Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

Standard

The Cowboys poster

By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys; it’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

the-cowboys-jennings-mass-market

That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least retained the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

The Cowboys - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger.

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

The Cowboys - Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.†† The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

Cowboys Deluxe_grande

At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.

___________________________________________

*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

††It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

The Cowboys - Rydell and Wayne

John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Advertisements

Nothing is To Be Trusted: “The Tamarind Seed” (1974)

Standard

The Tamarind Seed A70-7154

By Scott Ross

With The Tamarind Seed we come to an essential concern of movies: The pleasures that lie in a certain level of sheer, sustained craftsmanship.

I remember seeing newspaper ads for the picture when it was released. I was interested, because it starred Julie Andrews, for whom I had and have an abiding fondness, and I’d seen paperback copies of the Evelyn Anthony novel on which it was based, but the movie was there and gone in a trice. What I didn’t know then was that it was written and directed by Blake Edwards, a name I only associated at the time with The Pink Panther cartoons which bore his possessive credit and which were at that time a staple of Saturday mornings, and the splendid 1965 comedy The Great Race, which I’d seen televised during a memorable successive Sunday night airing in 1972.

Finally catching up with The Tamarind Seed on home video, I wasn’t expecting a great deal — the movie dates from a notably bad period of Edwards’ life and career. First came the disaster of Darling Lili, for which he’d received all the opprobrium despite his wanting to make a comedy with his new wife and the studio insisting that, since it was a Julie Andrews picture, it had to stuffed with big musical numbers, expenses be damned. As if that experience was not enough , his exquisitely beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers was butchered by Jim Aubrey (not for nothing did they call him The Smiling Cobra) and the writer-director subsequently renounced its follow-up, 1971’s The Carey Treatment, which also bore the traces of Aubrey’s fine Italian hand. He and Andrews retreated to Europe, where Edwards vowed to concentrate on screenwriting and to never direct a picture again. It’s a period he later spoofed in his riotous 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B., but at the time it was anything but amusing to either him or to his wife and muse.

While The Tamarind Seed broke no box-office records, neither was it an expensive flop, as Edwards’ previous three pictures had been. (Modestly budgeted at a little under 2 and half million dollars, it returned $13 million worldwide.) More importantly, it gave Edwards back his confidence; his next three pictures, resurrecting Inspector Clouseau and rescuing Peter Sellers’ sputtering movie career, are the work of a man who, despite his recurrent depressions (Andrews called him “Blakie,” but to others he was “Blackie”) is in complete command of his craft. And that’s what you take away from The Tamarind Seed; it’s not especially deep, or emotionally resonant, but it’s gently compelling, occasionally inspired, and throughout exhibits the deft touch of a filmmaker who knows not only where to place the camera for maximum impact but also the virtue of intelligent dialogue and when to hold on interesting actors; as Orson Welles noted in reference to John Ford’s penchant for extended medium-full shots, with that sort of confidence, a director “doesn’t need to bang around.”

The Tamarind Seed - Blake and Julie

Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews during the filming of The Tamarind Seed.

It helps, of course, to have good material. Despite Leonard Maltin’s belief that the picture illustrates what “a competent director can do with sappy material,” there is nothing remotely “sappy” about Anthony’s 1970 novel. Indeed, 90 per cent of Edwards’ literate dialogue comes directly from Anthony, and what doesn’t imitates her style. And if the writer-director occasionally loses a plangent moment, such as the lingering touch between her protagonists just before a disaster — a memory that will come to haunt one of them — he more than compensates with curlicues of his own, like the long, nearly wordless suspense sequence at the airport which, in its intricacy and wit, is one I can well imagine the original novelist regarding with envy, as James M. Cain was said to feel about the ending Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler developed for Double Indemnity.*

And if Sharif and Andrews aren’t exactly Bogart and Bergman… well, who is? Andrews is called upon to exhibit one of her strengths as a dramatic performer, that rather lovely pensiveness and reserve that hints at troubled waters, and Sharif is allowed to relax the rigidity and tortured emotionalism that marred his work in Funny Girl and Doctor Zhivago respectively and to display an easy charm which can be read more than one way. Indeed, The Tamarind Seed, novel and picture, hinge on our not quite knowing from the start what his senior Russian apparatchik is really up to. He even twits the Andrews character on this, suggesting that she is far too trusting of his nature. When she protests that, despite his stated cynicism he is kind and generous he ripostes, “Kind and generous to you, perhaps – because I hope to get something out of it.” He could mean getting her into bed, his stated aim, or that he hopes to recruit her to the Soviet cause, which is what he tells his Paris Embassy coeval, the catlike General played, with beetle-browed inscrutability, by the catlike Oscar Homolka. We have our suspicions, but it’s to Edwards’ credit that he keeps us guessing well into the picture. (Anthony, going into the characters’ thoughts, tips her hand rather sooner.) This ambiguity is made manifest when Sharif, watching Andrews’ cab drive out of sight at the end of her stay in Barbados during which they (conveniently?) meet, turns away and smiles enigmatically.

Appropriately enough for a movie concerned to a large degree with international spies, and as Peter Lehman and William Luhr point out in the first of their two studies of Edwards, looking is something the picture emphasizes. The human gaze is emphasized during the opening titles, which begin with an extreme close-up on Andrews’ right eye. (Curiously, Lehman and Luhr makes the mistake of thinking the main title sequence is Edwards’ when it’s clearly  — and after five seconds, identifiably — the work of the veteran James Bond title designer Maurice Binder.) The people in The Tamarind Seed are constantly on guard against, and watching, each other. Andrews’ Judith Fallows, rebounding from a bad love affair, itself preceded by the death of a husband for whom she feels the guilt of her own waning affections before his fatal crash, eyes Sharif’s Fyodor Sverdlov warily, as he and most of the other characters involved regard everyone else… and with equally good reason. The human gaze is used in especially amusing ways during that airport sequence cited above when, in a sustained shot of Andrews, the British agent assigned to watch her (and of whom she is ignorant) and a KGB operative out to thwart Sverdlov in irregular line on what is rather unsettlingly called a people-mover, each occasionally turning to look around and averting his or her gaze before he or she can be seen watching. And while I don’t go in much for symbols, and am generally leery of filmmakers who do, there is a nicely pointed cut in the picture between Sharif in an old-fashioned elevator at the Russian Embassy and a tiger angrily pacing his cage at the London Zoo that makes for a nice instant metaphor: Like the animal, Sverdlov is trapped in a situation not of his making; unlike the tiger, however, the Russian has contrived a plan of escape.

The Tamarind Seed - Andrews and Quayle

Edwards’ Judith Fallows sparring with Anthony Quayle’s mercurial British security chief. Note the salmon-colored bookcase behind her.

The filmmaker’s color palette is also telling. That close-up on Andrews’ eye in the titles is seen beneath a stark blue filter; once Sharif enters the credit sequence, everything is in deep (Communist?) red.† Edwards appears to have taken a cue from a passage in Anthony’s novel, in which Judith and Sverdlov visit a discotheque where the patrons are bathed in red light, and from Judith’s assessment of herself as True Blue; hints of blue and red (or pastel pink) are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the picture, the whole of it beautifully lit and shot by the remarkable Freddy Young.

Anthony’s book is one of many written during the period of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which take as their starting point those deplorable tensions between East and West that, at their worst, damn near ended in what it used to please the bureaucrats to call “mutual assured destruction” and which, out of the desperate lies of a failed hack politician to excuse her predicted loss against a game-show host, again threaten at their worst to annihilate us all. As in John Huston’s 1970 adaptation of Noel Behn’s The Kremlin Letter, another remarkable Cold War thriller that didn’t see nearly the wide audience it deserved, trust in anyone here is the very epitome of foolhardiness. Or, as Anthony Quayle’s security chief Jack Loder observes: “My line of business has taught me three things: No one is to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”

The chiefest irony of that statement is that Loder makes it to the very man to whom he should not, if he only knew it, be telling secrets: The British minister Fergus Stephenson (Dan O’Herlihy, billed here as “Daniel”), a remnant of the 1930s Cambridge “Homintern,” complete with bitter, shrewish, status-conscious wife (Sylvia Syms) and the one figure most immediately threatened by Sverdlov’s decision to defect to the West. Anthony has, for the period, remarkable compassion for Fergus in her novel, and Edwards and O’Herlihy share it. While Homolka is allowed to glower and sneer like the proverbial villainous spymaster of yore, O’Herlihy’s Stephenson is depicted as a gentle, likable figure, hideously yoked to a wife who loathes him, who takes in younger lovers and who enjoys throwing that fact in his face. If Mrs. Stephenson is, as she seems, the embodiment of what her husband took to despising in his youth, the audience — even the Western movie audience of 1974 — may well have forgiven him for coming to that conclusion.

The Tamarind Seed 9174_0020__20151015141958

Another on-set photo, shot under red light.

That Judith remains in reserve nearly to the end, only at the last succumbing to the blandishments of the would-be lover she describes as “the most persistent man I’ve ever met” (and which sensual pleasure Anthony denies her right up to the novel’s last page) makes her eventual realization of her true feelings all the more moving. I won’t divulge the movie’s climax, or its aftermath, except to note that it is among most quietly satisfying conclusions imaginable to a romantic thriller. Interestingly, Edwards indulges a whiff of emotional fantasy in his use of the eponymous ovule, which the more pragmatic British novelist disdains. For Anthony, as for Sverdlov, the myth of the fabled seed as a kind of fairy-tale is just that; Edwards sides with Judith. His solution may be less practical, but it both satisfies our emotions and buoys the story’s insistence on the existence of a certain innocence necessary to sustain human relations, especially in matters of love.

Which brings me nicely to John Barry’s spare, quasi-Bondian score. It’s essentially variations on a theme, or rather two themes. The first, for Judith, is for all intents and purposes the love motif, but is so hauntingly orchestrated with the composer’s trademark long string lines that it assumes darker dimensions, appropriate not only to the narrative’s intrigue but to the character’s own uncertain heart. The second, which Barry uses to underscore the intricate thriller sequences of the picture’s final third, consists of 12 notes and their close variants, with a terse snare accompaniment interspersed with Morse Code-like accents breaking in at intervals as the tension increases. If you’ve heard Barry’s scores for The Ipcress File and They Might Be Giants, you know the sort of thing I mean. The early ’70s was a period during which Edwards was on the outs with his usual composer Henry Mancini, and it seems to have begun with Wild Rovers (for which Jerry Goldsmith wrote a score whose beauty and melancholy perfectly matches that of the movie); Barry fills in nicely for Mancini, who was equally capable of muscular writing like this but who only rarely got the opportunity.

Approach The Tamarind Seed with the right set of expectations, and I think you’ll find its subtleties and strengths, and the wit with which it regards its people and politics,  enormously entertaining. It’s a real writer-director’s picture, made with intelligence for an intelligent audience. Both are as rare these days as the kind of knowing, understated craftsmanship of which Blake Edwards at his best was eminently capable.

___________________________________________

*Edwards also juggled the novel’s settings: The Anthony book is laid in Washington, D.C. and New York; the movie takes place in Paris and London. The change is negligible, but for a self-imposed exile like Edwards, Europe must have felt far more hospitable than Hollywood, a town to which in 1974 he never thought he’d return.

†I seem to be arguing against myself here, but I presume the writer-director guided Binder’s basic imagery; I just don’t think everything in the main title can be ascribed to him.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

The Tamarind Seed

Note the touch: Sverdlov holds Judith’s hand as often as he can. She resists as long as she can. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

With Friends Like These: Phony Outrage and the 21st Century Progressive Heterosexual Male

Standard

By Scott Ross

Tweet 46F58FB200000578-5142609-image-a-14_1512364840492

Tweet 2 46F58FA900000578-5142609-image-a-17_1512364926231

In April 2018, posts from an old, deleted blog of Joy A. Reid’s surfaced, embarrassing the MSNBC host (who just last December was forced to apologize for previous bigoted, anti-gay comments) anew. Those posts, from 2007, unearthed by Jamie Maz and re-posted on Twitter, concerned John McCain’s potential Vice-Presidential pick, Charlie Crist. In them Reid continually referred to the former Florida governor as “Miss Charlie,” and indulged in tired “faggot” stereotypes meant to impugn his masculinity — a tactic both impossibly passé and, curiously, still much in evidence, usually among what is laughingly referred to as the religious right. Since Reid presents herself as a liberal (she used to call herself progressive, and even plumped for Bernie Sanders, until he had the sexist effrontery to exercise his rights as an American citizen and run for President against The Chosen One) these remarkably recherché accusations of closeted homosexuality against Crist were more than humiliating to her; they were, potentially, ruinous to her now-lucrative career as a news actress. (Not ruinous enough, however; her self-contradictory “apology”… for remarks she claims she never made… appears to have been enough to save her. For now.)*

Glenn-Greenwald-Original_350

Among the many ugly and appallingly insensitive remarks Reid made in these posts — which Reid, bizarrely, claims must have been written by others who somehow managed to “hack” a defunct and deleted blog site in order to distress her and which the internet back-up organization The Wayback Machine has verified were not — were, as Glenn Greenwald writes in The Intercept https://theintercept.com/2018/04/24/msnbcs-joy-reid-claims-her-website-was-hacked-and-bigoted-anti-lgbt-content-added-a-bizarre-story-liberal-outlets-ignore/, items “promoting the ugliest and most destructive stereotype of gay men as pedophile predators by suggesting that anti-gay attitudes are based in ‘concerns that adult gay men tend to be attracted to very young, post-pubescent types, bringing them “into the lifestyle” in a way that many people consider to be immoral’ and that ‘gay rights groups seek to organize very young, impressionable teens who may have an inclination that they are gay.’”

In a response as predictable as it was nauseating, Reid made the utterly insupportable (and, as it turns out, wholly unsupported) claim that “an unknown, external party accessed and manipulated material from my now-defunct blog… to include offensive and hateful references that are fabricated and run counter to my personal beliefs and ideology. I began working with a cyber-security expert who first identified the unauthorized activity, and we notified federal law enforcement officials of the breach. The manipulated material seems to be part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago. Now that the site has been compromised I can state unequivocally that it does not represent the original entries.” The Wayback Machine, as noted above, un-categorically denies this spurious and self-serving assertion. http://blog.archive.org/2018/04/24/addressing-recent-claims-of-manipulated-blog-posts-in-the-wayback-machine/

Moving on from this easily-discreditable claim Reid said of these posts “being attributed to me” (emphasis mine) that “I genuinely (emphasis hers) do not believe I wrote those hateful things.” She then went on, bizarrely, to further damn herself as a lifelong homophobic dogmatist, recalling that some of her “closest friends” (shades, to use a deliberately pointed word, of “some of my best friends are Negros” …) kept secrets “because they didn’t know what I would say, or if we would still be friends, or whether I would look at them differently.” Their secretiveness appears to have been wholly justified. Setting aside the inevitable question of just how “close” a friend must be who feels he or she cannot trust you enough to be open, especially concerning his or her sexuality, Reid’s attempt to justify her bigotry by asserting that, when she wrote these posts “a decade ago […] the country was in a very different place” are patently ridiculous. Alas, even her severest critics, as we shall see, follow directly on from that absurd statement.

Joy Reid thinks 2007 was “a very different place”? Try 1977, when I came out. Or 1987, when gay men were dying in their thousands, the President said and did nothing and the New York Times still refused to name their nearest survivors as anything but “longtime companions.” That country was “a very different place.” But a mere ten years ago? All these types mean — and you will see a sick-making plethora of examples of this historically ignorant thinking in the commentary of the young men I cite below — when they claim the country is not now what it was then is that, in 2007, there was no same-sex marriage. That is the sum total of their knowledge of the long fight for basic rights among gay Americans, a struggle which did not begin at Stonewall, but for which that watershed June 1969 event serves nicely as a foundation stone from which to measure modern progress.

And if I seem, once again, to be pillorying Millennials exclusively here, as I did in my previous essay concerning the current unthinking misuse of language, it is merely because the more interesting of the current crop of progressive YouTube commentators are, by and large, of that demographic. Reid, even at her most absurd, at least opines that she (still resolutely clinging to her central lie) hopes that “whoever corrupted the site recognizes the pain they have caused, not just to me, but to my family and communities that I care deeply about: LGBTQ, immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups.” This, troublingly, actually puts Reid one up on the majority of young, heterosexual male progressive commentators, who, taken as a whole, never give a thought to any gay person’s feelings. It is as if they presume all of their followers are heterosexual. And for them, the latest edition of The Reidcapades represents only one thing: An opportunity to gleefully point up her hypocrisy.
Kyle Kulinski, on his 30 April “Secular Talk” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HURRxvspz9A, wisely points out that Reid also Tweeted some of those old comments she now pretends she didn’t write. (Joy: “I couldn’t imagine where they’d come from, or whose voice that was.”) As a grammatical side-note to this piece I will point out that, should he ever see his remarks in transcript, Kulsinki’s millennial overuse of the empty filler word “like” ought to shame him into, if not silence, at least recourse to a professional speech instructor. I doubt it will. Nothing else appears to shame the man. (Although he certainly knows that MS-NBC is “shameless.”)

Kulinski remarks, “I give less than no fucks about what she said back then… akin to, like, me and friends of mine, who, when you saw something you didn’t like, in, like, high school, your reaction was, like, ‘Gay.’ Now, as South Park brilliantly points out, that doesn’t mean that, like, when somebody like me was saying that, I was saying, ‘Hey, being a homosexual is inferior, and wrong, compared to heterosexual.’ No, it’s something that developed over time, that become de-coupled with being hateful…” [Emphasis mine.] Since I have not seen the South Park episode in question, I cannot say with certainty what the intentions of Messers Stone and Parker were. However, given my past exposure to the series, I cannot believe those two would go out of their way to create an episode whose point is that it’s OK to say, “That’s so gay,” as long as you don’t actually mean “homosexual.”

“But,” Kulinski continues, digging his own grave with a fervor that recalls Joy Reid at her least self-aware, “that doesn’t mean that I haven’t at times, in jest, said, ‘Gay,’ or at times you would say to your friend, ‘Faggot’ — if you want to have an impact and hit him, ‘Faggot.’ Would I do that now? Probably not [emphasis mine]. But I would vehemently deny that when I said those things that was me being anti-gay, because it’s simply not. You can say those things and be, y’know, not politically correct but at the same time you’re not saying what people insist you’re saying…”

“Probably not.” Which I take to mean, “I might.” With the smug, tacit assurance that we would all know, he, like, didn’t, like, mean it.

“I’m in favor of gay marriage,” Kulinski foes on. “I’ve always fought for gay rights, but at the same time I also don’t bite my tongue…” [Emphasis mine.] In case you miss the point, the enlightened Mr. Kulinski is saying, “Don’t tell me I can’t say ‘faggot’ when I want to.”

With friends like these…

And I for one would like to see his battle-wounds for his gay rights “fight.” I’ve got 40 years’ worth of them, Kyle. All interior, I should add… so far. No one “fights for gay rights” only to claim for himself the right to say “faggot” when he chooses. No one but a hypocrite. You’ve only to substitute “black” for “gay” to comprehend how ludicrous Kulinski’s insupportable position is.

That Reid is a hypocrite as well does not let Kulinski off the hook he baited himself, and on whose barb he so eloquently flounders. It isn’t, you see, what Reid said that matters to the likes of Kulinski, only that she denies saying it. The lie is all that signifies. He actually seems to believe, despite the explicit evidence before him, that, because Reid says she’s now an ally, she is, ipso facto, no longer anti-gay. This self-ordained liberal-humanist-progressive champion and pundit (or, to use the term so often bandied about by the likes of Kulinski, “pundint”) is incapable, in his indifference to the hatefulness of what Reid wrote, to sense what is most obvious and salient about her: The woman says anything… if she thinks it will help her earn a paycheck. She was pro-Sanders, before he ran against The Queen; demonized him after. Because her bosses determined the contours of the debate, from which none shall deviate if she wishes to keep getting those lovely $30-a-day paychecks. Even little Kyle admits Reid is “a liar.” Yet he’s certain “she’s on the right side of those issues now.” Who says? She does.

For Kulinski, the issue at hand isn’t the ugly, hurtful, appallingly insensitive slurs Reid hurled. No. “The problem is that she’s a goddamn liar.”

Meanwhile, the allegedly upright Jordan Chariton reveals (also on 30 April) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKWerJ0aTyo that he, like Kulinski, cannot see the hideously tangled forest for the more obviously stunted trees… nor his own homophobia, even as he speaks it.

Chariton DacB_XJVwAAtYDn

“Do I wish anything [sic] ill will towards [sic]” Reid, he asks? “Absolutely not, I’m not that kind of person.” So what “kind of person” is Chariton? Like Kyle Kulinski, not the kind of person who is in any way comfortable with faggots. For Chariton, “If Joy Reid wrote nasty things about homosexuals, over a decade ago, I would think it’s a bad thing…” Well, there’s a ringing endorsement against bigotry. And “homosexuals,” please note, not “gay men.”

Again we see that mantra, “over a decade ago.” A decade ago was still well into the 21 century. But such progressives as Chariton don’t think they, or liberals generally, should have (to use their curiously un-ironic phrase) “evolved” on gay issues, I would suppose, before 2015, the year in which the Supreme Court found for the plaintiff in Obergefell V. Hodges. This seems, on evidence, to be a problem of perspective for many Millennials; what they themselves did not live through, they know little to nothing about. They’ve heard of AIDS, one supposes, but do not seem to understand its monstrous impact upon one especially vulnerable community, nor do they object when a hypocritical shill like Hillary Rodham Clinton, sensing a means of inserting herself into an obituary, praises Nancy and Ronald Reagan for “helping to start a dialogue” on a plague whose acronym neither would utter publicly and whose toll among gay men was so pronounced, and so devastating, that, after 1996 the National Mall could no longer host the AIDS Quilt as it was then constituted because its vastness was simply beyond the means of exhibiting in one place.

Further, “homosexuals” is a word which, revealingly, this progressive uses repeatedly, even as he rushes to assure us he “never had a problem with” his — presumably countless — gay friends. Even when Chariton does utter the word “gay,” he invariably stumbles over it, saying, “homo” first before correcting himself.

This, ladies and gentleman, is what, in poker and bunco circles, is called a tell.

“Joy Reid’s said a lot of bad stuff,” Chariton bravely observes. “And, by the way, I’ve probably written things ten years ago that I’m not proud of. We probably all have.” Speak for yourself, Chariton. I have written nothing about others in the last decade which it shames me to recall, or that was offensive to any racial, ethnic or even religious group (no mean feat for an atheist who is pretty much fed up to the teeth with the God-boys, few of whom exhibit the same restraint toward him). Nor to any sexual or physiological (so-called) “minority” within the wider culture. Why? Because, aside from not wishing to offend, and being aware that it is not kind to use language that is insensitive to others, I choose my words with care. Does Chariton?

“Let’s not be hypocrites here,” little Jordan concludes. “We can’t hold anyone to a perfect standard… We’ve all written things we’re not proud of.” I hear in this an echo of liberal Democrats and their “purity tests”: Expecting an alleged liberal to not write a string of deeply offensive remarks is, somehow, holding her to a “perfect standard” When, in your opinion, Mr. Chariton, does someone like Reid actually step over the line into hatefulness and bigotry? When she suggests queers should be murdered?

This story, Chariton claims, is not about someone “evolving, or not evolving.” Again, for him, as for Kulinski, it is only the lie Reid tells that matters, not what she is lying about.

Even those young progressive men with largely impeccable track records stumble over this one. David Doel, on his 25 April “Rational National” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4fN0HkeOpo,  of the initial December 2017 story anent the catty Crist pieces Reid wrote on her old blog, “I didn’t cover it — because I didn’t think it was a big deal.” I submit that Doel might have thought it “a big deal” if he was gay… or genuinely cared about how gay men and Lesbians are vilified. He, no doubt, would protest that he does care, but his words belie his supposed progressive humanism.

David DoelDoel then quotes one of Reid’s more nauseating statements, to wit: “By screaming [as in “screaming queen”?] so loudly about making gay marriage a kind of litmus test for true progressives and humanity, they have embraced a fight that only a small sliver of the population can relate to, and put their credibility on the line by painting Barack Obama as an enemy, at a time when most Americans consider him their only hope.” A clear progression backwards, from todays’ phony “Resistance” to yesterday’s “Help us, Obama-Wan, you’re our only hope.” One begins to forgive Sarah Palin her “hopey-changey” crack.

To Doel, “Back then, it was more normal to think this way.” And by “back then,” remember, we are referring to the late-2000s! Doel fares better when he plays a staggeringly tone-deaf clip from — of all people — Jon Stewart regarding Dennis Kucinich’s genuinely progressive views on gay and transgendered rights, and whether he would nominate a gay man, Lesbian or transgendered person to the Supreme Court. (He would.) Stewart’s response? “All rise for the Honorable Justice Chick with Dick.” Doel correctly praises Kucinich (and other leaders, like Sanders, who has, from the early 1970s, always been an ally) for being on “the right side of history,” even as they were being made fun of for being so… and not merely by conservatives. As he notes, we might have expected so crude a joke from the likes of Dennis Miller. But from Jon Stewart? So when Doel refers to 2004 as “back then,” I begin to comprehend: For a 20-something Millennial, ten years is nearly half his lifetime. It’s nearly unfathomable, the way 25 years was to me when I was a child.

Doel does, correctly, hoist Joy Reid with her own petard when he quotes one of her own Tweets, in which she smirked at a Trump nominee, “Nobody tell her about The Wayback Machine.” Doel adds, “She should have taken her own advice.” However, to again quote his own words, he did not cover the December 2017 story because he “thought it was a nonstory… The issue here is that she is lying.”

At the risk of beating a horse not only dead but on its way to the Alpo cannery, Doel might care if he was gay.

But he ought to care anyway.

On his subsequent 30 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUugKeIqsiY, Doel doubles down on his blind heterosexist obsession. “My issue with Joy,” he says, “isn’t that she once held these backwards views on the LGBT community, because a lot of people did.” Once again, a young man equates 2007 with ancient history. And even if, as he avers, “a lot of people” held such retrogressive views that decade so long, long ago, does he also believe that such a mass should be excused for having them? I would submit that, if the targets of Reid’s remarks had been any group other than gay men and Lesbians, Doel would, quite properly, pillory them for the short-sighted bigotry they represent. No, to Doel, as to Kulinski, the problem is not Reid’s horrendous — and hideously rendered — prejudices. The problem is only that “she didn’t own it to begin with.”

On this follow-up video, Doel is joined by his dithering unseen partner Mary (or “@MarysR00m, Artist”) who, in extempore, makes Kyle Kulinski sound like a Rhodes Scholar and whose weird “co-hosting” is at best a puzzlement. “Speaking of the gay community, Mary opines: “Like, they know the way things used to be. Like, they are understanding.” (I would quote Mary in greater detail but, like, I just, like, can’t because, like, I could, y’know, like, vomit?) No, Mary, we are not “understanding.” We are fed up. We’ve heard bigots of Reid’s ilk all of our lives. We no longer pat them on the head, or pity them, or “forgive” their loud-mouthed impugning of us — the smug Rachel Maddow, who gushed about her MSNBC coeval’s splendid honesty, notwithstanding. And while I am aware that by harping on this at such length I am inviting comparisons to a broken record (ask your grandfather) if 2007 is your yardstick for measuring “the way things used to be,” I respectfully suggest you open your mind a little further and try to comprehend that a mere decade ago is not concomitant with recalling the Punic Wars.

By the end of this mind-numbing conversation, Doel returns to his well-warmed theme: Reid “forgets the homophobic views she held in the late 2000s.” [Emphasis mine.] “We know she’s lying. That’s the problem here.”

“The problem here,” it seems to me, is a young heterosexual male being selectively incapable of empathy.
Relief of a kind comes with Thomas’s 25 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Gc-2gkNio, but only of a kind; such respite is mitigated by the more than occasional cringe once experiences while listening.

Thomas hqdefaultThe first such wince comes early on, when Thomas observes that what Reid wrote was “kind of homophobic” (emphasis mine) and that she herself was, “somewhat homophobic.” (Ditto.) “Kind of,” Jamarl? “Somewhat”? The way Jesse Helms was “kind of” a racist? The way Ezra Pound was “somewhat” anti-Semitic? (Although here I will grant that that exposure to Thomas’ commentaries has convinced me that he is seemingly incapable of, as my junior high school journalism advisor commanded, making war on modifiers.) He does, however, correctly observe that, “If a right-winger said [what Reid did], there would be outrage.” Yet he reminds us that he finds “some of this funny,” reserving his disgust, as with his contemporaries among the YouTube commentator class, for the hypocrisy of Reid and the identity-driven DNC.

Later he, quite properly, leaps with glee on Reid’s “I’m not homophobic; I have gay friends” remark, correctly linking it to the old “I’m not racist, I have black friends…” ploy as a prime example of paralogical political thinking.

As with his YouTube coevals, Thomas too imagines a Reid apology in which she admits to writing such ugliness “in the past, when it was somewhat more socially acceptable to say such things.” “In the past,” in this case, as I have pointed out repeatedly — if not at this point obsessively — means a mere decade ago. We are not, as is often the case with historically narrow viewpoints, referring to something said, or written, in the 1800s, or even the mid-1900s. Thomas is, like Kulinski, Chariton, and Doel, apparently incapable of understanding that 2007 is not The Dark Ages. America by that point already experienced Stonewall, Anita Bryant, the murder of Harvey Milk, the acquittal of his killer, Ronald Reagan, the AIDS pandemic, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms, The NEA Four, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” Fred Phelps and “God Hates Fags,” the murder of Matthew Shepherd, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and the very public coming-out of Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris (among others) well before the turn of the century. 2007 is a mere wisp across the roiling surface of modern time. It is as yesterday.

To his credit, Thomas reminds his viewers that Reid already admitted, in December of 2017, that she had written such things. Yet while he refers to the Wayback Machine refutation of Reid’s spurious claims, he does so merely as a preface to the inevitable theme: Again, it is not the words she wrote, but her denial of them now that is the crux of the matter.

Thomas does, however — and nearly alone among his coevals — see through Reid’s phony righteousness. “I am more inclined to believe,” he notes, “that this is just the way she is, and just the way she was.” That at least is a step ahead of the simpering benefits of the doubt Chariton and others extend to her. Thomas further asserts that Reid’s perspective is merely one of party, and “problematic” for her because she is a mouthpiece of the Democrats, whose members “hug identity because they don’t want to deal with other issues… the economic realities of those identities.”

Yet, on his subsequent 28 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSyU19iWDN4, Thomas again finds Reid’s persistent speculation, bordering on obsession, with, and bitchy “jokes” about, Charlie Crist’s sexuality “funny but fucked-up.” While Thomas is a humanist, his susceptibility to sneering “jokes” about another man’s sexuality limit that humanism to a purely heterosexual — if not, indeed, heterosexist — perspective. If he had spent any time in the skin of a gay male bombarded from childhood with ugly, emasculating japes, or a Lesbian (or even a somewhat androgynous or “butch” looking straight female) subjected to the correspondingly-gendered jeers, I doubt he would find anything remotely amusing about such junior high bullying. As with Kulinski, Chariton and Doel, Thomas exhibits in this area, an alarming lack of empathy, something one would think was de rigeur emotional equipment for anyone calling himself a humanist or a progressive. But then, even the redoubtable Jimmy Dore is prone, when angry, to label this or that professional hypocrite a “cocksucker.”

Thomas further asserts that Reid could say, “It was acceptable, during that time, to say bad things about gays,” and that she merely took advantage of that. I don’t wish to belabor this, or to pillory Thomas at length, because he is not only far more relaxed and open-minded than most of his “progressive” compatriots on gay issues generally — and, specific to Reid, he alone at least states that it is not, as Reid asserted in 2009, “intrinsic” for heterosexuals to believe that “homosexual sex is… well… gross” but, like racism, “societally-driven.” He also points out that the worst of Reid’s commentaries during this time lay in her assertion that gay men are intrinsically pedophiles and predators seeking out “impressionable teens.” (I’ll let pass for the moment the fact that most people in the English-speaking West have no notion that there is a vast difference between a pedophile and an ephebophile, as witness the ubiquitous assertion that Judge Roy Moore, prone to hitting on 17-year old girls, is a “pedophile.” Or, further, that there is an equally broad distinction to made between an alleged pedophile and a rapist.) Still, Reid’s “Miss Charlie” epithet for Crist is “funny” to Thomas. And again, it wouldn’t be, if he was gay… or even empathetic enough to place himself in a gay man’s shoes. On the other hand, he maintains that Reid’s “pedophile” comment was “ghastly”; Kyle Kulinski never mentioned her use of such wretched stereotypes, nor did Jordan Chariton, or even David Doel. Only Glenn Greenwald — naturally suspect, I suppose, because he is gay — expressed outrage about that.

Yet while Thomas is entirely correct in his observation that Obama “evolved” on same-sex marriage in 2012 the minute the polls ran in its favor (just as his putative successor did in 2016) he lets Reid’s viewers off the hook by asserting of Reid that “if this is your disposition, and if people watch you knowing this is your disposition,” then doing so presumes she isn’t lying to them. But why would we assume this? Dissembling is what a hack does.
Cenk Uygar (who, of course, is not a Millennial) in his 5 Dec. 2017 video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e81J44QlKA4 defends Reid’s outing of anti-gay, Republican politicians. But her “outing” of Crist — always presuming he is homosexual, which he still denies — is one thing; feminizing him and employing the rankest queer stereotypes in order to do so, is quite another. In common with so many of his compatriots in the progressive movement, Uygar too lacks not merely an empathic perspective on homosexuality but betrays as well a rather stunning inability to perceive what is directly in front of him. But then, what can one expect from a man who backed Sanders in the primaries only to succumb to Trump Terror in the general, peddling fear and exhorting us all to vote for the more evil of the two lessers in that race, a woman he had to know was not one whit less reactionary, or frightening, than her opponent.

The most Uygar can muster, when quoting Reid’s disingenuous claim that “At no time have I intentionally sought to demean or harm” is to chide her as “Over-zealous in prosecuting the case against Charlie Crist.” I hear now, in my mind’s audio theatre, Robert Klein, anatomizing Watergate and citing the ubiquitous use of the term over-zealous: “Or O-Z, as we call it in the profession.”

Uygar of course is, as usual, incapable of any such appreciation of irony.

Alas, even the otherwise estimable Gordon Dimmack, in his 25 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI6VTjJXoac, reminds his viewers that Reid’s blog posts, written “a decade ago… could be considered [emphasis mine] homophobic.” I cannot determine Dimmack’s age, but he appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s and thus a possible Millennial. In any case, this ordinarily keenly perceptive young man simply cannot see Reid’s utterly despicable snark for what it was. I find this as astonishing in its way as I did a local NPR news director’s frequent assertions on his broadcasts throughout the spring of 2016 that the North Carolina General Assembly’s notorious House Bill 2 contained provisions “some say are discriminatory” against transgendered citizens when the bill’s sole purpose was legalized discrimination, and everyone knew it.

Dimmack maxresdefault

Dimmack and I agree, however, when he avers that he is only surprised Reid didn’t claim the Russians hacked her old account; had The Wayback Machine not refuted her claims, I suspect she’d have gotten around to it in due course. And he does point out that Reid had already admitted writing previously cited statements and apologizing for having done so. Further, he absolutely nails her hypocrisy when he notes that Reid has not made similar comments about Crist since he switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. He also cites her queer-baiting of celebrities such as Anderson Cooper and Tom Cruise in a manner that points up how obsessed she is, or was, with homosexuality, and correctly notes that alleged lefty “social warriors” like Reid only ever criticize those they don’t personally like… or who are in the “wrong” political party.

Dimmack and I agree, however, when he avers that he is only surprised Reid didn’t claim the Russians hacked her old account; had The Wayback Machine not refuted her claims, I suspect she’d have gotten around to it in due course. And he does point out that Reid had already admitted writing previously cited statements and apologizing for having done so. Further, he absolutely nails her hypocrisy when he notes that Reid has not made similar comments about Crist since he switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. He also cites her queer-baiting of celebrities such as Anderson Cooper and Tom Cruise in a manner that points up how obsessed she is, or (to give her a wholly unmerited benefit of the doubt) has been, with homosexuality, and correctly notes that alleged lefty “social warriors” like Reid only ever criticize those they don’t personally like… or who are in the “wrong” political party.
Nor does An0maly, in his 28 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F1CxY8oOoo, reassure.

While this weirdly iconoclastic Millennial performer quite properly cites Reid as “delusional” and exhibiting a “complete lack of self-awareness,” he can only offer a limp “I guess her blog posts were homophobic.” As with Kulinski, An0maly claims that he “support[s] the LGBT community,” and — also like Kulinski — admits that he made similar ugly remarks when he was a “young and dumb” 18. Reid, however, was not a teenager when she wrote those posts. She was an established figure at the Miami Herald, a self-proclaimed political expert, and knew damn well what she was doing: Appealing to what she perceived as the (nascent or explicit) bigotry of her readers.

An0maly-777x437
An0maly does, however, quite properly assert that Reid’s own citing of a remark she made in college to a gay male friend directly contradicts her “I can’t believe those words were written by me” justifications, and that her apology is negated by her denying she penned the very words she did in fact write. “They have no shame,” he bemoans, “they have no accountability”; he further calls out what he deems the “pandering and phoniness” of the pussy-hat apologists as “delusional activism.”

On the YouTube Channel Pop Trigger’s 1 May video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5gyAkJMmo

meanwhile, the young (male) host Jason notes that Reid “had some blog posts from pretty much a decade ago that seemed kind of [emphasis mine] homophobic.” Once again we are confronted with a male Millennial “progressive,” this one presumably gay himself, who cannot perceive the evidence of his own eyes. No one in his or her right mind, giving Reid’s old posts even the most cursory of glances, could fail to see the militant viciousness of her remarks. “Kind of” homophobic? What would make them decidedly so? Saying “faggot”? After hearing this repeatedly, one strongly suspects the people commenting on these posts have not read them. They are responding purely to other commentaries. This gets to the root of what depresses one about social media generally, and YouTube commentators specifically: They don’t read. They merely react.

Concerning an item labeled, on Reid’s original blog, “Harriet Meyers and the Lesbian Hair Check,” Grace Baldridge, one of Jason’s female co-hosts, chimes in, “Okay, that’s fair.” The two then share a giggle. Grace, who is Lesbian, also thinks that “gay” as an epithet was acceptable, and doesn’t wish “to tear anyone down now” for their homophobic statements in the past. Again, we are talking about statements written a mere ten years ago. I won’t go so far as to label this young woman a self-hating Lesbian, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What does it take to get these kids to call a bigot a bigot? Actual blood on the woman’s hands?

Habibi maxresdefaultIt is with great relief, then, that we turn at last to Sahil Habibi, The Progressive Voice. On his video of 26 April he alone — significantly, the youngest-looking at least of all the Millennial male commentators cited here — calls Reid’s posts “homophobic” with no qualifier, ridiculing Reid’s claims of having been “hacked” in addition to her “disgusting homophobic past.”

Why is this young man seemingly alone in his ability to perceive the bleeding obvious?

 

I have always preferred the rank, explicit sexual bigotry of the right to the snickering public “acceptance” of parlor liberals like Joy Reid; at least we know who our enemies are. With Democrats — Sanders, Kucinich, Nina Turner and a select small group emphatically excepted — we never know.

Neither, it seems, do we really know about young “progressives.”

________________________________________

*It also, predictably, made the increasingly un-hinged Rachel Maddow gush like Old Faithful. But of course; these obscenely over-compensated types always protect their own… unless they’re on a rival network.


Text Copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Articles concerning Joy A. Reid and which contain more of her posts from her defunct blog The Reid Report:

https://www.mediaite.com/online/exclusive-joy-reid-claims-newly-discovered-homophobic-posts-from-her-blog-were-fabricated/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/business/media/joy-reid-homophobic-blog-posts.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2018/04/25/msnbcs-position-on-joy-reid-isnt-cutting-it/

https://theintercept.com/2018/04/24/msnbcs-joy-reid-claims-her-website-was-hacked-and-bigoted-anti-lgbt-content-added-a-bizarre-story-liberal-outlets-ignore/

https://twitter.com/Jamie_Maz/status/986674364979523597

The Leaping Sort-Of

Standard

By Scott Ross

Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the critic John Simon wrote a piece decrying the increasing incidence in American speech of what he called “the Creeping ‘You-Know’.” That it is back, and with a vengeance, can be affirmed to one’s sorrow if one spends any amount of time near, or at least in earshot of, Millennials. I suspect generalities… er, generally… but it seems, sadly, to be a truism that those under 30 sprinkle enough “you know”s into their conversation, casual and formal, to send the heartiest of seasoned grammarians into cardiac arrest. Where this lazy reliance on conversative filler — for that is what all those “you know”s represent — came from, or why it lay dormant for a generation or two before resurfacing to re-pollute the sea of communication I do not know.

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s have, as a generation, more than our share of faults, among them a deplorable social and political complacency that, at its worst, not only ushered in the era of Reagan but buoyed up the appalling ignorance with which his putatively liberal Democrat successors have fed the ravening beast of uncompromising neoliberalism and which, thanks to the Clintons and Mr. Obama, have helped render America’s middle class poor, its poor destitute, and its rich wealthier than at any time since what Mark Twain with exquisite irony called The Gilded Age. And while the rape of the language runs a poor second to these excesses, I do not recall the brightest of us groping so aggressively, and helplessly, when putting our thoughts into words. That’s the thing: In my experience it is the brightest, and best educated among Millennials, whose throats are most commonly throttled by the Creeping You-Know.

Among the British — and, I must admit with sorrow, increasingly here — the Creeping You-Know has been superseded by what I call The Leaping Sort-Of. In a recent interview on the Real News network — one of the very few genuinely reliable sources currently operating in this our post-Telecommunications Act of 1996 world with its attendant vilification (when not outright crushing) of such actual journalism as still exists — the redoubtable Aaron Maté engaged in colloquy with the Oxford historian Eskandar Sadeghi concerning the house-of-mirrors belligerence of the Trump Administration toward Iran. As if the clips Maté includes in his twin segments of Mike Pompeo’s hilarious deflection (Iran, not the United States, is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”) and the withering specter of an American Secretary of State threatening another sovereign nation like a schoolyard bully drunk on confiscated Juicy-Juice were not risible enough, Sadeghi’s commentary is littered with enough meaningless “sort of”s to offer succor to those among us, if such there be, who habitually complain that the educated speak too clearly for comprehension.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6zdmVz8FIM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZB-H051Qga8

The Leaping Sort-Of (along with its twin, The Pouncing Kind-Of) as it is currently constituted is a beast almost beyond comprehension. The people interviewed on television and video, and indeed those conducting the interviews, are supposed to be (even if they rarely are) aside from knowledgeable, intelligent and articulate… or at least as articulate as their viewers. While Maté is unusually poised and articulate, as indeed are a number of less celebrated (and, correspondingly, compensated) young voices on the progressive left such as the British Gordon Dimmack and the Canadian David Doel — his guest on this segment is, seemingly, incapable of making a simple declarative statement without muddying the linguistic waters by adding “sort of” to every noun or verb he utters. Sadeghi, in common with so many under the sway of The Leaping Sort-Of, has absolutely no awareness that he habitually undercuts his own otherwise cogent political analysis by his adamant refusal to come down conclusively on any point. There are, indeed, segments of his conversation with Maté in which he, dizzyingly, clusters as many as a half-dozen “sort of”s into a single sentence.

I don’t mean to pillory Sadeghi exclusively; he just happens to be the last victim of The Leaping Sort-Of I heard today. But the “selective part of an Arabic document” (he means of course selected; it was he who excerpted it who was selective) is not made any more concrete in its citation by being a “sort of selective part,” especially when it is used to “sort of imply that Iran had a long-established relationship with Al-Qaeda.” No. It either was a part of a document or it was not. It was either used to draw that inference or it wasn’t. There is no limbo area here.

Uttering “sort of” in this way, and doing so with such stuttering habitualness, does not bespeak nuance or care. It suggests that you are somehow terrified of making a simple declarative statement. And one is left to wonder why. Especially since very few of these types would ever write or publish a sentence as slovenly or ill-considered as the inconclusive rubbish they speak. Perhaps they have simply never spent a moment listening to themselves, or reflecting on how they sound to others.

And if they haven’t, then why in Hell should we listen to them?


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

It doesn’t want people: “The Changeling” (1980)

Standard

By Scott Ross

“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

The Changeling poster

Thanks to the recommendation of a very good friend, I finally got to this elegant exercise in horror, a movie I somehow managed to miss during its original release. Odd, in that, at that time, I went to damn near any movie that either starred, as The Changeling (1980) does, a favorite actor, or that held any sort of cinematic promise. Directed, with an uncanny eye for beauty, by the gifted Peter Madek, the man responsible for two superb early 1970s adaptations of exceptional British plays (The Ruling Class and One Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and based, so the story goes, on phenomena the credited story writer Russell Hunter encountered in Colorado, this is an exceptional, and remarkably stylish, ghost story. Further, and most unusually, it’s a ghost story with a patina of sadness that, while subtly limned, is at times nearly unbearable.

The Changeling is far from a perfect work. Its characterizations are thin and rely largely on the star-power of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas to bring fulsomeness to them. And there are niggling little bits of interior illogic; unless the recently widowed, Romantic-style composer Scott portrays is as wealthy as Leonard Bernstein, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his inhabiting the massive Victorian Seattle mansion he rents from the local Historical Society, whatever the discount.

The Changeling ghostballer

George C. Scott has an unnerving encounter. No violence here, or even the threat of it, yet this is one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie.

Still, what is remarkable about the movie, aside from its intelligent refusal to overplay its creepy hand, are its emotional plangency and the rich, saturated photography of John Coquillon. Medak and the screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox concocted a horror movie as if in reaction to every bad, or at least obvious, spook-picture ever made. In this, the picture resembles the 1944 The Uninvited — also about a composer, and in which Victor Young introduced the theme that became known as “Stella by Starlight.” The psychic disturbances Scott encounters are unnerving, but, until the climax, more unsettling than apocalyptic. The Changeling, unlike so many high-concept horror movies that both preceded and followed it, isn’t interested in shocking you every 20 minutes. And it’s that very evenness of tone and eschewing of the obvious that make the various supernatural visitations in the house so quietly unnerving; Medak and his collaborators make the sight of a child’s ball bouncing down a staircase and settling in a hallway seem more unsettling than a full two hours of non-stop, ghoulishly hysterical special effects.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

I wish Jean Marsh had more than a single scene, and I could easily have done with more of the great Melvyn Douglas, whose year 1980 certainly was (he won the Academy Award® that spring for his beautiful performance in Being There) and Madeline Sherwood, who has all-too-brief a role as Van Devere’s practical mother. There is, however, a séance sequence that is absolutely unique in my experience of horror films, made compelling by a notably intense illustration of automatic writing, something I don’t recall ever having seen in a movie before. More importantly, the sense of grief that underlies The Changeling, in both the recent and in the distant past, gives The Changeling a sense of gravitas that makes its ultimate revelations deeply moving.

changeling-1

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is not its central mystery, but an exterior one: Its “R” rating. Only a few, mild, obscenities are uttered; there’s no sex, real or implied; and even the crucial sequence of little Joseph in the bath is staged, shot and edited discreetly, as such things must be to keep the country sane. (In Europe, unlike America, they admit, and perhaps even accept, that a child has genitals.) While the climax does include some ghostly violence, it’s hardly gratuitous, nor is it especially grisly. If keeping the impressionable kiddies away was the idea, there’s a hell of lot more for a parent to object to in any number of supposedly “child-friendly” features that achieved the coveted “PG,” so precious to movie studios, then and now.

But then, no one has ever accused the MPAA of sanity.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

___________________________________________

A Few Second Thoughts on The Changeling, May 2018

Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham scheduling the new Canadian restoration of The Changeling as a regular feature (as opposed to a special screening of the original) I was able to revisit the picture, four years after being introduced it — and, pleasurably, on a big screen. The re-viewing has prompted me to a new evaluation, inspired in part by the lively discussion my best friend and I had afterward. Happily, it seems an even richer and more subtle picture now, although the supposed 4K restoration has its problems. The opening scenes carry heavy grain, and the sound was in some ways rather poor, which may be inherent to the movie itself, produced somewhat cheaply and without a stereo sound mix. (We get spoiled, don’t we, by THX? Even those of us who, like myself, seldom go to a new movie.) Still, I seldom encounter a problem at this theatre’s screenings of much older movies, so I must assume the occasional problems, especially with Trish Van Devere’s dialogue, were there in 1980. Perhaps they resist cleaning up?

That said, The Changeling holds up remarkably well to a second viewing, the inevitable loss of tension grounded in a foreknowledge of its events notwithstanding. Indeed, the picture seems even more ingenious and, in its avoidance of audience-pleasing cliché, even more quietly daring.

The-Changeling-inside

I had forgotten, while writing up my initial impressions in 2014 immediately after seeing it, the movie’s splendid use of sound, specifically the periodic pounding noises George C. Scott encounters in the old mansion. And if these spectral soundscapes owe a little something to The Haunting, they’re no less remarkably carried off, providing a tantalizing early mystery for Scott’s John Russell, one that leads him to deeper exploration of the various paranormal phenomenon in the house — and, ultimately, to a heartbreaking revelation, especially for a man who has had his own child violently taken from him, however accidental the means. This is what I meant, above, by the almost unbearable sadness the picture encompasses, and about which I will say little, not wishing to spoil anyone else’s experience of it, except to note that I was struck, on this second viewing, by how logical the unseen presence’s heedless, demanding, hectoring of the Scott character is: The ghost is a child; he’s understandably angry. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. This too has a pay-off, in the moment when the elderly Melvyn Douglas is confronted by Scott with his putative father’s crimes; his chin trembles as he faces Scott’s accusations, and, informed of the insupportable, bursts into pathetic weeping, like a hurt and resentful little boy, crying out at the suggestion that his parent was anything less than wonderful and perfect. Despite his octogenarian status, he is still a child as well.

My friend wondered, during our impromptu post-mortem, what the Scott character gets out of the experience. I would say nothing… except an even deeper grief. That’s the special grace of a movie as idiosyncratic as this one. There is no facile, happy pay-off at the end, no sense (to use an idiotic hack- word) of “closure.” Although a certain balance has been redressed by the fade-out, no one is any better off. Even the house has to die. (Although, if the appearance among the ruins of the little wheelchair and music box are to be taken at face value, even that is not entirely satisfactory to the victim.)

The thinness of the characterizations is still an issue, but a less nagging one at a second viewing, in part because the story is so beautifully and compellingly told, and due as well to how resourceful the actors are, particularly Scott. One may wonder, as my friend did, why the Van Devere character’s mother is even there, since she has no real stake in the action, except that she provides an emotional anchor for her daughter. And my earlier preoccupation with the cost of renting such a looming pile was mitigated this time around by the talk of how impossible it’s been for the Seattle Historical Society to unload it onto a tenant. Additionally, my previous essay title was mis-chosen: The old harridan at the Society may believe the house “doesn’t want people,” but that’s a misinterpretation by someone at a remove, who has never lived in the place; it does want people, rather desperately as it turns out. It — or rather, the spirit of its restless inhabitant — wants the aide of people, but, being an angry manifestation, and very young, goes about asking for that succor in all the wrong ways. It takes someone attuned to loss to be, at first intrigued enough and, later, anguished enough, to see through the clumsiness of the attempt to the aching heart of what is being demanded.

In the past four years, I have also become a great admirer of The Changeling’s score, especially important in a good ghost story but also of great urgency in a narrative whose major character is himself a composer. There’s a complicated back-story to that musical soundtrack, even as the picture itself had a rather torturous route to the screen: Howard Blake composed the thematically important central lullaby, but (presumably through poor communication on the part of the producers) was replaced as composer by Ken Wannberg, whose compositions were then fleshed out by the Canadian Rick Wilkins, making for a complex set of music credits. The music-box theme, both sweet and achingly yearning, is one of two central motifs in the picture; the other is a remarkable atmospheric piece that encompasses both the Scott character and the essential — and deeply disturbing — mystery of the house itself.*

The Changeling vlcsnap-2011-09-18-23h51m27s173

Peter Medak’s direction, particularly given the niggardly budget imposed upon him, is beautifully fluid and precise, yet with room for poetic metaphor. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance to the story of water, yet never overplays this, as he also handles the vertiginous qualities of the grand staircase; the moment in which Scott and a compatriot are shown, from above, digging out a crucial well hidden by the floorboards of a contemporary house, is a perfectly rendered visual bookend. (My friend and I were equally struck by the way Scott, when the police have come to remove the bones of the dead hidden there, instantly lights up a cigarette — he smokes throughout the picture — in the woman’s home without asking permission, and no one says a word. Imagine such a scene in a movie made nearly 40 years after this one! No filmmaker today would conceive of such a thing, except to illustrate by it how disgusting, boorish and horrible the character committing this atrocity is.) The séance sequence remains as riveting as ever, particularly when wedded to the way the Scott character realizes, later, that he too has succumbed to a crucial spell of automatic writing.

Speaking of subtlety: I wonder how many of the dolts who write literalist comments on imdb understand that the Douglas character isn’t really in the house at the end? The audience of 2018 expects, and demands, that everything be spelled out for it in the most obvious manner. No doubt the lazy- minded preview attendees and dread focus groups of today would also insist on a love/sex scene between the Scott and Van Devere characters. (And would you want to see George C. Scott in the nude?) It’s to the credit of Medak, and to the scenarists, William Gray and Diana Maddox, that they were not bound by such conventions, and that they, and the producers, were content to tell a small, perfectly delineated, spook story without recourse to mile-a-minute, chop-chop editing, ubiquitous special effects and pandering to a sub-literate audience’s expectations.

The Changeling - Melvyn Douglas -ifc

While I am still a perplexed by that “R” rating, perhaps it as my friend suggested: A reaction to the picture’s central act of violence. Although the murder sequence was filmed with great restraint (the boy, in long shot, seems to have been wearing a flesh-stocking) it’s still squirmingly difficult to watch, and the age of its victim may have been the deciding factor in the MPAA’s schoolmarmish rating, retained for the movie’s re-release. It’s the most appalling crime imaginable, not in the sense of gore (there is none) but in the parameters of its circumstances. The picture is not, as a recent, Bettinger Law-courting headline posited, “the scariest movie ever made.” No. Not even close. The Changeling is not a traditional blood-and-guts horror picture. Nor is it a screeching spook-fest. It is an unusually understated and richly textured ghost story, with grave emotional plangency at its core, that never telegraphs its effects or insults the intelligence of its audience. (Pretending otherwise to whet the appetites of the uninitiated risks setting up unreasonable, and unrealistic, expectations that can only lead to disappointment.) And that one, horrific act, performed with mad, unfeeling, cold-blooded calculation, is — pardon, but there is no other word for it — haunting. Not in the standard way of such things, for there is nothing supernatural about it. It is, simply, the sort of thing whose unspeakable cruelty can haunt your memory long after you’ve shaken off the more casually outré blood-letting of many, much lesser, movies.

___________________________________________

*Interestingly, on the recent limited edition Blu-Ray reissue, Wannberg expresses his belief that the music-box tune is too harmonically complex, and should have been simpler. This may be so, but Blake’s theme is one I can easily imagine, set to lyrics, as a popular song of the period encompassing young Joseph’s boyhood. Further, it seems to me to encapsulate the picture, and its emotions, beautifully: It’s charming and sweet, yet plaintive and a little odd.


Additional text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

Standard

By Scott Ross

“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Walldenda, quoted in All That Jazz

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Bob Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took us to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas, as is that dinner theatre.) The next day, a Saturday, my best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar ® win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference between it and a cast album.)

cabaret ST

Cabaret OBC 15515788

At the time, I was a sufficient musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs the movie’s producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the scenarists Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score; I also missed the Lenya figure, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character, lifted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin follow-up The Last of Mr. Norris.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret on film dovetailed with his original stories, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli — and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, with Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

photograph_of_michael_york_as_brian_roberts_from_cabaret_available_in_4_sizes_framed_or_unframed_buy_now_at_starstills__03380

Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

Isherwood 29422854

Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant as yet with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals (and not having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two) that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically, as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show, but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his own amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

Cabaret_Screw_Max_81206133_thumbnail

Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (after a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

These less personal and more thematic revelations came to a head later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret that made explicit that Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts (York) have both been sexually involved with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first, I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue (Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian! / Sally: I do. / Brian [after a shocked pause, smiling]: So do I.) I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there was such a thing as sex in the world! Not merely, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative, non-procreative sex!

Dancin - Timothy Scott Valerie - Jean Miller. Cynthia Onrubia. Martha Swope

Timothy Scott in the Dancin’ first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. Photo by Martha Swope.

Flash-forward to December 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18-year-old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was, physically, definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home, I wrote him a fan letter; disappointingly, it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. And my own psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species, mine on the male.

Timothy Scott

Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a little theatre production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

Scott by Rowell 1980 IMG_0003

Rowell Gormon, Life with Father‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret’s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement. Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

money

In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than my seeing Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major, nicknamed, show-biz awards (Oscar®, Tony®, Emmy®) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his movie debut, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

Liza_With_Z_PCT31762


So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to what he saw as his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishing on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some elemental fashion, personally repellent.

Wasson Fosse 17415010

On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those who, like me, are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am at best a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what my best friend and I think of as “the backstage stuff.” Yet, do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militates against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. And thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play— and, alas, do. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, admittedly, exhausting) ruminations are occasioned by my having finished reading Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards (the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser) held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. And given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible.

And so I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual.

If that is explicable due to my own chronic condition, coupled with its subject’s love affair with death, it is so only in part: I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of Fosse’s psychology. Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique. Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that got to me; six-hundred pages’ worth of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

bob-fosse

But is that due to Fosse — or to Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means. Yet what you carry with you is, not the indelible imagery the man left us but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life. Or, in any case, of the life Sam Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten. The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse. They’re like those shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial (and only) exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny, Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I simply cannot imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a jolly romp through springtime clover by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively, if selectively. While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail, routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried, aghast, watches, helpless and terrified.

Pippin chorus
Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. For a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s one-time husband, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader. As is Wasson’s citing of Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward was, for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps, their first friend and colleague to succumb to the virus.

dancin 26-1e041-riedel1-300x250

Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin which Wasson ignores, and which Gottfried presumably never read) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, no, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.

I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon has actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly almost-ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences, but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

cabaret - menage

The sexy, brilliantly staged, and acted, invitation to a menage in Cabaret.

19861-takeoffwithusfosse

The mesmerizing male pas de deux in All That Jazz.

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academicized, grasp of critique, is puzzling at best. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that were the editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could surely have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font. Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’, or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal, and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a rather poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By, to reproduce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is (at least for the moment) eternal, and each of Fosse’s quartet of movies is available for perusal and rife for commentary.

dancinorig460

Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in Dancin’, photogrpahed by Martha Swope.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely, a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due to what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: Say, the popular revue Fosse which, while preserving his choreography, also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than staged concert but one that, nonetheless, proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (if massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the movie had musical numbers. If you have to create a reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?

Fosse is, despite these many cavils, a thoroughly engrossing book. Wasson’s many interviews with Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out!) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret; Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it. (What was Fosse doing, then, before 1966?)

It is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is all. Thus: The endless sexual conquests that make Bob Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex with a different woman every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love of and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satyrically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. Yet the gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of staggeringly effective cutting. Instead, we get: The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips; the drinking; the drugs; the manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing both to Fosse’s self-made myth and to his early demise… but much of it as well repetitious to the point of authorial obsession.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the appalling world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t necessarily make his accomplishments deathish.

FilmMag1-746x1024

The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and All That Jazz.


 

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what is, in the end, a biography more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but more often exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth, had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of condoning his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist or adorning him in mindless hagiography, but in the wider meaning: As one who expresses an understanding of the art itself, and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is what really matters.

Everything else is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

List, List, O List!: Being an Idiosyncratic and Annotated Compendium of 50 Essential Books on or About the Theatre, Sans Preamble and with a Preponderance of Musical Theatre Titles & an Unavoidable Focus on the work of Americans and Arranged by Sundrie Authors.

Standard

By Scott Ross

Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess.  A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia (which Truman Capote followed, and wrote up for The New Yorker) and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.

Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein I.  The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.

A Pictorial History of the American Theatre

Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis).  A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs. Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.

Everything Was Possible

 

 

 

Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.”  I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.

Don Dunn, The Making of “No, No, Nanette.”  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “homos” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing the rights to his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a decent job of reportage (those gratuitous homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.

Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles.  France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against — and unfair toward — the author’s subject.

John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time.  Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.

Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical.  Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show — an impossibility, given his age — and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.

The Season

William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.  Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular toward gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s especially interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst — yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, and despite his own frequent disappointment, Goldman’s season was, compared with today, a veritable Golden Age.

The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical

Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.  Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling but always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.

Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre.  An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and transliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose’s “I Remember.”

Moss Hart, Act One.  The great-granddaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man, and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach — Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)

Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design.  A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.

Hirschfeld on Line

Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line.  A long look back, from the then near-centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature, from the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. Treasurable.

John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz.  A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.

Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter.  One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.

Robert Kimball, Cole.  A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.

Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins.  The companion to Cole in the beauty, style and completeness of its pictorial lushness.

Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser.  Loesser was an anomaly: A full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Loesser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer.  While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound stages (as he was the first to admit) but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)

Journey to the Center of the Theatre

Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre.  As a critic, Kerr has his own naysayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great, rhetorical dialogue in The Hospital for the stage, and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could possibly accept the pulchritudinous young Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?

Miles Kreuger, “Show Boat”: The Story of a Classic American Musical.  This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel. (Kreuger was an important contributor to that boxed set of LPs and discs.) Among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.

Alfred A. knopf [Borzoi]  1969 Lawrence Ratzkin

John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion.  Lahr, then beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.

John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton.  Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life — and even his very death — were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public, and may shock some even now. The book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.

Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood.  Laurents was famously prickly, and his memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his gay peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live.  Although his later biographer Gene Lees invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams

Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.  The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus, that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before reading this book, and may never find out as much after.

Ken Mandelbaum, “A Chorus Line” and the Musicals of Michael Bennett.  Mandelbaum’s terrific biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.

William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.  Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get near, let alone touch.

Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz

Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist.  An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists; the section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yip’s son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult — his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him — but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life.  Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me largely overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war play-writing rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirist, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.

Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical.  Mordden is the Ken Tynan of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’clock Number, but where he came up with that one, no one knows) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a lyricist friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference — until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.

Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s.  The author’s periodic critical histories of the American musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume: The one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre.  One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.

George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work.  This sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.

Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre.  Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974. (His hunger years were just around the corner.) But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in his staging innovations and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson

Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson.  Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s, and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.

Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin.  A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.

John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974.  Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.

John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973.  All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s writing are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.

Wonder of Wonders

Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable movie, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.  Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (Not for nothing did American Theatre magazine title its review of the book “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no sure writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.

No Applause Just Throw Money


D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.  
This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.

Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, “Oklahoma!” (1943) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964).  Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major musical offering (and many minor ones) between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players.  Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire original cast of NBC’s Saturday Night and many of their subsequent replacements, that show itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.

Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre.  A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with The New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned, and informed by an erudition, and wit rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick — Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.

Sam Wasson, Fosse.  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era.

Arnold Wesker, The Birth of “Shylock” and the Death of Zero Mostel.  Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated variation on The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening, and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.

Sondheim & Co.

Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co.  A week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “life” and “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross