New Year’s Eve Safety Tips

picked up from The Movies.

  • Don’t forget to eat,  your dinner rolls will dance (The Gold Rush, 1925)
  • Don’t accept a party invitation from an aging movie queen, you’ll be the only guest and things could get sticky (Sunset Blvd., 1950)
  • Don’t try to spend it with your married boyfriend, he’ll leave early to be with his wife and you’ll be depressed (The Apartment, 1960)
  • Don’t go cheating on your husband, even if you’re a porn star (Boogie Nights, 1997)
  • Don’t underestimate guerrillas or ever betray your brother (The Godfather Part II, 1974)
  • Don’t – whatever else you do – spend it on an ocean liner (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972)

Oh, and – even though I couldn’t find a movie scene about it – don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!

Death by Hanging


On this date in 2006, three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its former dictator, Saddam Hussein, was executed just before dawn at the joint Iraqi-American military base called Camp Justice. The official reason given for Saddam’s death sentence was 148 murders of Iraqi Shiites that he ordered committed in Dujail in response to an assassination attempt.

Hussein’s request to be killed by firing squad was rejected and he was hung instead. There were reports of jeering from the onlookers and some minor mutilation of the corpse, but the scene was unsensational by the standards, for instance, of lynchings in the American South. It’s important to keep these things in perspective.

Saddam Hussein was a bad and brutal man. Very few people, including me, shed tears at his demise. But he had been sold to the American people by our government as the world’s number one threat, a potential nuclear terrorist, and somehow responsible – in spirit if not deed – for the 9/11 attacks. We were told it would be a relatively safe war with relatively few casualties on both sides. And, with the achievement of a greatly stabilized Middle East, the war would practically pay for itself.

As of today, 4,495 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than 30,000 have been wounded while estimates of Iraqi deaths go as high as 1.5 million. A study released in March of 2013 concluded that the Iraq War has cost the American people $2 trillion already and that the total bill – with interest and continued albeit diminished involvement – could top $6 trillion. Oh, and that greatly stabilized Middle East has, among other things, produced ISIS.

The execution of Saddam Hussein – carried out eleven years ago today – just might be the most expensive hanging in history.

Twilight Cowboy

Jon Voight (born December 29, 1938) – American Actor


Jon Voight is 77 years old today. If you’ve caught him as the loathsome ex-con Mickey Donovan on TV’s Ray Donovan, you may find that more than a bit surprising. Voight – in his twilight years – is scary in the part and manages to convey threat merely by his physical presence. What is surprising, too, is the fact that it’s only in later years that Voight has been able not only to play villainous roles but to excel at them.

The first time I remember him as a bad guy was in 1985’s Runaway Train. Voight was pushing fifty then, but those cherubic blond good looks – both his blessing and his curse – had yet to give way to a vague seediness, and director Andrei Konchalovsky had to ugly him up for the role of a violent prisoner with makeup scars and pretend metal teeth.

It was more than his looks, though, that made it difficult for Jon Voight to  convey menace. There just seemed to be something weak about him: some fundamental lack of self-esteem, perhaps, or an underlying sadness. And it appeared to be coming from the actor not the part.

When those qualities complemented the role – most notably in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) – the results were unforgettable. Voight was also wonderful in Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974), the story of a young white teacher on an impoverished black South Carolina island that was adapted from an autobiographical work by another wounded man-boy, Pat Conroy.

And then there was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), which costars Jane Fonda and contains Voight’s finest performance as Luke Wilson, a paraplegic Vietnam vet. In that film, weakness has been inflicted on Luke Wilson from the outside – by combat – and Voight inhabits the character body and soul. His speech to a high school (which should be required viewing in every Army recruiting office in America) is largely improvised. It’s a brilliant and deeply moving moment, which brings the tragedy of that war (and all wars) home to us in a way that few films have. Coming Home, oddly enough, is also Jon Voight’s most credible work as a romantic lead. Fonda’s great, too.

That time I read a book

That time I read a book …

Then got in a heated discussion over coffee with three old friends about what the author meant. Then started another book. Then took a date to a play and talked to the actors after. And picked up fliers in the lobby for another friend’s production and one for the revival house showing German New Wave films. Then stopped at a used bookstore right before it closed and bought two more books. Then met six friends at a bar where we went to hear another friend sing. And everyone (including some people we’d just met) went back to the singer’s apartment and talked through the night.

That time before the internet and laptops and cell phones and TV on demand in your pocket. That time before men (and women) became islands.

That time when I still had a brain.

young people talking

I blame Henry Miller

Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980)

When I read one of the new formless, plotless, sexually candid, confessional I-did-this-bad-stuff-but-that-was-then-and-I’m different now/ sober now/ sorry now, pretentious while pretending to be just folks, supposedly true but obviously fallacious (or, more to the point, perhaps, delusional) yapping barking so-called memoirs, I blame Henry Miller.


He started this. The fake memoir business. Well, not started it, some ancient Greek or Roman did that and possibly some Cretan before them. But Miller continued it, popularized it, made it American and modern, and helped to inspire a new generation of poseurs and a profitable new niche in what’s left of the publishing business.

A number of writers who’ve been caught bullshitting in recent decades – trying to pass off their mediocre fictions as truth – did so at the urging of their agents or editors, who believe “truth” sells better. Which is no excuse for the writers, but does provide a nice barometer of where we’re at on the whole truth thing. We Americans seem to like veracity best when it’s mostly lies, as evidenced by everything from the topic at hand to infotainment to heavily scripted and alcohol-fueled “reality TV.”

“These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences and how to record truth truly.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Henry Miller’s defense, he labeled his fake memoirs “novels” and didn’t claim they were anything else. But he placed the Emerson quote at the front of his first Paris book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), and the implication was clear. He wanted us to believe Tropic of Cancer and his later books were diaries or autobiographies where he’d merely changed a few names – for legal reasons or out of politeness – but which still recorded truth truly. And Miller hoped, of course, that we’d find them – and him –  captivating.

In his defense, too – and in contrast to his obsequious contemporary offspring – Henry Miller never apologized. In books or life. One reason, of course, might be because he never changed and, therefore, never saw the need. Another reason could be that, for a writer – and, especially, a self-confessed “confessional” one – he doesn’t appear to have felt things very deeply. Miller was famous for keeping his hat on during sex. He seems to have kept it on while writing as well.

Not that Henry Miller was an unlikable man. By all reports, once you got past the barking and the bullshit, he was charming and fun. He wasn’t dumb. And Miller could write. Bring the poetry at times, no question. I think of Miller’s books as the books Walt Whitman might have given us if he’d had a propensity toward the novel and been straight rather than gay, if old Walt had crashed in Paris garrets instead of rural hayricks, if he’d had a better-looking hat. But Whitman couldn’t write a novel.

I’m not convinced Henry Miller could write a novel either. A novel with a story, a theme, a purpose, a novel with interest generated by something other than energetic self-celebration and hyperbolic sex. Whenever I decide to give Miller another try, my reading begins with a happy burst of enthusiasm – man, how could I have neglected this guy, he’s great! – then it’s the fifth chapter and the pretend Henry is still picking nits from his memoir buddy’s hair, drinking cheap wine, trying to make this girl or that. I start skipping the sex, look ahead for the character I liked so much in chapter 2, but he or she never shows up again. Halfway through, I quit.

Miller wrote the books he wrote because they were the ones he could write. That’s okay, too. But they aren’t really novels and they’re not memoirs either. Not truthful ones, anyway. Just like ninety percent of the so-called memoirs we get today. For which I blame Henry Miller.

A Ghost Story of Christmas

christmas carol marley

Charles Dickens was up against it when he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol (1843). He was 31 and already a celebrated author, but he had big debts, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and his publisher had just sued him for the printing costs of his latest serialized novel –  Martin Chuzzlewit – sales on the initial installments of which had been less than half that of The Old Curiosity Shop two years earlier.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, then put up his own money to have it printed. He managed to get his book into stores before Christmas … but just barely … on December 19th. Not that there was much of an Xmas buying season back then – there was hardly an Xmas –  and the latter-day commercialization of the holidays would have appalled young Charles. He was all about getting together with family and friends, feasting, singing, dancing, wishing each other well … things that can’t be ordered from Amazon … like generosity of spirit and charity to the poor.

A Christmas Carol was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, but it didn’t solve Dickens’s money problems. In the short term, it added to them. There had been cost overruns on the production and there were soon pirated editions all over England. Dickens himself had to sue the pirates, who promptly filed bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay legal fees of $60,000 in today’s money. What his book did achieve, however, was to formalize an English revival of celebrating Christmas – then underway – and to give it, at least initially, a social purpose.

A Christmas Carol is structured as a Christian allegory – using staves instead of chapters, for instance – and the word “carol” originally meant a song of praise to God.  It is a humanistic, distinctly Dickensian form of Christianity that the book espouses, however. One that preaches good works … and more good works … and never quite gets around to praying or going to church. The ghost of Jacob Marley wanders the earth dragging heavy chains because he was miserly and selfish and rude – one helluva greedy son-of-a-bitch – not because he was profane or gay or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or put other Gods before Him.

It’s no stretch to imagine Jacob Marley, in his ghostly wanderings, bumping into Ayn Rand or Sam Walton or, one day soon, the Koch brothers. Not to mention a few Republican candidates for President. But A Christmas Carol teaches us that as long as there is life, it’s not too late to change. And even the worst sort of Marleys can become Scrooges – the Scrooge of the book’s final stave – who begin using their money for good.

They have nothing to lose but a few tax deductions. And their chains.

A Family Christmas Play

Sam Shepard’s True West opens in NYC – December 23, 1980


“I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.”

The perfect play for the holidays … especially if you’re reuniting with family  … Sam Shepard’s savage comic drama about sibling warfare (and a few other things) opened at The Public Theater with Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones as estranged brothers Lee and Austin. Earlier in the year, True West had had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Shepard was writer-in-residence.

Varese’s “Organized Sound”

Edgard Varese (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965)

varese against black

Avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese left behind only about three hours of finished music … approximately five seconds of which could be considered melody … but they might well be the most influential three hours in music history, inspiring everything and everyone from electronic music and jazz fusion to Babbitt, Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.

Varese immigrated to the United States in 1915  – two years after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and took up with other French expatriate avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It was Varese’s intent as a maker of music to “let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises.”

He achieved this goal in a series of unique, surprisingly popular compositions beginning with Amériques for large orchestra in 1921 and concluding with Poème électronique for electronic tape in 1958. He eschewed the term “music” for his work, preferring “organized sound.”

The record label Varese Sarabande, which was formed in 1978 and is now dedicated to film scores and cast albums, was named after him.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

Billie Whitelaw Samuel Beckett

It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

billie as winnie
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.

Bob Hope: Immigrant

On this date in 1920, Bob Hope became a citizen of the United States


That’s right, folks, that most American of Americans – the Entertainer in Chief to our troops, 14-time host of the Academy Awards, and the darling of conservative politicians of previous generations – was an immigrant.

Born in England to working-class parents, Bob Hope and his family passed through Ellis Island in 1908 on their way to Cleveland, Ohio. The Hopes were poor … as a child, Bob busked in the streets for money … and it was hard to understand their English until they learned to speak  American.

FILE–Comedian Bob Hope entertains troops at Cu Chu, 20 miles northwest of Saigon, Vietnam, in a Dec. 1970 file photo. (AP Photo/file)

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m glad we let Bob stay. For one thing, it’s the Christmas season and I love his version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Doris Day. I also admired Hope’s devotion to America’s soldiers, regardless of the merits of the wars they were fighting.

Here’s a couple more photographs of Bob with GIs and others. Post them to Cruz and Trump and company. Or attach them to the latest sure-to-fail version of the Dream Act.

Maybe we should call it the Hope Act?

The Music (Con) Man

Opens – on this date in 1957 – at the Majestic Theater.

music man play

The original production of Meredith Willson’s idiosyncratic musical, The Music Man – starring Robert Preston as “Professor” Harold Hill and the great Barbara Cook as Marian the Librarian – was an immediate hit on Broadway and ran for 1,375 performances. It was made into a decent film in 1962 with Preston reprising his role as Hill and Barbara Cook – as always happened to her – replaced by Shirley Jones. The Beatles had a hit record with their cover of the show’s modest love song, ‘Til There Was You (1963).

There is no other musical like The Music Man. No other show sounds like it (unless, of course, it’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, also by Meredith Willson) and its ultra-American collection of ballads, marches, dances, and barbershop quartets had never been heard on a Broadway stage before and has, for the most part, defeated would-be imitators.

The Music Man is also that most American of musicals in its subject matter. The satire of small town American mores and provincialism (in wonderful patter-songs such as “Iowa Stubborn,” “Pickalittle,” and “Trouble”) is intended and right on target. But the main plot is rarely remarked upon.

The Music Man – arguably The Great American Musical – has as its hero a traveling con man, who bilks a town and its children by promising nonexistent services. But the amiable sociopath makes everyone “feel better” in the process, so the town lets him go free. He even gets the girl!

And, if that isn’t America, I don’t know what is.

music man film

The Book That Wouldn’t Die

John Kennedy Toole (December 17, 1937 – March 26, 1969)



In 1976, when the great Southern novelist, Walker Percy, was teaching at Loyola in New Orleans, he began receiving calls from an eccentric old woman who insisted that he read her dead son’s book, written in the Sixties and never published.

“Why would I want to do that?” Percy asked her. “Because it’s a great novel,” the woman – Thelma Toole – said.

Against his better judgment, Percy accepted the manuscript – a badly smeared, barely legible carbon copy several hundred pages long – hoping he could read a few pages (or even a few paragraphs) and, in good conscience, gently break it to Mrs. Toole that the publishing world had saved her son embarrassment by rejecting his book.

Let Walker Percy tell what happened next: “In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”

The novel – A Confederacy of Dunces – was, at Percy’s urging,  published in 1980, it won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and is now a permanent denizen of the Classics section in bookstores around the world. It is also one of a handful of American comic masterpieces (Catch 22 and Portnoy’s Complaint come to mind as well) that manage to be endlessly funny and profound.

It’s tempting to look for heroes and villains in the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, who was born on this date – December 17 – in 1937 and died at his own hand after a descent into paranoid schizophrenia. The editor who rejected Toole’s book, saying he found it “formless” and “pointless,” was a perfectly good editor for other writers and other books. Thelma Toole is both hero and villain: tireless advocate of her son’s book and prototype of the narcissistic, overbearing mother in the book itself. And Walker Percy? He did a nice thing and was rewarded with hours of pleasure … not to mention a nod from the ages as one of those good men (in another Southern writer’s phrase) that it’s hard to find.

Let’s make our hero the books itself, A Confederacy of Dunces, which refused to die with its author and which I won’t attempt to summarize here. I’ll just give you the first paragraph. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy anything that follows. If you do – like Walker Percy – you might decide to buy the book and read it all the way to the end.

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”