Necrology: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Note: The deaths of nearly all elderly people with pre-existing medical conditions are now routinely ascribed to “complications from COVID-19,” first by their survivors, who have suddenly become coroners the same way the McResistance received instant law degrees in 2016, and secondarily by officials doing all they can to run up the numbers — with the object, I presume, of frightening everyone in what we laughingly call the world’s democracies enough they can be persuaded to willingly surrender what little remains of their liberties. In the entries below I will not dignify this pernicious lethal idiocy with a mention.


Patricia Bosworth, 86.

Bosworth, once an actress, became a first-rate biographer (and, later, memoirist) with her Montgomery Clift in 1980. While it is, inevitably, a deeply depressing book, it is written with grace and compassion, reminding older readers that Clift revolutionized movie acting before Brando arrived on the scene, and introducing younger ones to the brilliance he paid for from childhood on with his sanity and, ultimately, with the loss of that breathtaking beauty for which he was also known and which he made the narcissistic center of his being. Bosworth’s 2012 biography of her old friend Jane Fonda is likely the best work we will ever get on a woman who, for all her intelligence and, occasionally, staggering accomplishment — her performance as Bree Daniels in Klute remains to my mind the single finest piece of movie acting of the last 50 years — is in essential ways a phony, endlessly searching for a substitute for her cold, cruel, unfeeling father. Seldom has a biographical subject been seen with such unflinching acuity by an author who is also that person’s friend.


Honor Blackman, 94.
Goldfinger - Connery, Blackman (resized)
Blackman, who first achieved fame as Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers, became a vivid icon of popular culture with the jaw-droppingly named Pussy Galore in the 1964 Goldfinger. “Icon,” like the now-ubiquitous “legendary” for anyone who ever saw a modicum of fame or notoriety for more than the requisite 15 minutes, is a buzz-word I avoid whenever possible, but in Blackman’s case it seems apropos: Pussy is the rare Bond Girl who provides even a modicum of resistance to the charms of 007 (“I’m immune,” she dryly informs him) and if the filmmakers wisely avoided the nasty use of Lesbianism that marks Galore and her Flying Circus in Ian Fleming’s novel, the implications seem obvious… at least until that memorable battle of wills in the barn that ends in a literal roll-in-the-hay that must have pleased even Fleming, whose James Bond reminds his readers in nearly every book that “women enjoy a kind of demi-rape.”


Phyllis Lyon, 95

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon - wedding

Del Martin at left, Phyllis Lyon at right: Their second wedding ceremony.

There is no way to underestimate the impact Lyon and her partner (later, wife) Del Martin had on the popular gay/Lesbian movement, nor their importance to it. They co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, co-edited its influential magazine The Ladder for eight years, and became the first open couple to join NOW, once a vital feminist organization, now alas merely another neoliberal cultural bulwark.

From Wikipedia (with my emendations, in brackets): “Both women worked to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in northern California to persuade ministers to accept homosexuals into churches, and used their influence to decriminalize homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They became politically active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which influenced then-mayor [the ever-conservative] Dianne Feinstein [who, but for two murders, would be a barely-remembered footnote in local San Francisco history] to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians [which must have just about killed her].

The first same-sex couple married in San Francisco in 2004, Lyon and Martin’s marriage was later overturned, as were those of thousands of couples in the infamous Prop-8 vote. They were re-married in 2008; once again their wedding was the first such to take place after the ban was lifted by the California Supreme Court. Martin died two months later.

I don’t often write such sentiments, but these two women, neither of whom I ever met, will live in my heart until it stops beating.


Hal Willner, 64.

Willner was an associate producer on two Leon Redbone albums, including the early masterpiece Double Time, later becoming known for his rock-oriented tribute albums: Amarcord Nino Rota (1981), That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk (1984), and the often brilliant Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985) and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988). His 2003 Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen did honor to my favorite composer of popular songs, but it was Willner and Greg Ford’s 1990 The Carl Stalling Project that earned him a kind of immortality in my household. Unaware of the CD’s existence, I literally gasped when I came across it in a soundtrack bin, and during the first blush of my ardor I must have listened to it more than just about any other recording in my collection, then or now; as a Warner Bros. animation fanatic that recording was, for me, the fulfillment of a dream I wasn’t really aware I had until I held it in my trembling hands. It was not merely having some of Stalling’s best and most representative Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies scores on a CD that made the album so special but as well the creative and often witty arrangements of those tracks into medleys which revealed it as a special sort of aural nonesuch. And if the 1995 Volume 2 was perhaps an inevitable let-down, that first disc retains pride of place in my sound library. Whatever else Willner ever did, he did this, and it earned him a tasty little slice of immortality.


Allen Garfield ( Goorwitz), 80.
Nashville - Blakely, Garfield
Garfield was one of those faces one saw often in the ’70s, usually in small parts or even just bits — he’s the other man on a cross during Woody Allen’s Messianic dream sequence in Bananas — occasionally in larger roles, and always a welcome presence. He was in Brian De Palma’s Greetings (1968), Robert Downey Sr’s Madison Avenue satire Putney Swope (1969), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a rare lead in the 1971 Cry Uncle!, The Candidate (1972), The Conversation (1974), one of the reporters in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s version of The Front Page (also 1974), The Brink’s Job (1978), One Trick Pony (1980), The Cotton Club (1984) and very good as Abe Feller in the fatally flawed 1992 HBO movie Citizen Cohn. His best supporting performances were as Ronee Blakely’s manager/husband in Nashville (1976), so focused on his wife’s career he can’t see how close she is to the edge of sanity, and as the screenwriter in Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stunt Man, in which he has a memorable comic-philosophical dinner debate with Peter O’Tooole’s slightly Satanic filmmaker Eli Cross.


Lee Fierro, 91
Jaws - Lee Fierro, Roy Scheider

Fierro became, quite rightly, immortal as the anguished mother of little Alex Kitner, the second victim of the great white in Jaws (1975). Her confrontation with Roy Scherider on the dock, filmed with beautiful understatement by Steven Spielberg, is at the emotional heart of the picture, and the most moving scene in it. Fierro’s simplicity and directness, the way she holds on to her soft-spoken dignity, her voice breaking only slightly as she pours out her grief and outrage, is a small model of effective acting. She turns a moment, and a role, that court cliché into a quiet little powerhouse. You may forget a lot of things, in any number of movies, but you never forget her.


Mort Drucker, 91

“The way he draws James Caan’s eyebrow is worth some folks’ entire careers” — Tom Spurgeon, The Comic Reporter.

Another touchstone of my youth gone. God damn it.


Alain Daviau (77)
E.T. - Henry Thomas and E.T.

Daviau was the cinematographer of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), two episodes of the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie (“Kick the Can” for Steven Spielberg and “It’s a Good Life” for Joe Dante), Spielberg’s movies of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), the John Schlesinger-directed The Falcon and the Snowman (1975), Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990) and Levinson and James Toback’s Bugsy (1991) and the extraordinary Fearless (1993) for Peter Weir.

It says something about the state of American movies that this masterly painter of light ended his career shooting such modern classics as Congo, The Astronaut’s Wife and Van Helsing.


Brian Dennehy (81)

The Iceman Cometh- Dennehy as Hickey, Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope

The Iceman Cometh (1990): Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope and Dennehy as Hickey.

Iceman Cometh - Dennehy, Lane

The 2012 Iceman: Dennehy as Larry Slade with Nathan Lane as Hickey.

Dennehy was one of those actors, like Brian Keith, who had everything an actor needs — good looks, an imposing presence, a fine and instantly identifiable vocal instrument and the ability to play anything from low comedy to the starkest drama — but who, for reasons perhaps best left to an alchemist to anatomize, enjoys a long and varied career yet never attains first-tier stardom. An actor’s actor, he came to the profession late, toiled for years making thankless roles memorable, or contributing small gems to good work (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, “10,” Never Cry Wolf, Gorky Park). After years of solid performances he was finally recognized, in 1985, for his role in the fantasy Cocoon… as an alien.

In the theatre, Dennehy became perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eugene O’Neill after the death of Jason Robards, Jr. He was Hickey in The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre in 1990 and the Abbey Theatre in 1992, Hughie in 2008 at Stratford, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2003 (for which he won a Tony Award) and Larry Slade in Iceman in 2012 (at the Goodman) and 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opposite Nathan Lane as Hickey. In 1999 he was Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, winning his first Tony, and in 2007 he played Matthew Harrison Brady (aka, William Jennings Bryan) in Inherit the Wind opposite Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow).

Naturally, he is now being lionized in the American entertainment press for appearing in First Blood and Tommy Boy.


Danny Goldman, 80
Danny Goldman - Young Frankenstein

Being, blessedly, too old to have been subjected to The Smurfs, for which I gather he provided a recurring voice, I know Goldman best for his roles in the movie M*A*S*H (victimized by Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns), as Billy De Wolfe’s son (if you can imagine such a thing) in the Disney comedy The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and as the medical student in Young Frankenstein (1974) whose questions cause an increasingly agitated Gene Wilder to stab himself with a scalpel.


Gene Deitch, 95.

Gene Deitch and sons

Dietch with his sons. Kim, at left, later became a noted underground cartoonist.

Gene Deitch model sheet

Character sheet for Tom Terrific. Note Sidney, who first appeared on the series.

If you grew up in the 1960s, Dietch’s work was a fond part of your daily life, especially his mid-’50s Terrytoons shorts, still very much in evidence on children’s television programs during my pre-school years and which included such wonders as Clint Clobber, Sidney the Elephant and, most wonderful of all, the endlessly inventive Tom Terrific. Dietch started at UPA in 1955 before moving to Terrytoons, and although he was nominated for an Academy Award for Sidney’s Family Tree in 1958, and despite the popularity of Tom on the Captain Kangaroo show, he was fired from Terrytoons. He relocated to Prague to work on an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s parable Munro, met his future wife there, and stayed. An affecting satire on bureaucracy and authoritarianism about a boy who is drafted into the American Army, where no one will listen when he repeatedly tells them he’s only four years old, Munro won an Oscar in 1961.

Dietch did a great deal of work for King Features in the ’60s, on their ill-advised Popeye and Krazy Kat series, and also directed some truly bizarre Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. In all of these cases his hip sense of humor and pared-down style, developed early in his career as an artist for the jazz magazine The Record Changer, clashed with the existing characters. He fared far better with projects he originated, and with none so beautifully as the Tom Terrific series, with its simple design, endearing and somewhat magical main figures (Tom and Mighty Manfred the Wonder-Dog) and their various nemeses, notably the mad scientist Crabby Appleton. Although only 26 Tom shorts were produced, their charm and inventiveness, coupled with repeated showings on the Kangaroo show, made them perennial, and immortal. Shockingly, they have never been released on home video, in any format. This must not stand!


Shirley Knight, 83

Knight was one of those actors who virtually define the word “professional.” Despite two early Oscar nominations (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1960 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962), appearances in incendiary plays such as LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman, a Best Featured Actress Tony for Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (pictured above, left, in 1976) and a number of Emmys (including two in a single year in 1995) she remained largely unknown to the mass audience, yet was never less than splendid in anything she did. To get an idea of what I mean by professional, take a look at the 1974 Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut. Her role as a woman trapped on a passenger ship carrying two bombs is minimal, but Knight gives it everything, making it memorable through her gift for understatement and the force of her obvious intelligence.


Peter H. Hunt, 81

1776 - Howard, Da Silva, Daniels (The Egg) resized

1776: Ken Howard (Jefferson), Howard Da Silva (Franklin) and William Daniels (Adams) singing “The Egg,” possibly the only late-addition song in Broadway history to have been inspired by the poster art.

Hunt directed Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s stage musical 1776, a resounding  success on Broadway in 1969, as well as the 1972 movie version, which while not necessarily a great picture was nonetheless a hugely important one to yours truly.  (See link.) Badly mangled by Jack Warner before its release, 1776 has since been restored and its missing footage (including the song “Cool, Considerate Men,” cut at the urging of Tricky Dick Nixon) edited back in. In this case at least, more is more.

Hunt also directed Samuel Gallu’s 1974 monodrama Give ’em Hell, Harry! which, sadly, did much to sell the thoroughly white-washed version of Truman we are still reckoning with to a public thoroughly fed up with Richard Nixon. If Hunt hadn’t directed the play, someone else would have. Still, it’s hard not to hold him at least a little responsible for rehabilitating a nasty little Missouri racist who, more than anyone, was the architect of the appalling arms build-up that still haunts us today, and the creation of the National Security State that makes our lives, and those of millions if not billions more across the world, the miserable things they are.

But by all means keep telling yourself it was Donald Trump who created the insanity that governs us all.

Peter H Hunt

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

 

Breeding war: “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

To however low (and, seemingly, terminal) an ebb theatrical culture has sunk today, and as unimportant as non-musical plays are to the American theatre now, the indifference of the Broadway crowd to good new plays is scarcely a new phenomenon. In early 1966, James Goldman’s wonderfully literate dark historical comedy The Lion in Winter, despite a cast headed by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, ran a scant 92 performances before shuttering. When the far from inevitable movie adaptation premiered two years later (Martin Poll, the producer, had originally optioned Goldman’s novel Waldorf for the movies) the play almost instantly attained a “classic” status that must surely have surprised its author.

The Lion in Winter - Hopkins, Merrow, O'Toole

Goldman is, like his brother William, one of my favorite writers, and the Plantagenets were good to him: In addition to The Lion in Winter, Goldman also wrote the lovely autumnal romance Robin and Marian (1976) featuring both King Richard and King John, and the superb 1979 novel Myself as Witness, in which he revised his opinion, feeling he’d been far too hard on John in the past. (His other major works were the beautifully compact and consequently underrated book for the musical Follies and the marvelous dramatic comedy They Might Be Giants.) Goldman was, like Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the rarer comic/dramatic writers of his time in that his humor was based in wit rather than one-liners and sarcasm; with the possible exception of Friedman’s Scuba Duba (1967) there were probably more sharp aphorisms and Shavian aperçus in The Lion in Winter than in any American play of the time between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and The Boys in the Band in 1968. Even his deliberate anachronisms are memorable, as with Eleanor’s “It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.” But what is usually forgotten when that line is quoted are the words that precede it, and those that tumble after:

Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. 

And warfare is what The Lion in Winter is about: Between the exiled queen (Katharine Hepburn) and her king (Peter O’Toole); between Eleanor and the two sons she does not favor (John Castle as Geoffrey and Nigel Terry as John); between Henry and those he wishes to keep from the crown (Geoffrey and Anthony Hopkins as Eleanor’s favorite, Richard); between those sons and their less-favored parents; between the boys themselves; between Henry and Philip of France (Timothy Dalton); and, although the queen denies it, between Eleanor and her possible successor (Jane Morrow as Philip’s sister Alais). Here, action is negotiation — sometimes dispassionate but most often spiked with venom — and when the verbal battles begin in earnest they are as wounding as the speakers can make them without fatality. Of the antagonists, only John is not intellectually equipped to draw blood, and of the boys only Geoff has inherited the sly cunning of which both his parents are masters; like Henry and Eleanor he is Machiavellian avant la lettre, but lacking either John’s doggedness or Richard’s physical prowess,* he is condemned always to be on the sidelines. And interestingly, Eleanor, for all her shrewdness, and her innate understanding of how best to wound Henry, consistently tips her hand, giving her estranged husband exactly the knowledge he needs to thwart her.

lion-in-winter-hepburn

“My, what a lovely girl. How could her king have left her?”

Although O’Toole was too young for his role — Hepburn was almost exactly the right age for hers — he’d played Jean Anouilh’s Henry (by way of Edward Anhalt) in the movie of Becket (1964) and the conceptions are similar. His performance here is one of those zesty, grand, playful characterizations tinged with melancholy, and even genuine despair (Jack Gurnsey in The Ruling Class, Eli Cross in The Stunt Man, Alan Swann in My Favorite Year) that dot his filmography, and O’Toole gives everything to it: Subtlety, understatement, wit, sparkle, dash, elan, anguish and, when necessary, roars of outrage, the lion bearded in his den and refusing to be slain. Hepburn too rises superbly to the challenge, and if that famous Yankee accent is only slightly disguised, it isn’t a matter of dire concern; the realistic location sets (Ireland standing in for Chinon, where in fact there was no Christmas Court in 1183) are already so at war with Goldman’s Wildean witticisms that another layer of artificiality hardly matters. Her age, which she’d begun to let show in Long Day’s Journey into Night, works for her characterization, especially in the scene where she confronts herself in a mirror; her crow’s-feet, nearly lashless eyes and the general ravages of age  upon the body — she was 60 when the picture was filmed — work wonderfully for her characterization (although she made every effort to cover her throat throughout.) When she’s lashing out at Henry, rolling about on her bed and evoking his father’s body, she’s electrifying, and when she gives up utterly, shattering. And she’s seldom been as well-matched as she is by her co-star here. Not even Spencer Tracy had the sort of feral, animal-like intensity O’Toole brings to Henry. Tracy was tough, too, but softer-spoken, and anyway Hepburn nearly always deferred to him, in a way that could be nauseatingly servile. Only in Adam’s Rib is she his equal, and even there she becomes shrill, and he wins. Goldman wrote Eleanor and Henry like deadlier versions of Benedict and Beatrice: No quarter is given by either, and however much blood is let, the match is never really over. Although, like Tracy, Henry is the eventual victor, and Eleanor is sent back to her prison, they salute each other at the end, and you know they will be at it again hammer and tongs in another year. Above everything else, for these two, engagement is all.

The Lion in Winter - O'Toole, Dalton (The royal line on Sodomy)

“What’s the official line on sodomy? How stands the Crown on boys who do with boys?”

Whether Goldman believed that Richard was homosexual — his sexuality is still debated, and uncertain — or ever had a physical relationship with Philip II is by the way; that he used the possibility so effectively is what matters, and it leads to one of the finest scenes in the movie, allowing both Dalton and Hopkins, whose first picture this was, to command our attention and for the former to illustrate that Philip is no mean plotter himself. That the sequence is also structured like a sex-farce, with the various brothers, conspiring with Philip, forced to hide behind arrases, makes it all the more delicious. Terry is a bit hampered by Goldman’s conception of John as an open-mouthed dolt but Castle is wonderfully sly as Geoffrey, making us for the most part merely guess at the character’s possible hurt from a lifetime of being ignored by both Mummy and Daddy. And although Alais is largely a pawn, and knows it (“Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look,” she says to Eleanor, who loves her and uses her equally, “and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous.”) Merrow is adept at depicting both her anguish and her understandable rage.

Although, as noted above, the movie’s dirty Medieval realism is at odds with Goldman’s brittle humor, his screenplay cunningly shifts scenes played in one set to the physical world of Henry’s brood, both inside Chinon and out. This encompasses Douglas Slocombe’s rich cinematography, Peter Murton’s thoroughly lived-in sets, the splendid costumes by Margaret Furse. John Barry’s score, which won him his third Oscar,† was criticized in some quarters for its alleged evocation of Stravinsky (specifically, one presumes, his Symphony of Psalms) but I think the stronger antecedent influences are Orff’s Carmina Burana and the dark Gregorian chants on which Barry’s striking chromatic vocalese seems to me more obviously based. And anyway, who says Igor Stravinsky is the only composer permitted to write dissonant Latin choral pieces?

The strong pictorial and thespic direction is by the former film editor Anthony Harvey, who knew when (and how long) to hold on interesting actors speaking incisive dialogue. It seems to be a lost art.

The Lion in Winter - cast


*Goldman’s conception of Richard was as mutable as the future king himself: As Robin and Marian begins, Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become fed up with the Third Crusade and pointedly refers to Richard Harris’ war-mongering Lionheart as “a bloody bastard.”

†1968 was an especially rich year for movie music: Barry’s competitors for the Academy Award that year were Alex North (The Shoes of the Fisherman), Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair), Lalo Schifrin (The Fox) and Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes) and two superb scores that weren’t nominated but well might have been were Schifrin’s Bullitt and Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: March 2020

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By Scott Ross

Mart Crowley, 84. The writer of the first important American play completely peopled by gay men (plus one possible closet-case). The Boys in the Band may be dated, but its importance, and that of its author, remain evergreen.

Boys in the Band - Crowley and cast (Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene)

Crowley (far left) and the cast of The Boys in the Band: Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene.


Max von Sydow, 90.
There were many who felt that, with Marlon Brando, Von Sydow as one of the two greatest actors in movies. Playing Who’s Best is always a mug’s game, but Von Sydow was one of those rare actors, like Gene Hackman, who seemed incapable of giving a poor performance. (He could be miscast, but that’s a different matter.) Beginning in 1957, when he became famous as a Medieval knight playing chess with Death he appeared in 11 Ingmar Bergman films: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries. Brink of Life, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Touch and was, with Liv Ulmann (who was in ten for Bergman) the face of Swedish cinema generally, and of Bergman specifically.

Above, left to right: Von Sydow playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957); with Julie Andrews in Hawaii (1966); with Bibi Andersson in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970); with Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973); with Robert Redford and Addison Powell in Three Days of the Condor (1975); with Pelle Hvenegaard in Pelle the Conqueror (1987).

Perhaps the most striking thing about Von Sydow, aside from his height and his thin, gaunt face and body, was the intelligence he inevitably projected. There are actors who are never believable as unlettered morons, and others (De Niro is a good example) you can’t imagine reading a book. Von Sydow could play a peasant, or a laborer, as he did for example in his beautiful performance in Billie August’s adaptation of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) but even there his eyes exhibit thought as deep as his limitless love for his son. And although the Swedish actor looked severe and the roles he undertook often demanded unyielding strength of character in the face of adversity, he was also often soft-spoken and kindly on screen, as he was in the movie for which most Americans remember him. As Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973) his selfless acts, like his faith, were as much a matter of human decency as of religious custom.

Von Sydow became a more international movie figure in the 1960s, assaying the role of Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the monstrously inflexible Reverend Abner Hale in the very fine adaptation of one-sixth of James Michener’s wonderful historical novel Hawaii (1966). He was an elegant villain in the spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and the conflicted Russian agent in John Huston’s woefully underseen The Kremlin Letter (1970). Returning to Sweden (and Ullmann) he was in the two-part Jan Troell epic The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) and, in America, the assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975) who shows surprising restraint when his quarry proves his mettle.

Most of the projects in which Von Sydow appeared during (to use a nifty phrase from Paddy Chayefksy) his emeritus years were, aside from Pelle, unworthy of his time or talents. And while Woody Allen cast him in a thankless role in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) he did at least give Von Sydow one deathless line: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”


Lyle Waggoner, 84.

Waggoner was a handsome lox on The Carol Burnett Show for seven years, and while I doubt many missed him when he departed (as they did Harvey Korman) as with Zeppo Marx there was something about the show with him that wasn’t there when he was gone. Just what, I don’t know. A kind of attractive amateurishness, perhaps, that Vicki Lawrence also shared in the early days, until she grew into her own as a comedian. I can honestly only recall three Waggoner moments with any clarity: As Mark Spitz on a talk show, memorable only because when asked a question he spat a mouthful of water; Gloria Swanson suggesting to him that they go away for the weekend… to Algiers; and cracking up at Tim Conway’s Nazi interrogator when he revealed his secret weapon: A strangely adorable Hitler hand-puppet.


Terrence McNally, 81.

Terrence McNally - Jake Mitchell

Photo by Jack Mitchell

McNally is one of those odd figures whose work is both stimulating and almost determinedly frustrating. Although his gift for dialogue — especially comic dialogue — was enviable, he had a maddening tendency in his full-length work to restate in his second acts everything his first acts revealed, mitigating their effectiveness and giving the spectator a numbing sense that he could have left at intermission and missed nothing of importance.

Yet, like his contemporary Mart Crowley, who also died this month, McNally was an important figure in the emergence of gay playwrights in the late 20th century, in the latter’s case as early as 1965, when his play And Things That Go Bump in the Night premiered. It was almost universally reviled, and not wholly without reason, as it revealed a nastiness that cropped up again and again in his work. (Although one might well argue that had this unpleasantness been heterosexual in nature the vitriol invoked against it would have flowed less freely.) But much of the opprobrium cast its way had to do with the central character of the sadistic gay son.

The play came an interesting time. The late critic John Simon had often inveighed against what he saw as homosexual playwrights attempting to “sneak a cuckoo’s egg into a nest of a different feather”; a year later, Stanley Kauffmann would unleash a small tsunami in the theatre with his essay “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” accusing gay writers of presenting homosexual characters and themes wrapped in heterosexual clothing; and three years after, the year before Stonewall, William Goldman, in his influential book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway would echo these sentiments. As with Kauffmann, and although his tone could be snide, Goldman’s approach was essentially sympathetic (“After all,” he wrote, “the homosexual is here, and he’s not going anywhere. It might be nice to know, at last, what’s really on his mind.”) but was seen as bullying. I think these men had a point. Not being free to write openly, as he wished, about what affected him and those like him, for far too long the gay playwright was among the most closeted of all show-business practitioners and had, perforce, to use subterfuge. It limited him, cramped his work, and made his growth nearly impossible when he had to place in the mouths of heterosexual men and women what should have been said between two men.* (Or, if the writer was a Lesbian, two women.) Simon, who had, just before And Things That Go Bump opened, repeated this lament, was less than happy to see his hope come to fruition. “Well,” he opined, “now we have an honest-to-goodness homosexual play, and is it ever an abomination!” Thereafter, McNally included a John Simon joke in nearly every play where it might fit, and which Simon usually got a chuckle out of, although he felt that some of them weren’t as good as others.

The Ritz - Moreno, Stiller and Weston (resized)

“The Ritz:” Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller and Jack Weston

McNally’s work after the debacle of And Things That Go Bump concentrated on one-acts: Botticelli, Sweet Eros, Witnes, ¡Cuba Si!, Noon (all 1968), Bringing it All Back Home and Next (both 1969), Bad Habits (two one-acts, Ravenswood and Dunelawn, 1974), Whiskey (1973) before returning to the full-length form more or less permanently with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971). Considering his penchant for redundancy, he might have been well advised to stick with one-acts. Still, there were some winners along the way. The Ritz (1975), an old-fashioned, knockabout farce, turned the form on its head by setting the action in a gay bathhouse (ask your uncle, if he survived the plague). The two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), about two homely, lonely middle-aged “losers,” was a success, although when the inevitable movie was made the man, originally enacted by F. Murray Abraham, was cast with Al Pacino and the woman, played in New York by a pre-Misery Kathy Bates, was Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s Only a Play (1982 and 1986), was very funny for one act before (surprise!) falling apart in the second, a problem that also dogged the two versions of The Lisbon Traviata (1989).

Here, however, an interesting problem arose. McNally came under fire for having one of the two gay men in Act One commit an act of bloody homicidal violence against his lover in Act Two. The playwright obediently softened this ending and, as a result, ironically lost the act’s (indeed, the entire play’s) raison d’être. The first act consists of a long, frequently hilarious, conversation between two obsessed opera queens, and when the more serious of the two comes home to find his partner with another man, the murder he commits brings the opera obsession full circle; it’s horrific, bigger than life, and perfectly in keeping with the notion of opera fandom as a defining obsession containing (and, ideally, sublimating) grand passions and outrageous acts. The muted ending of the play’s revision is more like a dying fall — perfectly reasonable, perhaps, but reason is not the state of mind the play was concerned with.

Love! Valor! Compassion! cast with Joe Mantello and Terrence McNally (resized)

Love! Valor! Compassion! The Broadway cast with their director, Joe Mantello, and McNally

McNally’s 1988 response to AIDS, Andre’s Mother, was an almost perfect little play, four pages long, restrained and elliptical. Adapted by McNally into a half-hour drama for Public Television in 1990 and starring Sada Thompson, Sylvia Sidney and Richard Thomas, the playlet’s self-containment was beautifully expanded, the ending deeply moving. It was with the 1994 Love! Valour! Compassion! that the playwright scored his greatest triumph, and produced his best and most well-rounded play. Set on three holiday weekends of a single summer, at the country estate of a Jerome Robbins-like choreographer, it is by turns Chekhovian and unabashedly theatrical, an examination of friendships, love and life grinning into the face of doom. Nathan Lane, who had played Mendy, the Mendy Wager figure (originally performed by Mendy Wager) in The Lisbon Traviata and also performed in McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), headlined a cast that included John Glover, Stephen Bogardus and the extraordinary Justin Kirk. The original production won the 1995 Tony for Best Play.

Master Class (1995) followed, a distinct step backward. Although this might be an opera queen’s ultimate play, and while Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald won Tonys, this fictionalized depiction of Maria Callas toward the end of her life suffered from the typical McNally malady of a second act that did little but regurgitate the ideas of the first, but somehow managed to win Best Play… proving perhaps the paucity of great American drama on Broadway as the Millennium approached. By contrast Corpus Christi (1998), a brave allegory in which a group of gay men re-enact the Passion, met with all-too-predictable howls of protest (along with death-threats from followers of The Prince of Peace) and a cowardly response from the Manhattan Theatre Club, which first canceled and then reinstated the original production.

I’m not conversant with McNally’s later plays, have only middling interest in the musicals for which he wrote the books (Here’s Where I Belong, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, The Visit, A Man of No Importance and Catch Me If You Can) and absolutely none in his three opera librettos in collaboration with the composer Jake Heggie. (I’ve only loved one opera in my life, but then who, other than a reactionary — or reactive — fool doesn’t love Porgy and Bess?) And if his plays are highly variable, his status as a lively éminence grise of modern American dramaturgy was assured long ago. It is, therefore, disheartening in the extreme to note that his death is being promoted as part of a fear-mongering campaign. According to the vaunted Wikipedia, which has in its necrologies recently climbed onto the current insane “The plague is coming!” hysteria-wagon over an influenza virus that has reduced the populace of seven continents to puddles of melted jelly, McNally, who had two serious health problems, not the least of which was lung cancer, “died of complications from COVID-19.” The source for this diagnosis? “The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to [McNally’s] husband, Tom Kirdahy,” reports The New York Times. And Kirdahy is a virologist? A physician? A coroner? No. He’s a theatre producer.

The Times obituary goes on, “Mr. McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and had overcome lung cancer [emphasis mine].” As Eliot M. Camarena observes, “So, as with many of the [COVID-19] deaths, he died with the virus but not because of it.” Wikipedia likewise is now routinely, and opportunistically, citing COVID-19 as the “cause” of deaths on its obituary page, mostly for the elderly who have actually died of existing conditions possibly exacerbated by the virus, reflexively and irresponsibly disseminating misinformation — or perhaps disinformation? — and hoping to frighten you like most corporate media.. (And don’t think for a moment Wikpedia is now in any way a “grassroots” organization.)

But then as Eliot further notes, quoting Hecht and MacArthur, “Who the hell’s gonna read the second paragraph?”


*Although being homosexual and writing about heterosexuals didn’t seem to limit Tennessee Williams’ dramaturgy.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The man from “The Boys”

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By Scott Ross

Mart Crowley died earlier this month at the age of 84. It is probably difficult for those born in or after the 1970s to comprehend this, but there was a time, and not so long ago, when homosexuality was so terrible a spectre that, even in the field of entertainment, where gay men were legion, there were only two ways to depict fags: 1) As comic, cowardly, limp-wristed prissy swishers who sold antiques, cut hair, designed clothing, squealed like schoolgirls and could always be counted upon to make the hero look like Victor Mature even if he was as wispy as Elisha Cook, Jr.; or 2) as vicious, conscienceless, sadistic/misogynist killers who had to be put down, preferably with as much brutality as could be mustered. Even our greatest, then-living playwright had to disguise his gay characters, or obfuscate their sexuality, ore pretend their sexual activity was shameful, from the ’30s right through the 1960s… and that at a time when the stage was otherwise 50 years ahead of the movies in what could be depicted, and discussed. In such an atmosphere, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band hit New York as a cultural tsunami; what was intended for five-performances Off-Broadway became a 1,000-performance run, the play was recorded in its entirety by A&M Records (Herb Alpert’s label; he was the “A”) and it was filmed, pretty much intact and with the same cast that played it on the stage, by William Friedkin in 1970. (Note the photo of the marquee above. So much for Friedkin’s possessive credit. Cinema Center knew it was a playwright’s movie.)

Boys in the Band - Crowley and cast (Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene)

Crowley (far left) and the cast of The Boys in the Band: Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene.

Crowley, whose friend Natalie Wood hired him as her assistant largely to give him time to complete the play, wrote about himself, and those he knew, in those antediluvian, pre-Stonewall days of the furtive closet in which the only public homosexual the wider society knew of was Truman Capote (and, because he didn’t say so and neither did anyone else, for attribution, some people probably weren’t even entirely certain about him.) While Michael, the play’s bitchy, self-hating central figure, might be thought of as a self-portrait, there was likely some element of Crowley’s persona in all the characters, some of men he knew and some (hold on to yourself) he simply made up. This, not to shock the many now who think that every writer, no matter his or her genre, is constantly engaged in autobiography, is what writers do.

Some felt The Boys in the Band was hopelessly dated when the Stonewall riots took place a year after the play premiered, but this is nonsense. Were the battles the Youngers faced in A Raisin in the Sun obliterated due to the 1963 March on Washington, or because the Voting Right Act was passed two years later? Did Judgment at Nuremburg eliminate anti-Semitism? Not that things didn’t get better, for many, and fast — too fast for the prevailing culture; nasty homophobic jokes and smears in the press and popular entertainment, and legislation in the public sphere, continued apace in the 1970s, but Allen Ginsberg, who witnessed the second night of rioting, famously observed, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” The “boys” in The Boys in the Band all have that look, to one degree or another, even the exuberant flaming-queen Emory. Indeed, the late Doric Wilson, who was also there, later incorporated Michael and his friend and former lover Donald into his wonderful Stonewall play Street Theatre, where they whinge from the sidelines, their bitchiness about the participants camouflaging their fear that they might actually have to stop cringing and stand, if not proud, at least unafraid, before the straight world.

The Boys in the Band R-1773445-1256990810

Crowley never had a hit like The Boys in the Band again, but while I’m sure he would have enjoyed one, he almost didn’t need it. (Orson Welles to Boganovich: “Peter, you only need one.”) His comic drama stands as the embodiment, bold and utterly, un-apologetically queer at a time when men were routinely entrapped, and arrested for so much as dancing with each other in a bar, of a time and place, just before some form of liberation became possible. When I discovered the LP at 17, it took the top of my head off. As I had just emerged from my own sexual confusion, it was astounding to hear through my headphones this stageful of men being themselves, and flagrantly: Dishing full-throatedly. Discussing matters of intimate sexuality as if there were no straights in the audience, or within twenty miles of their voices, with deliciously obscene abandon and, by yes, camping it up. And indulging in badinage that even one of my tender years recognized could bear comparison to the wit of Wilde and Coward. There are few modern plays (or movies, for that matter) with as many quotable lines, and you can probably number those on two hands with some fingers left over.*

Harold: Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?


Michael: In spring a young man’s fancy turns to a fancy young man.


Donald: Thanks to the silver screen your neurosis has got style.


Harold: You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman.


Michael: There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best.


Donald: What’s good for the gander is good for the gander.


Harold: Give me Librium or give me meth!


Emory: If it’s the one I met, he’s about as straight as the Yellow Brick Road.


Michael: What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?
Donald: A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.


Harold: Michael doesn’t have charm, Donald. He has counter-charm.


Cowboy: I lost my grip doing my chin ups and fell on my heels and twisted my back.
Emory: You shouldn’t wear heels when you do chin ups!


Harold: What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?


Cowboy: I’m not a steal. I cost twenty dollars.


Michael: It’s not always the way it is in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story!


Harold: Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle beige.


Michael: As my father said to me when he died in my arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did.” Turn the lights out when you leave.

The Boys in the Band - movie poster

Not everyone loved the play, or the movie. Pauline Kael likened its characters to “the gathering of bitchy ladies in The Women, but with a 40s-movie bomber-crew cast: a Catholic, a Jew, a Negro, a hustler, one who is butch, and one who is nellie, and so on. They crack jokes while their hearts are breaking.” But better this than the sort of reflexive, prim inanities one reads about the play now on pages like Wikipedia, where Crowley’s entry refers to The Boys in the Band as his “gay-themed play.” Gay-themed?!? This, about a piece of theatre whose cast last is entirely composed of gay men (and one possible closet-case) who talk almost exclusively about matters of note to homosexual men, and in which sexuality, and the characters’ attitudes toward it, is the overriding concern!

Crowley may have been, to a degree, a victim of his own success. The play that made him famous also limited him (this was not, after all, the time of “out” gay screenwriters winning Academy Awards) as the times marginalized the work itself. And what really dated the play was not Stonewall, but the decade that followed it: By the time we had gotten through Anita Bryant’s crusade in Florida, the Briggs Initiative in California, the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco and such ancillary items as a deeply biased CBS News “special report” that in a mere hour managed to slander every gay man and Lesbian in America, that wounded look Ginsberg referred to had been replaced by one of utter fury.

And, lucky us, AIDS was waiting in the wings.

Having come out the other side of that devastation,† which I remain persuaded was CIA in origin (oh, not aimed at queers — we were just collateral damage — but at Africans) the turn of the century seemed the right time to re-examine Mart Crowley and his most famous play. It was re-published, along with the lesser-known A Breeze from the Gulf (a sort of unofficial, autobiographical prelude to Boys) and another, For Reasons That Remain Unclear, and carrying a new introduction by the author, in 1996. It was also recently given a somewhat starry Broadway production with a cast entirely composed of “openly gay” actors (whatever that means; who ever identifies as “openly straight”?)‡ including Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. The theatre writer and critic Peter Falicia believes the play helped inspire Stonewall, which I beg some leave to doubt, and that it altered the attitudes of many heterosexuals who saw it, which is more likely.

Mart Cowley did of a heart attack following open heart surgery on 7 March, 2020. There were times in the years after the play and movie when, as his old friend (and onetime “Boy”) Laurence Luckinbill notes in American Theatre, Crowley despaired, and nearly succumbed. But he survived to 84 when many of his generation (and, later, my own) were dead before 44. And what will be more important to future generations, his most well known play survives. As a period-piece perhaps, or even an object lesson, but either way The Boys go on. This one-time, fumbling, uncertain gay adolescent now sends his thanks to a man he never met but whose characters still live within his ageing breast. Thanks for turning the lights on, Mart/Michael, and for keeping them on when you left.

Mart Crowley 1970

Crowely at the time of the movie.

*My list, for what it’s worth (and with minimal thought), of ten: The Importance of Being Earnest, Pygmalion, Private Lives, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Man for All Seasons, The Odd Couple, 40 Years On, Angels in America.

†Although nearly a million people still die from HIV/AIDS every year — 13,000 of them in America. That’s hardly a victory. But its terror has largely receded here, if only among those not affected.

‡Please don’t bother telling me it’s about being “out.” I came out as a teenager, in 1979. But I don’t refer to myself as being “openly gay” any more than I identify as “openly Caucasian,” or “openly Scots-Irish.” And yes, I recognize the difference. I’m not quite a moron.

Text (other than Crowley’s dialogue) copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The end of Rico: “Little Caesar” (1931)

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By Scott Ross

This early talkie was, with The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that more or less created, and defined, the gangster picture, and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. Neither could have been made at any studio other than Warners, which quickly became known and celebrated for “social problem” pictures: Five Star Final (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (both 1932) and Heroes for Sale, Baby Face and Wild Boys of the Road (all 1933). This pair of archetypal gangland sagas also launched, in James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, two of the studio’s most durable male stars.

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Made early in the talkie revolution, Little Caesar is a bit creaky in its groupings of the actors and lacks the fast cutting effects of later sound pictures that made them movies once more and not filmed stage plays. One accepts these limitations; what might have made it a better movie has little to do with its technical limitations, however, but with its divergences from its source. W.R. Burnett’s eponymous book is a short novel bristling with speed and tough action, almost journalistic in its depiction of the meteoric rise, and precipitous fall, of a gangster based pretty obviously on Al Capone. Although it contains a certain amount of interior impressions that would be impossible to translate to the screen, Burnett wrote it almost like an elaborate screen treatment, practically a blueprint for an effective screenplay, and what the filmmakers lost is seldom compensated by what they altered, or added. The one exception is the penultimate sequence in a Chicago flop-house, where the once mighty, previously teetotalling Rico (Robinson) lies on a cot drinking cheap liquor, his eyes burning with wet alcoholic rage as he listens to a sneering newspaper account of his downfall being read by one of his fellow down-and-outers. Given something stronger to project than vulgar charisma and better lines to speak than the prototypical tough-guy dialogue he spouts throughout the picture, Robinson suddenly explodes into life, giving you an incendiary glimpse of the formidable talent he possessed, and would have occasion to draw on later. As someone (I think it might have been Alain Silver) on the Warner DVD documentary quite correctly notes, Robinson’s reaction to being shot down at the end — genuine shock that he’s dying — is a remarkably incisive and honest piece of acting.

LittleCaesar27

In the supporting cast, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives little hint of the rather good actor he would later become, Glenda Farrell as his dance partner and girlfriend has little to play but extremes, William Collier Jr. as a terrified getaway driver behaves as though he’s pantomiming for a silent movie and Thomas E. Jackson plays a sarcastic police sergeant in the worst theatrical phony-Irish manner imaginable; he mugs more than James Finlayson. Lucille La Verne (later the voice of the wicked Queen in the Disney Snow White) gets a nice scene as Ma Magdalena, a mercenary Rico mistakes for a friend. In the novel Ma is his unofficial banker, loyal for a fee; in the movie, in exchange for giving him sanctuary, she steals him blind. From book to movie Ma goes from local color to an effective, if heavy, ironic device.

One of the odder aspects of Little Caesar is the way its creators (Mervyn LeRoy directed it, Francis Edward Faragoh got the by-line for the screenplay, Robert Lord and Darryl F. Zanuck worked on it uncredited, and Robert N. Lee is given credit for “Continuity”) imply that Rico may be homosexual. There’s nothing in Burnett’s book to suggest this, and the scenarists seem to have taken their cue from the author’s early observation that Rico has no interest in women. Yet it’s quite clear from the narrative that he’s heterosexual, and that he seeks contact with women when he feels sexually compelled. Indeed, once he has achieved his first goal and vanquished his boss in the gang, he takes up with a cheap blonde with whom he is erotically if not romantically involved. It’s further suggested in the movie that he’s in love with the dancer and part-time gang member Joe Massara (Fairbanks), especially when at a crucial moment he’s unable to kill him.* (They’re old friends and criminal cohorts in the movie, initially unfriendly rivals and only later friendly compatriots in the book.) The only character in the novel who might be sexually fluid is Rico’s loyal Latino factotum Otero (George E. Stone), who, while nominally straight keeps proclaiming how much he loves Rico, although this feels rather more like hero-worship than erotic attraction. In the movie, however, there’s a curiously staged bedroom scene between a clearly besotted Otero and a supine Rico that could almost be a post-coital conversation, except they’re both fully clothed.†

Little Caesar - Otero and Rico

One can imagine how Capone felt about that when he saw Little Caesar. And it’s a cinch he did see it; sociopaths, egotists and the wealthy — or am I being redundant? — can always be counted upon to dine out on any depiction of themselves.

Speaking of names: I’ve always assumed the 1970 RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute’s acronym was a reference to Little Caesar. G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the law, claims it wasn’t. But I don’t have to believe him if I don’t want to.


*The kicker in Rico’s death-scene is that he’s gunned down behind a billboard depicting Fairbanks and Farrell as the stars of a new theatrical musical.

†You know Little Caesar is a Pre-Code picture, not merely due to its violence, or to those diaphanous gay references, but because twice someone is told to “screw.”

 

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Gay Johnny presents… Son of Wildly (if unintentionally?) inappropriate advertising — The Sequel!

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By Scott Ross

Gay Johnny

See Wildly (if unintentionally?) inappropriate advertising

Now including books, magazine covers and news headlines! Gosh!

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“Come here often?” “You mean my own home? Yes, every evening, you twit. Now shut up and get undressed.”

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Yeah, that’s what they’re talking about, all right. Now, pull the other one.

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And here I thought I hung them up the spare room!

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Fred and Larry were too busy flirting to notice they’d burned the burgers. But Janice would have a few choice words for Fred later that night. Nancy, on the other hand, was all too familiar with Larry’s ways.

Bathtub - Dance of the seven palms

Sgt. Salome performing his sultry Dance of the Seven Palms, the number that made him famous throughout the Pacific Theatre.

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I couldn’t possibly comment.

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Marge wouldn’t have such a contented smile on her puss if she knew Harry was having that dream about sausages again… and that they’re now 25% longer. And the nice marriage counselor assured her it was a phase!

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So naturally we’re parading around in our underwear at the crossing, just as we do every September.

Fairy Soap

That’s a rather personal question, don’t you think?

Iowa State Fair

I daresay. Just who were the Iowa Sate Fair officials hoping would respond to this advertising campaign?

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Nutt Milk

Wiz - Suck it

Try Cock Today Please

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Cum Clean

For when you’re all finished sucking your Wiz, trying cock, rimming with chocolate, drinking your Nutt Milk, introducing apples into your big anus and doing whatever it is you do with your Young Asian coc. meat juice.

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And that would just be your favorite place, wouldn’t it?

Target Dunraven swim shorts

So, why does the Danny Kaye wannabe have that weird grin, and what’s with the camera?

American Apparel bottoms and tops ad

Those two on the right are versatile – they’re in the other picture, pretending they’re bottoms. So there really are no tops. Except the tops the bottoms are wearing. I don’t know who they think they’re fooling with this. Just wait’ll I find that number for the FTC!

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If you’re lying like those creeps at American Apparel, I’m not interested. And anyway, I don’t want a top.

Navy poster via Mike

Paging Colonel Kong… Colonel Kong, please… Paging Doctor Strangelove… Doctor Strangelove, please…

The Literary Digest

Subtle as a brick, Funk & Wagnalls.

Physical Culture

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Of horse and man

I think this is supposed to illustrate comparative anatomy… but surely no one is stupid enough to draw it that way unless they mean something else. I mean, surely!

Gumby with Rootie

“Well, hello, sailor!” (Is it just me, or has Gumby gone gay for Moody Rudy?)

Mowgli and baby elephant s-l1600

Maybe the fundamentalist wackos were right about Disney all along?

Manual resusitation

Well, that would certainly resuscitate me.

Dick Dick What Did You Lick

I wouldn’t touch that one with your wiener.

For Men Only

Adventure

I’m not making this up, you know!

Man Bait

But Preston knew that Big Eddie wanted to grab for it himself. Because Preston was… Man Bait!

Hobo postcard - Fellow feeling

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Precocious, aren’t they?

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Naturally.

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Well, d’uh.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Writers, Artists, Musicians, Singers and Composers

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Writers

Perry Deane Young, 77.
A journalist and playwright, Young was mainstream and “out” when the latter was pretty much a career-killer unless one lived in San Francisco. (Young worked and lived largely in North Carolina.) His most well-known books were Two of the Missing, about the disappearances of his fellow Vietnam war correspondents Sean Flynn (Errol’s son) and Dana Stone, and, with David Kopay, The David Kopay Story, detailing the former National League running back’s life, career, and coming out… in 1975. It sold well, but few then were ready to deal with the reality of gay athletes, out or not. Most sports fans and athletes still aren’t.


Patricia Nell Warren
, 82.
Patricia Nell Warren - The Front Runner

Warren’s truly groundbreaking novel The Front Runner was for me, at 17 and coming to terms with my own sexuality, a kind of lifeline. In 1978 there were very few prominent, un-closeted personalities, in any field. (Had I only known about Harvey Milk!) Warren’s book, with its unapologetic young athletic protagonist Billy Sive, helped anchor, and remind me — as we needed reminding in those immediate post-Stonewall years — that my being gay need neither define the totality of who I was, nor cause me shame: Not all faggots lisped, or wore dresses, or screamed like queens. It would take me a while longer to not be embarrassed by those who did. But The Front Runner, the first bestselling, mainstream gay novel, gave me, and millions of young gay boys like me, permission to be themselves.

I haven’t been on Facebook in years, but I am grateful now that I became friendly with Patricia Nell Warren there, and had the chance to tell her how much her novel meant, and continues to mean, to me.

Toni Morrson resized

Toni Morrison, 88.
Although I suspect her finest work was behind her by the time of her death (I haven’t yet read Home and God Help the Child, so I’m open to being proven wrong) if you live to 88 and your oeuvre includes such astonishments as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, Paradise, Love and that modern miracle of expressive outrage, Beloved, the Nobels and Pulitzers you accrue mean far less than the totality of your imaginative output, which is so rich and unparalleled it secures you a place in the canon beside Twain, Melville, Welty and the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby. Like Ray Bradbury at his most lyrical, Morrison was a prose poet, and her genius was of surpassing brilliance. When you read her, you lose track of the number of times her descriptive compositions stop your breath — and your heart. With Morrison’s death, America has lost the last of its greatest, and most vital, post-war poet-novelists.

Alvin Sargent (née Alvin Supowitz), 92.
The writer of such notable American movies as The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Straight Time (1978, with Jeffrey Boam), Dominick and Eugene (1988) and Ordinary People (1980), the latter of which won him an Oscar®, Sargent is also remembered, fondly, for his screenplays for Paper Moon (1973) and Julia (1977), for which he won his first Academy Award. That a writer of Sargent’s varied gifts ended his career scripting four Spider-Man movies is a perfect paradigm; it says everything about the state of 21st century popular culture and the descending arc of the American screenwriter’s life.

Herman Wouk, 103.
The author of The Caine Mutiny (book and play) published his last novel, The Lawgiver, at 97, and his final book at 100. That says nothing about the quality of his work (or wouk) but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Roger O. Hirson, 93.
Remembered chiefly for his book for the hit Bob Fosse musical Pippin, Hirson had the unhappy distinction of being one of the few librettists in modern times barred from rehearsals of a Broadway musical by his show’s director.

Martin Charnin, 84.
Originally a performer (he was Big Deal, one of the Jets, in West Side Story, later known as a lyricist, later a director, Charnin specialized in flops: Hot Spot (1963, one month and change), Mata Hari (1967; closed in D.C.), La Strada (1969; 1 performance), Two by Two (1971, less than a year on Danny Kaye’s name), Nash at Nine (1973, 2 weeks), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1979, who knows?), I Remember Mama (1979, 3 months), The First (1981, 3 months) – lyricist, director; co-book writer with Joel Siegel, A Little Family Business (1982, 12 performances), Cafe Crown (1 month and change). He was cursed to have a single hit, Annie (1977, 2,377 performances) which he conceived and directed and for which he supplied a set of mostly lukewarm lyrics. Charnin was so embarrassed by the 1982 movie he attempted to re-tool the show in response, and to coast on those attempts, periodically for the rest of his life: Annie Warbucks (1993), something called Annie and the Hoods for which I can find no information), The Annie Christmas Show (1977). Blessed is the man who never has a hit, for he will keep trying other things.

Larry Siegel, 93.
Known for his scripts for MAD Magazine movie satires, Siegel was also a writer on Laugh-In and, for four non-consecutive seasons, The Carol Burnett Show.

Terrance Dicks, 84.
As the Script Editor for Doctor Who from 1969–74 (the John Pertwee years) Dicks was responsible for the series “Day of the Daleks,” “The Sea Devils,” “The Three Doctors,” “Carnival of Monsters,” and “Planet of the Spiders,” as well as many of the Who paperback novelizations of the time.

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Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the movie of Peter Nichols’ play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972).

Peter Nichols, 92.
Nichols famously turned his experience as the father of a spastic child into the the giddily theatrical, often hilarious and, ultimately, heartbreaking, play (and subsequent movie) A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Among his other notable works are the plays The National Health, Privates on Parade (also a movie) and Passion Play.

Mardik Martin, 84.
This Iranian-born Armenian-American screenwriter’s credits include Mean Streets (written with Martin Scorsese), Valentino (with Ken Russell), New York, New York (with Earl Mac Rauch) and, with Paul Schrader, Raging Bull. The first title represents Scorsese’s rise, the second Russell’s nadir… and the last two Scorsese’s decline.

Rudy Behlmer, 92.
Behlmer’s forte as a film historian was to edit studio memoranda into compelling narratives (Memo from David O. Selznick, Inside Warner Bros., 1935 – 1951, Memo from Daryl F. Zanuck) illuminating factory practices during the first American movie “golden age.” His Behind the Scenes: The Making of… limns the process by which such milestones as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Maltese Falcon and Singin’ in the Rain were created.

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The essence of Jack Lemmon: Al Hirschfeld’s brilliant caricature for Bernard Slade’s play Tribute.

Bernard Slade, 89.
This Canadian teleplay author, latterly a playwright and screenwriter, had on his c.v. such immortal entries as The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, Same Time Next Year, Romantic Comedy and Tribute. That last title was so poor even Jack Lemmon couldn’t keep it running, and the subsequent movie ranks (appropriate word) as perhaps Lemmon’s worst. Not him in it, but the picture itself.

Ernest J. Gaines, 86.
The venerated author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying — as with so many titles, books I have in my library but have not (yet) read.

William Luce. 88.
A playwright whose specialty was one-woman (and, occasionally, one-man) shows: The Belle of Amherst, Zelda, Lillian, Lucifer’s Child, Barrymore) often with Charles Nelson Reilly directing and, occasionally, with some very good verbiage indeed.

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John Simon, 94.
One of the few great theatre critics, living or dead, in America, Simon suffered the stroke that ultimately killed him while at a theatre, doing the thing he loved most: Seeing a play and preparing to write about it. That it was a dinner theatre might have made even Simon chuckle.

Michael Feingold, in a spurious obituary for American Theatre, wrote, “Though I knew John for nearly half a century, I never fully understood why he continued to go to the theatre and write about it. In his old age, as his public status and the platform for his writing diminished in stature, I began to suspect that his devotion to his art was partly an addiction and partly a Don Quixote-like quest for an unattainable grail. These are basic elements of the drive that keeps all theatre critics at their work, but John embraced the two in a most unusual way. He did not confine himself to theatre, but regularly reviewed films, books, and music as well. A cultural omnivore whose erudition was as tremendous as his constant need for new works to evaluate, he searched through every creation he confronted to determine its flaws.” (And that’s just the opening paragraph!) In the Feingoldian view of the universe, Heaven forbid a man write about more than one subject, or continue to be enthusiastic about the arts, and about writing, in his final years. And, apparently, if you can no longer write for major publications, and regardless of whether that suggests a deficiency in those organs themselves, you are a pathetic old loser if you write only for your own blog… or your own pleasure.

I should like to see with what wonders Feingold (who also used to write for a major paper, and no longer does) will fill his dotage.


II. Artists/Cartoonists

Gahan Wilson - Insane Eye Doctor resizedGahan Wilson, 89.
Wilson was Charles Addams pushed to an extreme, at once more horrific, and often funnier, than that great, macabre artist. Naturally, Wilson’s métier was not Addams’ New Yorker but National Lampoon.

Howard Cruse, 75.Howard Cruse 750x_0

In 1983, readers of the once-great gay weekly The Advocate were introduced to Wendel, Cruse’s instantly appealing comic strip, which grew from a satire on cruising to a marvelous showplace for his incisive wit and fluid, expansive drawing style. (The artist acknowledged later that, in the age of AIDS, that concept was too fraught with anxiety.) Wendel was soon paired with the semi-closeted actor and single father Ollie, their private world opening to include friends, neighbors, employers and various passers-by whose richness was unparalleled in the world of gay cartoons to that point. What this Advocate reader didn’t know then was that Cruse was a noted underground comics artist whose strip Barefootz, accused of cutesiness by some, contained a gay hippie character (Headrack). Cruse was the founding editor, in 1979, of the truly revolutionary Denis Kitchen publication Gay Comix, a peripatetic anthology of stories, some humorous, some more dramatic, by gay and Lesbian artists.* Wendel ended its run in 1989, and Cruse spent the next six years working on his astonishing, somewhat autobiographical graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, which was published to great acclaim in 1995. As the son of an Alabama preacher Cruse in his art, and his life (he married his partner Eddie Sedarbaum in 2004 after the two moved to Massachusetts) gave a gentle middle finger to his repressive upbringing, which is of course the best revenge any gay man or Lesbian in America.


III. Music

Daryl Dragon
, 76.
One-half, with Toni Tennille, of The Captain & Tennille, Dragon was keyboardist for The Beach Boys from 1967 — 1972, during which time Mike Love gave him the nickname (“Captain Keyboard”) that, along with the pair’s doggedly middle-of-the-road hits, defined him in the pop world of the 1970s.

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Michel Legrand, 86.
The protean French composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist first came to my attention with his witty score (reportedly composed in a week) for the Richard Lester/George MacDonald Fraser The Three Musketeers in 1973. Only later did I become aware of the range of his work, from the — as they now say “through-sung” — Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) to his scores for The Thomas Crown Affair (and which included the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” which, with a lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won the trio an Academy Award®), Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” came from that), Picasso Summer, Summer of ’42 (second Oscar®), Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Atlantic City for Louis Malle and (again with the Bergmans) Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (third Oscar®). His finest movie work, however, is his superb score for the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter masterpiece The Go-Between (1971), a set of variations on a theme that perfectly limns the movie’s rising (and ironic) action. Legrand may not have been among the “heavyweight” film composers, but his charm is entirely abundant. His final project, fittingly enough, was honoring his promise to score Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind when it was, finally, edited. Neither man, I suspect, could imagine it would take 38 years.

Peter Tork, 77.
Although The Monkees was a pre-fabricated group, American television’s response to the Beatles, Tork was an accomplished musician in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village “folk scene.” (Interestingly, his friend Stephen Stills, rejected for The Monkees, recommended Tork as a possible replacement.) Not permitted to play on the group’s first two albums, Tork eventually played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on subsequent recordings. For a pre-fab quartet, The Monkees (like the later Partridge Family) had some surprisingly good songs, and song writers. Their theme was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the pair also composed “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Valleri.” Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for the group, Jeff Barry “She Hangs Out,” Harry Nilsson “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” (although Nilsson’s own vocals for both are superior to Davey Jones’), Gerry Goffin and Carole King “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart “Daydream Believer.”

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André Previn, 89.
Everything I might say about Previn, whom I venerate, I said previously on this blog. Please click the link.

Doris Day - Be Kind to Animals or I'll Kill You

Doris Day (née Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff), 97.
When I was a child, the smirking jokes about Day’s perennial virginity were still abroad in the land, as were (alas) her many bad comedies and the television series that seemed to change her character every season. Fortunately, she outlived the sniping, and the re-evaluation of her singing and her acting brought her some belated praise. (If you ever wish to become homicidally enraged at the otherwise only mildly annoying phrases “Big time” and “knocks it out of the park,” I recommend Tom Santopietro’s Considering Doris Day.) With the passage of time it is now possible to see the good in pictures like The Pajama Game, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thrill of it All and even The Glass Bottom Boat and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, or at least how good Day is in them. Her singing, warm and surprisingly sexy and completed by an entrancing vibrato, never required defending, and her work for animal welfare mitigates her lifelong Republicanism.

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A sketch for an animated Leon short I wanted to create in the early 1980s. The $3.50 admission price dates it as much as that roll of tickets in the box office. And I should have put a mustache or sunglasses on that fish-head.

Leon Redbone (née Dickran Gobalian), 69.
I was introduced to Redbone via my best friend in the early 1980s, when he played me the Double Time LP. I was uncertain exactly what we were hearing — was this an old black blues shouter? — and when Redbone sang “The Sheik of Araby” I was literally on my hands and knees, weeping and helpless with laughter. Once I recovered I began to appreciate what a splendid musician Leon (he was always “Leon” to us) really was, and how expressive his sometimes extremely odd vocalizations could be. I was also, being an aficionado of “old music,” impressed by his wide-ranging taste and knowledge of American popular song. Seeing him in a small club called The Pier in Raleigh, N.C. a few months later was a revelation; among other things, I was (my reaction to “Sheik” notwithstanding) unprepared for just how deadpan funny he could be, what with stick like taking Polaroids of his audience or murmuring, “Aw, you shouldn’t have” and “Oh, behave yourselves” after an ovation. And seeing him up close revealed what a remarkable guitarist he was. The next time we saw Leon live was at the large Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and the last at the much smaller ArtsCenter in Carrboro. That rise and declension seems almost a paradigm for fame in America: If we’d seen him a fourth time, it would likely have been in some dive-bar, with a blender drowning out his voice.

Redbone was born in Cyprus and raised in Canada, shocking many of us who assumed that, with that voice, and his pith helmets, shades, mutton-chops, bushy mustache, trim goatee and Malacca canes he simply had to be a native of New Orleans. Although he suffered from dementia, when he died earlier this year Leon left a typically impish self-obituary: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”



IV. Nonesuch


Word Jazz 564848 resizedKen Nordine
, 98.
Utilizing his deep, resonant voice and such aggregations as the Fred Katz Group, Nordine created a unique form he called “Word Jazz,” which he successfully exploited on LP (Word Jazz, Son of Word Jazz, Love Words) and on his long-running public radio show. It was a weird hybrid. Not the jazz-poetry-and-music mix, but the tone that resulted; there were times when Nordine’s words wafted over you like a scented breeze and others at which he seemed the most pretentious, arty phony you ever heard. When, at the end of one of his tracks on the Disney Stay Awake album, he intones, both portentously and with a depressive’s sigh, “Damn… the circus,” you may at first not know whether to nod in recognition or burst out in derisive laughter at the clichéd obviousness of the line. I think the latter response is the more honest, but I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.

Damn… the choices.



*
Weirdly, Alison Bechdel now seems to get all or most of the credit for early “out and proud” cartooning but with, as they say, due respect to Bechdel’s impressive artistic and narrative gifts, one chalks this “Howard Who?” attitude up to the current arbiters of “Woke” culture who have proclaimed, loudly, and in their various manners, that the proper human equation is an automatic “#Girl = Good / Boy = Bad.” Especially when it comes to presidential nominees. (Always excepting you are Tulsi Gabbard, of course.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross