September 24, 2014

Central Casting Part III

Paul Newman and Elke Sommer in The Prize (1963)
First of all I want to say that Paul Newman was by all accounts a very good man. Everybody from the town where GSL spent his early childhood, Westport Connecticut, has an anecdote about how kind and considerate he always was which stood in stark contrast to how Martha Stewart carried herself when interacting with the neighbors. Paul Newman gave zillions of dollars to charity and stayed married to the same wonderful woman, Joanne Woodward, all the way to the end.  But why on earth would they cast him as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in The Prize (1963)...and when he was only 38? Paul Newman was fabulous in Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Hustler, et al. I'd like to recommend two movies he made with his wonderful wife Joanne Woodward,The Long Hot Summer and the very charming, and often overlooked A New Kind of Love about Fashion Week in Paris. Paul Newman was great as Fast Eddie and Cool Hand Luke but to play a Nobel Laureate requires a bit of gravitas that wasn't in his repertoire.

Leo in Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York was supposed to be Martin Scorsese's magnum opus that was delayed for years, ran tens of millions of dollars over budget, and his financial backers were getting more than skittish so I feel this led to the poor decision of casting Leo Dicaprio as the young street tough Amsterdam Vallon.  This was not long after his huge commercial and critical success in Titanic and he was good in that role and several others as well.  The movie was a big disappointment for a lot of reasons and some of the blame should be on miscasting Leo. Colin Farrell would have been much better in the rough and tumble milieu of lower Manhattan in the 1860s. Daniel Day Lewis was superb as Bill the Butcher in a performance that left you feeling rueful for what might have been.

*** A couple of days ago Leo emerged from one of his 4 homes (that he ferries to via private jet when he isn't renting the world's 5th largest yacht from a United Arab Emirates oil billionaire) to go to the United Nations to lecture the rest of the world about how we need to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman in Billy Bathgate (1991)
Dustin Hoffman is the male counterpart to Meryl Streep. A great acting talent who has been very good in a number of roles but I can never stop feeling him acting. Like Ms Streep, he loves to do accents and they always sound as if he's been talking that way for about 3 hours. In Billy Bathgate Hoffman sounded like little GSL circa 1970 doing his Edward G. Robinson Little Caesar impersonation for the girls medley relay team.  This role would have been much better suited for Hoffman's old roommates when they were all just starting out back in the mid 1960s: Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall who I rate as the two best American actors.  Hackman and Duvall actually look and sound like guys who could kick somebody's ass.  Hoffman was convincing in Midnight Cowboy but I really don't think he could make Mrs. Robinson go coo-coo-ca-chew.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967).

September 21, 2014

Central Casting Part II

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada
I am often disappointed to see what could be very good movies ruined by poor casting decisions. The most celebrated contemporary actress is Meryl Streep although I've never been a fan.  Yes, she can play a wide range of characters with lots of different accents and chew up the scenery as good as anyone ever has but I don't go to movies for the acting; I go for the story.  With Meryl Streep, I can never get beyond that I'm watching an acting exercise to showcase her 'great range' so her characters never interest me. The Devil Wears Prada would have been much better served with Kristin Scott Thomas or Rene Russo...and some better writing.

Kristin Scott Thomas (top) and Rene Russo

 Remember the movie Unfaithful (2002) and all the buzz it caused? It was a breakthrough role for the wonderful Diane Lane and Richard Gere will always be convincing as a man who any woman would quickly grow bored with but what about the little boytoy?  Ladies, I know many of you were all agog over this slice of Latin Beefcake so you can keep him but we simply must rewrite the script to make this cupcake not an antiquarian book collector (are you f%*&ing kidding me?!?!?!) but rather a male model or waiter/aspiring actor who would much prefer to curl up with a mirror rather than a First Folio.

I'll have a couple more later in the week. Which movies would you cast differently?

Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful. I know what you're thinking...he looks exactly like
 every antiquarian book collector you know.

September 14, 2014

Central Casting Part I

Truman Capote with Lee Radziwell
The most fascinating 'celebrity' of my lifetime has been Truman Capote. To grow up as an All-American boy in the 1970s... especially in a very conservative Southern city, and see this bizarre creature on the Johnny Carson show was unforgettable.  Homosexuality back then wasn't acknowledged or spoken about.  Gay only meant happy. The word most often used was "sissy" but it was more in the context of temperament rather than behavior.  Capote's persona was so over the top that it bordered on freak show. He had the perfect name, so memorable and pleasing to the ear, and that voice was something off a Saturday morning cartoon.  As for my family, I have an Uncle L who is gay but it was never spoken about...not that it was thought of as a dirty secret but in the grand WASP tradition if talking about it was awkward better to leave well enough if it were a 'drinking problem' or mental illness and we had some of that too. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
Philip Seymour Hoffman who so tragically died recently won the Oscar for his lead role in Capote. PSH was a genius of an actor but I felt his physicality was all wrong for the role; PSH was much too large as Capote was tiny and that was so central to his persona.
Toby Jones as Capote in Infamous

I preferred English actor Toby Jones's performance in Infamous that unfortunately got mostly overlooked due to Capote's bigger budget, publicity, and awards.  In 1989 there was a one man Broadway show starring Robert Morse as Capote called Tru that was also taped and later presented on Public Television. Morse won the Tony on Broadway and an Emmy for the TV presentation. It's available in 9 installments on youtube and I think it's brilliant.
Robert Morse in Tru
Back around 1990, I asked my grandmother, 'Dodie', what was the latest on Uncle L and she told me he was working on getting a hit play onto TV and she was drawing a blank on what the play was about (this was likely early symptoms of what would later be Alzheimer's) and she finally said "oh you know what's his name...the gay writer" and we had this somewhat awkward long pause and then I offered up "Truman Capote" as I wondered if there might be some 'acknowledgment' of Uncle L also being gay.  We left well enough alone.

September 08, 2014

Beethoven & Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven

On September 18, 20, 21, and 23rd, Music Director Riccardo Muti will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. I've long considered the 9th as the world's greatest artistic achievement. The concerts have long been sold out but  I'll be standing at the ticket office window hoping to get lucky on a donated ticket. Chicago Arts patrons are good about donating tickets back to be resold rather than allowing them to go unused. I've occasionally had to donate back my tickets due to traffic or flight delays so I'm hoping this time to be on the receiving end of a thoughtful patron's generosity.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Beethoven and Mozart are generally said to be the two greatest composers with Bach sometimes also mentioned. Which one do you favor? I love Mozart but Beethoven hits closest to home with me.  I can feel Beethoven's struggles, and triumph, over all the disorder in his life so I find his music more inspiring than the genteel elegance of Mozart. Please share a favorite recording or tell of a concert that you found most memorable.
Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved.
Beethoven was in Vienna, briefly, at the same time as Mozart and had intended on studying under him but had to return to Bonn on a family matter.  There has always been speculation as to whether these two titans ever met. Wikipedia says a meeting might have taken place in 1787 between the 17 year old Beethoven and 31 year old Mozart. I like thinking they did meet and an account will miraculously be discovered  tucked away in a Viennese library.

Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus
In the movies, Mozart and Beethoven have had mixed results.  Milos Forman directed a near masterpiece in 1984 with Amadeus. The Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved was mostly a disappointment.  Amadeus was actually carried by the supporting cast (and beautiful sound track) led by F. Murray Abraham whose role as Salieri, Mozart's bitter rival, who so perfectly introduced the audience to Mozart's prodigious gifts. In the lead role, Tom Hulce was hopelessly, if understandably, overmatched. Nothing about his performance felt right.  That odd silly laugh was only an irritating reminder that Hulce wasn't up to the task. Everything else about the movie was so well done, that the movie still succeeded. Playing the role of one of the world's greatest ever genius' seems like an impossible task, especially after watching Hulce's performance, but it has been done.  Gary Oldman was sensational as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. Oldman, at the very least, has an acquaintance with genius that Hulce does not.  If you haven't seen Immortal Beloved then go have a look as Oldman's performance is the best I've ever seen on screen and largely wasted in a movie that missed the mark.

Post Script: Per The Darling Hattatts mention in the comments section; I just listened to Brahms excellent 1st Symphony and the Beethoven influence was pleasingly apparent and further research showed even more interesting similarities.
A famous cartoon of Brahms from when he lived in Vienna. It seems that this other alternately difficult or charming German ladies man who never married used to take long walks (always with his hands behind his back) and set up shop in a tavern called The Red Hedgehog. Sounds like my kinda guy!

September 02, 2014

The Great Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson aka Dr Johnson or 'Dictionary Johnson'
portrait by his close friend and co-founder with Johnson of 'The Club' Sir Joshua Reynolds
We all have our favorites and Dr. Johnson is the man I most respect and admire.  While he was a truly great man,  my deep affection is based on a man overcoming great adversity to realize his vast talents and, following the public acclaim and  prominence, how he then conducted himself to the benefit of others which I find so noble and inspiring.

This pic from the pre-opening party of the newly re-opened Red Lion Pub. This portrait, which GSL donated and will be re-framing with something more befittingly dignified, was at the hostess's podium under a bright light greeting everyone so I asked the hostess to please step away from the light to offer a better pic. After snapping this very poor pic, I asked the charming young lady if she knew of  "Samuel Johnson?.....Dr Johnson??......Dictionary Johnson???"
There is much work to be done.
All book lovers of my generation and older are at least vaguely familiar with the encounter that changed the face of English Literature. On May 16, 1763 in Davies' Book Shop in Covent Garden, a young Scot by the name of James Boswell finally fulfilled his great ambition of meeting the great Dr. Johnson.  Boswell had recently completed his Grand Tour and in his quest to collect 'Great Men' had recently met both Rousseau and Voltaire who were impressed with the eldest son of Lord Auchinleck but now he sought the ultimate acquaintanceship with Dr. Johnson. Johnson was well known to have a prejudice against Scots and, being in a foul mood, gave Boswell a rather rough reception which wounded the young upstart. The proprietor Davies later smoothed things over so that Dr Johnson and his 'Bozzy' soon became great friends and decades later Boswell bequeathed to posterity what is still considered the greatest biography of all time: The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D
In the Red Lion, on permanent loan, is an entire shelf on Johnson including "The Life..." in 3 leather bound volumes- gilt edged and moire endsheeted on acid free paper from the GSL private library

To briefly summarize, Johnson came from humble, if fortuitous, origins as the son of an unsuccessful book merchant in the town of Litchfield and suffered from scrofula and what many modern scholars now assume to be Tourette's Syndrome. He grew to be quite tall-over 6 feet, thick set, and gangily long of limb; he was considered nearly a giant in those days. Johnson was from an early age considered ugly in appearance and of fearsome temperament. Johnson's prodigious intellect allowed him to excel at Oxford though he ran out of money after two years and had to leave without a degree (he was later awarded an honorary degree hence 'Dr Johnson'). After leaving Oxford, he came home to Litchfield and started a school which failed after a short time.  Among his students was David Garrick who would later make his way to London and become the greatest theatrical figure of the age.
Celebrated actor David Garrick. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough
Garrick, like Johnson, was from Litchfield and a student at Johnson's school for boys.
Johnson married a much older widow who he left behind in Litchfield to make his mark in London (much like Shakespeare). Johnson over time distinguished himself as a great essayist in pamphlets such as The Rambler and the London booksellers commissioned him to write biographies on literary figures and to write what was essentially the first dictionary of the English language.  He made quite a name for himself with the high quality of his literary output; the Dictionary alone made him famous throughout the English speaking world, and his afternoons and evenings spent in taverns or drawing rooms were chronicled with great interest as he was supremely gifted in the art of conversation and didn't suffer fools gladly...he was sometimes described as a "virtuous bully".  His withering rejoinders were the talk of London the following day and soon made their way to every corner of the British Isles and across the Atlantic. When Boswell had Johnson join him on a tour of the Hebrides, they were astonished to find that at every port of call the entire population of that island or town turned out to greet them and see the great Dr Johnson.

James Boswell aka "Bozzie"about the time he first met Johnson.
portrait by George Willson 1765
What I most love about Dr Johnson isn't just the fact that none other than Harold Bloom (among many others) consider Johnson "the greatest literary critic in the English language or any other language", nor that he presided over a club of highly accomplished men who met periodically in taverns and whose collective achievements have been called by social scientist Charles Murray- the greatest period of human advancement (he refers to this period as "Johnson's London") since Ancient Rome, or that after Shakespeare he's the most quoted figure in the English language and considered it's greatest  conversationalist. No, what I most admire about Johnson wasn't just that he was a great man in areas of intense personal interest but also lived out a life little boys, such as I, were taught to lead by our mothers...that you are to behave as a gentleman (in the American sense of the word), act chivalrously towards women, and if you have the means to do so--help the less fortunate.

What is too often overlooked about Johnson was his championing the great women intellectuals of the day. The original Bluestockings loved having Dr Johnson in attendance at these gatherings of men of affairs and women of fashion and learning. The venerable Elizabeth Montagu was often the hostess with the formidable Elizabeth Carter urging the younger set "not to dare welcome in that foe to uplifting conversation....whist".  Johnson often urged these women to speak on issues he knew they could distinguish themselves and provide enlightenment to others.  Of Ms Carter, Johnson said she was the greatest Greek scholar in the land (and Johnson himself was quite formidable in Greek and Latin) which she must have greatly appreciated since women weren't then able to get a formal degree that announced their expertise.  Women such as Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, and others Johnson praised to the skies wherever he went including to the men at his famous Club.
Elizabeth Montagu aka "Queen of the Bluestockings" Society hostess and great friend of  Dr Johnson. Johnson was a frequent guest in her drawing room and put the word out on the Bluestockings impressive intellectual attainments.
sketch of Mrs. Montagu by unknown artist
Johnson never had much money nor desire for it beyond being able to live a dignified existence.  His dress was usually described as slovenly.  One of the society hostesses who grew quite close to Johnson was Mrs.Thrale who set up a suite for him at the Thrale's estate in Streatham Park.  Johnson was later awarded a pension by the Crown of £300 per annum that provided for a very modest existence but which he considered "great splendor".  With his accommodations at The Thrales he was only home a few nights a week so he turned over his personal lodgings just off Fleet Street to a motley crew of misfits, to hear Boswell describe them, which included among others, an impoverished physician to the poor, Robert Levet, and a nearly destitute and cantankerous old blind spinster, Ms. Anna Williams, who always waited up for Dr Johnson late into the night so she could have the only hours of uplifting companionship she knew in the world.  Ms. Anna Williams was quite intelligent and a minor poet and playwright of some merit according to Johnson so I'm sure the tea and sympathy with her 'Sam', who she doted on, meant the world to her.

Dr Johnson was an ornament to any drawing room and always much in demand for the latter part of his life. Men of Title and Influence and Women of Fashion and Refinement desired his company but let's go back to that fateful day, May 16, 1763, to what is often overlooked or not even known...that first encounter between Dr Johnson and "his Boswell".  Did you know what prompted the great Dr Johnson being out and about and stopping at Davies' Book Shop in such ill temper? Johnson was en route to see his old friend from Litchfield, David Garrick; the now very wealthy, fashionably married, and the most celebrated figure of the London stage. It seems that Johnson had forwarded a play, written by that poor old blind spinster living under his protection, Ms. Anna Williams, to Garrick who couldn't be bothered to give it a fair hearing.  Johnson wanted to have a word with his former pupil.  That is one interview I wish Boswell had witnessed.