Monday, August 24, 2015

Sweet and Salacious:
Actor Frank Langella Dishes

Like an elegant ante-pasta platter, Dropped Names kept me eating one bite-sized chapter after another, some sweet, some salty, more bittersweet.  These are anecdotes that actor Frank Langella has perfected in decades of late-night after-drinks conversation with other actors.  In committing these stories to print, Langella has also reflected on the craft of acting, and the dangers of celebrity.

[Photo: Langella as "Dracula," in a film adaptation in 1979 of his star turn on Broadway; today; and as "Nixon," a role created for the play Frost/Nixon and re-created for the film. See my reflection on Frost / Nixon.]

For sweet, we have from Marilyn Monroe a kind word, just one, that fires ambition in the geeky sixteen-year-old Langella.  There's John F. Kennedy, in yellow trousers, putting young Langella at ease.  Gray and gay Noel Coward flirts with Langella, but the younger man feels only admiration and gratitude for Coward's rapt attention; at a tribute years later, Langella sees Coward's eyes well with tears.  Actresses past their prime maintained their dignity and air of mystery: Delores Del Rio, Billie Burke, Loretta Young.  Langella calls Raul Julia "my boyfriend" who comes across as an overgrown puppy of a man, exuberant and without guile.

For bittersweet, we have greats or near-greats in decline.  Some are just tired:  James Mason, James Coburn, Jack Palance.  A mediocre director named Cameron Mitchell, once a handsome actor, now squeezed into a suit coat that fit him in his glory days, blushes as he jigs for the cast and crew.   The great actor George C. Scott, directing Langella in Coward's Design for Living, leaves rehearsal after draining a six-pack and a bottle of Scotch; gets pissed off (and on) during a drunken confrontation with Langella at a urinal  (giving Langella the opportunity to make the pun "I rained on his tirade"); and wanders off stage during a sold-out performance of Inherit the Wind, muttering "I'm sorry... forgive me."

For salacious, we have Langella's affairs, and a slew of self-centered megolomaniacs.  Of the former group, I'll say nothing; this is a family blog. Of the latter group, famed "Method" teacher Lee Strasberg leads the pack:  Not only does Langella detest the pompous little man, but he quotes friend Stella Adler saying, "It will take one hundred years to undo the harm he has done to the acting community" (29).   Anthony Quinn sends a personal assistant to tell Langella that "Hi" is not a sufficiently respectful way to address Mr. Quinn.  Richard Burton is a drunken bore who monotonizes conversation in Langella's dressing room for hours; Yul Brynner's "King" persona carries over into everything he does.

About his own profession, Langella straddles two poles.  Strasberg was, in Langella's understanding, about indulging one's own emotions; while England's quintessential classical actor John Gielgud (my drama teacher's drama teacher) was too far removed from emotional truth, though he did seek roles outside his comfort zone.  Langella frequently castigates actors, also playwright Arthur Miller, for lacking any introspection.  There's got to be technique; the emotion can't be some kind of personal therapy; and, as Maureen Stapleton said to Langella, "Ya' gotta mean it, baby" (266).

There's an odd undercurrent here about masculinity.  Langella gives us Robert Mitchum and James Coburn as their agents would have him do, as strong, silent, hard drinking, unsentimental he-men.  Langella laughs at his own adolescent behavior when he competes with novelist William Styron over an inch or two in the boudoir of a French mistress they shared.  But it's man's man George C. Scott who surprises us most.  Asked in flight, drunk, what he would have done instead of acting, Scott told Langella, "I would spend the rest of my life sitting at the bedside of the real men in veterans' hospitals playing chess... But why would they want to be bothered by some faggot actor" (188)?

Near the end, Langella passes on universally good advice from heiress Bunny Mellon.  Asked how to talk to famous people, she said to just repeat the last few words of everything they say, as a question.  Brilliant! 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Conversation Radio at WABE-FM, Atlanta

Until I plugged in my ear buds and started riding my bike this summer, I was among those mourning the loss of classical music programming at WABE, Atlanta's premiere public radio station.  But I gave a try to the talk shows City Lights and A Closer Look.

Nine weeks and nearly 2000 miles later, on the stormy evening before I return to school for faculty work days, I know I'll remember this summer for conversation, the way I remember other summers for "Sweet Caroline" or "Call Me Maybe."

[Photos, Lois Reitzes;   Denis O'Hayer and Rose Scott]

Topics for "City Lights," hosted by long-time announcer Lois Reitzes, range widely under the general category of "creative expression."  Ms. Reitzes speaks in a low, excited whisper that verges on a gasp.  But she puts her subjects at ease and draws them out with follow-up questions.  The show airs interviews from other sources such as NEH and other cities' NPR stations.

"A Closer Look," hosted by Denis O'Hayer and Rose Scott, focuses more on Atlanta's metropolitan area, economic trends, policy choices, and controversies. Mayor Kasim Reed paused to comment on how they were giving him a hard time, and another official later thanked them for not letting Reed off easy.  No matter what, Denis and Rose, no less than Lois, presume that their interlocutors are decent, intelligent, and well-prepared to answer critical questions.  

So, pedaling through a tunnel of greenery, dodging squirrels and the occasional rabbit, I was always thinking.  For awhile, I tried to keep a list of striking bits until the quantity overwhelmed me.  Here are a few:
  • Chuck Palahniuk's violent Fight Club belies a soft-spoken, thoughtful, earnest writer who admires my guy, John Updike.  "Everyone listening should read or re-read Updike's story about the A&P."  His own short story about a boy parroting grown-ups' offensive jokes suggested a lot about us. Palahniuk worries about an insidious feedback loop between MFA teachers, their graduates, and the next generation of MFA teachers.
  • Cellist Lynn Harrell learned from his father, the singer, to let the cello "breathe"
  • Is 6000 pages too long for a memoir?  A panel of thoughtful critics and writers didn't settle for the one obvious answer considering My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Maybe we do have too much fiction in our lives, dozens of stories flashing at us in image and sound every hour. The author admitted, "The first ten pages are the best; the rest isn't up to my usual standards."  Why did the panelists wait an hour to mention that the title was Hitler's?
  • Local musician Scott Stewart kept up a summer-long dialogue with Lois about film music with numerous sound clips.  I know to look for more by Giachino; Korngold's noble, melancholy music made me cry; the tribute to Horner brought out variety I hadn't heard before; and even the segment on video games illustrated the orchestrator's craft.  I want to remember Korngold's response when Max Steiner said, "During your ten years in Hollywood, my music has been getting better and better, while yours has been getting worse and worse."  Korngold said, "That's because you've been stealing from me, and I've been stealing from you."
  • The late Elmore Leonard said, "If it sounds like writing, I re-write it."
  • B.B.King was scared in 1967 when a roomful of white hippies gave him a standing ovation before he played a note; his delight and gratitude for that evidently carried over to his dying day four decades later.
  • I had my eyes opened to artists I've not appreciated before through tributes to Buddy Guy, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, some by WABE's jazz deejay affectionately known for decades as H. Johnson.
  • Louis Armstrong's music, his home, his home-recordings, his dismay at being called an "Uncle Tom" all came across in an audio tour of the home his wife Lil made with him.
  • What's most important about a brand of bourbon, says the author of a book on America's beverage, is not in the bottle.  The legends that go with the labels began largely as marketing ploys, but are now so old that they're legend enough.
  • Conversation with the writer who moved in next to Harper Lee's family home gave us insight before the controversy over Go Set a Watchman.  She returned after, for follow-up.
  • Zombie maven Max Brooks wrote World War Z on the models of real-life oral histories, to emphasize how heroes don't win a war; it's a community effort.  His zombies are slow and stupid (not like the super-powered ones in the movie, which he disowns) because we are to blame for repeated plagues and scourges, through denial, inertia, gullibility.  Brooks gives the example of AIDS-HIV, but I can think of others.  Even Hitler gave ten years' warning.  Brooks' latest work about vampires during a zombie apocalypse is his version of what he sees on college campuses today: children of privilege who've never been allowed to experience failure.
Musicians, actors, rappers, writers -- all come across in conversation as grateful for the attention, courteous, and unsure as the rest of us how they'll move forward from past successes.

So, with school looming, I know this summer is over.  I'll miss my long dog walks with Mia, old Luis, and my friend Susan;  I'll miss the bike rides and feeling fit as I fill up with school lunches and sit reading papers.  And I'll miss "City Lights" and "A Closer Look."  They were the soundtrack of my summer!

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

We are Jesus, Not God

"So who made you God?"

I want to ask this when people of my own comfortable socio-economic status argue that this or that liberal policy will just increase dependence on the state among the lower classes. A bright guy like Paul Ryan tries to soften his rhetoric about "makers and takers," but it's still just Social Darwinism: let the weak (lazy, addicted, promiscuous) ones go homeless, go to jail, return to their home countries, whatever, and let the "fittest" keep all their stuff, unburdened by taxes and unbothered by public projects anywhere near their backyards.

[Cartoon posted by Ben Witherington.]
One religious friend of mine opined that we should never have extended the vote to the unpropertied masses, as they just elect politicians who promise the most benefits.  I notice that social Darwinism is bedrock belief among my acquaintances who dislike the real Darwinism. 

But Jesus pointedly doesn't discriminate among the people he helps.   Disciples ask him,  "Who sinned, the blind man or his parents?"  Jesus doesn't care.  Does the victim belong to a despised category (Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, women, "the unclean")?  Regardless, Jesus touches, heals, nourishes.

Jesus commands us to follow his example.  Jesus says, straight out, that the kingdom of heaven is reserved for those who came to his aid when he was hungry, thirsty, a "stranger" (meaning, an immigrant), naked, sick and in prison.  Asked by disciples when he was ever in such dire straits, he replies, "As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me" (Mt 25.45).  No drug tests, photo ids, or means testing required.

Jesus also empowers us to follow his example, so long as we do so in community.  Any "two or three" gathered in his name -- that is, representing Jesus -- have power: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven," he says to his disciples.  (Mt 18:18.  The same story also is applied to Peter alone in 16.19). 

When I've heard politicians and preachers decry how the Supreme Court has threatened "core religious beliefs," I have to wonder what "core" means to them.  Teachings about justice for the poor and caring for the weak is core to both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  But Jesus is most angry whenever someone presumes to judge another for any breach of ancient purity laws.

I know that free markets encourage innovation, and I know that state-directed economies are stultifying and coercive.   In between, there's a vast range of choices.  (See my blogpost on economist Wilhelm Ropke.) If we support government policies that redistribute a portion of our wealth to others in need, then we can deal with shirkers in some other separate way.  We can do what Jesus would do, and leave judgement to God.  

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Ann Cleeves' Thin Air has
Thick Atmosphere

In Thin Air, novelist Ann Cleeves plays one tight-knit community
against the other.   There are young urban professionals gone up to the northernmost British isle for a wedding, and the team of detectives who descend on the community when the bride vanishes.

The island itself, hours from the mainland, in the eerie twilight of a sun that never sets, naturally bears a small, insular community.  It has a scandal of its own: the neglected girl who drowned generations ago and now haunts the foggy cliffs and permeates the story.  

The crime sharpens conflict among the communities, and also within them. 

For those of us who have followed the series from the start, it's good news that brooding detective Jimmy Perez is a little less brooding, here, and a little more sensitive to his boss from the central office, named "Willow" by her aged hippie parents.  Even better, we see more growth and even a hint of romance for sidekick Sandy.

In each of Cleeves's novels that I've read, when the story reaches a breathlessly exciting conclusion, we face two or three chapters of stagey question-and-answer sessions explaining what really happened.   If there's some way to mete out revelations earlier, so that only one or two final questions remain at the denouement, I wish Cleeves would find it.