Sunday, December 26, 2010
Filled with holiday spirit, I’m re-running my Chanukah/Christmas post from 2009, one of my favorites. It’s my gift to my new readers who’ve never seen it and it’s my my gift to me, as I’m feeling pretty lazy at the moment. For everyone else, I apologize and hope your friends and family took care of you.
Let’s face it, Chanukah is a really lackluster Christmas substitute. For one thing, very few of us can even pronounce “Chanukah.” While both holidays start with the same two letters, their “Chr” sounds like “Cr” but our “Ch” sounds like a cat getting rid of a hairball. Nobody in my family knew exactly how far to go with their “Ch.” One aunt got so enthusiastic with her “chhhh” that she chhh-ocked a loogey right into the Kugel.
While Christians had scientific evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, even though that date had been a pagan celebration centuries before his B-day, Chanukah was based on a totally made-up event: Judah Maccabee’s alleged candle miracle. In case you haven’t heard, this myth was invented hundreds of years after Mr. Maccabee was pushing up the daisies. Even my esteemed Rabbi, Manfred Swarsensky, more or less admitted to me that we picked our holiday out of a hat. I’m sure we Jews would have turned Yom Kippur into a high-flying jubilee if it was in December.
No, Purim is the real gift-giving holiday for Jews, but it comes near Easter, when there are less sales. From a kid’s point of view, Purim kicked Chanukah’s ass. For my goy readers, on Purim you get these noise-makers called gragers that you swing around during the Purim service, every time the rabbi says “Haman” (the Dick Cheney in the Purim backstory). Of course my good friend Mark Harris would pretend he heard wrong and swung his grager every time Rabbi S. said “Esther,” which was a lot. This became contagious, and before too long, we were all giggly, and the Temple was filled with grager-delic pandemonium. As punishment for our horseplay, Swarsensky made us all stay late in Bar Mitzvah class and miss “Batman.”
But as much as I love Purim, I know it wouldn’t have held up against Christmas any more than Chanukah because it has no tree. Many of my fellow Hebrews coped with tree-envy by getting what they called a “Chanukah Bush.” For me that was like a bad toupee… who did they think they were fooling? Just show me one bush that looks like that…it’s a tree. And if you want to do anything Chanukah-related with it, you should buy nine and use one to set the rest ablaze.
If we had had a Chanukah Bush at our house I know it would have been lame. We would’ve trimmed it with all these Jewish chatchkes, little Menorahs, and six-pointed stars. That’s like putting Billy Graham’s picture under the Mezuzah on the door. If you’re going to have a Christmas Tree, don’t pussy out: go to K-Mart, get some Angels, Rudolphs and Frosties, and be done with it. Snowflakes would be nice. Snowflakes are non-denominational.
But the thing that gives most Chanukah-boosters an inferiority complex is our pathetic holiday music. There are a lot of good Yid musicians, but I guess that they couldn’t get worked up enough about Chanukah, aside from Adam Sandler. The Christians had all the best songwriters, like Irving Berlin. They had Mel Torme singing “The Christmas Song,” we had Allen Sherman singing a parody of “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
But don’t get me started on Dreidels. Am I the only one who thinks this is the dumbest game ever invented? You spin a four-sided top that has the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet on it. And then? How do you win? How do you lose? The game was too damned existential for me. Why was I was spinning the Dreidel? To learn how to spin a top better? That’s not exactly Monopoly. And in any case I had Dreidel-spinning mastered by the time I was five. Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing anybody over five engrossed in a scintillating game of Dreidel. Perhaps that’s why there are Chess tournaments, but no Dreidel tournaments.
So this year I was planning to celebrate Christmas the way Jews have done since ancient times—going to a Chinese restaurant. But my wife—the former Melissa Goldberg—is dragging me out for a hearty Christmas dinner with friends. Bah humbug, I say. I sure as hell hope that the occasion isn’t too jolly or merry or overloaded with a surfeit of good tidings. I don’t like to have Christmas shoved in my face.
But I am bringing my guitar and my Reader’s Digest book of Christmas carols. I sing Christmas carols all year round, not just because they are so beautiful, but also because so many of them are about people who can’t make it home for Christmas. I can relate to that. The only one I refuse to do is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I can’t get through that one without busting out bawling. The song is a wholesome Norman Rockwell portrait of a little kid who comes downstairs and is so sweet and naive that he doesn’t know what the f*ck is going on. I grew up in the Midwest and there was a time when I actually was like that kid, until I got to be nine and started getting neurotic. But little kids today will never have the opportunity to ever experience that kind of purity, the way I did. Instead of hiding down in the living room watching Mommy kissing Santa Claus, they’re up in their bedroom downloading porn.
But as you can tell, I love Christmas for it’s own sake and not just because Chanukah blows. Even when I was alone, thinking of suicide, drowning my troubles in Mogen David, “It’s A Wonderful Life” came on TV to brighten my perspective and make me understand what really matters.
Obviously, Frank Capra was not a Jew.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
When people dream of the awards they’d like to receive, some of them think of the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony, the Pulitzer, the SAG or AFI Award, the Golden Palm, the Sundance Jury Award, the Gotham, the Independent Spirit, the National Board of Review, the Booker Prize, the People’s Choice, or the Nobel. Not me.
I want a Golden Globe.
Here are my reasons why I believe that the Golden Globe is the most prestigious award in the world:
Each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has a snapshot taken with all potential nominees. How could anyone judge the worth of a potential candidate unless they pose cheek to jowl with them, grinning ear to ear?
The HFPA is the most independent thinking of entertainment awards groups. The other organizations in the prize-giving cabal bestow nominations to the SAME films, like “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” and “Black Swan,” raising legitimate concerns about secret covenants, and backroom deals made in smoky rooms. The HFP proves its autonomy is beyond doubt by nominating films like “The Tourist” and “Burlesque.”
Absence of Payola. Many so-called award-giving bodies give out cheesy handouts to their winners, like the MacArthur, which forks over half a million bucks, and the Nobel, which shells out a cool million. The members of the Hollywood Foreign Press take the millions of dollars they earn through TV rights and properly give it to themselves.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is the foremost leader in the fight for world rights. The HFPA is currently suing Dick Clark Productions, who has negotiated TV rights to their awards broadcast without their permission, a truly heinous act.
Cocktails are served at the ceremony. Other organizations are fuddy-duddies frozen in the pre-Prohibition era, with old-fashioned thinking that has no bearing on contemporary tastes. Just try bringing a Bud Lite to the the Nobel ceremony, even in a paper bag.
Finally, this is out of date, but still relevant to the illustrious stature of the Globes:
Every single member of the HFPA used to get a “gift” from all potential nominees. Sadly, this practice ended a few years ago, but it will always remain the historical firmament for the thousands of past nominations and awards.
Recently, The Wrap uncovered an angry letter from ex-HFPA publicist Michael Russell, flinging numerous accusations against HFPA President Phillip Berk, one of the most respected and best-loved members of the Hollywood community. Even more preposterously, Russell accused Berk and the HFPA of unspecified “unsavory business practices.” I have no idea what those so-called “unsavory practices” might be, and reject his complaints as the whinings of a disgruntled former employee.
Nothing Russell or anyone could ever say will interfere with my dream of getting a Golden Globe, or even being invited to the ceremony. If I could only hold that mighty icon of artistic achievement in my hands for a few moments, I know I would not only die happily, I would live forever.
The thought of being on stage with Ricky Gervais, one of my favorite comedians and actors makes me giddy. He is a genius at portraying clueless idiots with grandiose delusions of their importance.
Sadly, I must accept the fact that I am never going to get nominated for a Golden Globe. After all, very few people have the slightest idea who I am.
Maybe I should go on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Sunday, December 12, 2010
The release of the new 18-disc Elia Kazan box set, which includes Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” has got me thinking about the evolution of my thoughts about the director of such classic films as “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,”On the Waterfront,” ”East of Eden,” “America, America,” the interpreter and informal dramaturge for great American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and the elicitor of legendary performances from Marlon Brando, James Dean and so many others.
Kazan is all these things, but he is also a source of deep resentment from many, an anger that is dimly understood by a younger generation of movie fans.
As most people who read this blog know, in the early fifties Kazan was a “friendly witness” for the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), giving names of people in the film industry who were Communists. While there were dozens of others who did the same thing, people lost their livelihoods because of his revelations, although Kazan has always denied this. In any case he lost many long-time friends and was widely denounced.
But if he hadn’t willingly testified, the course of his life would have been irrevocably changed, and it’s impossible to say whether “On the Waterfront” (written by his fellow name-namer Budd Schulberg) would have ever been made, let alone “East of Eden,” “Baby Doll,” or “A Face in the Crowd.” What would not working with Kazan have meant for James Dean’s development as an actor? Would Kazan have still made “Splendor in the Grass,” a movie I loved, after the blacklist ended? In light of what he did, does this matter? It does to me.
In 1971, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo directed the film “Johnny Got His Gun,” based on his 1939 novel. As the blacklist officially ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas put Trumbo’s name on the script for “Spartacus,” the publicity for the film centered on the blacklist. This piqued my interest in the period and when I got to college I did some research and wrote an article, “Celluloid Sedition? The Strange Case of the Hollywood Ten,” for the local film magazine, The Velvet Light Trap. The more I studied it, the more the moral issues consumed me. What would I have done? It is so easy to judge people when history doesn’t force hard choices on you.
HUAC actually held two investigations, one in the late forties and one in the early fifties. During the first one, eleven men were called in to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" The first, Bertolt Brecht, left the country the next day. The others, one of which was Trumbo, who became known as “The Hollywood Ten” refused to answer, and went to jail. After their release, all of them—except director Edward Dmytryk, who agreed to cooperate--came out barred from working in from industry. The blacklist had begun.
I doubt these men had any idea they would face such harsh consequences. If he had known, I doubt that Ring Lardner, Jr. would have responded to the “are you now…” question with, “I could answer… but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.” With the possible exception of the pompous Communist bigshot John Howard Lawson, I believe the Hollywood Ten were essentially innocents. I don’t think they thought it was possible in America to go to prison or lose their ability to work simply by practicing their rights to speech and assembly.
By the second round of HUAC hearings in 1952, everybody knew the deal: cooperate or be totally screwed. But this time the deal was much more strenuous than simply answering whether you’d been in the party. You also had to be a snitch. Many of the accused had renounced the party—or had never even been a member--so they were actually eager to talk about themselves. But the new rules were that once you said anything about yourself, you had to name names. It was Kafkaesque. Academy Award-winning John Garfield was a left-winger who rejected the party, but as a non-party member claimed he had no names to offer, so his career was ruined anyway, and he died of a heart attack soon after. Unless you were a ranting reactionary like Adolph Menjou, it was either lose your career or, in the eyes of many, lose your soul. Arthur Miller, who stood up to the committee, later wrote about the cruel twisted logic of those years in “The Crucible.”
Still, there were a range of options within this inquisition. On one edge, you could deliver a fiery speech denouncing the committee, and seal your fate; and on the other margin you could really go to town like screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who identified a whopping 162 people. In the areas in between there were people who desperately struggled to cooperate but ended up being blacklisted anyway, like Garfield and Larry Parks. If you wanted to be absolutely certain that your career was secure, you needed to plant yourself firmly in the collaboration zone. And this is what so many people condemned about Kazan. He was thought to be too overtly friendly, an opportunist who gave it up without a fight. He saw it differently, of course. Why lose your life to protect people you disavow? The problem with this argument is that many people who had turned against the Communists still refused to turn any of them in.
The blacklist was a brutish, nasty thing which destroyed lives, often slowly, through alcoholism. Divorces, strokes and heart attacks were common. Whether you were able to work or not, the suffering could eat through your life like a fever, as you helplessly watched your friends crumble into despair and ruin. As Kazan would later say about himself, Hollywood folk define themselves by their jobs: without work, they don’t feel like they exist. In the face of all this misery, Kazan’s reign as the king of Hollywood caused the rage against him to fester. Of course, it was American hysteria, HUAC and the cowardice of the studios that created the blacklist. Kazan had nothing to do with that and he was only one of dozens who gave names to the committee. His unforgivable sin was being the most talented and celebrated person to cooperate.
Lillian Hellman, who was defiant to the committee, wrote a book on the period, which she entitled “Scoundrel Time,” but Trumbo, who paid a bigger price than most, gave a famous 1970 speech to the Writer’s Guild where he said there were no heroes and villains during the blacklist, only victims. His words made as many people angry as it pacified others, but it did signal a new era in thinking about the era.
As the decades passed, many of the blacklisted people died, memories faded, and the general consensus about Kazan became forgiveness. Still, when Martin Scorsese and Karl Malden lobbied to get him a special Academy Award in 1999 (when he was 90), Kazan’s icon Marlon Brando refused to present it, and Robert De Niro, star of Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” replaced him. The audience of his Hollywood peers gave Kazan a prolonged standing ovation, but the TV camera focused on Nick Nolte, grimly sitting on his hands. After almost fifty years, Nick Nolte was still pissed off at Kazan for something that happened when Nolte was eleven. I have worked with Nick Nolte and love him, but what the hell kind of choices did he have to make when he was eleven and in the years since? Would he readily walk away from ever being a movie actor again?
Shortly after I came to New York, I was at a party after a New York Film Festival screening. Somebody came over to me and said, “Reid, I have somebody I know you’ll like to meet.” I turned around and this gentleman extended his hand warmly. “I’m Elia Kazan,” he said. What ensued was a discussion about the movie we had just seen. I could use this space to invent something about how insightful he was, but the truth is I don’t remember a single word he said, only how courtly and dignified he was. I wasn’t nervous at all talking to The Great Man, even though I was in awe of the art he had created. He set me completely at ease, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. A man can be a genius, a legend, susceptible to human frailty, and many other things, but when he stands inches away from you, he is a human being, nothing more, nothing less. Any thoughts of the blacklist couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Sunday, December 05, 2010
I hesitate to add another syllable to the cluster of gossip, conjecture and rumor surrounding Ronni Chasen’s murder.
I worked with her on a few movies some time ago, but I didn’t know her well. But it’s definitely more shocking when someone you knew even slightly becomes a victim to something as heinous as this. I keep flashing back to what she was like, her unstoppable positivity. Why her of all people?
It’s tragic when someone dies in the prime of life, worse when it happens violently, but worse of all if it becomes a tabloid story. I went through this in an intensely personal way when Adrienne Shelly was murdered. She had been my best friend for many years (although we weren’t as close at that time), so not only did I and all her friends have to deal with the fact that our dear friend was gone in such a savage way, we also had the media nosing around for details. What would have been an anguished but private affair, became something tremendously more painful.
When you add some kind of show business connection to a real-life ongoing murder mystery, it’s irresistible to the media. If Ronni had been an accountant from Sherman Oaks, her case would obviously not have been subject to this kind of intense scrutiny. The media would report it and quickly move on, until the police found a suspect, and even then it would be a small local story. But with Ronni, who wasn’t even famous and only worked with famous people, certain parts of the media have laid siege to her story.
In one sense it’s a positive thing that the media is casting an intense spotlight on the case, so the pressure is kept on the police for the murderer or murderers to be found, but for me the reportage has stepped way over the line into exploitation and her privacy is being invaded in gratuitous ways. Subtle inferences are being drawn, and questions are being floated. Could Ronni have had some kind of secret life? Unless the police find out the murder had something to do with money, it’s none of our business how much she had, or for God’s sake, how much of it was in real estate versus investments or whatever. But this is the way things work in the age of TMZ and Radar.com.
The other night I watched a very young woman reporter on CNN outraged that she couldn’t see Ronni’s coroner’s report--or even worse—the coroner’s report of the “person of interest.” She was indignant, and argued that the people of Beverly Hills were scared and they had a right to know the truth. Her disingenuous claim of civic-mindedness disgusted me, as obviously it was all about her perverse sense of entitlement that the police owed her a meaningless “scoop.” (If there’s anything that’s not a mystery, it’s what technically caused Ronni’s death.)
I’m not going to say that all of the coverage has been disrespectful; many journalists have found a very good tone for covering this. But there are a lot of cynical people who are using the brutal killing of a really nice woman as a ratings grabber. Shame on them. And double shame on them because a lot of them knew her personally.
Ronni’s murder has become a media event, and there is more than a little irony in that because her life’s work was about handling the media, understanding the way it works and trying to control it for the benefit of her clients. Damage control can be a big part of the job. But one of the saddest things that every publicist learns is that there are some stories you simply can’t control, no matter how much you want to get your client out of harm’s way. We are trained to get the entire story out as quickly as possible, but if the story can be painted as lurid and the resolution to the story is unknown it just keeps going and going, no matter how clever or experienced you are.
I wish there was a publicist who had the magic wand to protect Ronni as well as she did so many of her clients over the years.