Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sheila Nevins: Coming Out and Loving It

I first got to know Sheila Nevins when I interviewed her for a Hollywood Reporter story honoring top women in entertainment. I’ve chatted with scores of bigshots in similar circumstances. But no other woman to whom I’ve spoken in the line of duty has frankly discussed with me her insecurities, her dislike of exercise, and the color of her current fingernail polish. After discovering I was once a fellow English major, Sheila even sent me a gift: a copy of Vanity Fair. (Thackeray’s 19th-century novel, that is.)

Sheila has made her mark as President of HBO Documentary Films. In three decades, she’s produced over 1000 documentaries, scores of which have been honored with Emmys, Oscars, and Peabody Awards. She herself has taken home thirty-two primetime Emmys, so you’d think she’d have a high opinion of herself.

Not true! The Sheila I know is forthcoming about her anxieties, her infirmities, and what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world. And now she’s added to her impossible list of high achievements by publishing a straight-from-the-hip memoir of sorts, an irresistible collection of stories, true confessions, and musings. She calls it You Don’t Look Your Age . . . And Other Fairy Tales. It’s blunt and funny about the phenomenon of getting older, with straight talk about facelifts, sleep disorders, weight gain (“Gliding Gracefully into Gravity”), and a change in her eyesight that now encourages her to focus on the big picture. As a career woman, she also has her say on how to tell “frenemies” from those who genuinely wish you well. Her most valuable mentor, she insists, has been revenge against the snobs who tried to keep her in her place.  

How does she feel about airing her failings for all the world to read? Sheila told me, “I always thought it would be embarrassing. I didn’t care.” In her career, she has many times chronicled stories of people coming out . . . as gay, as trans. That’s why she decided, “I’m gonna come out as old.” This woman who used to hide on her birthdays now calmly announces she’s 78. Self-revelation was a weight off her chest, even though in the mornings “I look my age, without upholstery.” Comparing herself to a couch, she quips, “It was a good couch, and you can’t buy those couches anymore.”
 Though Sheila sometimes seems brittle, there’s a tender heart beating in her breast. Part of the impetus for the book was her affection for AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who encouraged her writing and (from his hospital bed) inspired one of her gentlest pieces. It was at his bedside that she got the idea of asking their mutual friend Christine Baranski to participate in an audio recording of the book. Soon what seems all of showbiz came aboard: Lily Tomlin, Lena Dunham, Glenn Close, et al. The biggest coup was snagging Meryl Streep, whose deeply emotional reading of the book’s final section, “The Wrong Kind of Hot,” magically evoked for Sheila the voice of a mother who’s been dead for 35 years. Sheila’s relationship with her mother, the victim of two debilitating diseases, helps explain her sensitivity to those at the bottom of life’s heap.

Sheila admits to other challenges too, feelingly discussing her son’s Tourette’s diagnosis. (This story is read by Rosie O’Donnell, who “knows about wounded children.”) But she steers clear of writing in depth about husband Sidney: “I chose to spare him.” Sidney is, she makes clear, a very private individual. And she’s deeply grateful that “he took a once-thin, once-pretty woman and let her be herself.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

In Memory of a Green Beret: The Life and Hard Times of Sgt. Barry Sadler

With Memorial Day fast approaching, it seems timely to eulogize a pop culture hero whose life was profoundly shaped by my generation’s war, the conflict in Vietnam. Back in 1966, Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret” was everywhere. You heard its rat-a-tat cadences on the airwaves; you saw its square-jawed composer perform it on the Ed Sullivan Show. John Wayne’s flag-waving 1968 film, The Greet Berets, used it as an anthem. (The film may have been scorned by critics—and by many vets who considered it a fairytale—but it earned a then- impressive $21 million at the box office.)

The lyrics of “The Ballad of the Green Beret” salute what it deems the  U.S. Army’s most valued assets: “Silver wings upon their chest/ These are men, America's best.” They are, in Sadler’s words, “Men who mean just what they say/ The brave men of the Green Beret.” It has fallen to my friend and colleague Marc Leepson to explore the soldier behind the song.

Leepson’s new biography is titled The Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler From The VietnamWar and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death. At the start of the book, Leepson explains his own bona fides via a dedication “to my fellow Vietnam War veterans and in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in that war.”  It’s his challenge to explain the era to those who think of Vietnam as ancient history. As a former soldier himself, he understands the Army’s reverence for machismo, and for the kind of heroics that show up in John Wayne movies.

Barry Sadler, who’d survived a rough upbringing, found purpose in his life when he joined the Army’s Special Forces and trained as a combat medic. Self-taught on the guitar, he wrote a number of songs that he enjoyed performing for his fellow Green Berets once he arrived in Vietnam in 1965. One of those songs, “The Ballad of The Green Beret,” caught on, to the extent that Sadler was eventually signed to a major recording contract stateside. His album came out in January 1966, and the military was happy to use the handsome soldier as what Leepson calls “a human recruiting poster.”

But once Sadler left the Army, he did not fit in well with civilian life. He spent much of his time drinking, womanizing, squandering money, and getting into heated political arguments. He briefly considered becoming an actor, but could drum up only limited roles in middle-brow TV series like Death Valley Days. There was an attempt to write a Vietnam-themed screenplay, which came to nothing. The surprise was that he eventually found a lucrative niche writing pulp novels full of history and gore. His private life, though, remained messy in the extreme. It was a life in which violence was never very far away.

Marc Leepson speculates that Barry Sadler was victimized by his own success. It was a success that likely would not have come to him if his patriotic song had been released a year or two later, once the nation had begun to turn against the Vietnam War. “Simply put,” says Leepson, “his tough guy brand did not sell as the nation went through the political, social, and cultural upheaval of the Sixties.” Leepson views Sadler, born in 1940, as not a Baby Boomer but a throwback to World War II’s Greatest Generation. His sad life and mysterious death suggest a man out of place and out of time. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mr. Dave Goes to Washington

It’s been almost 25 years since an amiable fable called Dave appeared on the nation’s movie screens. Dave, which stars Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, takes a basically light-hearted look at the U.S. presidency. It’s a Capraesque take on the notion that a man of the people is a vast improvement over most career politicians. What’s striking in 2017 is how much the film resonates with the facts of the administration in today’s Washington. At a time when the rumblings about impeachable offenses are growing louder,  it’s very pleasant to see a movie in which skullduggery gets punished and American ideals prevail.

In Dave, the protean Kevin Kline gets the opportunity to play two roles. The first is that of President Mitchell, a man capable of delivering idealistic speeches that delight his supporters. Mitchell, who looks a great deal like the first President Bush, may have a presidential air, but he’s at base a cold-hearted skunk who’s too busy canoodling with his secretary (Laura Linney) to want to show up at ceremonial events. That’s why the lookalike Dave Kovic, a gentle everyman who runs a temp agency, is recruited to stand in for him at smile-and-wave events. Things take an unlikely turn when President Mitchell suffers a massive stroke in flagrante delicto. The conniving chief of staff played by the wonderfully sinister Frank Langella sees this as a prime opportunity to install Dave permanently in the White House. The idea is that Dave, playing the role of the president, will serve as a convenient puppet, with Langella’s character pulling the strings.

Needless to say, the worm turns. It’s not long before Dave discovers that he has a mind of his own, and that he’s in a position to use his new-found power for the good of the common man. In entertaining kids at a local homeless shelter and then throwing his support toward an expensive but idealistic jobs bill, he wins widespread public approval, as well as the affection of a First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) who has long been disgusted by her philandering spouse. Of course Dave’s time in the sun cannot last. Langella is up to no good, and there are some excellent plot twists and turns before order is restored and happy days are here again.

Most real-life Washington DC power brokers obviously enjoyed the concept of Dave, because many of them appear on camera. Such 1990s politicians as Senators Tip O’Neill, Paul Simon, Howard Metzenbaum, and Alan Simpson are interviewed about the doings of the fictitious President Mitchell by real-life journalists like Robert Novak, Sander Vanocur, and NPR’s Nina Totenberg. The late Helen Thomas asks sharp questions at a presidential press conference. Jay Leno tells political jokes, and Larry King provides acerbic commentary. The real power structure, in other words, supports the fantasy.

That was then; this is now. What struck me about Dave is its conviction that a man with no political experience is better equipped than many political regulars to make important decisions. We’ve just been through an election in which voters chose as the nation’s leader a political novice who relies on his gut instincts rather than a well-formulated sense of policy. Of course, through much of Dave, the novice is putty in the hands of a behind-the-scenes manipulator bent on subverting the system for his own gain. Though Dave ultimately wises up, he knows better than to think he has all the tools he needs to run a nation. Though the film ends on a predictably upbeat note, the system stays intact. In our own world, let’s hope that remains so.

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.