Friday, December 8, 2023

The Way We Were – and Weren’t

The death of Norman Lear—writer, producer, social crusader—has set us all to thinking about the ways that mass media can influence public opinion. Lear’s creation in 1971 of a lovable bigot, Archie Bunker on TV’s All in the Family, launched household conversations that are still going on. It was the start of the era in which the so-called “boob tube” was used for something other than benign entertainment, in which the tough issues of the day were explored, in a humorous but pointed context.

 After nine seasons of All in the Family, Lear created many other TV series, most of them exploring how people of different backgrounds come together, and are pulled apart. Not content to weave his own views about tolerance and progressive politics into teleplays, Lear in 1980 introduced People for the American Way, an important advocacy group meant to combat the right-wing views of the so-called Moral Majority. He was hardly one to keep silent in the face of injustice.

 I have no idea what Norman Lear thought of Sydney Pollack’s 1973 film, The Way We Were. This bittersweet romance between a politically left-wing Jewish gal (Barbra Streisand) and a hunky college athlete with writing skills and WASP self-importance (Robert Redford) was beloved by many for its mating of two top stars of the era as well as for a title ballad that has never gone out of style. The Way We Were, adapted by playwright Arthur Laurents from his own novel, was nominated for six major Oscars, winning for both its song and its musical score. It also made major waves at the box office. I suspect Lear might have responded to the film’s central idea of opposites attracting, but would have liked it better if Pollack hadn’t been forced by his studio to cut heavily the section dealing with McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist.

 As for me, seeing The Way We Were again after so many years, I find I am not a fan. Still, though I have always resisted the charms of Barbra Streisand, I can’t help but praise her for a funny and heartfelt performance. Her Katie Morosky is someone worth paying attention to, both when she’s weak and when she’s strong. On the other hand, I have no great love for Robert Redford’s performance as the feckless Hubbell Gardiner. We’re supposed to believe he’s a sensitive and immensely gifted writer, one who can achieve the upper echelons of his craft based on his skill alone. But all I saw on screen was a blandly handsome guy with a Malibu beach house and a poor taste in friends. He seems shallow, and Katie’s long-term infatuation with him makes her a bit shallow as well. With all her smarts, it’s a shame she can’t make a better choice of soulmates. And the political/social context that is supposed to add to the film’s meaning is skipped over so lightly that it might as well not be there at all.

 My colleague Julia L. Mickenberg, who specializes in women’s history at the University of Texas at Austin, has a unique perspective on this film. Her recent online piece for Ms. relates to the once-celebrated Jewish author and activist Eve Merriam, about whom she is currently writing a biography. Merriam, it seems, was a close college friend of Arthur Laurents, and served as his model for the Katie Morosky character (created by Laurents with Streisand in mind). She was also an important public figure in her own right. A big thank-you to Julia for adding to my understanding of a forgotten but fascinating figure.



Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Maestro: Cigarettes and Love, Lenny-Style

Leonard Bernstein was an integral part of my childhood, and maybe yours too. From 1958  to 1972, he was on television with the New York Philharmonic, explaining to kids in a compelling way the joys of classical music. Then there were the musicals he composed that set our toes a-tapping: On the Town, West Side Story, Candide. I discovered the lively film version of On the Town (about three sailors on shore leave in New York City at the height of World War II) long after its release in 1949.  When West Side Story came out on film in 1961, it was seen by everyone I know, and long afterward the infectious score was still buzzing around in our heads. Though the much more recent Spielberg version of West Side Story may have its virtues, no one can rob us Baby Boomers of our affection for the original.

 But it’s only now that Bernstein himself is on film, not as a composer but as the leading man of a biopic. Bradley Cooper, inspired by the memoir by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, had long wanted to put his complicated life on film. Ultimately, Cooper was to be a triple (at least) threat: as co-writer, director, and star of this labor of love. Much has been made of the prosthetic nose used to transform him visually from Bradley into Lenny. At the theatre where I saw this film (soon to show up on Netflix), photos of the real Bernstein in various stages of life reveal just how close the makeup artists got in transforming a Philadelphia gentile into a New York Jew.

 Far more important than Cooper’s look, however, is the spirit he brings to this role. His Lenny is smart, funny, impetuous, wildly sociable, nicotine-addicted, and wholly dedicated to his role on the music scene. He’s also far more attracted to men than to women, a distinction the film makes early on in showing a life-changing moment. He’s roused from sleep in the early morning hours by a phone call telling him that the great Bruno Walter, slated to be a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is down with the flu. As the orchestra’s assistant conductor, the 26-year-old Lenny needs to pick up the baton—without rehearsal. He makes the appropriate sounds of regret, hangs up the phone . . . and indulges in a triumphant yell of which Tarzan would be proud. Then, jumping into a bathrobe, he affectionately pats the behind of the young man who had been sharing his bed, and heads for Carnegie Hall. In one of the film’s many surreal moments, he arrives in that grand space, still in his bathrobe, ready to take on the world.

 But Maestro is not solely about Lenny. The film’s focus is his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, played by the always luminous Carey Mulligan. From the start, Felicia knows her husband’s sexual predilections, but is at first willing to overlook them for the sake of home and family. Ultimately the tensions within the home threaten to destroy it (in a scene cleverly staged as the gigantic balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade pass by the Bernsteins’ Central Park West window). Still, the genuine love between these two talented and complicated people is what the film is all about. This nicely fits the genuine Bernstein quote that opens the film: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." Quite so.

 See this in a theatre, if you can, to revel in the Bernstein score.



Friday, December 1, 2023

Postcards from Princess Leia: Jeff Ryan Explores an Inter-Galactic Bond

I just read, in the Los Angeles Times, about a religious cult that believes our world is guided by Galactics, most of them dead celebrities. And yes, Carrie Fisher’s name is on the list. There’s something about Fisher, better known to many of us as Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, that transcends the usual Hollywood hype. In life and in death, she was not so much a movie star—and pretty much the sole female in a blockbuster series of outer-space epics—but also both a role model and a cautionary tale.  As a royal who has her ups and downs in six Star Wars films, starting with the so-called Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, she is powerful and pragmatic. But she also tends to get kidnapped, humiliated, and made to wear wacky costumes (Those hair buns! That kinky harem outfit!). Fisher’s personal life was equally complicated: the well-heeled daughter of celebrities, she found fame early, but also faced marital disaster as well as serious addiction issues. Always honest with herself and her public, she eventually owned up to the bipolar disorder that helped to shorten her life, as a way to make the public aware of mental health challenges.

 Jeff Ryan clearly reveres Carrie Fisher, both for her contributions to pop cinema and for her forthright approach to her own failings. That’s why, when the publishing industry let him down, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to make his tribute to Fisher a reality. The result is a handsome 2023 volume called Your Worshipfulness: Starring Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Ryan’s is by no means an insider biography. Following Carrie’s sudden fatal heart attack in 2016, he never approached her colleagues, nor her bereaved family. Much of his research comes from published sources, including fan sites on the web and the memoirs of others involved in the Star Wars universe. He also delves deeply into Fisher’s own writings: her four novels and such non-fiction works as Wishful Drinking, in which she confronts her own topsy-turvy life.

 With affection and wit, Ryan sizes up what it was like to BE Carrie Fisher, paying special attention to her complicated but affectionate bond with her famous mother, one-time Hollywood cutie-pie Debbie Reynolds. (Postcards from the Edge—a 1987 Fisher novel about mother-and-daughter celebrities that later became a Meryl Streep screen hit—clearly reflects something of her own parental memories.) We also learn through Ryan’s book about the father who neglected her. (“Nice-guy” singer Eddie Fisher, whose marriage to Reynolds was at one time big Hollywood news, famously dumped Debbie when Carrie was two years old to marry the newly bereaved Elizabeth Taylor.) There’s also dish about Carrie’s short-lived marriage (1983-1984) to singer/songwriter Paul Simon. The strained relationship allows Ryan, always a clever wordsmith, a chance to get snarky: “They had not enough bridge, way too much troubled water.”

 Perhaps the most engrossing part of the book for me was the in-depth discussion of 2019’s Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. The final triad of Star Wars films were meant to showcase what became of the famous trio—Leia, Luke, and Han Solo—as they grew older and the universe moved on. But Carrie’s unexpected death challenged George Lucas and his crew to figure out some creative solutions to her absence. They couldn’t ignore Leia, nor could they re-cast her. In the end, up-to-the-minute technology made all the difference, allowing the filmmakers to suggest Leia’s presence, even in the absence of the very special woman who embodied her. As Ryan himself might say, Good night, sweet Princess.