Sneak Peek: A Short Clip From My Video-Essay About Gena Rowlands

Love Streams is out now via Criterion.

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“That’s all I’m interested in – love.” – John Cassavetes

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“I guess every picture we’ve ever done has been, in a way, to try to find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film. And so, that’s why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all the stuff in that war, in that word-polemic and film-polemic of what life is. And the rest of the stuff doesn’t really interest me. It may interest other people, but I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need. ”
– John Cassavetes

The DVD of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams is finally available for purchase, either from the Criterion site, or on Amazon, or take your pick.

My video-essay, “Watching Gena Rowlands,” is included in the special features. My friends had me over for dinner on Friday night so we could have a ceremonial viewing of it. It was great, a celebratory moment, both for the fact that this nearly-lost film, never out on DVD until now, is available to the public finally, but also for my inclusion in the Criterion release. I have good friends and I am grateful for them.

Scott Tobias, over at The Dissolve, has a very nice piece up about the Love Streams release. A commenter left the above quote from Cassavetes in the comments section over there, and it’s a beautiful quote, one that pretty much encapsulates Cassavetes’ obsessions and views on life.

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Eminem and Rihanna: The Monster Tour

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Eminem is practically a recluse. He rarely does press. His latest album is a brilliant re-visiting of the territory he scorched in The Marshall Mathers LP, with new more adult and, in many ways, more pained examinations. There is also a macho re-assertion of power, the most obvious example being the dazzlingly fast “Rap God.” He’s in his 40s now. His daughter just graduated from high school. He guests on other people’s albums. He produces other people’s albums. He has a movie in the works (but that’s been the truth for a while). He’s had a tough bunch of years. He beat his addiction to prescription pills. His best friend was killed. He completely retreated from public life for almost that whole entire time. He gained 100 pounds. He then lost 100 pounds and got lean again, lean and muscled like a pit bull. He doesn’t tour a lot. That’s why when I heard that he and Rihanna were doing a small tour of the United States (only a couple of cities, a couple of dates), I thought: “Who the hell knows with this guy. We should probably go see him now.” I’ve been a fan from the beginning. I’m not a big concert-goer, but this one I felt I couldn’t miss. The O’Malley family are Eminem fanatics, and so my sister Jean drove down and we went together, missing our other two siblings the entire time. They were with us in spirit!

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The stadium

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My sister Jean, ahead of me, on our way to the stadium

Eminem has done four songs with Rihanna, a couple on his albums and a couple on hers. It’s an odd pairing but makes a lot of sense when you hear the songs. I like it when he has women singing with him (the first example being “Stan,” with Dido crooning in the background). It’s not that they soften him. It’s that their softness highlights his rage, and counter-acts it, bringing other things to the surface in him. The hurt little kid. The rage-boy. The guy who has only loved once and will never get over it. The pissed-off one-woman man. And she? She brings with her the darkness of her tabloid life, her seeming imperturbability about violence (explicitly referenced in her duet with Eminem “Love the Way You Lie”, which put him at #1 again), and her blasé public demeanor. She’s part Zen goddess part rebellious dead-eyed teenager. Her interviews are agonizing because she only has about 20 words in her vocabulary. But there is something in the pairing with Eminem that satisfies. And of course, he’s no dummy. Touring with her, where she is not just a guest-spot but shares the bill, brings in the RiRi fans, which he needs. It’s an act of generosity but it’s also smart.

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It was a small intimate show.

Because she shared the bill with him, the show was kind of uneven. (The NY Times review of the show is pretty good, although I completely disagree that MM has “failed to innovate” recently. What? But there’s some really good analysis and observation there besides that.) I was there for Eminem only. You could feel the energy in MetLife Stadium pendulum wildly throughout the night, with the screams reaching Mania Psychotic Level when Eminem came on, a surge in electricity and force, where sound has feel, where it just borders violence. People cheered for Rihanna, of course, and if Eminem hadn’t been there you would have thought they were loud excited cheers. But it felt like everyone was just lying in wait, through Rihanna’s numbers, waiting for him. She’s a star. But she’s not a star like him and you could feel it in the quality and intensity of those cheers.

The show’s set-list was well-organized, despite all that. Rihanna did all her stuff in one go – as opposed to mixing it up with Eminem’s stuff, and that was a smart choice. It’s not that I suffered through her set – I find her kind of captivating, truth be told. During one of her ballads, the entire stadium held up their little flashlight apps on their phone, the modern-day version of holding up a lighter. It was so cool.

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But I was definitely waiting for him to come back. And when he did, he stayed back, roaring through a set of his greatest hits, all Eminem, all Marshall, a non-stop assault for an hour. So it was well-designed, I thought – give the Rihanna fans some uninterrupted time, and then get her out of the way for Marshall. I was happy with it, at any rate.

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He did “Criminal,” which I was thrilled about. He did old stuff. “My Name Is.” “The Way I Am.” He did new stuff too. “Rap God,” which was even more breath-taking in person. He did “Sing For the Moment.” He did “Stan,” with Rihanna taking the Dido part. He did “Crack a Bottle.” He did “I’m Not Afraid”, dedicating it to anyone who has struggled with addiction, and to anyone who has an addicted person in their lives. Hearing 75,000 people sing along, arms in the air, was a profound experience.

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He gave us a TON of himself, with no Rihanna in sight, and the energy righted itself. He finished off with “Lose Yourself,” which blew the roof off, and then she came on, and they did “Monster” to close out the show, before walking offstage together.

I had multiple moments where I looked around me at that crowd, the crowd above me, the crowd below, and all I thought was, “Fame, man. Fame.” It’s overwhelming.

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Like … what?

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Excuse me?

It would be like being Neil Armstrong or any of the handful (literally) of men who have stood on the surface of the moon. Who do those astronauts commiserate with? No one but each other. They have had a singular experience shared by an elite group. What does it FEEL like to stand on that huge stage and look out at that? He said at one point, “This stage is HUGE, Jersey!” He ran up and down the stage, making sure to include everyone. He raised his arms to those in the highest tiers. There were gigantic screens where we could see him in closeup but I forced myself to also look at that small figure down there, to see him in his corporeality, that he really was down there, he wasn’t just coming to me via video feed. Jean said later, “I couldn’t believe he was right there.

He is incredible live, and that was the revelation for me. He was not holed up in himself, he was not relying on pyrotechnics (although there were many). He performed. He acted the SHIT out of all of his songs. He held the mike out to the audience to hear us call back to him in unison. He was drenched in sweat. He made sense of those dizzying layered tiers of lyrics, you could see the gestures, the sense in those gestures, regardless of how fast the song was. He did a couple of his dance anthems, like “Without Me,” where you could barely hear him because we all were singing along. Every single word. That sound. What must that feel like? To hear what you wrote one night on a loose-leaf pad come back at you amplified 75,000-fold?

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As strange as this may sound, I have always thought of Eminem as an introvert. He created alter egos who could express his psychotic fantasies for him. Slim Shady. Eminem. These were the doppelgängers who allowed him to get on those stages and do the things he wanted to do, express the things he wanted to express. But he’s always struck me as an almost nerdy obsessive introvert, huddled over a dictionary, or video games, or movies, lost in his own private world. So the revelation was how extroverted, how OUT he was as a performer. He reached out to us. He owned that stage, but there was a feedback loop going on, our noise pushing him on. It was total Rock Star time. He’s so fantastic on his albums, diverse, technically brilliant, hilarious, committed, and it was awesome to see how that feeling translates to his live persona. He doesn’t “hide” in the studio. There it was: the feelings in those songs, the way those songs speak to the largest possible groups of people … coming OUT of him. No shyness. No hiding behind “fuck you, I don’t care”, although he did flip the audience off multiple times. That was more of a bratty “You and me, we’re in this shit-show together” thing though. He did not have contempt for us, he did not hide from us. He gave us the goods. He’s a showman.

The Monster Tour only has a couple more dates. Jean and I were so happy we got a chance to see him live. We would look at each other, during this or that number, with awe-struck expressions, shared moments of wordless love and excitement. The whole night was like that. When he first appeared, strapped to a table rising up out of the stage (really, Marshall?) … the sound of that crowd practically lifted the stadium up off of its foundation. Jean and I kept clutching at each other and saying articulate things like, “Oh my GOD.”

Thank you, Eminem. I’m glad you stuck around. People love you out here. That love was palpable last night.

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Happy Birthday, Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O’Hara was one of those “old” movie stars whom I grew up knowing about because of the yearly showing of Miracle on 34th Street on television, as well as my absolute obsession with Parent Trap. I wanted to be in that movie, I wanted to live it, I wanted to go to that camp, I wanted a British accent, and I wanted to wear little yellow sunsuits like Hayley Mills did. Maureen O’Hara, with her flaming red hair and slamming body (so soft and voluptuous in the early 50s, in Parent Trap transformed into a veritable zigzag of curves accentuated by bullet bras that would put your eye out), was so much fun in that movie, and I, as a little kid watching it on TV, thought: “Oh, it is so OBVIOUS that she still loves her husband!!” I liked her temper tantrums, her self-righteous attitude because it was clear that underneath it she was as soft and vulnerable as a child.

This inner conflict was, unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the major elements of O’Hara’s appeal (well, that and the red hair, green eyes, and slamming body): the temper-y untameable hothead … but what all of that was hiding was a soft womanly heart. If you could tap into it, and access it, you’d be the luckiest man alive. Killer combo.

The other reason she was familiar to me was because of, of course, The Quiet Man. Beloved by many, but beloved in particular by Irish Americans, The Quiet Man represents a fantasy, on many levels, of what the “auld country” must be like, the things Irish immigrants looked back on and yearned for, realistic or no. To quote Eamonn, a guy I met one crazy night in Dublin, “Americans come to Ireland and expect all the women to be like Maureen O’Hara throwin’ pots and pans at them.” When I saw E.T. as a kid, I felt like the smartest person in the world because I recognized that clip of the kiss in the wind from Quiet Man: that wasn’t just some old movie, it was a movie I knew by heart! I loved one of my father’s comments about Quiet Man, and he said this, oh, 20 years ago, and I remember the jist of it perfectly. Here is a paraphrase of it: “The Quiet Man has one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, and when I first saw it I really thought it was about 20 minutes long. But every time I see it, it feels like the fight scene gets shorter and shorter. But I still remember the first time I saw it and I couldn’t believe how long that fight scene was!”

In the years to come, I would watch many more of Maureen O’Hara’s pictures – filling in all of the many blanks (she made 5 films with John Ford, and a bunch with John Wayne; she has said, “[Wayne] was my best friend for 40 years.”), and had her struggles with Hollywood, like most successful actresses did. She felt she was not considered for really dramatic parts, and that they were trying to pigeonhole her. Of course that was true and her role in The Quiet Man is the ultimate pigeonhole: fiery untamed Irish lassie, but she found a way to work the system, and be okay with it. She really was a “fiery” woman. I love the stories about her battles with John Ford who, obviously, felt very strongly about his own Irish-ness.

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O’Hara would sashay onto the set, and they’d basically do “Irish schtick” together, for the crew, and it was Ford’s way of asserting, “I’M IRISH, I’M IRISH, LOOK HOW IRISH I AM, I CAN GO TOE TO TOE WITH MAUREEN” – and O’Hara knew that that was what he was doing, and that was what was expected of her – but at the same time, when he pissed her off she would let him have it. A fascinating relationship.

She was one of those people who fought to hold her ground, who had protracted contractual battles with the studios. She wasn’t a cringing violet who felt lucky to just be working. For example, when she signed on to do Parent Trap, it was in her contract that she would have top billing. She was the leading lady of the picture and a huge star. When she eventually saw the poster, it said:

WALT DISNEY presents
Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills
in
THE PARENT TRAP
Starring MAUREEN O’HARA and BRIAN KEITH

O’Hara went ballistic. She knew that Walt Disney had decided to ignore her contract and promote Hayley in the double role (basically calling attention to the revolutionary split-screen filming that they had done to make the young actress appear to be twins). O’Hara complained and it started moving up the chain of command: ‘take it to this person’, ‘take it to SAG’. To actually take on Disney was not (then or now) a pleasing prospect. Is this the hill you want to die on? Notably, O’Hara never worked for Disney again. Which is a shame, because I think she was the perfect Disney leading lady. But that was who she was. That ad campaign for Parent Trap put Disney in breach of Maureen’s contract, but they obviously knew that they held all the cards and whatever fight she wanted, she would not win.

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Her autobiography ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir is full of great anecdotes like that. She was a canny businesswoman, protective of herself and her interests, and eager to show all that she could do, even if Hollywood wanted to pin her down.

Maureen O’Hara was born into an eccentric arts-loving family who lived in Ranelagh, a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. Her mother also was a crazy redhead, and O’Hara grew up surrounded by jokes, laughter, talk. She remembers it all as warm, beautiful, and joyous, a great beginning for life. Her parents were into opera, football, and fashion (her mother was, apparently, a clotheshorse, and brought the young Maureen shopping with her). Her mother was also an actress and a singer. Maureen knew quite early that acting was what she wanted to do and she got some jobs on the radio, and what amounts to summer stock. She was only 13, 14 years old at the time, but finally, she got serious enough to begin studying for real. At 14, she auditioned for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was accepted. It was there that she really began to learn how to be an actress. Things were on fast-forward for her, which I suppose is part of being that extraordinarily beautiful. Everything seemed to proceed in a logical fashion. Of course she would be approrached to do a screen test. Of course she would resist at first because what she really wanted was to be a great stage actress? Then of course she would come to her senses and go to London for the screen test. And of course Charles Laughton would see the screentest and be struck dumb by her eyes, he was so struck by her that he put her under his own personal contract. And the rest is history.

Maureen O’Hara was one of the most successful stage actresses in Ireland by the time she was 15 years old, and when she went to Hollywood, under the wing of Charles Laughton, started off playing leads. Pretty incredible. No working her way up the ladder. Her book details that journey in humorous prose. You really like her. She seems very personable, with a temper you admire, and a seriousness about the work that is undeniable. Her desire to be a good actress is supreme.

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She was an actress MADE for the invention of Technicolor. She’s a gorgeous woman, even in black and white but what sets her apart from other gorgeous women is her coloring. Ford used it to great advantage in that first glimpse we get of her in Quiet Man, which depends on the colors. There are the green fields and the bright flowers, and Maureen, in her vivid dress with her vivid hair, seems to be a part of the landscape. No wonder she stops John Wayne in his tracks.

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Maureen O’Hara retired from acting in the 70s and in many way her post-acting career has almost been more interesting. She married a pilot – Charles Blair- who was killed in a plane crash in 1978. He had a long history with Pan Am, and in his wake, she managed his company, Antilles Airboats, traveling the world, promoting the excitement and possibilities of aviation. She eventually became President and CEO of the company (the first female CEO of an airline) and lives, to this day, down in the Virgin Islands. She is one of those go-to gals for aviation fanatics around the world, because of the history she has seen in that industry. She supports and promotes aviation museums, the restoration of air boats and other classic aircraft, and the keeping of that history. She donated her husband’s Sikorsky VS-44A plane (nicknamed “Queen of the Skies”) to the New England Air Museum and a pilot friend of mine who is a freak about all things aviation gave me a postcard of the plane which is on my bulletin board. A Spruce Goose!

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She’s done a couple of films in the 90s, coming out of retirement, and she is a very old woman now. She maintains her connections with all the different worlds she inhabited – Irish, filmmaking, aviation … an interesting woman.

Oh, and let’s not forget the groundbreaking political moment when O’Hara became an American citizen (while maintaining her Irish citizenship) in 1946 and she put up a stink about being referred to as a “British subject”.

There must have been a thousand questions on their standard questionnaire. After I completed it, I went and took the exam. I must have passed because I was then sent before a woman, ann officer of the court, who instructed me to raise my right hand and forswear my allegiance to Great Britian. FULL STOP!

Forswear my allegiance to Britain? I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told her, “Miss, I’m very sorry, but I cannot forswear an allegiance that I do not have. I am Irish and my allegiance is to Ireland.” She looked at me with consternation for a moment and then said, “Well, then you better read these papers.” She handed me back the stack of papers I had filled out before my exam. I perused them and was stunned to see that on every page where I had written “Irish” as my former nationality, they had crossed it out with a pen and written “English”.

I told the woman, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t accept this. It’s impossible for me to do. I am Irish. I was born in Ireland and will only do this if I am referred to as an Irish citizen.” She seemed perturbed that I would break the routine of the allegiance ceremony, and said, “I can’t do that. You’ll have to go to court to obtain the order for me to do it.”

“Fine,” I said. “When shall I go back to court?” I didn’t have to come back. I did it right then and was taken straight to the courtroom. No attorneys were allowed in the courtroom with me, only my two witnesses. I stood in front of the judge, whose name I can’t remember, and listened as the clerk explained why I was there before the court. Then I told the judge, “I am Irish. I will not forswear allegiance to Great Britain because I owe no allegiance to Great Britain. I was born in Dublin, Ireland.”

The judge and I then went into a very long discussion of all of Irish history. He challenged my assertions. We kept going over it and over it, back and forth, but I wouldn’t give an inch. I couldn’t. Finally he said, “We’re going to have to find out what Washington thinks.” He instructed the clerk, “Check Washington and see what they consider a person like Miss O’Hara.” The clerk left the courtroom and returned shortly after that. He told the judge, “Washington says she is a British subject.” I was furious and told the judge, “I am not responsible for your antiquated records in Washington, D.C.” He promptly ruled against me.

I had no choice but to thank him and tell the court, “Under those circumstances, I cannot accept nor do I want to become an American citizen.” I turned to walk out of that courtroom, but having the kind of personality that I do, thought I couldn’t give up without taking one last crack at him. I was halfway out of the courtroom when I turned back to him and said, “Your Honor, have you thought for one moment about what you are trying to force upon and take away from my child and my unborn children and my unborn grandchildren?” He sat back and listened intently as I went on, “You are trying to take away from them their right to boast and brag about their wonderful and famous Irish mother and grandmother. I just can’t accept that.”

He’d had enough. The judge threw his hands up and explained, “Get this woman out of here! Give her anything on her papers that she wants, but get her out of here!” The clerk moved in my direction and I simply said, “Thank you, Your Honor.”

I didn’t know at that time that my certificate of naturalization had already been created, and that they had listed my former nationality as English. Sometime between that date and the date when I was called to be sworn in as an American citizen, they changed my certificate in accordance with the order of the court. Where my former nationality was printed, they had erased “English” and typed over it “Irish”. On the back of this document it states that “the erasure made on this certificate as to Former Nationality ‘Irish’ was made before issuance, to conform to petition. Name changed by order of the court.” It is signed by the U.S. District Court.

This was the first time in the history of the United States of America that the American government recognized an Irish person as being Irish. It was one hell of a victory for me because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.

A scandal arose in the wake of this when incorrect reports came out that she had challenged the court during the ceremony in which the oath of allegiance was taken. Judges across the land wrote terrible things about Miss O’Hara, and the federal judge who had presided over that particular allegiance ceremony said that Miss O’Hara was a liar, and that the incident never happened.

He was correct that the event did not happen in his courtroom, but very wrong that it didn’t happen at all.

The implications of the decision to list Maureen O’Hara as “Irish” were widespread and crossed the Atlantic. O’Hara writes:

Apparently, the Irish government was unaware that its citizens were being classified as subjects of Great Britain. On January 29, Prime Minister Eamon De Valera issued the following statement:

We are today an independent republic. We acknowledge no sovereignty except that of our own people. A fact that our attitude during the recent war should have amply demonstrated. Miss O’Hara was right when she asserted she owed no allegiance to Britain and therefore had none which she could renounce.

The prime minister then dispatched his envoys to Washington, D.C., where the Republic of Ireland formally requested that this policy be changed. The policy was changed, and my stand had paved the way for every Irish immigrant to the United States, including my own brothers and sisters, to be legally recognized as Irish from that day forward.

Her autobiography came out in 2004, which is exciting because what a long life she has lived! You can hear her voice in the prose. There are times when it seems she is leaning towards you, the reader, to whisper a secret.

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Speaking of whispered secrets:

Below is an excerpt from her book having to do with The Quiet Man. I don’t mean to only mention a couple of her films in this, a tribute post to her, there are so many other parts to talk about. But The Quiet Man (and also Parent Trap) is wrapped up in my experience of childhood, so that is what I gravitate towards writing about. As gorgeous as Maureen O’Hara was, I somehow got the feeling that she was “like us”. Her last name even started like MY last name, and when you are 8 years old, these things make a big impression.

In the excerpt below, watch her smarts as an actress. Not just smart about acting, but smart about script analysis: how she knew what the most important scene in the picture was, and if she nailed THAT, the rest of the picture would flow. That’s important, an important mark of a good actress: to not just be worried about her closeups, and her crying scenes, but about the STORY being told. Watch how she goes back to the source material, to look for clues on how to play that scene.

I also love her version of the famous “whisper” at the end of Quiet Man – what did she whisper? (I wrote about that moment here). In the last shot, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara stand together, waving out at the road, laughing, beautiful and she leans over and whispers something to him. Watch Wayne’s reaction. The whisper obviously gets a rise (I would venture to say literally) out of Wayne because in response he chases her back to the house, and, presumably, to bed at the end of the picture.

EXCERPT FROM ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O’Hara (with John Nicoletti)

The single day that it did rain was just when Mr. Ford needed it. Right after the scene where Duke and I kiss in the windy cottage and I hit him, there is the sequence in which I run from the cottage, cross a stream, and then fall as the rain and wind storm about me. That was real rain in the scene. The rest of the rain in the picture came from rain machines. The wind actually blew me down in that scene, but I kept going because Mr. Ford always made it clear to his actors that “You do not stop acting no matter what happens in a scene until I say cut. I am the director.”

I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her. She was a terrific dame, tough, and didn’t let herself get walked on. As I readied to begin playing her, I believed that my most important scene in the picture, the one that I had to get just right, was when Mary Kate is in the field herding the sheep and Sean Thornton sees her for the very first time. There is no dialogue between them. It’s a moment captured in time, and it’s love at first sight. I felt very strongly that if the audience believed it was love at first sight, then we would have lightning in a bottle. But if they didn’t, we would have just another lovely romantic comedy on our hands. It had to be perfect, and the script provided me with a little inspiration, but not enough. Sean’s line to Michaeleen – “Hey, is that real? She couldn’t be” – didn’t quite give me what I needed. I found a passage in Walsh’s story that hit the mark, and I used it as motivation for how I would play the scene:

And there leaning on a wall was the woman. No ghost woman. Flesh and blood or I have no eyes to see. The sun shining o nher red hair and her scarf green as grass on her shoulders. She was not looking at me. She was looking over my head on the far side of the pool. I only saw her over my shoulder but she was fit to sit with the Mona Lisa amongst the rocks. More beautiful by fire and no less wicked. A woman I never saw before, yet a woman strangely familiar.

The scene comes off so beautifully. Mr. Ford brilliantly kept the camera stationary and had me walk slowly down and out of the frame instead of following me as I walked away. It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie, and, if you have never noticed it before, it’s worth watching the movie again just to see it.

Of course, the scene that everyone always asks me about is the scene with Duke and me in the cemetery. Most of the Quiet Maniacs, those who keep the film in its cult-classic status, tell me that this is their favorite scene. It’s the sequence on the bicycle when Sean and Mary Kate escape Michaeleen’s watchful eye. We run into the cemetery and it begins to rain. As thunder chases me under the arch, Duke takes his coat off and wraps it around me to keep me dry and warm. The rain drenches us and his white shirt clings to his body and becomes translucent. In that moment, we are truly together in each other’s arms, and we kiss. It is sensual, passionate, and more than any other scene we ever did together displays the on-screen eroticism of the Wayne and O’Hara combination.

There were two parts to that scene. The first part we had to get in one take or Mr. Ford would have strung us up by our toes. It’s everything that happens right up to the embrace and kiss. We had to get it in one take because our clothes were sopping wet when we finished. If we missed it, then our costumes would have to be cleaned, dried, and ironed. Our hair would have to be washed, dried, and reset. Makeup would have to be reapplied. These things take hours and hours and cost thousands and thousands of dollars for each take. We got it in one.

Once we were drenched and part one was in the can, we could focus on the kiss. But Mr. Ford rarely allowed more than a couple of takes, and I think we got that one in two. Why is the scene so erotic? Why were Duke and I so electric in our love scenes together? I was the only leading lady big enough and tough enough for John Wayne. Duke’s presence was so strong that when audiences saw him finally meet a woman of equal hell and fire, it was exciting and thrilling. Other actresses looked as though they would cower and break if Duke raised a hand or even hollered. Not me. I always gave as good as I got, and it was believable. So during those moments of tenderness, when the lovemaking was about to begin, audiences saw for a half second that he had finally tamed me – but only for that half second.

Mr. Ford did not make Duke perform the kiss over and over, as I’ve read. The suggestion has been that Mr. Ford was living, through Duke, the experience of kissing me. Not in this scene, although I do believe John Ford longed to be every hero he ever brought to the screen. He would have loved to live every role John Wayne ever played. He would have loved to be Sean Thornton. His vivid stories – of riding with Pancho Villa or his longing to be a great naval hero or an Irish rebel – were all fantasies of being men John Ford could never be in life, yet desperately wanted and needed to be. He was a real-life Walter Mitty, years before Thurber gave Mitty literary life.

Visually, there are so many magnificent sequences in the film, like the windy kiss in White O’Morn when Mary Kate is caught cleaning the cottage. That scene was shot in Hollywood, and Mr. Ford used two large wind machines to blow our clothes and my hair for the effect. These were two large airplane propellers on a stand that Mr. Ford controlled by sending hand signals to an operator. Once again, it was a scene tailor-made for Duke and me. He pulls me away from the door and kisses me as I struggle to break free. He tames me for that half second, and I kiss him back, but then follow up with a hard blow across the face for the offense.

Now let me tell you what really happened with that slap. That day on the set, I was mad as hell at Duke and Mr. Ford for something they had done earlier in the day. My plan was to sock Duke in the jaw and rally let him have it. But Duke was no fool, and he saw it coming, he saw it in my face. So he put his hand up to shield his chin, and my hand hit the top of his fingers and snapped back. My plan backfired and my hand hurt like hell. I knew I had really hurt it and tried to hide it in the red petticoat I was wearing. Duke came over and said, “Let me see that hand. You nearly broke my jaw.” He lifted it out of hiding; each one of my fingers had blown up like a sausage. I was taken off the set and sent to the local hospital where it was X-rayed. I had a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my wrist, but in the end got no sympathy. I was taken back to the set and put to work.

While one is working on a motion picture, it’s natural to get mad at the others from time to time. I almost found myself in John Ford’s barrel while we were shooting the Innisfree horse-race sequence down on the beach. The scene again required the use of wind machines during one of my close-ups. But instead of the wind machine blowing my hair away from my face, Mr. Ford put the machine behind me and blew my hair forward. Well, at that time I had hair like wire. It snapped and snapped against my face. The wind was blowing my hair forward and the hair was lashing my eyeballs. It hurt, and I kept blinking. Mr. Ford started yelling at me and insulting me under his breath: “Keep your goddamn eyes open. Why can’t you get it right?”

He kept yelling at me and I was getting madder and madder. I finally blew my lid. I put my two hands down the side of the cart and yelled, “What would a baldheaded old son of a bitch like you know about hair lashing across your eyeballs?”

The words had no sooner left my mouth than I was nearly knocked off my feet by the sound of a collective gasp on the set. No one spoke to John Ford that way. There was absolute silence. No one dared move, speak, or even breathe. I don’t know why I did it. He made me mad and I just blew my stack. Immediately, I thought, Oh my God. Why didn’t I keep my bloody mouth shut? He’s going to throw me off the picture. After years of waiting to make The Quiet Man, I was sure I was about to be tossed off the set. I waited for the explosion. I waited without moving a muscle and watched as Mr. Ford cased the entire set with his eyes. He looked at every person – every actor, every crew member, every stuntman – and he did it fast as lightning. I could see the wheels in his head turning. The old man was deciding whether he was going to kill me or laugh and let me off the hook. I didn’t know which way it would go until the very moment that he broke into laughter. Everyone on the set collapsed with relief and finally exhaled. They followed Mr. Ford’s lead and laughed for ten minutes – out of sheer relief that I was safe. Then we went on and shot the scene.

But in the end the old man got the last laugh. He and Duke agreed to play a joke on me. To do it, they chose the sequence where Duke drags me across town and through the fields. I bet you didn’t know that sheep dung has the worst odor you have ever smelled in your life. Well, it does. Mr. Ford and Duke kicked all of the sheep dung they could find onto the hill where I was to be dragged, facedown, on my stomach. Of course, I saw them doing it, and so when they kicked the dung onto the field, Faye, Jimmy, and I kicked it right back off. They’d kick it in, and we’d kick it out. It went on and on, and finally, right before the scene was shot, they won, getting in the last kick. There was no way to kick it out. The camera began to roll and Duke had the time of his life dragging me through it. It was bloody awful. After the scene was over, Mr. Ford had given instructions that I was not to be brought a bucket of water or a towel. He made me keep it on for the rest of the day. I was mad as hell, but I had to laugh too. Isn’t showbiz glamorous?

And the sequence itself is perfect for Duke and me. I fight him the entire way, but he won’t have it. I swing at him, so he kicks me in the rear. In the end, he tosses me at the feet of Red Will and wins my dowry, and I concede. But the audience knows that he only thinks he has tamed me for good.

One thing I have always loved about John Ford pictures is that they are full of music. Whether it’s the Sons of the Pioneers or the Welsh Singers, you know that eventually someone is going to sing in the movie. I was thrilled on The Quiet Man because it was finally my turn. I sang “Young May Moon” in the scene with Barry Fitzgerald, and, of course, “The Isle of Innisfree”. I first heard that melody when played by Victor Young at John Ford’s home in 1950, and I thought it was beautiful. When we returned from Ireland, John Ford, Charlie Fitz, and I wrote the words that I sang in the movie.

We finished filming in Ireland in early July, and returned to Hollywood to complete the interiors. Half the picture was shot there. Naturally, some of the “Irish Players” had to come back with us, and I was blessed that Charlie and JImmy were among them. I now had my two brothers living with me in America. The interiors were completed at the end of August, and Mr. Ford went right to work editing his movie. When I went in to see the film at Argosy, Duke was there, having just seen it. I walked into the office and he ran over to me, picked me up, and spun me around. He said, “It’s wonderful, and you’re wonderful.” But Herbert Yates of Republic had a different reaction. He wanted The Quiet Man to be no more than a certain length. Ford’s version was more than a few minutes over that, and Yates told him to cut the picture further.

But Ford was far too smart for him. When The Quiet Man was previewed to distributors and theater operators at Republic, Mr. Ford instructed the projection operator to stop the projector at the precise length that Yates had requested. Of course, Ford hadn’t cut the film at all, and so the screen went black right in the middle of the fight-sequence finale. The audience went wild and demanded that the projector be turned back on. Mr. Ford cued the operator and the fight sequence continued. The audience rose to their feet and cheered when it was over. Old Man Yates wasn’t about to touch it after that, and Mr. Ford was allowed to keep his extra ominutes.

There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that’s with a whisper. No matter what part of the world I’m in, the question I am always asked is: “What did you whisper into John Wayne’s ear at the end of The Quiet Man?” It was John Ford’s idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, “No. I can’t. I can’t ay that to Duke.” But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, “I’m telling you, you are to say it.” I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: “I’ll say it on one condition – that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone.” So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don’t and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave – so did Duke – and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you’ll understand as I answer:

I’ll never tell.

Happy birthday, Maureen O’Hara!

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Elvis Marginalia

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Elvis was a voracious reader. He wrote in the margins of all of his books, underlining sentences obsessively (sometimes every line on the page), writing notes to himself on the side. I had to be asked to step back from a display of one of his open books at Graceland because I was trying to see what it said in the margins. “Please step back from the display, miss,” said the security guard. I got in trouble at Graceland, basically, because I wanted to read Elvis’ marginalia.

By far, though, my favorite bit of Elvis marginalia (that I have seen anyway) is what he wrote above.

GOD LOVES YOU. BUT HE LOVES YOU BEST WHEN YOU SING.

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Saying Good-Bye to Elvis

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Graceland at sunset, 2013, on Elvis’ birthday. Taken by yours truly.

Where Were You When Elvis Died?
by Lester Bangs
The Village Voice, 29 August 1977

Where were you when Elvis died? What were you doing and what did it give you an excuse to do with the rest of your day? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the future when we remember this grand occasion. Like Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, it boiled down to individual reminiscences, which is perhaps as it should be, because in spite of his greatness, etc., etc., Elvis had left us each alone as he was; I mean, he wasn’t exactly a Man of the People anymore, if you get my drift. If you don’t I will drift even further, away from Elvis into contemplation of why all our public heroes seem to reinforce our own solitude.

The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience. Those who indulge in it will ultimately reap the scorn of those they’ve dumped on, whether they live forever like Andy Paleface Warhol or die fashionably early like Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. The two things that distinguish those deaths from Elvis’s (he and they having drug habits vaguely in common) were that all of them died on the outside looking in and none of them took their audience for granted. Which is why it’s just a little bit harder for me to see Elvis as a tragic figure; I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary.

Obviously we all liked Elvis better than the Pentagon, but look at what a paltry statement that is. In the end, Elvis’s scorn for his fans as manifested in “new” albums full of previously released material and one new song to make sure all us suckers would buy it was mirrored in the scorn we all secretly or not so secretly felt for a man who came closer to godhood than Carlos Castaneda until military conscription tamed and revealed him for the dumb lackey he always was in the first place. And ever since, for almost two decades now, we’ve been waiting for him to get wild again, fools that we are, and he probably knew better than any of us in his heart of hearts that it was never gonna happen again, his heart of hearts so obviously not being our collective heart of hearts, he being so obviously just some poor dumb Southern boy with a Big Daddy manager to screen the world for him and filter out anything which might erode his status as big strapping baby bringing home the bucks, and finally being sort of perversely celebrated at least by rock critics for his utter contempt for whoever cared about him.

And Elvis was perverse; only a true pervert could put out something like “Having Fun with Elvis On Stage”, that album released three or so years back which consisted entirely of between-song onstage patter so redundant it would make both Willy Burroughs and Gert Stein blush. Elvis was into marketing boredom when Andy Warhol was still doing shoe ads, but Elvis’s sin was his failure to realize that his fans were not perverse – they loved him without qualification, no matter what he dumped on them they loyally lapped it up, and that’s why I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for all those poor jerks than for Elvis himself. I mean, who’s left they can stand all night in the rain for? Nobody, and the true tragedy is the tragedy of an entire generation which refuses to give up its adolescence even as it feels its menopausal paunch begin to blossom and its hair recede over the horizon – along with Elvis and everything else they once thought they believed in. Will they care in five years what he’s been doing for the last twenty?

Sure, Elvis’s death is a relatively minor ironic variant on the future-shock mazurka, and perhaps the most significant thing about Elvis’s exit is that the entire history of the seventies has been retreads and brutal demystification; three of Elvis’s ex-bodyguards recently got together with this hacker from the New York Post and whipped up a book which dosed us with all the dirt we’d yearned for for so long. Elvis was the last of our sacred cows to be publicly mutilated; everybody knows Keith Richard likes his junk, but when Elvis went onstage in a stupor nobody breathed a hint of “Quaalude….” In a way, this was both good and bad, good because Elvis wasn’t encouraging other people to think it was cool to be a walking Physicians’ Desk Reference, bad because Elvis stood for that Nixonian Secrecy-as-Virtue which was passed off as the essence of Americanism for a few years there. In a sense he could be seen not only as a phenomenon that exploded in the fifties to help shape the psychic jailbreak of the sixties but ultimately as a perfect cultural expression of what the Nixon years were all about. Not that he prospered more then, but that his passion for the privacy of potentates allowed him to get away with almost literal murder, certainly with the symbolic rape of his fans, meaning that we might all do better to think about waving good-bye with one upraised finger.

I got the news of Elvis’s death while drinking beer with a friend and fellow music journalist on his fire escape on 21st Street in Chelsea. Chelsea is a good neighborhood; in spite of the fact that the insane woman who lives upstairs keeps him awake all night every night with her rants at no one, my friend stays there because he likes the sense of community within diversity in that neighborhood: old-time card-carrying Communists live in his building alongside people of every persuasion popularly lumped as “ethnic.” When we heard about Elvis we knew a wake was in order, so I went out to the deli for a case of beer. As I left the building I passed some Latin guys hanging out by the front door. “Heard the news? Elvis is dead!” I told them. They looked at me with contemptuous indifference. So What. Maybe if I had told them Donna Summer was dead I might have gotten a reaction; I do recall walking in this neighborhood wearing a T-shirt that said “Disco Sucks” with a vast unamused muttering in my wake, which only goes to show that not for everyone was Elvis the still-reigning King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, in fact not for everyone is rock ‘n’ roll the still-reigning music. By now, each citizen has found his own little obsessive corner to blast his brain in: as the sixties were supremely narcissistic, solipsism’s what the seventies have been about, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of “pop” music. And Elvis may have been the greatest solipsist of all.

I asked for two six-packs at the deli and told the guy behind the counter the news. He looked fifty years old, greying, big belly, life still in his eyes, and he said: “Shit, that’s too bad. I guess our only hope now is if the Beatles get back together.”

Fifty years old.

I told him I thought that would be the biggest anticlimax in history and that the best thing the Stones could do now would be to break up and spare us all further embarrassments.

He laughed, and gave me directions to a meat market down the street. There I asked the counterman the same question I had been asking everyone. He was in his fifties too, and he said, “You know what? I don’t care that bastard’s dead. I took my wife to see him in Vegas in ’73, we paid fourteen dollars a ticket, and he came out and sang for twenty minutes. Then he fell down. Then he stood up and sang a couple more songs, then he fell down again. Finally he said, ‘well, shit, I might as well sing sitting as standing.’ So he squatted on the stage and asked the band what song they wanted to do next, but before they could answer he was complaining about the lights. ‘They’re too bright,’ he says. ‘They hurt my eyes. Put ‘em out or I don’t sing a note.’ So they do. So me and my wife are sitting in total blackness listening to this guy sing songs we knew and loved, and I ain’t just talking about his old goddam songs, but he totally butchered all of ‘em. Fuck him. I’m not saying I’m glad he’s dead, but I know one thing: I got taken when I went to see Elvis Presley.”

I got taken too the one time I saw Elvis, but in a totally different way. It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ’65, never even came close.

There was Elvis, dressed up in this ridiculous white suit which looked like some studded Arthurian castle, and he was too fat, and the buckle on his belt was as big as your head except that your head is not made of solid gold, and any lesser man would have been the spittin’ image of a Neil Diamond damfool in such a getup, but on Elvis it fit. What didn’t? No matter how lousy his records ever got, no matter how intently he pursued mediocrity, there was still some hint, some flash left over from the days when…well, I wasn’t there, so I won’t presume to comment. But I will say this: Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.

I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates. That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many. And this after a decade and a half of crappy records, of making a point of not trying.

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

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“Down there we got a plant that grows in the woods and the fields … eeeeverybody calls it Polk Salad.”

Elvis getting dirty with the swamp-funk anthem “Polk Salad Annie.”

In other words: You hot-shot snobby folks from the two coasts wanna look down on us Southern boys? Well, I’ll give you Southern. I’ll give you Southern Gothic. I’ll give you thick mud and watermelons and collard greens and rusty trucks and chain gangs and sweaty sex. I’ll give it to you so hard you’ll want to move here immediately. Cause we do it better down here.

One of my favorite Elvis performances.

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It’s Got To Cost You Something

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. Here is a re-post.

I don’t care who you are. If you think you are worth watching, it’s got to COST you something. The great performers understand this. People with great pipes are a dime a dozen. The ones who are remembered actually leave bits of themselves up on that stage for the audience to pick up, and those pieces are lost to the performer forever.

But that’s okay. They’ve got more. That’s why they do what they do: to give it all away.

There is grainy footage of Judy Garland, as an adult, singing “Over the Rainbow” where she lets us in on her drowning hopes, her dying dreams. What she gives us there she cannot get back. She doesn’t want it back. It’s unbearable to live with so much feeling and so the whole point is to give it. As Kathy Bates said when she came and talked at my school, “If you’re lucky enough to have a gift, then just give it away. All day, every day, just keep giving it away.”

I see young performers sometimes and I wonder if they understand, actually, the job they want to do. I wonder if they actually get how much MORE they will be required to give, how much DEEPER they have to go. The great performers make it look easy, right? So it should be easy for me, too. But the great singers, even the ones who are not famous, understand the job. The great ones – the Lena Hornes, the Patti Labelles, the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras, and, yes, the Elvis Presleys – NEVER lacked understanding at what the job actually WAS.

Being young is no excuse.

Show business is a meritocracy. Get it quick, or get the hell out of the way. Or learn FAST. Steep learning curves are the name of the game.

On Season 5 of American Idol, Elliott Yamin did a duet with Mary J. Blige, which had to be the strangest pairing in the history of show business. They sang One by U2 together, and it is a perfect example of what an amateur looks like next to a full-blown professional. While he was protected from that when surrounded by other amateurs, Mary J. Blige comes on – and she is fully supportive of him, holding onto him the entire time, but she goes to another place. She is already at that place when she walked on that stage, because she understands that that is the nature of her job. You can see Elliott playing catch up, furiously, as the song goes on. “Oh … oh … she’s … that big? That into it? That … huge? Oh … shit, I gotta get my game up …”

Unless you are prepared to leave something of yourself behind on that stage, you have no business being up there.

Which brings me to the clip above. I appreciate Justin Gaston’s words on Elvis, and his understanding that Elvis is “iconic”. That’s nice.

But watching Justin Gaston singing “If I Can Dream” in that studio hurt me, the way it hurts to see anyone not actually understand what their job is.

Dear Mr. Gaston, if I were your coach or your mentor, I would have nothing to say about your voice. Your voice is fine. I would only say this to you:

Why don’t you take your goddamn hands out of your pockets while you sing this song, and just see where that would take you?

Just see what it would be like to actually commit to a gesture. As the great John Wayne said (and nobody could do a gesture like John Wayne): “I think that’s the first lesson you learn in a high school play — that if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”

Making a gesture changes how you actually FEEL. Try it. You’ll see. You have no idea how safe you are being, sir. You have no idea how much you are willing to skip off the surface of the water. You want to be a singer, but you don’t understand the job.

The Art of the Gesture is a dying art, in today’s more casual “over it” world. The singers who actually commit to gestures (and I’m not talking about dance moves, I’m talking about Elvis Presley-Judy Garland-Liza Minnelli GESTURES) are few and far between. I could pontificate on why this is, although that would make me boring. I think perhaps it’s a generational thing. You don’t want to seem like you give a shit. You don’t want to betray your heart.

Anthony Hopkins came and spoke at my school. One guy asked him a question, referring to the scene in Nixon where he broke down while praying with Henry Kissinger. The guy said, “You were so vulnerable … I was just wondering … how you protect yourself doing something like that?”

The great Anthony Hopkins was kind, but it was clear he didn’t even understand the question. He looked quizzically at the questioner (almost like: “Are you an actor? Really?”) and said, “Oh, but you mustn’t protect yourself.”

In my opinion, if you don’t know that going in, you will never know it. Directors always say it’s easy to tell someone to “pull back” and “give less” but it is nearly impossible to get someone to “give more” (at least not consistently: you could browbeat someone into giving the performance of a lifetime, but it could not be repeated).

The great ones know going in: Okay, well, this is gonna COST me.

Perhaps the true magnitude of the cost cannot be known at the outset.

Elvis Presley, as a 19-year-old virgin wailing “That’s All Right” in 1954, couldn’t know how MUCH it would cost him in the end, and how much he would actually be asked to give … and give … and give. He couldn’t have known the loneliness of the kind of fame he would achieve. Who could know it? No one had been that famous before. But at the outset, at the outset, from his very first moment performing live, when his wiggling leg made girls scream, he understood the job. I’m sure he didn’t even question it. I’m sure he never asked himself at the outset the question that that “actor” asked Anthony Hopkins. The great ones rarely look for escape routes from commitment and engagement, at least in their art. They do not flee from the implications of their greatness. They never actively avoid revealing themselves. That is why they are great.

Singing a song, even in a studio where no one can see you, with your hands in your pockets, betrays a complete misunderstanding of what being a performer is.

You don’t want to pay the price. You don’t want to give too much of yourself away, because you fear you won’t get it back. Well, kiddo, you won’t get it back. That’s the gig.

Ask Judy Garland. Ask Elvis Presley.

Yes, Elvis was “good-looking”, as you note, and “talented” and he had a lot of airplanes, which makes him super-cool. All true. He also had an arsenal of guns, a veritable zoo of animals, and a girl in every port ready to have pillow fights with him at a moment’s notice.

But he ALSO paid a price. I’m not talking about his early end, his death, his drug addiction. I’m talking about the performing itself. The reason WHY he had a lot of planes and a zoo and girls in every port was because he paid a price onstage, from when he was a young pimply boy to when he was an overweight ill man. He would collapse after shows. Sometimes he would lose seven pounds in a night from sweat. That’s how much he put out there on that stage, that’s how much it cost him! Night after night after night. When he made a gesture, he was with John Wayne: He MADE it. You can FEEL those gestures, even today, so many years later. They hover over the performing landscape like an afterimage, reminding us of what we miss. Reminding us of who is no longer with us. Who makes gestures like that anymore?

Even at the very end, when Elvis was bloated and very ill, he wouldn’t be caught DEAD singing a song with his hands in his pockets.

Now about the particular song in question: “If I Can Dream” was the epilogue to Presley’s 1968 television “comeback special”. Steve Binder, director of the special, had been at a loss as to how to “sum up” Presley in the special and needed a song to do it. Peter Guralnik, in Careless Love, describes what happened next:

[He] approached Earl Brown, the vocal arranger, about writing a song. “I took Earl aside, and I said, ‘Earl, let me explain something to you. We’re under the gun now, and what I need – instead of having him do a monologue at the end, let’s do a song where we incorporate what his monologue would say. That was all I contributed: this is what I would like the song to be. So Earl went home and at seven o’clock the next morning he woke me up and said, ‘Steve, I think I’ve got it. I really think I’ve nailed the song.’ So I went into the studio, and Earl played the song for me – it was called ‘If I Can Dream’ – and I said, ‘That’s it. You’ve just written the song that’s going to close the show.’”

There was a slight problem in that Colonel Parker, Presley’s manager, was still under the impression that they were all actually working on a Christmas special and thought that the show would end with Elvis singing a Christmas carol. Binder was on a roll now, though. He bypassed the Colonel and went right to Elvis.

“So now I go to Bob Finkel [executive producer], and I say, ‘Bob, I’ve got the end of the show.’ And he said, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing? The Colonel will blow his stack. It’s got to be a Christmas song.’ I said, ‘It can’t be a Christmas song. This is the song Elvis will sing at the end of the show.’ I arranged for Elvis, Billy, Bones and myself to go in the dressing room, and Earl sat down at the piano and played it through. Elvis sort of sat there listening. He didn’t comment; he just said, ‘Play it again.’ So Earl sat there and played it again – and again. Then Elvis started to ask some questions about it, and I would venture to say Earl probably played the song six or seven times in a row. Then Elvis looked at me and said, ‘We’re doing it.’”

The network was nervous too. They had been expecting a Christmas song, too. But when Elvis said Yes, he got his way. Makes you realize his power, which he used so rarely. He used it onstage, but offstage he played along as best he could, making the best of every situation. But when he said, “Yes”, mountains moved. Even the Colonel didn’t fight it.

But here’s what I wanted to say. Here is what I thought of when I saw that poor misguided boy above think he can actually get away with singing anything with his hands in his pockets.

Once “If I Can Dream” was decided upon, then came time to record it. Recording was done on June 23, 1968. Elvis did only five takes. It took so much out of him that he fainted after one take. Binder describes the recording session. They did four takes. When it came to the fifth take, Elvis – perhaps knowing that this next one would be the one – asked that all of the lights be dimmed. The studio lights were dimmed, the control booth lights were dimmed. Elvis began the fifth take. Binder, in the control room, looked out at the darkened space, watching Elvis sing. He remembers:

“I think he was oblivious to everything else in the universe. When I looked out the window, he was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song.”

You can see how much it is costing him in the actual production of it below. At the 1:31, 1:32 mark, when he sings “We’re lost in a cloud …”, he comes forward a bit, hand out, it’s a lunge, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it’s still startling. That gesture, made from his heart, wants something from me. It demands engagement. Nothing less. Indifference is the worst sin in a performer. The great performers know that it is up to them to bring us out. There are a couple of breathers in the song during the short bridges where you can see him collapse almost, and then gear up again to go back into the song. And he looks absolutely wrecked by the end of it. His final gesture is a gasp.

It is all he has left.

Singing that song cost him something. And we out there in the darkness are so much richer for it. He left something behind, for us, eternally. He left something behind that he could never get back. Something precious, something he might have been able to use himself had he hung onto it. But that’s not what his job was. His job was not to hoard that energy force. His job was not to hang on to his gift.

His job was to give it away. All day, every day, just keep giving it away.

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He Shook It Like a Chorus Girl

37 years ago today, Elvis Presley died. Every time he performed, his “soul was at stake.” And so we will always miss someone like that. As Dave Marsh wrote in his Elvis book:

There is no explanation. And if one listens closely to songs like “Hurt” and “I Can Help” and “If I Can Dream” – if one listens clear back to “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” – that’s what is truly heard: A voice, high and thrilled in the early days, lower and perplexed in the final months, seeking answers where there are none, clarity where there is none, cause where is only effect.

Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither – he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.

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The Giver (2014)

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My review of the film version of The Giver, the Lois Lowry classic is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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