Happy Birthday, Ann-Margret

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Ann-Margret entertaining US troops in Vietnam, 1966

Today is Ann-Margret’s birthday. Her autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story is wonderful. What a career. And it’s still unfolding. There are so many classic scenes. Tommy. Carnal Knowledge.

Of course, too, here is the Elvis connection. That will be what I write about today, although there are so many other phases to her extraordinary career. These are edited re-posts on Viva Las Vegas, the one film she did with Elvis. One of his best, partially because of her presence, and their onscreen chemistry. In a perfect world, the two of them would have made 5 or 6 movies together, instead of just the one.

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It’s no secret that the two had a love affair. They remained friends to the end, and she was one of the only Hollywood people who made the trip to Memphis for Elvis’ funeral. The two of them were raised in similar old-fashioned conservative ways, and that was one of the ways in which they bonded, as she describes in her book: Respect for your elders, do the right thing, be kind and polite, grateful for what you have, etc. The entire time they were dating, Ann-Margret was living with her parents, and Elvis would come over, and have dinner, and hang out with her family, and do all the things a good old-fashioned boyfriend is supposed to do. He “got it”.

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And while we don’t know about the sex they had, and neither should we, we do know that Elvis bought her a gigantic round bed. You figure it out. Beautifully, the check for that damn bed ($780.00) is on display at Graceland, with a note in Elvis’ handwriting in the Memo section: “Personal gift for home of Miss Ann Margret.”

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The two of them were sometimes fish-out-of-water in the more brutal and selfish atmosphere of Hollywood show-biz, and they found much comfort and ease in one another’s company. They would drive around the Hollywood hills, and park the car, looking out over the skyline, and talk about everything under the sun. They were idealistic, hopeful, and total fans of one another. “You’re awesome,” “No, YOU’RE awesome,” was how they felt.

Ann-Margret wrote in her book, bluntly, “I will never recover from Elvis’ death.”

While she does devote a chapter to their relationship, she does not give away much, and never speaks of him in anything less than a totally complimentary way. She refuses to divulge “dirt”. (You will find that that is the case with all of his girlfriends. All of the women in his life. Including Priscilla. They are loyal to him, and protective. It says a lot about who he was in life.)

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Watch this extraordinary clip of Charlie Rose’s interview with Ann-Margret. Watch her quiet firmness, the sense of heartbreak still there, the feeling of Love you get from her. Rose is not being too pushy, and is clearly reacting to what is right in front of him, her sensitive refusal to “go there”. Other than her book, Ann-Margret does not speak of Elvis. At least not of their relationship. That was their private business. Elvis trusted her. To betray his trust would be unthinkable, even from beyond the grave.

The two were paired up together in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, Elvis being the biggest star in the world at that point, and Ann-Margret on her white-hot rise to superstardom.

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From the first moment they met, each recognized a kindred soul in the other. They both said words to that effect. They drove the producers of the film crazy by risking their lives riding motorcycles like daredevils around late at night (there’s a motorbike sequence in Viva Las Vegas, too). Elvis’ nickname for her was “Ammo.”

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Presley, at the time he was dating Ann-Margret, became so overcome by his feelings that he actually approached his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and asked him to manage Ann-Margret’s career, too. Col. Parker only had one client: Elvis. It was a tense situation between the two men, the Colonel reminded him that if he took on Ann-Margret that would leave less time for Presley. It was a warning. The Colonel was not a fan of Viva Las Vegas anyway, because Ann-Margret had too much screen time. You know, as brilliant as the Colonel was, in his P.T. Barnum way, there were a lot of things he didn’t “get”.

It didn’t work out between Elvis and Ann-Margret, but for the rest of his life, any time Ann-Margret opened in Vegas, she’d find her dressing room filled with flowers (in the shape of a guitar) sent there by Elvis. She was always on his radar. She was in the inner circle of his heart.

To see Viva Las Vegas now is to see all of that happening in real-time. It translates onto the screen in unmistakable ways. I mean, watch this. (And look for Teri Garr! She was one of the dancers.)

Here’s a woman who not only can resist him, as well as hold her own onscreen beside him, but she also obviously openly adores him, who he is and what he does onstage. She looks up at him in “Come on Everybody”, dancing like the fangirl that she is, beaming a smile saying, “Give it to me! You’re so AWESOME! Give it to me!”

In that moment, she is US.

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Elvis Presley and Las Vegas went way back. At the height of his exploding popularity in 1956, he played Vegas, which, at that time, was made up of a middle-aged establishment crowd. Entertainers like Patti Page, the Rat Pack boys, performed in small clubs, and well-dressed people sat at tables, clapping. Presley, the grease-bomb from Memphis, was already known for wreaking havoc at his shows. There had been a riot in Florida, where girls poured backstage and ripped his clothes off (at Elvis’ instigation, by the way). Playing Vegas was risky but an important step at broadening his fan-base. Unfortunately, though, the 1956 Vegas shows did not go well. Everyone (including Elvis) considered the whole thing to be a disaster, and Elvis walked around Vegas late at night after his shows there, beside himself with anxiety. Why didn’t they love him? Dismissive reviews were written in national magazines, and Presley and the boys went back on the road to connect to the teenagers who seemed to “get it”. And so Las Vegas remained a fearful image in Presley’s mind, although he loved to go there on vacation. Vegas was a potent symbol to Elvis of the rare crowd he could NOT conquer. (Of course, in the late 1960s and on until the end of his life, Elvis came back and took Vegas by storm).

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But before all that, in 1964, Presley had taken another crack at the Vegas scene, with Viva Las Vegas, directed by George Sidney, and co-starring the young Ann-Margret, who had just made her first big splash in Bye Bye Birdie (a spin on the Elvis Presley story). Viva Las Vegas was the biggest and most traditional Hollywood musical that Presley ever did. The plot is the same as most of his other movies: Race car driver/singer, girl he wants, race he needs to win, exotic location, etc. Presley loved Vegas, as I mentioned, and even if he had never played Vegas so successfully in the 70s, he still might be associated with that town forever, due to the catchy anthem of the title song. It’s one of the few songs he ever sang that didn’t have to do with either a romantic relationship or his love for Jesus. It’s about his love for a town.

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Viva Las Vegas works primarily because Presley was partnered with someone who could go toe to toe with him, and was actually compelling enough in her own right that the audience felt some tension in the romantic relationship (and tension is where it’s at, when it comes to cinematic romance). Who wants to see a smooth guy who knows he will get the girl get the girl? Yawn.

But Presley is so strong a sexual presence that it’s difficult to imagine anyone turning him down, and many of the movies made that mistake … of not investing enough in the tense possibilities of a girl who would play hard to get with such a strapping sex symbol. Ann-Margret, as the swimming instructor in Viva Las Vegas, doesn’t play hard to get, not exactly, although the first number, where she puts him off, and he pursues, could be construed as in that realm. The beauty of it is that you know she wants him, but she certainly doesn’t want to make it too easy for him. And he enjoys the pursuit.

The two of them together are charm personified.

It’s fun seeing Elvis Presley have to work to get the girl (and every time the champagne cork explodes out of the bottle, surprising him, during the scene where he is waiting on Ann-Margert and his rival, the Italian racing star, I laugh out loud. I have been laughing out loud at that moment since I first saw the movie when I was a kid. What can I say, I’m easily pleased.)

Ann-Margret was almost as much of a powerhouse, in terms of a sexual persona onscreen, as Presley was. Presley needed resistance, as a star, someone who could stand on her own, give as good as she got. At the same time, what she gives him, especially in the number “Come on Everybody” (clip above), is the adoration and gleeful attention of his hordes of young female fans. There are shots of him up on the stage performing, and she’s down below, rocking out, and looking up at him with total joy, pushing him on. (Look for the expression on her face at around the 1:23-24 mark. It’s abandoned with joy and need. Very honest moment.) I would also like to point out that the final section of the number, when the two are onstage together, is filmed in one take. No cuts.

It’s fun to watch because it seems real. It IS real. The mutual appreciation society of two big stars.

They were so in sync they were like twins. Elvis said to a friend after the first recording session with Ann-Margret for the film that they moved the same, that their impulses were the same, they both felt the music in the same instinctive way. It was such a pleasure for him to “play” like that with someone who anticipated his moves, reflected them, and brought her own fire to the process.

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Presley, as a performer, offered sex, but it was a certain kind of sex. It was friendly sex. Not that he wasn’t overpowering, he was, but he still managed to seem friendly and fun about it, rather than off-puttingly confident and cool, and that was what his formula movies so often missed. He’s portrayed as a cool guy, surrounded by throngs of eager women, and while he is never less than entertaining … it’s that heat he brought to the table that was so watchable, erotic, undeniable.

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In Viva Las Vegas, even Elvis seems surprised at what’s going on for him. A guy who looks like he looks will have an easy time with women, and the role encompasses that obvious fact. To pretend Elvis isn’t a stunner would be ridiculous, denying reality. But the way she watches him in the movie, the way she glories in him (while not losing a bit of her own power), makes him come alive, makes him explode with even greater heat, the kind of heat and need that made him famous in the first place.

You can see the exchange of heat in evidence in all of their numbers together, but the most powerful representation of it is in a number where they don’t sing at all (clip at the bottom of the post). They’re on their first date at some Vegas club, a quartet is singing a song with the dance moves in the lyrics (‘do the squat’, etc.), and the two of them are pushed together on a crowded dance floor surrounded by other couples.

And it is as though they are the only two people on the planet.

After the dance number, Presley takes the stage and does a groovy manic version of the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, as Ann-Margret, once again, wiggles and jams out beside him, pushing him on by looking at him with the adoration of all of his fans. Yet still: being fabulous herself. It’s a fascinating combination, part of her very own brand of indelible movie magic. Elvis Presley could be overwhelming. Ann-Margret meets him, lovingly, enthusiastically, on his level.

That’s why people still love Viva Las Vegas. That’s why people still think it’s fun, and why it was one of Presley’s most successful pictures. Because you get the sense you are in the presence of – or at least in the vague vicinity of – something that is actually real, that is actually happening. Nobody was more powerful than Elvis Presley when he was allowed to be real.

Observe how they are together in that first dance number in the clip below. It’s shockingly intimate. We are being let into a private world of appreciation, heat, and mutual enjoyment. And for a second or two during that dumb dance number, it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching.

Ann-Margret, of course, has had a stunning career, with many other roles beloved by her fans. She continues to work. I am always happy when she shows up in anything. A class act, that dame.

Happy birthday.

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The Books: Passions of the Mind, ‘George Eliot: A Celebration,’ by A.S. Byatt

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Passions of the Mind, a collection of essays by A.S. Byatt.

A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite writers writing today. This collection of essays, in topics ranging from George Eliot to Toni Morrison, came out in the early 90s, in the wake of the Possession brouhaha. At least that’s how I remember it. Possession was such a huge deal, that suddenly her earlier novels were re-issued with similar covers to Possession, and other non-fiction works re-appeared as well. I bought them all. The cover of Passions of the Mind is Henri Matisse’s Jupiter and Leda. (Byatt is so obsessed with Matisse that she came out with an entire short story collection called The Matisse Stories. Love those stories.)

I read these essays back when the collection first came out, and found many of them tough-going. I hadn’t read a lot of the people she writes about, and she’s extremely into Freud and quotes him at length and I found that pretty arduous. But, like I said, favorite author … so I sweated it out. She is one of those people who makes me realize and really feel the gaps in my education. You know, I’m reasonably well-read, but then I read this and think: “I am basically illiterate.” Byatt taught and came up in a serious academic environment (much of which she lampoons – or at least presents – in Possession). All of the post-modern structuralist French stuff really matters to her – because she experienced it all first-hand. (Whereas to me, an outsider, I think: “These people write turgid prose, dry and prissy, more like sociologists than anything else, I cannot understand what the hell they are talking about. Therefore, I will not pay attention to them at all.” I could afford to do so, since I wasn’t buried in an academic English program. Byatt was on the front-lines of all of it.)

While Byatt and Camille Paglia don’t, on the face of it, have too much in common, there is a rigorous appreciation of the despised “canon” in both of them, and much of Paglia’s work is an act of redress against academia that chooses to celebrate second-rate work merely because it was written by a member of an oppressed group. Byatt’s interests are wide-ranging. She goes where her beloved authors lead her. Iris Murdoch (she has written a couple of books on Murdoch), Robert Browning, George Eliot … these are Byatt’s gods. (I wish I could find the quote – but in some review of A.S. Byatt’s fiction, the reviewer said, “Byatt writes as though James Joyce had never existed,” and I absolutely LOVE that!! She really is a 19th-century type of writer, and you can see the influence of George Eliot – which we’ll get to in this essay and the next one – as well as the influence of her post-modern academic career – it gives an interesting blend. In Possession, at least, we get two modern-day English scholars, working away in their overly-compartmentalized fields, divorced from the flow of continuity in the dreaded “canon” … suddenly becoming allies, when they realize that the 19th century poets they have devoted their lives to studying had had a secret love affair. It’s a brilliant book. Despite the rigors of the academic life, what it eventually shows is that literature – good personal literature – belongs to all of us, and we are in danger of cutting ourselves off from the wellspring of life when we compartmentalize literature out, when we cut it up so severely that we can’t even see it anymore. Byatt struggles to see it all as one big messy glorious WHOLE.

I still find some of these essays pretty tough-going. The references to works I have not only never read but never even heard of (to quote my father: we’d say, “Hey, have you read …???” and he’d say flatly, “Nevah heard of it.”) makes me feel stupid. There are long passages in French, for example. Translations to follow. But Byatt is a scholar, not just a writer, and her learning is vast and voracious. Even with its academic rigor, you can feel her passion. One of her struggles as a novelist was to find her own way into the field of fiction, and she is frank over how she found it daunting. She had spent her childhood and young adulthood surrounded by the greats of the past. It takes courage to plant your flag in that landscape, to lay claim to the title “writer”, when you have spent the majority of your life studying George Eliot or all the rest.

Here, she discusses George Eliot. One of the things that is so unique about Eliot, that is still striking today, is how much of her books are about the process of thought itself. Dickens isn’t like that. The two writers are often compared, but it’s apples/oranges. Eliot is interested in how people think, and how people’s thought processes actually operate. It’s a nice coincidence that I would come to this book in my ongoing book-excerpt project right now, because I am currently re-reading Silas Marner, a book I adore. It makes me cry.

Byatt discusses her discovery of George Eliot. She had read some of Eliot’s books as a child and really really disliked them. She hated the ending of Mill on the Floss. She was angry about it. Then later, in college, she re-read Eliot, and discovered Eliot’s essays (Byatt eventually wrote the introduction to a collection of those essays), and had a total change of heart.

Excerpt from Passions of the Mind: ‘George Eliot: A Celebration’, by A.S. Byatt

So I came to George Eliot late, in the days when I was teaching the modern English novel in evening classes and trying to find out how to write a good novel myself. Meeting any great writer is like being made aware of freedoms and capabilities one had no idea were possible. Reading Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda I learned several primitive yet crucial lessons about writing novels – and these lessons were also moral lessons about life. It is possible, I learned, to invent a world peopled by a large number of inter-related people, almost all of whose processes of thought, developments of consciousness, biological anxieties, sense of their past and future can most scrupulously be made available to readers, can work with and against each other, can lead to failure, or partial failure, or triumphant growth.

I suppose I was in my late twenties when I began teaching Middlemarch, and I taught it with passion because I perceived it was about the growth, use and inevitable failure and frustration of all human energy – a lesson one is not interested in at eleven or eighteen, but at twenty-six, with two small children, it seems crucial. George Eliot’s people were appallingly ambitious and greedy – not always for political or even, exclusively, sexual power, as in most of the other English novels I read. They were ambitious to use their minds to the full, to discover something, to live on a scale where their life felt valuable from moment to moment. In Middlemarch Dorothea, the untutored woman who wishes to contribute to science, even Casaubon, the failed scholar, had hopes which meant something to me, as Madame Bovary’s cramped, Romantic, confused sexual lunges towards more life did not. In Daniel Deronda the hero has humane and intellectual ambitions: Gwendolyn Harleth is a sympathetic portrait on the grand scale of a deficient being whose conceptions of the use of energy never extended beyond power (sexual and social) and money (not for its own sake, but for social pride). Perhaps the most vital discovery I made about George Eliot at that time was that her people think: they worry an idea, they are, within their limits, responsive to politics and art and philosophy and history.

The next discovery was that the author thought. One of the technical things I had discovered during the early teaching of Middlemarch was George Eliot’s authorial intervention, which were then very unfashionable, thought to be pompous Victorian moralizing and nasty lumps in the flow of “the story.” I worked out that on the contrary, the authorial “voice” added all sorts of freedom a good writer could do with. Sometimes it could work with firm irony to undercut the sympathetic “inner” portrayal of a character. Consider this early description of Dorothea:

Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own role of conduct there; she was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.

There is so much in there, in the style. The magisterial authority of a Greek Chorus, or God, who knows Dorothea’s fate before her drama has really begun. Sympathy, in the author, towards the character’s ambitions, and a certain wry sense that, unfocused as they are, they are doomed. And then, in that last sentence, which is biting social comedy, the choice of the crucial adjective – “merely canine affection” – to disparage the kind of “love” thought adequate by most planners of marriages, not only in the nineteenth century.

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Monty Python Live

More on the Monty Python QA and 40th anniversary screening of Holy Grail over at Rogerebert.com.

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Tribeca Film Festival 2015: 40th Anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, plus Monty Python QA with Host John Oliver

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a new documentary coming out called Monty Python – The Meaning of Live, about the development of the live show they did last year at the O2 in London. (The last live show they did as a group was in 1980 at the Hollywood Bowl.) The documentary is fascinating! Monty Python – The Meaning of Live is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and this entire weekend is given up to a celebration of all things Python, with screenings of the documentary, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life and, last night, at the gorgeous and enormous Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The five living Pythons (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) were all in attendance. Robert De Niro was there, introducing the event and welcoming everyone. John Oliver ran a raucous and chaotic Q and A after the screening with all five of them. A more in-depth piece will be going up on Rogerebert.com about last night, but here are some photos (all photos taken by me) and choice quotes.

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Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Oliver. That seating arrangement would not last long.

John Oliver: Why do you think Monty Python has lasted so long? Is it because silliness is basically timeless?
John Cleese: We thought we were being serious.

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John Oliver: You’ve just done this gigantic live show at the O2 in England. How did it feel doing comedy in a space that vast?
Eric Idle: It’s kind of the same. You know, you’re just talking to each other. Once the lights are on – I don’t know how many people are here – they’re in the dark – and you are just up there with these guys.
Terry Jones: The audience was so warm and welcoming.
Michael Palin: People listened. They were waiting for the lines. I thought we would be hearing the lines back before we said them. You get 15,000 people listening and laughing at about the same time – it was surprising really.

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Monty Python madness on the red carpet beforehand

Eric Idle: [to John Cleese] Tell them what Eddie Izzard said to you.
John Cleese: Oh, that’s right. Dear Eddie Izzard! He came to see the show 6 or 7 times and on the 2nd night, I saw him there and I apologized to him, I said, “I’m sorry I messed that sketch up” because I got a line wrong in Michelangelo. And he said, “No, you don’t understand. The audience has all seen you do these sketches right many times. It’s much more fun when you fuck it up.”

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John Oliver: One of the things I love best in the documentary – there’s this great moment where they will not let you play the vagina song during the televised program.
Eric Idle: We have the “watershed” in England. That’s where you can say “vagina” 5 minutes past 9, but not at 5 minutes to 9, for public safety and moral reasons. So I wrote something very quickly and Michael got straight into drag, and filled in for the television viewers what filth they were missing.
John Oliver: Right, so in response, you dress up like an old lady and give a pseudo-apology that used the word “cunt.”

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Michael Palin: The BBC didn’t censor us at all for the first two series. Once we started getting popular, they did introduce some censorship and there was a sketch, the “Summarize Proust Competition” – and people who came on [as contestants] were asked what their hobbies were. One man said, “Strangling animals, golf, and masturbating.” [We had already filmed it] and they called us in on it and said, “You can’t use the word ‘masturbating’ on television.” We all went up to the office to see the head of comedy, and we had this great discussion – well, it wasn’t really a discussion. Terry Gilliam was shouting, “I masturbate. You masturbate. We ALL masturbate!” … The funniest thing, though, was that “Strangling animals” was fine.

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John Cleese: I do a lot of … I don’t know if they’re really racist jokes … but jokes like: Why do the French have so many civil wars? Answer: Because they love to win one now and again.
John Oliver: That’s not racist. That’s a historical fact.

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John Cleese: When you’re onstage and about 6 people in the audience go, [tepid, unenthusiastic] “Ha ha ha”, you really want to kill yourself. But when there’s complete silence, it’s hilarious.
John Oliver: It’s an out of body experience, thinking: the only reason I’m onstage is to entertain people. I’m failing to do that. And I’m dressed in drag. And I’m an adult. What am I doing with my life. It’s inherently ridiculous.
Michael Palin: That’s what makes it fun.

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At one point, a woman in the front row made some sort of loud sound in response to something – I couldn’t figure out what it was, but John Cleese turned to her, pointing his finger at her, to Shush her.
John Oliver: There is immense authority in the British accent. Still! If you had done that in 1776, all this would still be ours.

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Terry Gilliam: [on filming “Holy Grail”] We had chosen all the castles in Wales and Scotland, and then we were told after we started to shoot that the National Trust was banning us from the castles because we wouldn’t respect the dignity of the fabric of the building. [These were places where] tortures, disembowellings, guttings … had gone on! So we didn’t have castles to work with and that’s why you see painted cut-out castles, and we made jokes about it. That last castle, we didn’t have the keys to the castle, and the son of the owner had to fly up from Kent to deliver the keys … so we could get in there and then dump shit on Terry and Graham.

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There was much mayhem. John Cleese left the stage multiple times. He wandered around backstage, poking his hand out between the flats and wiggling his fingers at us. At one point, Terry Gilliam left the stage too and then he and John returned, Gilliam crouched down, hiding under Cleese’s blazer coat-tails. And they hid behind Terry Jones’ chair and made loud fart noises. John Oliver crawled (literally, there were no steps) off the stage and came out into the audience to take questions. John Cleese commented at one point, “These questions are rather bad.” One guy stood up and asked, “Could you do the four Yorkshiremen?” and John Oliver exclaimed, “It’s not a fucking jukebox up there!” It was a rough-house environment, sharp-edged and full of insults, and I felt like the air was pure oxygen. It was wonderful. Wonderful to see them all in the flesh. Wonderful to watch “Holy Grail” in that gigantic 3,000 seat theatre. The excitement was so thick you feel like you could reach out and touch it. I have always loved John Oliver. Watching him handle that group interview, with 5 master comedians and improvisers, who were constantly careening the event out of control, was inspirational. It was a beautiful night of tribute to these super-star guys who have done so much to help create the culture in which we live.

I’ll post the link to the round-up on Rogerebert.com when it goes live. There was much more to the discussion, including a couple of references to Graham Chapman, and a long and interesting conversation about political correctness and comedy. It was a great night and I felt very lucky to be there.

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Tribeca Film Festival 2015: Meadowland

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Meadowland, starring Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde whose son vanishes from a gas station restroom (in the first 5 minutes of the film, so it’s not really a spoiler), is an effective and moving film about the aftermath of a horrible event. The fragmentation of reality as they know it. And the isolation that grief creates. It’s a first feature for the director, and he’s done a wonderful job. The acting is great. It’s screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and hopefully it will hit theaters at some point.

My review of Meadowland is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Ebertfest 2015 Final Day

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On Friday I moderated the Girlhood panel. On Saturday, I participated in the panel for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, and then right after that, I moderated the QA for the next film, The Motel Life. The funniest thing was that I have no experience with doing things like this, but I was just tossed into all of it, and so of course I over-prepared, and made sure I knew my plan of attack for each one, and also asked questions of more experienced people who were there. It looks so easy when other people do it! Of course the key is to over-prepare, and then just let it go and have a nice conversation up there. Make the guest feel comfortable. Choose some good questions. And roll with the punches.

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Ida was on my Top 10 last year, and I’d put it at the top of that list. (I wrote about it here.) I think seeing it at Ebertfest was my 4th time seeing it. It really should be seen on a screen as gigantic as that one. The images are so startling, the compositions so unique, and they just register differently, seeming even more beautiful when seen on a large screen.

I had participated in a panel about Ida up at Columbia last year, so it was really fun to re-visit it. Nell Minow, a Rogerebert.com contributor (among many other things – she’s such a fascinating person), led the panel. It was me, Matt Seitz, and Todd Rendelman, whom I did not know before this Ebertfest. He was lovely, I had many good conversations with him. He has written a book about Roger Ebert. He was great. Nell was our fearless leader, asking each of us questions about the film, and they were great questions. She asked Matt to discuss the aspect ratio (the film was done in the old Academy ratio, so that the image is square, as opposed to long thin and rectangular), asked me to discuss the acting … and there was that structure there to our conversation, but then we all would chime in on a certain question, or we would riff on what someone else said. I told Nell later that it all felt so relaxed it was like we were sitting around talking in someone’s living room. The questions from the audience were fantastic. The film is just so engaging, even with its darkness and with its haunted quality. There is so much to discuss, politics, acting, death, grief, guilt … So many people came up to me afterwards (and Nell said the same thing), thanking us for the panel. It definitely is the kind of film that you feel you MUST “talk about” afterwards, so I am glad our panel helped launch that conversation.

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Following Ida was The Motel Life, co-directed by brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky (a very successful producing team, The Motel Life is their first feature as directors), and starring Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch. Secondary roles played by Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson. I had been assigned to review it for Rogerebert.com and was totally captivated by its mood of melancholy and sweetness, its tender heart, its tragedy, not to mention the magnificent performance from Stephen Dorff.

Based on the novel of the same name, by musician Willy Vlautin (an excellent book), The Motel Life tells the story of the unlucky Flannigan brothers, who live in Reno in a series of increasingly depressing and desperate motels, with not even 5 bucks between them. The older brother, Jerry Lee (Dorff) is compromised in some unnamed mental way, and he also lost his leg when he was a teenager, trying to jump a moving train. He likes to draw. Frank, the younger brother (Hirsch), tells what amounts to bedtime stories to Frank, where the brothers star as pirates, or fighter pilots, or … basically anything other than who they are. These stories appear as very funny animation sequences in the film version of The Motel Life. Anyway, I love the film. It’s a meandering character study. It feels like it could have been made in the 1970s. How exciting that they had chosen to show it at Ebertfest! Stephen Dorff was all set to attend but had to cancel last-minute (he had to do some sound stuff for another film). He sent his regrets. But Alan Polsky was able to attend. We met backstage beforehand, and he told me that my review was his favorite of all the reviews of the movie. “I put it on my Facebook page. I really liked it.” That was nice to hear, and it was nice to be able to tell him in person how much I loved the film. And so the conversation we had onstage (and Rogerebert.com contributor Sam Fragoso joined us), kind of went from there. The audience seemed to really dig the movie, and the questions were terrific, showing the level of emotional engagement with the material. One guy stood up in the balcony and his question was, “Where’s Stephen?” Ha! I was proud and pleased to help present this film to the Ebertfest audience. It barely got a release when it came out. There were many critics there who had never even heard of the damn thing. So it was a lot of fun. It was also thrilling for me, personally, because it was the last “thing” I had to do at Ebertfest. Check it off the list!

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If you have not seen a film by Ramin Bahrani, I highly recommend checking him out. There is Man Push Cart, there is Chop Shop (it was Roger Ebert’s review that made me seek out the film), and there is Goodbye Solo, which screened at last year’s Ebertfest. Ebert had championed Bahrani’s work. Hard. The way he championed Scorsese’s work, or Werner Herzog’s work. He mentioned him so often that it got your attention, and piqued my curiosity. Bahrani is now a regular feature at Ebertfest, and the final film on Saturday was his latest, 99 Homes (which has not even been released yet, an Ebertfest first.) It represents a lot of changes for Bahrani, most noticeably being the present of some pretty big stars in it (Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern). Bahrani usually works with non-professional actors or non-actors. 99 Homes tells the story of a hustler/sleazy/real-estate developer/house-flipper who has benefited hugely from the housing and economic collapse. A shark. A con-man. A sociopath. As people’s lives collapse, his star rises. Andrew Garfield, a single parent, who lives in a small home with his mother (Laura Dern), has fallen behind on house payments. Eviction looms. The opening scene of 99 Homes is killer (and represents a huge shift in Bahrani’s style: it’s practically a thriller type of opening): a family is evicted, violently, from their home. The sheriff’s department is there. The people don’t want to leave. Michael Shannon (the hustler) is dead-eyed and implacable. These people are now trespassing. The house belongs to the bank now. Gather up a couple of things and get the hell out. (The opening scene is done all in one. No coverage. One continuous take, through the house, through the yard, down the driveway. It’s a stunner.) 99 Homes is all about real estate, development, the eviction process, the banking process … it’s incredibly elaborate (Bahrani did a ton of research) and – side note – it was really fun because my mother was in real estate for years, so her perspective on this whole thing was fascinating. I might have been slightly confused at points. Mum never was. Shannon is crazy-good, and Garfield is heartbreaking and terrific. Bahrani paints with some pretty broad strokes, and his theme is stated a bit too clearly for my taste making it feel didactic, but I like his style a lot, and I like his concerns. The QA onstage afterwards was a lot of fun because Bahrani was there and he had brought one of the actors with him, a little kid, maybe 12 years old, who plays Andrew Garfield’s son. His name is Noah Lomax. He was awesome in the film, heartbreaking. Scott Foundas and Brian Tallerico ran the QA and I loved Brian’s first question to Noah: “So, how cool was it to have Spiderman play your Dad?” Ha! And Noah was like, “It was really really really cool to have Spiderman play my Dad.” Brian asked him if it was weird at first, but Noah said that no, it wasn’t weird, Andrew treated him normal, and they would “hang out”… “He took me to the zoo and stuff,” said Noah. (The image of Andrew Garfield taking Noah to the zoo and “hanging out” like that? Heartcrack.)

99 Homes is dedicated to Roger Ebert.

After the QA, we all headed over to the after-party. I had a wonderful time, talking with people I knew, meeting new people, and what a wonderful group of people. Had a lovely conversation with Johan Carlssen (producer of the Pigeon movie). Finally got to meet Scott Foundas from Variety, and we ended up talking about Brian Wilson and American Sniper. You know, because those two things go together. I was so excited to meet the Argentinian actress Julieta Zylberberg, because I had just seen her in El Cinco at Tribeca and ADORED IT. I basically raced over to her to talk with her about it. I had a wonderful conversation with Dan Aronson, the founder/CEO of Fandor. It was lovely. The whole thing was lovely. I have a hard time at parties sometimes. I get shy. I didn’t feel shy once. I felt pleased and honored to be there, and everyone I talked to was fascinating.

Saturday was a long day and we were flying out of Champaign on Sunday morning. Of course many of us, writers, critics, and special guests, were all on the same flight back to Chicago. So it was a truly international group gathered at the small airport on Sunday morning. There was Héloïse Godet (the star of Godard’s Goodbye to Language) from France, Johan Carlsson from Sweden, a group of us from the East Coast, another group flying to Los Angeles, others in from Argentina … It was kind of cool, to tune in to all of the conversations going on on that short flight (only 29 minutes). Everyone there was an Ebertfest person.

Mum and I had a couple of hours to kill, so we sat and had some lunch at O’Hare and talked. During the screening of Ida (which Mum had already seen), I became aware of the scratching of her pencil beside me in the dark. She was taking notes. I love this woman. So I asked her to tell me what she had been writing, and she shared some of her observations, things she noticed on the second time around that she hadn’t noticed on the first. My favorite observation from her was: In the section when Ida goes back to the convent after spending time with her aunt, there’s a scene in the dining room where the nuns have lunch and it’s dead-quiet. Ida can’t help but start laughing to herself at one point. But that wasn’t Mum’s observation. What she noticed was: during the prayer before dinner, all the other novitiates placed their palms together in prayer. Ida held her hands down against the table. “That was HUGE,” Mum said. Yes. It was. I had missed that detail! I guess I’ll have to see it again. It’s one for the ages.

To the town of Champaign-Urbana: thank you for your welcoming atmosphere, your kindness. To all of the volunteers at Ebertfest: you are awesome. We love you all. Our stay there was beautiful and we had a wonderful time. Looking forward to next year already!

Posted in Movies | 11 Comments

Gaspar Noé in 3D

A couple reasons why I love Gaspar Noé:

1. Because of the opening credits of Enter the Void. I would like to make out with those opening credits. The whole film is brilliant and hallucinatory and unlike anything else I have ever seen, but those opening credits!

2. Because of the way he is promoting his new movie Love (a love story in 3-D), which will be shown at Cannes in a midnight screening. One quote from him about the film: “With my next film I hope guys will have erections and girls will get wet.”

You know, I’m sure many film-makers feel that way, but who comes out and says it? Gaspar Noé does, that’s who. I can’t wait to see it.

3. Have you read Kim Morgan on Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone? Among other things, she writes about people walking out of Noé films. His stuff is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I found Irreversible nearly unwatchable, and yet … I stuck it out. Terrified. His stuff is extremely confrontational. Morgan writes:

As my friend, writer Kent Adamson said, “The audience is as significant as Noé… The walkouts are part of the drama, and the lesson in humanity.” Indeed. It’s always more interesting to watch Noé on the big screen, with an audience. I’ve seen all of his pictures in the theater and find the reactions fascinating; multi-layered. I wonder about the walk-outs because they can’t all be for the same reason. As in, people can’t all simply be offended. Something else is going on. When I first saw Irreversible I was frightened I wouldn’t be able to handle the swirling camera and low level police siren spiked soundtrack. Would it induce a panic attack? It was more upsetting to me than the famous moment with Ms. Bellucci and I was clinging to a xanax. And then, I just lost myself in it. And then I wondered if that was healthy. And then I wondered about wondering — what does “healthy” even mean? And on it went. That experience, as with all of his films, was disturbing, enlightening and mysterious. Just more of the many reasons I love Noé… Anxiety can be good. You feel those nerve endings, your blood pumping. You feel alive.

Posted in Directors, Movies | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Library of Congress

As the daughter of a librarian, I had to write a post in tribute. This post is for him.

On this day, in 1800, President John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,900 to purchase the books that would create the Library of Congress. The bill also approved the moving of the capitol from Philadelphia to Washington, and to create a “reference library” with “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein …”

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(This image isn’t from that time; the building itself was constructed at the end of the 1800s and first opened to the public in 1897.)

Books were acquired from all over the world for this reference library.

Thomas Jefferson, during his time as President (1801 to 1809) took a huge interest in the Library (no surprise there: the guy went into massive lifelong debt because of his book-buying addiction, which was actually more like a compulsion. I relate.). His own personal library at Monticello was known as the greatest in the country.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the joint to the ground, causing Dolly Madison (wife of the President) to flee the White House into the night (but not before she had the presence of mind to grab the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, cutting it out of its frame, and taking it with her, so that it would not be destroyed. Smart thinking, Dolly).

In 1814, the British burned the 3,000 volumes that then made up the Library of Congress. (I love the anecdote about Tony Blair’s visit to Washington following 9/11, and he and President Bush were walking through the White House. Blair made some admiring comment about one of the rooms, and Bush joked, “You guys burned this room down.” There was a brief pause, and Blair replied, dryly, “My apologies.”)

When the Library was burned in 1814, Jefferson was no longer President, and was living in retirement at Monticello. Jefferson offered to sell Congress his private library (almost 6,500 books) as a starting point to building up the Library of Congress collection again. The original Library of Congress had a narrow focus: law, economics, and history. With the new books from Jefferson, the national collection had much more breadth and depth: architecture, botany, geography, literature, science. The Jefferson collection sat in a reading room in Congress for most of the 19th century, until 1871 when plans were approved to build a separate building for the Library of Congress. The project was approved by Congress in 1886, and construction began. At the time, it was the largest (and costliest) library building in the world.

This makes me think of my sister Jean’s “monument project” that she does with her students.

It also makes me think of one of my favorite letters that Thomas Jefferson wrote. In 1771, a friend, Robert Skip, asked Jefferson to come up with a catalog of books that every “gentleman” should have in his library. Methinks Mr. Skip may have gotten more than he bargained for in Jefferson’s reply, but thankfully we still have the letter. (One observation: please notice the category under which Jefferson places the Bible.)

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skip with a List of Books, Aug. 3, 1771

I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole. A view of the second column in this catalogue would I suppose extort a smile from the face of gravity. Peace to its wisdom! Let me not awaken it. A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken it is the fault of the writer. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment whether the fictitious murther of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villany, as the real one of Henry IV. by Ravaillac as related by Davila? And whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate his breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example? We neither know nor care whether Lawrence Sterne really went to France, whether he was there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked him unkindly, and then gave him a peace offering: or whether the whole be not fiction. In either case we equally are sorrowful at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the subsequent atonement, and view with emulation a soul candidly acknowleging it’s fault and making a just reparation. Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry. — If you are fond of speculation the books under the head of Criticism will afford you much pleasure. Of Politics and Trade I have given you a few only of the best books, as you would probably chuse to be not unacquainted with those commercial principles which bring wealth into our country, and the constitutional security we have for the enjoiment ofthat wealth. In Law I mention a few systematical books, as a knowledge of the minutiae of that science is not neces-sary for a private gentleman. In Religion, History, Natural philosophy, I have followed the same plan in general, — But whence the necessity of this collection? Come to the new Rowanty, from which you may reach your hand to a library formed on a more extensive plan. Separated from each other but a few paces the possessions of each would be open to the other. A spring centrically situated might be the scene of every evening’s joy. There we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in music, chess or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene. Come then and bring our dear Tibby with you, the first in your affections, and second in mine. Offer prayers for me too at that shrine to which tho’ absent I pray continual devotions. In every scheme of happiness she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the princi-pal figure. Take that away, and it is no picture for me. Bear my affections to Wintipock clothed in the warmest expressions of sincerity; and to yourself be every human felicity.

Adieu.

FINE ARTS.

Observations on gardening. Payne. 5/
Webb’s essay on painting. 12mo 3/
Pope’s Iliad. 18/
——- Odyssey. 15/
Dryden’s Virgil. 12mo. 12/
Milton’s works. 2 v. 8vo. Donaldson. Edinburgh 1762. 10/
Hoole’s Tasso. 12mo. 5/
Ossian with Blair’s criticisms. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Telemachus by Dodsley. 6/
Capell’s Shakespear. 12mo. 30/
Dryden’s plays. 6v. 12mo. 18/
Addison’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Otway’s plays. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Rowe’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Thompson’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Young’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Home’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Mallet’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Mason’s poetical works. 5/
Terence. Eng. 3/
Moliere. Eng. 15/
Farquhar’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Vanbrugh’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Steele’s plays. 3/
Congreve’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Garric’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Foote’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Rousseau’s Eloisa. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
—– Emilius and Sophia. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Marmontel’s moral tales. Eng. 2 v. 12mo. 12/
Gil Blas. by Smollett. 6/
Don Quixot. by Smollett 4 v. 12mo. 12/
David Simple. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Roderic Random. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ these are written by Smollett
Peregrine Pickle. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Launcelot Graves. 6/
Adventures of a guinea. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Pamela. 4 v. 12mo. 12/ these are by Richardson.
Clarissa. 8 v. 12mo. 24/
Grandison. 7 v. 12mo. 9/
Fool of quality. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Feilding’s works. 12 v. 12mo. pound 1.16
Constantia. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ by Langhorne.
Solyman and Almena. 12mo. 3/
Belle assemblee. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Vicar of Wakefeild. 2 v. 12mo. 6/. by Dr. Goldsmith
Sidney Bidulph. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Lady Julia Mandeville. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Almoran and Hamet. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Tristam Shandy. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Sentimental journey. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Fragments of antient poetry. Edinburgh. 2/
Percy’s Runic poems. 3/
Percy’s reliques of antient English poetry. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Percy’s Han Kiou Chouan. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Percy’s Miscellaneous Chinese peices. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Chaucer. 10/
Spencer. 6 v. 12mo. 15/
Waller’s poems. 12mo. 3/
Dodsley’s collection of poems. 6 v. 12mo. 18/
Pearch’s collection of poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Gray’s works. 5/
Ogilvie’s poems. 5/
Prior’s poems. 2 v. 12mo. Foulis. 6/
Gay’s works. 12mo. Foulis. 3/
Shenstone’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Dryden’s works. 4 v. 12mo. Foulis. 12/
Pope’s works. by Warburton. 12mo. pound 1.4
Churchill’s poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Hudibrass. 3/
Swift’s works. 21 v. small 8vo. pound 3.3
Swift’s literary correspondence. 3 v. 9/
Spectator. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Tatler. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Guardian. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Freeholder. 12mo. 3/
Ld. Lyttleton’s Persian letters. 12mo. 3/

CRITICISM ON THE FINE ARTS.

Ld. Kaim’s elements of criticism. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Burke on the sublime and beautiful. 8vo. 5/
Hogarth’s analysis of beauty. 4to. pound 1.1
Reid on the human mind. 8vo. 5/
Smith’s theory of moral sentiments. 8vo. 5/
Johnson’s dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3
Capell’s prolusions. 12mo. 3/

POLITICKS, TRADE.

Montesquieu’s spirit of the laws. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Locke on government. 8vo. 5/
Sidney on government. 4to. 15/
Marmontel’s Belisarius. 12mo. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s political works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Montesquieu’s rise & fall of the Roman governmt. 12mo. 3/
Steuart’s Political oeconomy. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10
Petty’s Political arithmetic. 8vo. 5/

RELIGION.

Locke’s conduct of the mind in search of truth. 12mo. 3/
Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates. by Feilding. 8vo. 5/
Epictetus. by Mrs. Carter. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Antoninus by Collins. 3/
Seneca. by L’Estrange. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Offices. by Guthrie. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Tusculan questions. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s Philosophical works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Hume’s essays. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Ld. Kaim’s Natural religion. 8vo. 6/
Philosophical survey of Nature. 3/
Oeconomy of human life. 2/
Sterne’s sermons. 7 v. 12mo. pound 1.1
Sherlock on death. 8vo. 5/
Sherlock on a future state. 5/

LAW.

Ld. Kaim’s Principles of equity. fol. pound 1.1
Blackstone’s Commentaries. 4 v. 4to. pound 4.4
Cuningham’s Law dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3

HISTORY. ANTIENT.

Bible. 6/
Rollin’s Antient history. Eng. 13 v. 12mo. pound 1.19
Stanyan’s Graecian history. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Livy. (the late translation). 12/
Sallust by Gordon. 12mo. 12/
Tacitus by Gordon. 12mo. 15/
Caesar by Bladen. 8vo. 5/
Josephus. Eng. 1.0
Vertot’s Revolutions of Rome. Eng. 9/
Plutarch’s lives. by Langhorne. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10
Bayle’s Dictionary. 5 v. fol. pound 7.10.
Jeffery’s Historical & Chronological chart. 15/

HISTORY. MODERN.

Robertson’s History of Charles the Vth. 3 v. 4to. pound 3.3
Bossuet’s history of France. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Davila. by Farneworth. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10.
Hume’s history of England. 8 v. 8vo. pound 2.8.
Clarendon’s history of the rebellion. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10.
Robertson’s history of Scotland. 2 v. 8vo. 12/
Keith’s history of Virginia. 4to. 12/
Stith’s history of Virginia. 6/

NATURAL PHILOSOPHY. NATURAL HISTORY &c.

Nature displayed. Eng. 7 v. 12mo.
Franklin on Electricity. 4to. 10/
Macqueer’s elements of Chemistry. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Home’s principles of agriculture. 8vo. 5/
Tull’s horse-hoeing husbandry. 8vo. 5/
Duhamel’s husbandry. 4to. 15/
Millar’s Gardener’s diet. fol. pound 2.10.
Buffon’s natural history. Eng. pound 2.10.
A compendium of Physic & Surgery. Nourse. 12mo. 1765. 3/
Addison’s travels. 12mo. 3/
Anson’s voiage. 8vo. 6/
Thompson’s travels. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Lady M. W. Montague’s letters. 3 v. 12mo. 9/

MISCELLANEOUS.

Ld. Lyttleton’s dialogues of the dead. 8vo. 5/
Fenelon’s dialogues of the dead. Eng. 12mo. 3/
Voltaire’s works. Eng. pound 4.
Locke on Education. 12mo. 3/
Owen’s Dict. of arts & sciences 4 v. 8vo. pound 2.

Here’s my wonderful sister Siobhan singing the song she wrote about my Dad, called “The Books”, from her LP “Let’s Get Ahead of Ourselves, Baby! (available on iTunes).

Posted in Founding Fathers, On This Day | Tagged | 4 Comments

Tribeca Film Festival 2015: Fastball

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Baseball nerds, you won’t want to miss Jonathan Hock’s documentary “Fastball.” And those who don’t follow baseball, it’s clear/insightful enough that you may come to understand why the game is such an obsession for the rest of us.

“Fastball” is playing at Tribeca, but I’m sure it will get a lot of play on ESPN and elsewhere. Look out for it.

My review of Fastball is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | 4 Comments

Interpreting Lady Macbeth: Sarah Siddons vs. Ellen Terry

A re-post, in honor of the Bard, whose birthday is today, allegedly.

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Ellen Terry, 16 years old

Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families tells the story of 19th century theatre-manager Henry Irving, and his lead actress Ellen Terry.

I have read Ellen Terry’s memoir (my review here), and loved it, but once I read Holroyd’s book I realized how much she left out. The effect of her memoir is that of shifting veils: you get the sense that what she ISN’T revealing may be more interesting than what she IS. Ellen Terry herself wrote:

I never felt so strongly as now that language was given to me to conceal rather than to reveal – I have no words at all to say what is in my heart.

When Terry’s memoir came out, Virginia Woolf, a big fan, wrote in her diary about it:

… a bundle of loose leaves upon each of which she has dashed off a sketch … Some very important features are left out. There was a self she did not know.

But the strength of Terry’s memoir lies in the acting portions of it, her memories of rehearsal processes, how she created this or that role, how she thought about acting, why Irving’s Hamlet was so good … The more “shocking” elements of her life (her failed marriage as a teenager to the painter G.F. Watts, who made her famous, and then living in sin with Edward Godwin which put her beyond the pale of respectable society, the two children she had with Godwin, one of whom grew up to be the famous Gordon Craig – and etc.) are left out of her memoir, or she hints at them, but does not divulge.

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Henry Irving, as Shylock

Henry Irving, dedicated somewhat gloomy actor-manager, is someone I knew nothing about, besides what Terry said about him, and besides what people (like Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Shaw) who saw him onstage thought of his performances. There is a tragedy to his personality. Theatre probably saved his life, but there was a lot of wreckage there because of it: a failed marriage, a contentious relationship with his two sons (who despised him and yet who also needed him desperately and used him for his fame), and who knows what was going on in his relationship with Terry.

Holroyd makes the leap that they were lovers, and while there was speculation at the time that that was true (they traveled together, he would visit her house and “sleep over”), the evidence for it is pretty slim. The fact that Ellen Terry, in letters and her memoir, rhapsodizes over his beauty does not necessarily mean that she was in love with him. There is such a thing as artistic appreciation. Actors love one another’s talents. Actors rave about one another’s gifts. They appreciate one another aesthetically. The fact that people were suspicious that Terry and Irving were having an affair is not proof. I don’t think Holroyd proves his case as much as HE seems to think he does.

As with Terry’s memoir, however, Holroyd is great on the acting stuff. He finds, as much as possible, first-person accounts of the performances given at the Lyceum Theatre, Terry’s work, Irving’s work, reports from audience members who saw them in action. These people were 19th-century celebrities. You couldn’t get any more famous than Ellen Terry at her height. Cinema would change that, with its ability to project a person’s image 100s or 1000s of miles away from their locale. One of the things I really liked in Holroyd’s book was how he showed Terry’s growth as an actress. She was a star. She was seen as emblematic of their particular age. This was a good and bad thing. It could limit her. Terry realized her own limits when she played Lady Macbeth (the focus of this essay): Lady Macbeth was a totally different kind of part for her. She could not approach it the way she approached her other roles. Terry was known for her grace and charm and humor, which apparently came naturally to her, and captivated her audiences. Bram Stoker (friend and assistant to Henry Irving at the time) said that Terry “moved through the world of the theatre, like embodied sunshine.”

Terry was not known as a great tragedienne, like Mrs. Sarah Siddons, star of Drury Lane Theatre in the 18th century, whose Lady Macbeth was still being talked about in Terry’s time, even though no one alive could have seen it. Siddons’ Lady Macbeth haunted Terry when she herself set out to play the role. (It’s like any actor who tries to take on Stanley Kowalski. One must deal with the ghost of Brando in order to play that role. Either kill the ghost or accept the ghost, wrestle with the ghost, or lock the ghost in a closet – it doesn’t matter: the ghost must be handled, and acknowledged.) Siddons’ Lady Macbeth hung over the actresses in the 19th century in a similar way.

Here is Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth:

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Interesting to compare and contrast that with Terry as Lady Macbeth:

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If I could play interpreter for a second, although one is a painting and one is a posed still photograph: Siddons’s Lady Macbeth is an iconic vision of tragedy and doom. It is horrifying, in its own way. It looks like it comes from a ghost story, and, of course, Macbeth is a ghost story. Terry’s Lady Macbeth adds a layer of femininity and grace to it, which is horrifying in ITS own way, considering Lady Macbeth’s actions. It’s perverse.

There are contemporary reports from Siddons’s production of Macbeth that audience members literally fainted at Sarah Siddons’ intensity. There is a great backstage anecdote, one I treasure: Sarah Siddons, to get into the mood for the sleepwalking scene (because, remember, Lady Macbeth is barely onstage in that whole play; you have a LOT of downtime when you play Lady M!) she would go out into the alley behind the theatre, in costume, and chop wood. It got her into the proper frenzy so that she could go on and say “out damn’d spot” and have it be believable. Isn’t that marvelous? You do what you have to do. There are some actors who seem to think that good acting was invented in America in the 1950s, that everything that came before was mannered or not “connected” or whatever. Nonsense.

Ellen Terry was known for her warm and loving quality, a quality far more appropriate to comedies. I loved this comment from Terry after her triumphant performance as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (which pre-dates her Lady M):

It is only in comedy that people seem to know what I am driving at!

She understood her own gifts. She was not universally beloved. Henry James had a problem with her acting (but then, that may have been envy speaking, since he was dying to write plays himself, and felt left out of that world). But still, his cranky comments on her give a really nice glimpse of what exactly it was that she was about. He wrote:

[Terry] is greatly the fashion at present, and she belongs to a period which takes a strong interest in aesthetic furniture, archaeological attire, and blue china.

Henry James’ assessment, which is a criticism, is actually the very thing that Oscar Wilde found so enchanting about her (remember the comment that made Wilde notorious at Oxford, before he became famous for his writing: “I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.”) I am sure Henry James was digging at both Terry and Wilde in his comment.

Elizabeth Robins, an American actress at the time, said that Ellen Terry had “the proportions of a goddess and the airy lightness of a child.”

Now perhaps you can see why Terry playing Lady Macbeth might have been a challenge for her, or not an obvious choice on the face of it. Lady M having the “airy lightness of a child”? Really? Terry herself saying that it is “only in comedy” that people seemed to know what she was “driving at”? How will that type of talent handle the demands of Lady Macbeth’s voracious ambition and eventual madness?

Terry could not out-Siddons Siddons, and she knew it so she didn’t even try.

So what would be her “way in”?

As they began rehearsals for Macbeth, Henry Irving wrote Terry an extraordinary note, which illuminates their special artistic relationship:

To-night, if possible, the last act. I want to get these great multitudinous scenes over and then we can attack our scenes … Your sensitiveness is so acute that you must suffer sometimes. You are not like anybody else – see things with such lightning quickness and unerring instinct that dull fools like myself grow irritable and impatient sometimes. I feel confused when I’m thinking of one thing, and disturbed by another. That’s all. But I do feel very sorry afterwards when I don’t seem to heed what I so much value … I think things are going well, considering the time we’ve been at it, but I see so much that is wanting that it seems almost impossible to get through properly. ‘To-night commence, Mattias. If you sleep, you are lost!’

All of this talk about Macbeth reminds me of the second season of Slings & Arrows, the Canadian TV show I have raved about before. Each season shows the New Burbage Theatre Festival rehearsing a different Shakespeare play, and season 2 is Macbeth. They have hired an actor who has played the part three times before, and he is is cocky, arrogant, and assured that he knows more about Macbeth than anyone. He becomes, almost instantly, un-direct-able. He will not stray from his own interpretation, which has worked so well for him in the past. The director (Geoffrey – played by Paul Gross) wants him to go another way, and the clashes they have in rehearsal are fascinating – a great lesson in script analysis, first of all – and secondly, a great lesson in the importance of interpretation.

The thing about Shakespeare’s work that is so exceptional, I would say, is how adaptable it is. How flexible it is. Change the focus of your lens, and hierarchies of new meaning come into focus. Change the focus again, and you still get brilliant clarity, but you perceive new hierarchies. The work is dizzyingly deep in that respect. You can’t take this too far, the plays won’t take everything. For example, productions that try to turn Taming of the Shew into a feminist manifesto or Merchant of Venice into a play condemning ANTI-Semitism have a rough time. The texts provide challenges that cannot be met – that is if you are determined to make them palatable to modern audiences. Good luck trying to turn Shylock into a victim of anti-Semitism whom we boo-hoo over. Shylock is evil. He gets what he deserves. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the play, but Shylock also embodies every vicious stereotype of a Jew in the book. That’s the reality. Taming of the Shrew has a great role for an actress, but it is not an “I am woman, hear me roar” modernist statement of equality, and if you think it is you are projecting your own views onto something that cannot support it.) So it isn’t that there are no limits to the interpretations, it is that the meaning shifts, subtly, depending on your stance, your lens, your focus. Do you want your “version” of Macbeth to be about destabilizing sexuality and the drive to dominate others? Or do you want it to be about the ravages of war? Do you want your Macbeth to be about the dissolution of personality that accompanies absolute power? It’s all there. Focus in on any one of those things and the play will play along with you, so to speak.

In Slings & Arrows, Geoffrey (the director) wants to focus his production on the fallibility of Macbeth, the humanity of him. The scenes between Macbeth and his wife pulse with sexual feeling and very human anxiety. There is talk of nipples and sucking and sex. Geoffrey wants his Macbeth to be a man driven to murder and carnage through an anxiety about his sexual potency with his wife. This is supportable in the text. Lady Macbeth builds her husband up with one hand (so to speak) and emasculates him with the other, basically saying to him, “Are you a man or not??” A potent combination, and lethal in this case. The actor playing Macbeth in Geoffrey’s production had always played the role as a psychopath dictator whose bloodlust and ambition knows no bounds. You could make a great case for either interpretation, but the actor’s job is to fulfill the director’s interpretation, so in Slings & Arrows there is an ongoing clash between actor and director.

In the first scene between Macbeth and his wife, Geoffrey wants to have Lady Macbeth undress her husband and wash the blood of battle off of his naked body. The actor refuses to do it. HIS Macbeth would never allow it.

Interestingly enough, that is just how the scene was played in Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth that I saw at BAM a while back.

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Lady M. did not undress her husband, but she did undulate all over him, kissing him, caressing him, putting her hand between his legs, to relax him, to dominate him. It was made even more disturbing because of the age difference between the two actors (Stewart was, in all honesty, too old for Macbeth), but they made it work: it looked a bit like an older guy whose libido is not what it used to be, trying to keep up with his hot young wife. It made a lot of sense: one of the reasons Macbeth follows through on her commands is not just for his own lust for power, but his own anxiety about losing her and of seeming not like a man to her.

Lady Macbeth says it right out, in her soliloquy after reading his letter to her:

Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

She understands her power over him, calling out to him in her mind:

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

To her, “milk of human kindness” is weak. She’s a tough customer. She’s the real psychopath. After making their plans to kill Duncan comes the psychologically devastating Act I, scene vii, where you can see what she “does” to her husband. It goes back to the PAIR theory of criminal psychology, the phenomenon of folie a deux. Macbeth may not have been so bold if he had acted alone. Also, knowing Shakespeare’s obsession with twins (it shows up in almost every play), I have to believe it is deliberate: the “twinning” of Macbeth and Lady M. The sense that only together would they be able to do what they do. Alone, they are helpless, together they are lethal.

Act I, Scene vii is upsetting reading on multiple levels. Directly before their scene together, Macbeth has his waffling “if it were done, when tis done, then twere well it were done quickly” soliloquy, where you can feel him getting up the guts. A remnant of conscience. Lady M. bursts in on his reverie, interrupting him. The end of the soliloquy ends with a dash, which tells you the kind of symbiosis and interconnection Shakespeare wanted to create here. Lady M won’t even let her husband finish his damn soliloquy properly. She bursts in on his private moment demanding:

Lady M. He has almost supp’d. Why have you
left the chamber?

Macbeth: Hath he ask’d for me?

Lady M: Know you not he has?

Macbeth: We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor’d me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

[Lady M is not gonna like this.]

Lady M: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem.
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

[“You coward.” She certainly knows how to push his buttons – which is supported by Macbeth’s next line:]

Macbeth: Prithee peace!
I dare do all that may become a man
Who dares do more is none.

[He could hold onto his humanity/morality if she would just stop badgering him! “Prithee, peace!” A plea like that is blood to the vampire of Lady M. Now comes one of Lady Macbeth’s most revealing and awful speeches.]

Lady M: What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

[A famous passage. With as many interpretations as there are stars in the sky. Eroticism and violence, nurturing and death, mother and lover, it’s all a swirl of associations, creating a double/triple-bind for Macbeth. Equating her husband with the now-apparently-dead baby is manipulation of the highest order. It also goes along with her famous cry early in the play: “Unsex me here.” She begs the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty.” Now, now, this is interesting. Lady Macbeth needs spiritual HELP to be “unsexed”: Even she can’t do it alone. She also knows that she must be “unsexed” in order to then be filled with “direst cruelty”. The softness associated with her gender must be eliminated. The plea to be “unsexed”, however, is a private moment with herself. Her husband is not let in on that struggle. To him, she shows a passionate unwavering commitment, inhuman (and unwomanly) to the extreme. Heady stuff.]

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady M: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

After her big pumping-up speech about how the murder of Duncan is going to go (“don’t worry, dear, I’ve thought of everything, leave it all to me”), Macbeth explains, in a line that makes me wince for him:

Macbeth: Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

I don’t know if Lady Macbeth can no longer have children, or what the deal is, but that’s an intense line, especially following her “tender” image of nursing a baby followed by violence, dashing the baby’s brains out, as it smiles at her. Theirs is an intense relationship, suffocating in a belljar of mirroring images and symbols.

No wonder why people can have such a bad reaction to this play, almost rejecting it. No wonder why superstitious actors through the centuries refuse to even say the word “Macbeth” and refer to it only as “the Scottish play”. There is something truly eerie about it, a dark door that opens on a bottomless pit.

I guess if Macbeth were “just” a psychopath, a kind of Scottish Idi Amin (the “last King of Scotland” indeed), it might be easier to deal with him or explain him away. This is the struggle that goes down in Slings & Arrows, a struggle that encapsulates the centuries of struggle that has usually gone into doing this particular play “effectively”. It’s one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest. There is no moral. Or, what’s the moral: Don’t let a psychopath ruin your country? Macbeth is nihilistic in a way that Shakespeare’s other tragedies are not, with their piercing moments at the end of mercy, revelation, and awareness of all that is lost (Lear’s “never, never, never, never”, and Hamlet’s “the rest is silence” being primary examples of the characters’ sudden tragic understanding of how they and they alone are responsible.) But with Macbeth, he chops his way to the top, he is haunted by the leering Ghost of Banquo, he loses his marbles, and finally loses his own head, and nobody feels bad about it, because he’s already murdered anyone who would give a shit, and then they have a new King now, and all cry “long live the King of Scotland”.

If you think about it, the play, even with its supernatural element, is quite realistic when it comes to power politics. Often, with such murdering psychopathic leaders, there is no moral. It’s like strolling through the wild and coming across a grizzly bear who chases you and claws your face off. The grizzly bear isn’t operating out of malevolence, he is acting according to his own nature (Timothy Treadwell, who thought bears were cuddly and adorable, missed that memo). The only appropriate response if you are being attacked by a wild animal is to find a way to kill it first. The same is true, sorry to say, with leaders like Pol Pot, or Idi Amin, or Stalin. You can try to turn yourself inside out rationalizing their behavior, and saying “they had some good ideas at first, but it all went wrong”. But sometimes, sorry to say, people are just dangerous power-hungry murderers and they need to be put down. Power cannot be trusted in the hands of just anyone, and history is full of the monsters to prove it. Macbeth is about that. Macbeth knows what power does. Macbeth knows what the possibility of power unleashes in those who want it. And so, once the walls are soaked in blood, everyone can sit around and say, “Phew, we got rid of that sonofabitch”, but at what cost? What does it mean? What do we learn from Macbeth? Think before you answer that too readily. There is a mystery at the heart of that play, or, maybe it’s best to say the play has a heart of darkness that actors/directors have been fascinated by/repelled by/drawn to for centuries. Trying to figure it out is one of the main reason to even put on a play at all.

Ellen Terry was fearful about approaching Lady Macbeth. As I mentioned, in the century before Sarah Siddons made such a deep impact with her Lady Macbeth (William Hazlitt called her “tragedy personified”) that Terry was intimidated by it. Siddons’ well-documented interpretation became “the only way” to play Lady Macbeth.

So where did Ellen Terry start? She went back and researched Sarah Siddons, to try to see where Siddons was coming from. Not to imitate, but to get an inkling of her approach. Ellen Terry was a childlike soul (the word comes up again and again): stagehands tell stories of seeing her, a woman in her 40s, climb up a rope backstage into the wings, and then slide down, laughing hysterically. This was who she was, naturally, so Terry’s question was: How could she translate THAT (that which came naturally to her) into Lady Macbeth? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she had to find a way. And it had to be an intelligent and researched approach. She had to justify her choice. For herself, not for others.

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Holyroyd describes her approach in his book:

‘Lady Macbeth interests me beyond expression,’ Ellen told Stephen Coleridge, ‘– how much I fear will she will be beyond my expression!’ Of what use would her celebrated charm, her gift for pathos, her natural vivacity, be in depicting the ‘fiendlike queen’?…

But what persuaded Irving to put on Macbeth, and gave Ellen guidance as to how she might find a new interpretation of her character, was an article, published on 12 August 1843, in the Westminster Review, which revealed Mrs. Siddons’s private thoughts about the play.

That essay, by Sarah Siddons, entitled “Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth”, is a fascinating detailed analysis of the play and Lady M’s part in it. I have a copy of it in the indispensable book Actors on Acting: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World’s Great Actors, Told in Thir Own Words, Sarah Siddons analyzes not just the character, but the structure of the play itself, and Ellen Terry found in it many revelations.

Siddons starts with:

In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature; in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect and all the charms and graces of personal beauty. You will probably not agree with me as to the character of that beauty; yet, perhaps, this difference of opinion will be entirely attributable to the difficulty of your imagination disengaging itself from that idea of the person of her representative which you have been so long accustomed to contemplate.

I can almost feel Ellen Terry’s jolt of “a-ha, now THIS is something I understand” in response to that passage Ellen Terry was rather vain. Or, to put it more positively: as an actress, she understood that one of the weapons in her arsenal was her beauty. It was an undeniable fact, and it was a gift, and it served her well. She knew her beauty was important. Audiences responded warmly to her because of it. To consider the possibility that she could incorporate her own beauty into her interpretation of Lady Macbeth, to have her beauty highlighted as much as the “psychopath” part of the role was highlighted … must have given Terry a sense of confidence, that yes, she could do this. She could use what she already had. She didn’t need to “unsex” herself. She could be the full blooming sensual woman that she already was, and how interesting, how new and different, to see a Lady Macbeth who was sexual because then the character’s begging to the spirits to “unsex” her would represent that much more of a challenge. How on earth to “unsex” Ellen Terry? It seemed an impossible task – but that was the the tragedy of Lady Macbeth, as seen by Terry.

Siddons goes on in her essay about the character:

According to my notion, it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex, – fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fragile –

Fair as the forms that, wove in Fancy’s loom,
Float in light visions round the poet’s head.

Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honorable as Macbeth, to seduce him to brave all the dangers of the present and all the terrors of a future world …

Comments like these are why I don’t even need to have seen Siddons’s Lady M to know that she was a hell of an actress. Her analysis here is specific, and not only specific but PLAY-able. You cannot play an abstract, you cannot play an idea.

Here is Siddons on the sleepwalking scene:

Behold her now, with wasted form, with wan and haggard countenance, her starry eyes glazed with the ever-burning fever of remorse, and on their lids the shadows of death. Her ever-restless spirit wanders in troubled dreams about her dismal apartment; and whether waking or asleep, the smell of innocent blood incessantly haunts her imagination…

During this appalling scene, which, to my sense, is the most so of them all, the wretched creature, in imagination, acts over again the accumulated horrors of her whole conduct. These dreadful images, accompanied with the agitations they have induced, have obviously accelerated her untimely end; for in a few moments the tidings of her death are brought to her unhappy husband. It is conjectured that she died by her own hand. Too certain it is, that she dies, and makes no sign. I have now to account you for the weakness which I have, a few lines back, ascribed to Macbeth; and I am not quite without hope that the following observations will bear me out in this opinion. Please to observe, that he (I think pusillanimously, when I compare his conduct to her forebearance) has been continually pouring out his miseries to his wife. His heart has therefore been eased, from time to time, by unloading its weight of woe; while she, on the contrary, has perseveringly endured in silence the uttermost anguish of a wounded spirit.

Wow. Yes. The text supports this. “Unsex me here” is a private moment, and her husband never gets wind of that internal struggle. To him, she is dominating, compelling. He is helpless in the face of her conviction. It is his tragic flaw.

Siddons goes on:

Her feminine nature, her delicate structure, it is too evident, are soon overwhelmed by the enormous pressure of her crimes. yet it will be granted, that she gives proofs of a naturally higher toned mind than that of Macbeth. The different physical powers of the two sexes are finely delineated, in the different effects which their mutual crimes produce. Her frailer frame, and keener feelings, have now sunk under the struggle – his robust and less sensitive constitution has not only resisted it, but bears him on to deeper wickedness, and to experience the fatal fecundity of crime.

That twin thing again. The two parts made whole, in a terrifying way. One could not exist without the other.

Ellen Terry read Sarah Siddons’s essay and got fired up. She knew what to DO now in the role. She had found her “way in”.

Here is Holroyd’s description of that process:

What surprised Ellen as she read this essay was the revelation that Sarah Siddons had apparently seen Lady Macbeth as a ‘fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fraile’ woman … This was very different from the virago she had portrayed onstage where Lady Macbeth’s motivations appeared to spring from a hive of evil seething within her that destroyed her initially virtuous husband. In the theatre, Mrs. Siddons’s Macbeth had been the tragedy of power used as a substitute for love – she overwhelmed Macbeth’s intermittent sense of the emptiness behind his ambitions. But on the page Mrs. Siddons had written of Macbeth as a tragedy that evolved from a flaw in human nature.

Why, then, Ellen asked herself, did Mrs Siddons ‘write down one set of ideas upon the subject and carry out a totally different plan’? The answer must have been that she was a prisoner of her own solemn talent, an actress who, in Leigh Hunt’s words, could ‘overpower, astonish, afflict, but … [whose] majestic presence and commanding features seemed to disregard love, as a trifle to which they cannot descend’. Ellen Terry possessed little of the stately genius of Sarah Siddons that had made her Joshua Reynolds’s ‘the Tragic Muse’, but she had in a unique degree that ‘trifle’ of love and the potent web of charm that Sarah Siddons identified as being Lady Macbeth’s essential qualities. Who would not murder for her husband? Ellen could understand such a question and perhaps achieve something that had eluded the legendary Sarah Siddons. Her Lady Macbeth ‘pricks the sides’ of her husband so that he will better attain his wonderful aspiration. She feels a joy in his presence and subdues everything to his dreams. Irving’s acting version, which replaced the original twenty-nine scenes with nineteen, omitted Lady Macduff, leaving Lady Macbeth a more isolated figure like Macbeth himself. The two of them stand alone – and eventually stand apart from each other. Irving’s Macbeth was ‘a poet with his brain and a villain with his heart’ who clothes his crimes in romantic glamour. His wife is deluded by this glamour until she sits ‘wondering and frightened’ as Ellen recorded, realising that Macbeth has ‘no need of his wife now’.

To ask “why” the characters do what they do is not excuse-making. It is essential for theatrical truth. Asking “why” is not akin to “I ate Twinkies as a kid, and that’s why I shot up my school”. This is looking at something that has daunted scholars for centuries (why? why do they do what they do?) and making a stab at understanding. These are not superhuman creatures sprung from the depths of Xenu’s secret galaxy. They are human beings. Human beings sometimes do terrible things and feel no remorse. This is a FACT. Remorse in Macbeth is even more terrifying because it works on a completely subliminal level. Lady Macbeth experiences remorse only when she is sleepwalking and sees blood on her hands. Other than that, she is blind to the implications of what she has done. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at the dinner, and flips out, not knowing what is real and what is imagined. He is too far beyond the pale now to ask questions. He is too “mad” to consider the depths of his own evil, as his own murders come back to haunt him.

How does Ellen Terry then take the revelation from Sarah Siddons’s words and make it her own?

There is such a thing as an actor’s process, and each actor works differently. I love to know, for example, that Mickey Rourke held ice cubes in his hand during the final confrontation with De Niro in Angel Heart. Rourke explains why he did it, but I’m not as interested in why. I can guess why. I just like to know that that is what he thought he had to do to get into that scene. I love to know that Steve McQueen refused to rehearse, and refused (sometimes) to even visit the set before shooting a scene. He didn’t want to know where the chairs were, where the door was, he wanted to keep his impulses completely free, and not inhibit any of it by former knowledge of the set-up. It helped keep things fresh and spontaneous for him. This worked for McQueen, it wouldn’t work for others.

So once Terry figured out that she knew how to play Lady Macbeth, HOW did she go about doing that? Holroyd writes:

Never before had Ellen prepared for a role so comprehensively… Ellen filled two of the copies [of the play] with her copious notes, trawling through the text for illustrations of Lady Macbeth’s feminine nature and its effect on her husband. ‘I must try to do this: 2 years ago I could not even have tried,’ she scribbled next to one of her speeches. In a letter to the playwright Alfred Calmour she wrote: ‘I have been absorbed by Lady Mac… she is most feminine … I mean to try at a true likeness, as it is within my means.’ On the flyleaves of one copy of the play, she described Lady Macbeth as being ‘full of womanliness’ and ‘capable of affection, adding: ‘she loves her husband… and is half the time afraid whilst urging Macbeth not to be afraid as she loves a man. Women love men.’

Terry zoomed in on the emasculating subtext of Lady M’s speeches, how Lady M consciously preys on Macbeth’s nervousness that he is not enough of a man to satisfy her, his cock isn’t big enough, he doesn’t fuck her hard enough, he is lacking in that department. Ellen understood that on almost a cellular level.

[Irving] had cut the text by approximately 20 per cent. ‘The murder of Baquo, I have cut out as the scene is superfluous,’ he informed the designer Keeley Halswelle. But one important cut from the 1875 production he restored: the speech of the wounded sergeant in Act I, scene ii, which tells of Macbeth’s extraordinary valour in vattle – a valour which forms a juxtaposition to his moral cowardice. As Elen observed in one of her annotations to the play, he was ‘a man of great physical courage frightened at a mouse.’ What this helped to define was the nature of Lady Macbeth’s love for him not simply an admiration for his exploits in the field, but a sense of what he lacked and she could make good.

Ellen Terry was in her 40s. She had been acting since she was 5 or 6 years old. She knew who she was, she knew HOW to work, and here she was, almost for the first time in her career, faced with a challenge. Instead of trying to be what she was not (a scheming malicious evil woman), she instead saw Lady Macbeth as an aspect of her own personality, the one she could understand and access: the loving wife of a husband who was not quite good enough for her, and if she just pushed him, he would be as glorious as he deserved to be, and she would then be able to reflect in that glow. Her cajoling/emasculating, then, is all for his own good. It is done out of love, not contempt (and that is the sickest thing about it).

Ellen Terry knew, in her bones, how to play that.

I love the following anecdote about Henry Irving trying to tell the composer of the score what he wanted. Thank you to whomever took note of that moment, because it is a perfect example of what collaboration means, and also how artists tend to understand the unspoken. Kazan talks about how he never had to “tell” Brando anything. He’d start to say something, Brando would nod curtly, having filled in the rest in his head, and would sometimes walk away, to let it percolate, to then just DO it. Irving telling the composer what he wanted, and the composer “getting” it is a beautiful example of this.

Macbeth opened at the end of 1888. The sonorous and supernatural music had been composed by Arthur Sullivan, who took his cue from Irving’s various hummings and gestures. ‘A drum, a drum, Macbeth will come,’ Irving had suggested, adding that a trumpet too might be useful – anything of a stirring sort. Sullivan got the orchestra to play him what he had written. ‘Will that do?’ he asked. Irving insisted that it was ‘very fine’ – but absolutely useless. Sullivan then asked for further hints, and Irving began swaying his body sideways, beating the air and making inchoate vowel sounds. ‘I think I understand,’ Sullivan said and turned back to his score. Presently the orchestra struck up some passages again and Irving cried out: ‘Splendid! Splendid! That’s all I could have wished for.’ Sullivan completed his score in three days, working through the last night.

Henry Irving and his Lyceum Theatre was known for its overwhelming scenery, with horses and trees and running streams onstage, its realism (when they did Faust, for example, Ellen and Henry had traveled to Germany to research the area and get ideas for the scenery – same thing here, Ellen and Henry had gone to Scotland to get ideas) and they went all out for Macbeth.

The sumptuous scenery, lit by flashes of moonlight that appeared to penetrate the thickest of castle walls, represented the awful depths in which Macbeth was shrouded: wide, desolate Scottish heaths, gloomy court interiors, a mysterious withches’ cavern lit by uncanny radiance, and then the vast battlefield over which, to roars off thunder, Irving manoeuvered his army of actors.

He was fond of magnifying the sense of apprehension by ‘leaving the stage in utter darkness,’ the American actor Arnold Daly observed. Sometimes he would light a set with ‘a solitary lamp or dull fire which may be in a room; while he has directed from the prompt place or the flies, a closely focussed calcium … so that you can only see a lot of spectral figures without expression moving about the scene – and one ghostly face shining out of the darkness.’

Arnold Daly wrote down his impressions of the production:

Macbeth was his most somber production – the sets so extensively gloomy that hen an outdoor scene was played in bright daylight there was a shout of relief from the audience.

Where is my time machine. I resent its absence.

Holroyd describes the sense of anticipation growing in the audience to see this particular production. Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were stars. They had toured America. They had brought their productions around England, Ireland. Macbeth was THE ticket of the season.

Speculation and excitement had been rising in the weeks before the opening night and queues outside the theatre began forming at seven o’clock in the morning.

I think of myself, sleeping in the dirt, LITERALLY, in Central Park, to get a ticket to The Seagull, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Klin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden… Londoners in 1888 felt the same way about the Lyceum’s Macbeth.

After the play opened, Terry wrote in her diary:

It (‘Macbeth’) is a most tremendous success, and the last three days’ advance booking has been greater than ever was known, even at the Lyceum. Yes, it is a success, and I am a success, which amazes me, for never did I think I should be let down so easily. Some people hate me in it; some, Henry among them, think it my best part, and the critics differ, and discuss it hotlly, which in itself is my best success of all! Those who don’t like me in it are those who don’t want, and don’t like to read it fresh from Shakespeare, and who hold by the ‘fiend’ reading of the character … One of the best things ever written on the subject, I think, is the essay of J. Comyns Carr. That is as hotly discussed as the new ‘Lady Mac’ – all the best people agreeing with it. Oh, dear! It is an exciting time!

A “new ‘Lady Mac’? Intriguing. It takes courage to “re-interpret” such a well-known character. It doesn’t always succeed. There have been a couple of instances recently where a performance has made an indelible impression, something that helps people to re-think, in general, the WAY a certain part should be played. There was the Doll’s House a couple years back, with Janet McTeer’s Nora, a performance people are still talking about. Scholars can opine and theorize but very often it is the actor who breaks new ground in interpretation.

The reviews of Terry/Irving’s Macbeth were mixed, but it had an impact on audiences that seemed to grow over time (in a similar way to Sarah Siddons’s Lady Macbeth).

Terry, in her memoir, writes of Irving as Macbeth:

When I think of his “Macbeth”, I remember him most distinctly in the last act after the battle when he looked like a great famished wolf, weak with the weakness of a giant exhausted, spent as one whose exertions have been ten times as great as those of commoner men of rougher fiber and coarser strength.

“Of all men else I have avoided thee.”

Once more he suggested, as only he could suggest, the power of Fate. Destiny seemed to hang over him, and he knew that there was no hope, no mercy.

Holroyd writes:

Irving’s ironic, semi-humourous speeches were peculiarly strong and, in recollection, Ellen Terry’s interpretation of her role more memorable than it promised to be – the audience, as if hypnotised by her disordered figure, the haggard face, the straggling hair, had collectively seemed to hold its breath during the sleepwalking scene. It was not tragic acting but a masterpiece of pathos. ‘There is more of pity than of terror in her end,’ Ellen wrote. ‘… She dies of remorse.’

This interpretation is debatable, but that’s the best thing about it. The interpretation is HERS. And she had earned the right to play it that way, through study and contemplation, rehearsal and trial-and-error. She could stand by her choice. There were those who did not like the new interpretation at all. Where was the evil? Where was the schemer they had all come to expect?

It occurs to me that all of this is reminiscent of my feeling when I saw Natasha Richardson (may she rest in peace) play Sally Bowles at the Roundabout production of Cabaret. I described that in full here, in my memorial piece for Richardson. Are certain roles NOT up for interpretation? Or is it just that the person who originally played it made such an impression that we cannot even imagine it done another way? Richardson literally wiped out the indelible impression made by Liza Minelli in Fosse’s film, and that is no small task because Minelli was brilliant. This isn’t to say Richardson’s was better. It was not. It was completely new, and fresh. She re-interpreted it. That’s the kind of thing I am talking about here. Richardson did not convince everyone, but she sure convinced me. She EARNED that. Best live performance I have ever seen.

Holroyd talks about some of the skepticism at the time about the new spin on Macbeth:

But was Macbeth really ‘an Empire builder led astray by listening to bad advice from a parcel of witches who had lured him from his regimental duty’? Henry Labouchere could not resist poking fun at Ellen’s soft-natured damsel who ‘roars as gently as any sucking dove’. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that ‘such a magnificent show as the new Macbeth has never been seen before.’

Ellen wrote a letter to her daughter about some of the controversy surrounding her “interpretation” and concluded:

Meanwhile, I shall not budge an inch in the reading of it, for that I know is right. Oh, it’s fun, but it’s precious hard work for I by no means make her a ‘gentle lovable woman’ as some of ‘em say … She was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend, and did love her husband.

I believe her.

Holroyd writes:

This love [that Lady M had for her husband] was the ingredient Irving had been seeking to give his production its originality. ‘The great fact about Miss Terry’s Lady Macbeth is its sex,’ wrote a critic in the Star. ‘It is redolent, pungent with the odeur de femme. Look how she rushes into her husband’s arms, clinging, kissing, coaxing, and even her taunts, when his resolution begins to wane, are sugared with a loving smile.’

It’s even more sinister, if you think about it in that way. It’s an extremely daring interpretation. At the time, no other actress could have pulled it off but Ellen Terry. She inspired the next generation of actresses to be bold and yet thoughtful in their approaches to these classic roles. A couple of people who saw the performance when they were young credit it, and it alone, with inspiring them to go into the theatre. One young woman, after seeing Terry’s Lady M., decided, almost on the spot, to be an actress (and she did go on to some success in America).

After I wrote a piece about Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, I got a note from my aunt Regina, who was a successful actress in Broadway and regional theatre for many years. She saw Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst when she was young woman and told me that she could not stop crying after seeing it. She was already studying music and theatre at the Boston Conservatory, but she knew then what acting was all about, what good acting really looked like, and that that was what she wanted to do.

Terry’s Lady M had that kind of impact on a younger generation of actresses.

Since this was, after all, 1888, we have no record of the performance, no film, no recording. We have the responses of audience members who wrote down their impressions. We do have a lot of information, we just can’t see it, or feel it, for ourselves.

There is one image that remains, that seems to capture (in oil) the power of what Terry did onstage.

Terry was very very into her costumes. She felt, often, that without a good costume, a costume that flattered her, a costume with the right texture and colors, she couldn’t play the part.

The dress she wore for Lady Macbeth was designed by Alice Comyns-Carr. It was beautifully executed, with a bold and almost pagan design. Everyone talked about the dress. John Singer Sargent had seen the show on opening night, or a preview performance, and wanted to paint her in that dress. He made her the offer. Ellen Terry hesitated in accepting. It was too early in the run to tell. What if it wasn’t a success? She was cautious about having some glorious painting done of her in a role that might end up being a FLOP for her. (This was before she knew that the play would be a smash hit – it ended up running for 150 performances to sold-out houses the entire time). Once Terry realized that she was in a hit, not a flop, and that her performance was the draw of the year, she accepted Sargent’s offer.

The dress is described thus, by Alice Comyns-Carr in her memoir:

[Mrs. Nettleship] bought the fine yarn for me in Bohemia – a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel … When the straight thirteenth-century dress with sweeping-sleeves was finished it hung beautifully, but we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with the real green beetle-wings, and a narrowborder in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffons were embroidered with flame-colored tinsel … [and] two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.

To get her portrait painted by Sargent, Ellen would put on that magnificent dress at her house and travel by carriage to Sargent’s house. Oscar Wilde, who adored her as an actress, idolized her, and wrote two sonnets for her, saw her rattle by in her carriage once, dressed in her Lady M dress on her way to Sargent’s. Wilde wrote:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.

Sargent went back and forth about how he wanted to portray Terry in the dress, and finally decided to isolate her, have her body block out the background entirely.

His portrait is the 19th-century equivalent of a Rolling Stone cover, photographed by Herb Ritts or Annie Liebowitz. It is a star-making portrait. It caused a huge controversy among Victorian art critics who found it distasteful. The Saturday Review called it ‘the best hated picture of the year’.

Looking at the portrait over the abyss of time, across a century-plus, I think it captures some of what Ellen Terry was going for in her interpretation of that part, and how vibrantly she succeeded in it.

Yes, the pose is exquisite, yes, the colors play up the disturbing quality of it all … but for me, it’s the look that Sargent was able to capture in her eyes.

Puts an ice-cube right down my spine, I can tell you that.

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