Friday, September 28, 2018

Cosby, Colette, and #MeToo

The sentencing of Bill Cosby to prison on sexual assault charges is a landmark moment for the #MeToo movement. At the time the sentence was handed down in a Pennsylvania courtroom, I was watching a film about yet another woman taken advantage of by a man. But in Colette, starring Keira Knightley as a young woman coming into her own as a writer, the male/female relationship is hardly a simple one. There’s no question that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (known to all of France as Willy), stole her thunder by publishing her best-selling early books under his own name. But theirs was not a relationship based solely on a husband’s domination of a meek little wife. Wash Westmoreland’s film is quick to point out that the situation was considerably more complicated—and more interesting.

 In this new film version of the life of the celebrated French author (who culminated a long career with the 1944 novel Gigi), there’s an early scene where celebrated man-about-town Willy introduces his new young spouse at a Parisian soiree. She stands out amid the glittering crowd in her modest dress, and a woman with a deep décolletage archly quips that Willy’s wild days are clearly over. Colette promptly rebuts this with s smile: “The wild days have just begun.”

She seems, at this moment, a naïve young country girl, not far removed from wearing her hair in two long braids. Yes, she has sexually tussled in a barnyard with the much older Willy prior to taking her wedding vows, but she seems not to realize that his concept of male privilege will keep them from ever having a partnership of equals. He’s the one with the money, the career (as a sort of self-proclaimed publishing industry), and the romantic adventures on the side. She is supposed to wait meekly at home, first writing letters on his behalf and later penning the novels he will celebrate as his own creations.

But Colette is in fact less meek than she first appears. There’s a lusty side to her that will not be satisfied with her husband’s occasionally bedroom attentions. (As time passes, it’s clear that his needs—and also his abilities—are waning.) Colette welcomes the social attentions of young men in Willy’s circle, but soon makes clear it’s their wives who have really captured her attention. In one memorable segment, she boldly answers the call of a beautiful American heiress. The thought of her lesbian liaison seems to invigorate Willy, who also takes to calling on the heiress in what’s played as a sexy roundelay. (Willy has no trouble accepting Colette choosing a female lover, but makes clear that, for his wife, male sexual companionship is entirely off-limits.)

When the four Claudine novels (written by Colette, “authored” by Willy) become a sensation circa 1900, the “wild days” predicted by Colette have definitely arrived. The books trace the life of a sheltered country girl (much like Colette herself) who experiments with love in unlikely places. The film amusingly investigates the social phenomenon that has young women all over France putting on demure, white-collared black school uniforms and bobbing their hair to match the actress who portrays Claudine on stage. What fascinates me is how Willy clings to the image of the modest and yet sexually bold Claudine, to the point of insisting that Colette (and others) impersonate Claudine in the bedroom.  It’s an odd kind of Pygmalion story . . . but one in which Colette ultimately finds a way—an unconventional way, to be sure—to have a life of her own.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Buck Henry, aka G. Clifford Prout

Buck Henry today

The news of the recent death of hoax artist Alan Abel in New York City made me think about the puckish Hollywood screenwriter, director, and occasional actor, Buck Henry, whom I was recently thrilled to meet when we both appeared on a panel hosted by KPCC-FM following a screening of The Graduate.  I’d studied Henry’s long career while researching my book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation. So I knew about how Henry had fallen into screenwriting, at the behest of director Mike Nichols, after a TV career that included a role in creating (along with Mel Brooks) the classic TV series, Get Smart. I also knew something about Henry’s earlier life: the Ivy League schooling, the military stint in an entertainment unit during the Korean War, the televised shenanigans on The New Steve Allen Show and That Was the Week That Was.

Beyond all this, I had learned that the then-little-known Henry had made solemn television appearances circa 1960 as G. Clifford Prout, the quietly outraged spokesman for an organization called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. As the buttoned-down and bespectacled Prout, Henry made the round of talk shows, and was even interviewed by Walter Cronkite on behalf of SINA, which called for both wild animals and domesticated pets to be outfitted with trousers covering their genitalia.. (Here’s a link to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! featurette in which photos of Henry, as Prout, can be easily recognized.)

One SINA slogan: “A nude horse is a rude horse.” The group issued a slew of press releases , clamored for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to put shorts on her bay gelding, and airdropped articles of clothing onto a cow pasture in support of the principle that “decency today means morality tomorrow.”

In its heyday,  SINA attracted thousands of serious-minded supporters, some of whom were willing to write large checks. But in 1963, the organization was unmasked as a hoax perpetrated by Alan Abel, a New York City resident who liked thinking of himself as a “20th century court jester.” Abel apparently never bilked anyone, going so far as to return .a contribution sent to SINA by a Santa Barbara woman who sought to join his moral crusade. It came in the form of a check for $40,000. As Abel told Esquire, “I fondled it for about five minutes and then sent it back. I told her I couldn’t accept money from strangers.”

 Ultimately it wasn’t the money that attracted Abel. No, he was in it for fun. The SINA hoax was his first, but he kept at it, running a fake candidate named Yetta Bronstein for president (“Vote for Yetta, and things will get betta”), staging a faint-in among audience members at a live broadcast of The Phil Donahue Show, and producing mockumentaries with titles like Is There Sex After Death? Ultimately he was turning his life into the sort of performance art later made famous by satirists like Stephen Colbert and Sasha Baron Cohen. In 1979, he (working with a small group of accomplices) staged his own death, and managed to get a respectful obituary published in the New York Times. When Abel passed away for real on September 14 at the age of 94, the Times was extra-careful to check its facts.

Happily, Buck Henry is still very much with us. Though his body has been weakened by a stroke, I can testify that his wit remains intact. But I suspect his alter ego, G. Clifford Prout, has shed a tear or two for his creator. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Henry Winkler: An Emmy at Last

The comic hit-man genre, it seems, never gets old. Witness the success at this year’s Emmys of Barry, the HBO dark comedy co-created by Bill Hader: he has just won a performance Emmy as a low-rent hit-man who suddenly decides he wants to give acting a try. A second Emmy, well-deserved, went to ageless Henry Winkler, for his role as a pompous, name-dropping acting coach. From everything I know, the statuette couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy.

Henry Winkler, of course, first entered America’s living rooms as Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie or The Fonz, on the hit nostalgia sitcom, Happy Days (1974-1984). Initially, Winkler was slated to be a minor player, but his breakout success as a cocky but lovable greaser-type quickly took him into the major leagues of TV comedy. While writing the biography of Ron Howard (Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . .and Beyond), I learned a good deal about the relationship between an established young star and a rising one. The fact that Howard and Winkler became (and remain) close friends is a tribute to two of the industry’s finest gentlemen.

Howard, playing squeaky-clean high schooler Richie Cunningham, was supposed to be the star of Happy Days. But audiences fell hard for the motorcycle-riding, leather-jacketed Fonzie, and Winkler quickly became the show’s breakout attraction. As attention shifted away from Richie, Howard was publicly philosophical, acknowledging that “there was something immediately electric about Henry. . . . The show was trailing in the first season. Henry got the demographic for us.” It was due in large part to Winkler that more than seventeen million households were soon tuning in to Happy Days, leading to job security and fat paychecks for the entire cast. Yet there’s no denying that Howard’s own morale suffered. At the start of the third season, the Fonz was brought into the Cunningham household as a boarder and surrogate son. Howard bore this change with grace, but couldn’t stomach the network’s later suggestion that the series be renamed Fonzie’s Happy Days. Fortunately, series creator Garry Marshall agreed with Howard, and the familiar title was kept.

Howard (only twenty but a TV veteran), had much to teach the 29-year-old Winkler. He gave  him some valuable tips on production etiquette, and coached him to success as the pitcher on the traveling Happy Days softball team. And the friendship continued long after the show ended. Circa 1981, when both men were new fathers, People Magazine revealed, in an item titled “Pappy Days, ”that they spent their get-togethers debating the relative merits of Pampers and Huggies.

When Howard, moving into directing, launched his first big studio movie, he took Winkler with him. The film was Night Shift, a wild and crazy 1982 comedy about two opposites who form an ill-fated business partnership. Chuck Lumley is a mild-mannered nebbish who had become a morgue attendant because he wanted something quiet. Bill Blazejowski is the hyper-animated “idea man” who proposes to made the morgue do double-duty as a brothel. To play the electric Billy Blaze, Howard cast newcomer Michael Keaton. As Chuck, Winkler got to play a leading man not far removed from his own amiable, low-key personality. Though he loved being Fonzie, Winkler had sometimes yearned to show his stuff in a less outrageous role. But while he was playing a quietly comic version of himself, Keaton walked off with the movie. The  lesson, of course: be careful what you wish for.

I’m thankful to Bill Hader and Barry for giving a talented (and very funny) good guy another chance to shine. 

Winkler and Howard, together again at the 2018 Emmys