Monday, June 28, 2021

A Human Being Prepares: Learning the Kominsky Method

I’m sad to see the demise of The Kominsky Method, the limited comedy series created by TV veteran Chuck Lorre and starring a top-of-his-game Michael Douglas. The series ran for three years on Netflix: thanks to streaming, I’ve just now watched the final episode, which left the core characters, as usual, both happy and sad.  I use the word “demise” intentionally, because The Kominsky Method—though ostensibly about making it in Hollywood—has a lot to say about death. Chuck Lorre, whose past credentials include such mega-hits as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, is now approaching 70. Michael Douglas is 76. Both of them know, I assume, about the bodily frailties and psychological embarrassments that come with the territory. That’s why the show jokes wryly about prostate problems and other indignities connected with an ageing body, at the same time that the central character is still as ambitious, as horny, and occasionally as childish as ever.

 In its opening episode, The Kominsky Method starts with a death. The last season starts with a death too, one that fans were hardly expecting, but one that leads into perhaps the most subtly hilarious funeral of all time. The handling of the death of a loved one is high among the series’ great themes. All too aware of his own mortality, Douglas’s character strives to do the right thing. Others, though, seem to see the loss of a close relative as an opportunity: in the last season, Haley Joel Osment (no longer the boy who once saw dead people) views the passing of a family elder as a chance to line his own pockets while burnishing his credentials as a Scientology initiate. Then there’s Kominsky’s former wife, played by the always-welcome Kathleen Turner, who has acted opposite Douglas in several terrific films. She helps embody the motif of reconciliation that Lorre has said (see below) is the great thrust of the final season. As both a medical doctor and a patient she has her own complex relationship to matters of mortality, as well as a salty tongue that will not allow Death to be proud.

 But The Kominsky Method is also fundamentally about Hollywood: its egos, its traditions, its winners and losers. The Douglas character, Sandy Kominsky, is an actor who—having belly-flopped in Hollywood—remakes himself as a teacher of acting. Anyone who’s ever taken a drama class knows what the typical acting guru is like: someone who pontificates at length, implying that he (or she) would have been a great star if not for the indignities of the system. In seasons 1 or 2, some of my favorite moments have come from the eager acolytes who hang onto Kominsky’s every work, sometimes taking his advice to ludicrous extremes. Like – when he urges students to be bold in their acting choices – a young white woman decides to emulate Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or take on a Black male role. Naturally, in a series with this sort of pedigree, there are guest appearances by some genuine Hollywood stars. No less than Allison Janney and Morgan Freeman stop by the Kominsky studio. Janney tartly undercuts Sandy’s basic acting philosophy, while Freeman seems most intent on selling his own on-line services as an acting coach. For those who are part of what Hollywood lovingly calls “the industry,” the in-jokes are priceless.

 I wouldn’t dream of closing without mentioning the octogenarian Alan Arkin, who graces the first two seasons in his role as Kominsky’s agent and best friend. Arkin and Douglas together are comedy gold.



Thursday, June 24, 2021

At Wits’ End: The Poignant Brilliance of “Wit”

The 1995 play called Wit, written by a teacher who’d once worked in a research hospital, was  a triumph for South Coast Repertory, the premiere theatre in SoCal’s Orange County. When Margaret Edson, who had never written a play, sent her script to 60 of America’s regional theatre companies, most turned it down flat. But South Coast Rep saw in this story of a lauded college professor facing aggressive experimental treatment for ovarian cancer a promising stage vehicle. SCR’s production went on to win major awards from the Los Angeles theatre community, after which the play moved east to New Haven and New York. There it swept up additional honors, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 The intimacy of Wit’s drama, along with the bleakness of its subject matter, meant that Hollywood didn’t rush to snap up the film rights. But in 2001 HBO put its clout behind a TV movie, securing the services of Mike Nichols as director (two years before his triumphant TV staging of Angels in America), and Emma Thompson in the central role of Professor Vivian Bearing, with Nichols and  Thompson collaborating on adapting Edson’s play to the small screen. By all accounts they didn’t change much. The play’s flashbacks to classroom memories and its surreal shifts in perspective (with the ailing, now bald-headed professor sometimes standing in for her younger self) remain gloriously intact.

 What makes Wit more than a weepie is its sophisticated handling of the leading role. Professor Bearing, age 53, is far more than a victim of an unrelenting disease and a sometimes unfeeling medical establishment. In her college classroom, where she lectured undergraduates on the subtleties of 17th century English poetry, she has been a bit of a tyrant, though one who hangs tough out of respect for the poets she introduces. It’s no accident that her specialty is the metaphysical verse of John Donne, who was by turns a bon vivant, a lover, a churchman, and a deep thinker obsessed with a precise use of language. One of Donne’s great themes is the meaning of death, as seen in the famous “Death Be Not Proud,” a sonnet that becomes in this drama an ongoing source of debate. (Even its punctuation, it seems, proves controversial.) Donne also famously weighed the connection between soul and body, which underscores the play’s juxtaposition of a woman concerned for her essence and the medical team’s determination, at all costs, to save her corporeal self. One of the drama’s most powerful moments comes when a sympathetic young oncologist who once earned an A- in Professor Bearing’s poetry course now seeks to overturn every ethical consideration in the name of medical science.

 Years ago I saw Wit on the stage and was duly impressed. But Nichols’ TV version benefits from the heightened realism the camera brings, ushering us into a realistic hospital environment and forcing us to watch, up close, as Professor Bearing’s body begins to shut down. In a way that the stage doesn’t much allow, it rubs our noses in the indignities of illness—the ungainly feet-in-stirrups position that most women (but not men) have experienced, the gut-searing bouts of nausea, the casual assaults on basic modesty, the final desperate need for simple solace. One of the play’s most touching moments comes when a former mentor, stopping by to see the patient on her way to visit a great-grandchild, forgets about intellectual rigor and soothes Professor Bearing with a simple children’s book. Mike Nichols’ talent as a director of comedy extends here to the human comedy in all its poignancy.  



Tuesday, June 22, 2021

“If Ever a Wiz There Was” – Introducing “The Wizard of Oz” to Today’s Youngsters

I remember when I was small, awaiting my first trip to a local movie house to see a screening of The Wizard of Oz. My mother was excited too, fondly recalling her own youthful introduction to this film classic. My first-ever viewing of The Wizard of Oz occurred long before the advent of color television, with its annual showcasing of the adventures of Dorothy and her friends,, so the return of this film to movie theatres was treated as a really big deal. Newspapers were full of enticing photos of witches and Munchkins. I clipped out a picture of Dorothy meeting the Good Witch Glinda and pasted it into my scrapbook. (Even back then I found Glinda’s outfit a trifle bizarre and her behavior puzzling. Still, my love for the film transcended any qualms I might have about Billie Burke’s weird manner and enunciation.)

 I’ve just had the glorious opportunity of introducing The Wizard of Oz to yet another generation, cuddling on the couch with a rather sophisticated nine-year-old boy and a sweet seven-year-old girl who adores animals. Though, especially after a year of quarantine,  they’re well accustomed to modern electronic games and can call up kid-friendly movies on their iPads, they were both enthralled by a flick that dates back to 1939. Adrian, who knew the basic story and had seen a stage version, kept up a lively stream of chatter, chortling with delight when one of the movie’s witty lines struck his funny-bone. Among his favorites: the Cowardly Lion’s bold assertion that courage is “what makes the muskrat guard his musk” and that if he were king of the forest it would be “imposerous” to be scared of a mere rhinoceros. And Adrian was duly amused by the unmasking of the fraudulent Wizard, the aftermath of the warning to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

 Mila, newly seven, was not frightened by the film’s many brushes with death. Most of her concern was directed toward her favorite character, Dorothy’s little Scottie dog, Toto. She watched with rapt attention as Toto escaped the clutches of the evil-minded Miss Gulch, and then helped protect Dorothy from Miss Gulch’s Ozian counterpart, the Wicked Witch of the West.  (I discovered I had forgotten how often the feisty little Toto saves the day, even being the one who unmasks the phony wizard by pulling aside the famous curtain that reveals the humbug behind Oz the Great and Powerful.) Elsewhere Mila reacted like any 21st century child, expressing concern during the opening scenes that the whole picture would turn out to be drab black-and-white. She was disappointed by characters, such as Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, whom she deemed all too obviously human, despite their elaborate costumes and makeup. The whimsy of 1939-style characters can’t measure up, it seems, to the expectations of a child conditioned by CGI miracles.

 Still, the morning after she watched The Wizard of Oz, Mila could be heard repeatedly singing, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” She was a bit puzzled by the Munchkins, but loved the all-green Emerald City, appreciating such inventive moments as the “horse of a different color” who pulls our Oz friends through the streets of the capital. My stories about the making of the film -- Buddy Ebsen being replaced at the last minute by Jack Haley due to his allergic reaction to theTin Man’s silver makeup; Margaret Hamilton risking her life through the untested special effects involved in the witch’s disappearance - -didn’t much interest her because the movie felt too real. Which, of course, it is.