Clint Eastwood, who directed the Charlie Parker biopic Bird, on Bix:
As a kid I really liked Bix Beiderbecke. I played cornet when Bix was like the biggest thing around. And then Young Man with a Horn came out and it was just way off, the breathing and the dubbing. It was really bad. I left the theater thinking an opportunity to do something special was really missed. I don’t think the people who made the movie really understood the music or really liked jazz. Jazz, I felt, was a true American art form that had never really been depicted. I just thought with Bird we could do something better.
(From: “Clint Eastwood: An Interview,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 1989)
I had to comment on your Bette Davis-Tallulah Bankhead entry, with that great picture of Tallulah at the height of her beauty. She’s one of my favorite Show Biz legends. I used to see her on talk shows at the end of her career, when she was a croaky-voiced hag famous for her use of “Dah’ling” to punctuate her anecdotes. I later learned that she was a quintessential 1920s It Girl, a darling of the Algonquin crowd, and a famous party girl known for her use of all kinds of drugs and all varieties of sex. She supposedly got venereal disease from George Raft and had to have a hysterectomy, and she was rumored to have had affairs with three even greater legends: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Billie Holiday.
My favorite Tallulah story comes from Elia Kazan’s autobiography, which is one of the great Show Biz memoirs I’ve ever read. Kazan was directing Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, and the show was playing in New Haven getting ready for its New York run. The cast included the film actor Fredric March, his wife, and Tallulah. Bankhead refused to take direction and was trying to get Kazan fired. She also hated March’s upstanding and somewhat starchy wife, and when they had a big scene together, Bankhead would move about in the background as Mrs. March said her lines to the audience. Tallulah was clearly upstaging her. Mrs. March wanted Kazan to “do something.” Kazan worried about getting fired. And the play was due to leave for New York. Freddie March assured Kazan he’d handle the problem.
The next night after March’s character and Bankhead’s character had a dramatic scene together and March exited the stage, March had his assistant give him some liquid in a glass just as Bankhead was due to give her soliloquy. As she began to speak, March began to gargle. Bankhead stopped speaking. March stopped gargling. Bankhead resumed speaking. March resumed gargling. Later in the play, Tallulah stopped upstaging Mrs. March, the play went to New York and won all kinds of awards, and Elia Kazan went on to have one of the most successful careers as a stage and film director. Though Bankhead hated the Marches and Kazan, she gave brilliant performances in the play. Tallulah was some lady.
One of M’s favorite Hollywood characters is Margo Channing, that fabulously furious diva played by Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950). So respected is Margo that another fabulously furious diva, this one an animal in our home, was named for her, and presciently so, I might add . . .
Anyway, back when the film was released, gossips obsessed over the identity of Davis’s inspiration, and for a time, Tallulah Bankhead was their favorite guess. In his new biography of Davis, Ed Sikov recounts the reaction of that original FFD:
On her radio show, Tallu announced, “Don’t think I don’t know who’s been spreading gossip about me and my temperament out there in Hollywood, where the film was made—All About Eve. And after all the nice things I’ve said about that hag. When I get a hold of her I’ll tear every hair out of her mustache.” [. . .]
“Bette and I are very good friends,” Bankhead once said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t say to her face—both of them.”
Oh dear. Would that the world had more Tallus and Bettes!
It’s somewhere between fall and winter here in Charlottesville, which means that the haze of summer has finally lifted and I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains from my front porch. That’s reason enough to live in this town. (And it helps make up for the lame tailgating and the boys who wear neckties to football games.) But New York film reviewer David Edelstein reminds me of another: the Virginia Film Festival.
This year, Edelstein will be on stage interviewing John “Nobody fucks with the Jesus!” Turturro and Tamara Jenkins. Last year, he spoke to Robert Duvall:
Duvall was an amazing interview because he was such a wily comedian. I asked him about The Godfather—I’d read that during the shoot, he and James Caan and Marlon Brando had engaged in a mooning contest. Duvall evinced embarrassment and barely responded, so I moved on to the next question. Before I could finish, he broke in. “Jimmy Caan had the tiniest little ass, and it went ‘twitch-twitch,’” he said, opening and closing his fingers. “Brando, God, what a huge ass”—his hands were wide apart—“You wouldn’t believe it.” A little later, I carefully broached the subject of Tender Mercies and Duvall’s well-known battles with director Bruce Beresford and Beresford’s wife, the actress Tess Harper. Ever the southern gentleman, ever discreet, Duvall shrugged off the question. Again I moved on. “You had great chemistry onscreen with Ellen Barkin,” I said and he replied, without hesitation, “We had great chemistry in bed, too. Wow. Wow.”
In his Atlantic blog, right-winger Ross Douthat makes fun of my review of Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, which also touches on the moral devastation of Americans in Iraq. I said in my column that although it’s a clunky piece of storytelling and a third-rate mystery, it’s also a powerful and important film. Douthat sees this as representative of a liberal tying himself up in knots to praise a movie he dislikes but agrees with politically. If he thinks those are knots, he should read me on Michael Moore!
This is one of the most complicated parts of film criticism—of any criticism. When I was at the Village Voice in the eighties, I was occasionally maligned in-house for not embracing movies with the correct political line just because they were, um, terrible. That still happens: As much as I agreed with the critique of racism in Haggis’s Crash, I thought—and wrote—that the film was laughably contrived. Let cowboys wear pantyhose under their chaps, but spare me the quasi-religious couplings of Brokeback Mountain. The Situation made many of the same (important) points about the chaos in Iraq as the stupendous documentary No End in Sight, but so maladroitly (from a dramatic standpoint) that it was difficult to champion.
That said, anyone who thinks that politics shouldn’t be a factor in considering the merits of a film — especially now, in the midst of this catastrophic occupation — is being perverse. There were many reasons to praise In the Valley of Elah, and one of them is that it speaks eloquently and urgently to horrors in Iraq and the horrors, on the home front, to come.
One ought to meet Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the dress-wearing, trick-turning narrator of Patrick McCabe’s 1997 novel, Breakfast on Pluto, if only for the experience. He begins his story—ostensibly told to his psychiatrist Terence, a.k.a. “Dr. Essence Of Insight”—at Christmas time, with his mustachioed foster mother screaming, “Stop tearing the arse out of that turkey!” and Pussy proudly awarding himself and his kin the “ALL-IRELAND FUNCTIONAL FAMILY OF THE CENTURY AWARD! So congratulations, Hairy Ma and all your little out-of-wedlock kids!”
Of course, at this point, things are only getting started. It is the early ’70s—the height of the so-called “Troubles” and IRA violence—and Pussy lives in the small, Irish town of Tyreelin, situated precariously on the border between north and south. He is not-unreasonably obsessed with his father, Father Bernard, and writes endless school essays (with titles like “Father Bernard Rides Again”) about the rape of his real mother—whom he likens to screen-actress Mitzi Gaynor. Eventually, Pussy actually begins to dress like Mitzi Gaynor (part of some strange search for his mother?) and takes on with a prominent politician, who is promptly murdered. It’s off to London now, where he shops for “crushed velvet purple loon pants” by day and, by night, works a corner at Piccadilly Circus. He takes on all variety of lovers—some male, some female, some harmless, some psychopathic, one called Brendan Huggy Bear. He stalks his father.
Pussy makes it back to Tyreelin—barely—but not before finding one of his best friends, Irwin, “eliminated” by the IRA and then himself, innocent Puss, trapped in the middle of a Republican bombing campaign. Chapter titles reveal the narrator’s ever-questionable state of mind: “Busy Men Prepare to Blow Up London and Get Pussy into Trouble”; “Ooh, Bomber!”; and “It’s Bombing Night and I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear.”
Now, aside from acknowledging the fact that Patrick “Pussy” Braden is a literary companion in the way that methamphetamines are a quiet way to spend an evening, it seems only fair to ask: What does all this add up to? It was the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney who warned his Irish compatriots, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing.” And, unfortunately, McCabe seems to have taken him at his word. For sure, Breakfast on Pluto—shortlisted for the Booker Prize and McCabe’s fifth novel—is a linguistic tour de force. Few writers on the planet can deliver a monologue as elaborate, shocking, funny and pitch-black as McCabe. He proved that with The Butcher Boy, whose narrator, the indomitable Francie Brady, was just as windy, hell-bent and optimistic as Pussy could ever be. But behind all the words there has to be some insight. There are desperate moments—such as when Pussy hears that his politician boyfriend’s head and shoulders were found in the river—when all the reader gets are lines like, “Well, excuse me, darlings, while I wet myself.”
Partly what is at work, of course, is the disconnect between the comforting, upbeat world inside Pussy’s head and the surrounding madness and mayhem. The title, also the name of a chart hit for Don Partridge in 1969 [Mp3], is meant to suggest that Pussy’s disconnect is so large he might as well be having breakfast on Pluto. But that’s interesting only up to a point. After all, most people need to separate themselves in one way or another from modern life in order to survive—hence our obsession with the television and the movies. The Butcher Boy (which was brilliantly adapted to film by Ireland’s acclaimed director Neil Jordan) introduced Francie’s madness more slyly and then forced his hallucinatory existence slowly, inevitably into a tragic collision with reality. Breakfast on Pluto fails to achieve such denouement. Instead, Pussy inexplicably fades in and out, periodically dropping the glam-rock and sarcasm for moments of straight-ahead, heartbreaking observation (moments which temptingly suggest a building clarity), only to regress soon after into the absurd. (In 2005, Jordan set Breakfast on Pluto to screen, as well. I haven’t seen it yet . . .)
Nothing is as it seems, that much is clear—not when barroom oglers lift up Pussy’s skirt, not when Irwin denies his serious involvement with the IRA, not even when the bomb explodes in London. As Puss narrates, tellingly, in the third person: “If anyone had been observing Puss, they would surely have said: ‘Why is she laughing, for heaven’s sake? Doesn’t she realize she ought to be dead?’” In the end, this is what Breakfast on Pluto reads like: an uncomfortable, inappropriate, funereal chuckle.
When, amidst the rubble, the truth of his situation finally dawns on him, though, Puss only remarks: “I must be practically beside the point of detonation and my tights are in ribbons. I must get a new pair! I really must!”
This is one in a series of recommended books. The unbearable pathos behind the series is explained here.
James Marcus has a lively report from a panel on the future of the newspaper book review:
Now it was Wasserman’s turn. “When I hear the word elitism,” he said, “I reach for my revolver.” Romano: “That’s quite a role model.” Wasserman: “Well, I only reach for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Sifton: “That’s what Dr. Goebbels did, too.” We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis. All in fun, you might say, but Wasserman kept up his attack, accusing Romano of reverse snobbery. What he was prescribing was “criticism as baby talk.” And Osnos, too, was guilty of a category error. “Criticism is not a species of selling,” Wasserman scolded him. “It’s something entirely other.”
One thing I’m emphatically not interested in is people, whether in print or online, who can’t find anything more ‘value-added’ (how’s that?) to do than enthuse about their latest fave read. Simplicity and clarity are greatly to be valued, of course. But they should serve the expression of elegant or interesting thought, insight, perception. Aren’t most people agreed about this at least?
I was going to say Heart of Darkness by Conrad, but this is a more original choice -- plus it’s basically the same book. Max leaves the Western civilisation of his bedroom, sails to the country where the Wild Things are and, to borrow Conrad’s phrase, ‘takes a high seat among the devils of the land.’ Sendak was a European Jew who came to America fleeing Nazism. There’s so much going on in and around this book it’s almost unbearable.
Click on the Amazon link above. The book is listed as “hardcover comic.”
Peter Suderman at the National Reviewunloads on director Paul Haggis and his new Iraq War flick, In the Valley of Elah. The gist of the review is that Haggis is stupid. Suderman compares the new movie to “an especially lame episode of Murder, She Wrote mixed with a tenth-grade speech class.” So here’s the thing: When calling someone else lame & obvious, at least make sure you spell all your words correctly: “Haggis films everything in capitol letters, spelling out his (mostly lame) intentions with brain-numbing obviousness.”
Slateon Ken Burns’ new World War II documentary, The War: “This tendency to view the home front through the gauzy lens of nostalgia is one of the film’s weakest points. Burns addresses racial segregation and Japanese internment at some length, condemning both as great contradictions in a war for democracy. Even here, though, the sins of the past are filtered and softened for the present. Everyone interviewed laments such practices as moral errors—an admirable consensus suited to 2007.”
I can say from experience that some folks, even today, don’t condemn the camps. I once worked for an educational publishing company and received a rather vigorous complaint on the issue. Our book had taken too dim a view of the internment of Japanese Americans, apparently. No matter that Ronald Reagan actually apologized, on behalf of the United States, for the camps in 1988.
I would say this: right now, so far this fall, if you are a blog or a big reviewer, you have to deal with Denis Johnson and Junot Diaz and the last Ghostwriter novel by Roth. The Amy Bloom book perhaps as well. Three have made the NYTBR best seller list for fiction, and probably the Roth will as well. In the case of all four you are dealing with novels by celebrated and quite special writers. [My emphasis]
Just so we’re clear: No such obligation is felt at The Beiderbecke Affair. I don’t have to deal with anything. I’ll read whatever I want and then write about it. Or not. At the moment, I’m taking Mark’s advice and reading Tokyo Year Zero.
But for all Greegrass’s virtuosity, he’s got no soul. At this point,
Jason Bourne is little more than a drone, a robot fighting machine
programmed to complete his mission. He’s perfectly calculating,
perfectly capable, perfectly precise in every word and movement—just
perfect, too perfect. So sure, it’s tragic that Bourne’s
girlfriend was murdered at the beginning of the last installment, but
how much can we really care if Bourne is just an ass-kicking android, a
Makes sense, I guess. I just didn’t have time to care whether I cared. This is one of those movies where you worry about such finer points only afterward.
First there were Otis Ferguson’s articles. Then there was Dorothy Baker’s novel. Finally, in 1950, Michael Curtiz (that’s right, of Casablanca) directed the screen version of Young Man with a Horn. Curtiz’s adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s novel improbably cast Hoagy Carmichael as Smoke. (In the book—you guessed it—Smoke is black.) Hoagy opened the film dragging on a cigarette and reminiscing about his old friend Rick Martin: “What a guy!” Carmichael wanted the part because he well understood that he would be playing himself and talking about his old friend Bix. But it must have been tough to pretend, what with Kirk Douglas, in the role of Martin, running around eating scenery. Harry James, meanwhile, blew the opposite of cool on the soundtrack, and the hero didn’t even die in the end but ran away with Doris Day! That in itself was a crime. What little chemistry existed in the film was between Douglas and Lauren Bacall (in the role of the “perverse hussy” Amy North):
AMY: You can call me Amy. RICK: I bet I could.
In the end, Smoke mused, “the desire to live is a great teacher, and I think it taught Rick a lot of things. He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up.”
The banner image is a detail from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn.” Now owned by the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Community School District, it was painted in 1931: the same year Bix Beiderbecke died and a year after Wood painted “American Gothic.”