth Taylor. The public knew her as sweet and vulnerable, but Fisher put forth the Tiger Mom aspects of Reynolds’ personality for all the world to see.

That took chutzpah. And of course chutzpah was one of the defining characteristics of the late Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Hungarian beauty, who parlayed her looks and charm into a Hollywood career that had little to do with acting chops, was a master at playing herself. Her husbands (nine of them) far outnumbered her major dramatic roles, but television hosts loved her ability to poke fun at her own image. Sample: “I am a marvelous housekeeper: Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”  And then there were the headlines she made  in 1989 when she slapped a Beverly Hills traffic cop.

Back when I was a Brownie Scout, I appeared in a playlet with other troop members. Afterwards, to celebrate, our parents took us to a fancy Beverly Hills ice cream parlor, Blum’s. There in the nearly empty restaurant sat a glamorous lady holding a Pekingese pooch while spooning a sundae into her pretty mouth. We young girls, fascinated by the dog, crept over to chat, while our parents nudged each other. Yes, it was Zsa Zsa, though her name meant nothing to us youngsters. We never stopped to wonder (as our parents must have) how she dared take her dog into a restaurant. Chutzpah, Beverly Hills style! Too bad the end of her life was much less carefree. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

John Glenn: That Magnificent Man in His Flying Machine

When I scheduled a December trip to snowy Ohio, I had no idea I’d end up at a public funeral for one of America’s most famous astronauts. The life of John Glenn (July 18, 1921 to December 8, 2016) was celebrated last Saturday in a large auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University. And I was there, along with Ethel Kennedy, Vice-President Joe Biden, the top man at NASA,  and a Marine honor guard in full regalia. Glenn himself was present too, lying in state in a flag-draped casket.

We onlookers learned -- through musical selections, well-crafted speeches, and video clips -- of  Glenn’s life of public service and private rectitude. Though his origins were modest, he early on seemed destined to do great things. As a  much-decorated fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, he served in World War II and in Korea. In 1959, he was one of seven military test pilots selected to become the U.S.’s first men in space. On February 7, 1962, Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Later, having resigned from NASA, he entered politics, winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1974 and holding it until 1999. A lifelong Democrat, he became close friends with members of the Kennedy family. I was surprised to learn it was he, following the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, who had the painful task of breaking the news to the Kennedy children back home.

Though many of the speeches concerned his public accomplishments, I was most taken with those that revealed the private man. Glenn’s son and daughter  spoke intimately about their dad’s enthusiasms: old westerns, chipmunks, hummingbirds, round tables, barbecued steak served medium rare.  He taught his kids to build a perfect bonfire, and moved them with his tuneful tenor rendition of “The September Song.” They recalled him greeting a good report card with a question: “What have you done for our country today?”  And they haven’t forgotten him turning down a $1 million offer to be featured on a Wheaties box. Above all, every speaker agreed on his steadfast love for his Annie, to whom he was married for 73 years. Said Vice-President Biden, “You taught us all how to love.”

It’s no surprise to learn that John Glenn has been featured in a number of films. Several were documentaries, like 1998’s John  Glenn: American Hero, a TV movie that was timed to commemorate his return to space, at the age of 77, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. But Glenn was also a major character (played by Ed Harris) in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. This story of the original Mercury astronauts does not in any way idealize these so-called heroes. In fact, they’re depicted as cranky, often raunchy guys all too ready to check out the space groupies flocking to Cape Canaveral. Glenn, though, is the big exception. No question he’s cocky and ambitious, but he’s also the astronaut most aware of the power of public opinion. That’s why he can be found lecturing the others on the necessity of good behavior.

This week’s new release, Hidden Figures, also features Glenn. This is the true story of an unsung group of African-American female mathematicians whose work helped validate the science behind the Mercury launches. The movie shows Glenn refusing to fly his mission unless its computer-generated calculations are verified by math whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). This sounds like a Hollywood touch, but I’m happy to say that Glenn’s faith in a smart black woman is truly a part of history.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

To Sir, With Movies

We’ve lost some major figures lately. Though they made their mark in a variety of fields, their public personas were large enough to ensure that they’d show up in popular movies. Fidel Castro of course appeared in Cuban films, usually as himself. I was also nonplussed to learn, via the invaluable Internet Movie Database, that in 1946 he performed as an extra in a 1946 MGM musical called Holiday in Mexico, in which the U.S. Ambassador's daughter (Jane Powell) falls for a Mexican pianist (Jose Iturbi) old enough to be her grandfather. Who knew? (Castro does not appear in Joe Dante’s 1993 Cuban Missile Crisis comedy, Matinee, but his aura hangs over the film like an invisible apparition.)

Then there’s John Glenn, by far the most telegenic of all the American astronauts. Glenn, as astronaut and as public servant, was no stranger to the movie screen. I can think, right off the bat, of three movies in which he was featured. But Glenn, who was memorialized in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, deserves a post of his own. Which is why I’ll move on to the death of someone quite a bit more obscure: Ever hear of E.R. Braithwaite?

Braithwaite, who just passed away at the ripe old age of 104, had a busy life, serving as an educator, an author, and a diplomat. Born in what was then British Guinea in 1912, he was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and graduated from posh Cambridge University with a degree in physics. It was while job-hunting that he – a black man -- first became aware of institutionalized racism in Britain. Struggling to find a job  and a place to live, he ended up accepting a teaching post in a decrepit secondary school in the East End of London. His students, though mostly white, were a down-at-the-heels bunch, many of them hostile to blacks, but over the nine years of his teaching career he gradually earned their respect. Out of that experience came a memoir, 1959’s To Sir, With Love.

Naturally, there was a Hollywood ending. In the Sixties, audiences were hungry for films in which a noble black man (usually Sidney Poitier) finds love and respect. To Sir, With Love became one of three hit films that made Poitier the hottest box office attraction of the year 1967. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he found love with a beautiful young white woman, and earned her father’s blessing for the interracial union. In the Heat of the Night (1967’s Best Picture winner) showed him, as a Philly police detective, solving a murder case in a backwards Southern town, and then winning the respect of the good-ol’-boy local sheriff. To Sir, With Love, by far the sappiest of the three, gave him the opportunity to tame a roomful of young British hooligans by teaching fair play, manners, and how to make a salad. (The film also spawned a pop hit, sung by the then-popular Lulu, who played one of the students.) 
Author Braithwaite was by no means enamored of the film version of his story. According to his obituary, he was annoyed that the film played down his interracial romance with a fellow teacher. And he understandably found Poitier’s approach to his students in the film overly simplistic. Though the film character based on his life wins over students by such stunts as taking them on an impromptu museum trip, Braithwaite was quoted as griping that “the movie made it look like fun and games." But that’s what Hollywood is about: fun and games, right?