By the Sea (2015); d. Angelina Jolie


A lot of the commentary I’ve seen about Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea has been that it is a self-indulgent vanity project. I have some different feelings about all of that, and also have a suspicion that “self-indulgent” means different things to different people, as does the word “vanity” as does the word “project.” You got the picture? Of course it’s okay not to like the damn thing. It’s not all that easy to like, to be honest, although I loved it. But the movie is strange enough that it deserves to be considered on its own terms, and not dismissed out of hand. Plus, pulling out the words “self-indulgent” and “vanity project”: Paucity of words = potential paucity of ideas/thought. Thank you, George Orwell.

Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, though, is excellent, very thought-provoking. The review is not a rave, but Dargis actually grapples with what Angelina Jolie is trying to DO with the film, not just with the film, but with herself and her persona onscreen.

If you read me with any regularity, you know my fascination/love for Strong Personae. The great actors of the old studio system, the ones who basically helped invent screen acting, operated from carefully-constructed and yet totally-natural-to-them Persona. This type of acting is out of style now. We value transformation (weight loss, different accents, how much an actor can “disappear” into a role). But this is not the only way to measure Good Acting (although you’d never know it from some of the commentary. The stupid “He/she just plays themselves” commentary. My thoughts on that for all time here.) But there are still actors who work in that Strong Persona mode and (not surprisingly – to me, anyway) they are some of our biggest box office stars. Leonardo DiCaprio. Julia Roberts. Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. George Clooney. Now WITHIN their personae there is a hell of a lot of variety, as we can see in the careers of the old-school Persona Actors, like John Wayne. It is a mistake to say these people “just play themselves.” They play to their strengths (a smart move, not a limited move. In my opinion, a lot of the actors playing at transforming themselves now do not have the skill to pull it off successfully. They look like they are working. They want points for how hard they are working.) There were great stars in the studio system who were masters of transformation on the more modern model (Bette Davis is maybe the best example). And some of the greatest “transformers” are the stealth-bombers who come in from the side, the ones who are not starlets trying to show how serious they are by “uglying” up, or bald-faced grabbing for an Oscar nom. (Kristen Wiig, in my opinion, is the greatest transformational actress working at present.)

So let’s bring this back to By the Sea. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt, Jolie both carefully and carelessly (it’s an interesting mix) presents a story that is more a mood-poem or an “impression” than an actual traditional story. Jolie is interested in something else. She doesn’t seem to care about conventional things like “keeping the thing moving,” “mix it up,” “create interest” … and in her hands, what happens in the ABSENCE of all of those conventional storytelling tropes is fascinating. Because there is a plot. The thing does move. The thing is interesting. But it’s placed within this moody dreamy atmosphere, an ocean of unexpressed emotions, mysterious motivations, and eloquent “poses” – self-conscious, “arty,” callbacks to other films featuring malaise and beautiful settings and mystery – Godard, Antonioni, Bergman, some of Woody Allen’s non-comedies – and yet these poses are not self-indulgent. Or, to put it another way, because there are deeper issues here: They ARE self-indulgent, and that is not a bad thing when you are talking about actors with gigantic reach and star power and charisma and face-recognition around the world.

Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”

Angelina Jolie knows she and her husband are the most talked-about couple in the world. I won’t go into how they manage their press (except to say that I think they are brilliant at it), but I will say that By the Sea has a self-awareness about the fascination this couple holds for the world. (I know there are some who will say, “I don’t care about these people. I care far more about the starving children in The Sudan.” I get it, you’re deep, but most of us are able to care about more than one thing at a time. One thing does not necessarily cancel out the other.) So what does Angelina Jolie do with that knowledge that she and her husband are gossiped about 24/7? A couple different things. She places the two characters in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. They are rich, so their clothes are exquisite. There are really only three other people who appear in the movie with any regularity. The whole thing is the Angie-Brad show. A little of this goes a long way, and in By the Sea, Jolie pushes it to its limits. Shots repeat, endlessly: Jolie lying on the balcony in the sunshine, collapsed in beautiful misery. Pitt sitting at a bar, smoking, crinkling with humor, looking around and listening. Back to Jolie, lying in bed in a silk negligee, tears streaking mascara down her face. Back to Pitt, in the bar, seated in a corner, squinting his eyes around at the rest of the customers. Back to Jolie, leaning over her balcony in a gigantic sun hat, kicking her beautiful feet up behind her, but otherwise not moving. And on. And on. And on. And on.



As with any film, your mileage may vary in terms of responding to this, but for me: within all of this repetition a bunch of different things start to emerge, or present themselves. Many of these things may not make literal sense, in terms of Story, but they do have something to do with other things that Art can address or portray, like Beauty. Beauty separated from any need other than having to express itself, show itself, reveal itself. In other words, and I hope you’re still with me, you are given TIME to revel in Beauty. Nothing is rushed. You are given TIME to stare at two of the biggest stars in the world being miserable, angst-ridden, and gorgeous. There isn’t even a busy plot that would take up the characters’ consciousness and energy. There isn’t a huge ensemble. All we get is the two of them, sitting in the middle of a shattered marriage, unable to even speak to one another anymore, about what has happened, what is wrong. The “meta” element of this is huge, because they are a couple in real life, because (at least in their outward appearance and press coverage) they have a good relationship … it’s somewhat fascinating and queasy to see these two well-known famous figures “play” at an unhappy marriage filled with rage and loss. I don’t find it self-indulgent at all. Or maybe, like I said, that word has different meanings to different people. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a real-life couple, swam around in the audience’s knowledge of that fact, and “played out” their relationship in multiple movies. This type of pairing counts on the audience feeling “in” on it.


That’s part of the pleasure, added to the perhaps “common” pleasure of seeing gorgeous people in gorgeous settings being fabulous. (I have no shame about loving those things. Because I am fascinated watching actors who are famous for being famous, or famous because their Personae is so strong and indelible – unique – and I love watching these people work with these things. Even in not-very-good movies it’s always interesting.) Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a bunch of movies together when they were the most famous couple in the world – and it is those movies – like V.I.P.s, Boom!, The Sandpiper – which By the Sea most resembles. They are movies of a different era. You must factor that in when you watch them. They are “vehicles,” and there’s a real show-biz savvy “Give the public what they want and give them MORE of what they want” feel to some of those movies (which are, granted, very weird. But By the Sea is weird too.) Burton and Taylor also did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a brilliant film with superb performances from all involved, and there Burton and Taylor were willing to take the lid off, show their ugliness (the characters’ I mean, the picture was not “biography”), be unsympathetic, be willing to live the lives of stuffy academics as opposed to jet-setting glamour-pusses.


Going to watch Burton and Taylor again and again in these movies (good or bad) hits some primal pleasure-points that academic types find baffling, or disapprove of, but it’s a losing battle. People want what they want. And different movies provide different things. Being socially-relevant, politically-explosive, subtle/nuanced is not the ONLY measure of good art or a good movie. It’s ONE measure, but not every movie has the same goals.

Magic Mike XXL, just this year, really had no story. The only story it had (“one last ride!”) was so cliched that it was practically cringe-worthy. But the film was interested in something other than story, plot, or even character. It was interested in Beauty (Jada Pinkett Smith even says that outright in the script). What is Beauty? How do we respond to it? What does it provide us? What happens when it is offered freely? When someone presents themselves to you as an Object – and does so in a spirit of generosity? Wanting only to “make your day”? These are deeply emotional and philosophical concepts, and Magic Mike XXL addressed ALL of them, all while remaining light, breezy, fun, silly. Because taking Beauty too seriously, or getting bogged down in issues of “gaze”, or “objectification” … that’s fine for your dissertation. And there are real issues about gaze (something that Jolie addresses in By the Sea, by her mere presence behind the camera. This movie is HERS.) But taken outside of academic concerns, people need Beauty. They run towards it. It’s no surprise that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were two of the biggest stars during the 20th century’s grimmest decade. They provided pleasure, beauty, glamour, escape. Powerful primal stuff. What you find beautiful may be different from what I find beautiful. Beauty can comfort, narcotize, enliven … it makes OTHER things seem possible. (“Beauty is Truth,” etc.) Magic Mike XXL is RADICAL in the way it presented all of these aspects in a carefree and yet totally pointed way so that the message could not fail to land. There was no love story. No villain. No fight scenes. Seriously: NO PLOT. There was nothing to distract. There was just a merry band of strippers on a crazy road trip, taking pit-stops here, sleep-overs there, spreading joy and sparkly sunshine to everyone they meet along the way.


For real? In this day and age? Well, YES. The world needs THAT just as much as it needs in-depth gravitas. Fun and Beauty can be JUST as radical.

In By the Sea, we first see the couple whipping through the French coast in a zippy silver convertible. She wears a gigantic sun-hat, even larger sunglasses, and her expression is totally flat. A mask of intimidating beauty. He is a bit more lively, glancing at her, leaving one hand on the wheel. Cigarettes nearby at all times. Settling into their Mediterranean hotel, isolated and fabulous, you learn in about two exchanges that he is a writer working on his next book (because of course he is), and she? She does nothing but stand against walls in white dresses, or black nightgowns, looking miserable and heart-achingly beautiful. Like, she doesn’t even seem real. Their dynamic is not just cold, but icy. And yet at the same time, in the first scene when they enter their room, they immediately start to move furniture around in a pantomime suggesting that this is “what they do,” they travel a lot, they know the way they like their rooms, the desk needs to be near the window. This is all done without a word spoken. But it says everything. Or, not everything, but it adds a counterpoint to the nearly-wordless static state of the marriage, where she is miserable, popping pills, unable to leave the room, and he is clearly a high-functioning alcoholic who can’t wait to get to the bar everyday to “write” (but really drink). You still remember, through all of that, the pantomime of these two gorgeous creatures setting up their room the way they liked it.

A honeymooning couple (wonderful French actress and director Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move into the room next door. They have sex all day and all night. They try to make conversation with Vanessa from the next balcony, and Vanessa is so weird she can barely say “Hello.” But then Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall through which she can peer through into the next room. Vanessa’s husband goes off to write, and Vanessa finds herself drawn to that hole in the wall, she can’t help herself, she crouches on the floor staring through at all the sex, and nakedness, and laughing, and post-coital sleeping. It is Vanessa’s secret. Her husband comes home and wonders what she did all day. She drones at him that she took a walk. But she’s still coming out of the fugue state from staring through the hole in the wall.

Finally, one day, as we knew he would, he discovers the hole in the wall too.


And when he discovers it, everything shifts. Things start to speed up, change, intensify. It gets even stranger. The couple, who has been lost, unable to reach one another at all, suddenly start to come together, seemingly. The hole in the wall is their only distraction. The respite doesn’t last long, though, because that hole in the wall is pitiless. It strips them raw of defenses.

The “hole in the wall” reminds me of the “grate” in Woody Allen’s Another Woman. Gena Rowlands, a writer working on a new book, has rented an apartment to be able to work in peace and quiet. On her first day there, she hears a voice coming through the grate, as clear as if the person were in the room with her. The voice is sobbing in a heart-rending way about her life and her husband to a man who is clearly a psychiatrist. Rowlands’ character is very disturbed by this, and needs to get work done, so she places pillows over the grate. Problem solved. Until a couple of days later … she needs to know what is happening over there with that sobbing woman … and she removes the pillows. Moving into a similar dream-fugue state, Gena Rowlands’ character is now seen crouching by the grate, listening, as opposed to sitting at her desk working. What are her thoughts about this? What is she getting from this? What is she running from? What is being stirred up?


Angelina Jolie knows her Another Woman, I’m thinking.

The plot is not “the thing” here. What is “the thing” is Jolie creating a pretty wide space (not too many distractions or requirements built into the script) so that she and her husband can behave and listen and talk, all within the confines of these two particular characters. Some of it feels like an abstract surrealist play. Or something written by Harold Pinter, who was also able to suggest malaise and dread through pauses and short oblique sentences. There’s not an “A-Ha” moment about what is wrong. I guessed about 20 minutes in, as did my friend. It’s not a thriller, building up to an exposition-monologue of “HERE is the HORRIBLE THING in my past.” By the Sea is not manipulative that way. It’s manipulative in other ways, but the kind of manipulation I find pleasing. The “primal” level of “pleasing” that I talked about earlier.

Like watching Joan Crawford step into her meticulously set-up key light, eyes gleaming. Like watching John Wayne walk into a room or walk out of a room. Or, hell, just STAND there.




These are artists who understand who they are (to themselves, AND to the public), who know how to “set themselves up” so that stories can be told, and who USE themselves (literally) as part of a larger narrative … as a sculptor uses clay, stone, etc. That kind of self-awareness is sometimes referred to as “self-indulgent” or “vain” (more so now than it was back in the day). Granted: This kind of self-consciousness in acting can also be extremely arch and annoying and worthless, yes. You have to be a real pro to pull it off. Your Persona must be Mount-Rushmore-strong. And let’s not forget the double-standard in material like this. Kevin Costner often let the camera dwell lovingly upon his own ass in Dances with Wolves and nobody called him out on it. Nobody even noticed it. Barbra Streisand did the same thing in Prince of Tides and she was excoriated for it. “She’s so VAIN. Does she honestly think she’s beautiful? Who the hell does this broad think she is??” Jolie is FULLY aware of this double standard, and instead of avoiding it (by, say, not filming herself in an objectifying way), she dives right on in. The camera moves up her body. The camera is carefully placed so her stunning profile takes up half the foreground. She is seen putting makeup on in the dressing-room mirror, cigarette clenched between her teeth, and she is as breathtaking as Bardot, Anouk Aimee, any screen goddess you want to mention. Jolie is playing with all of those criticisms, acknowledging them, up-ending them. She is a woman. It is interesting to see how she DEALS with all of that, not just in filming herself, but in filming the newlyweds next door (gorgeous and golden and laughing and free), the old guy in the bar, even all the extras who populate the area. Jolie’s eye is keen for this kind of detail, but it is when she turns the camera on herself that the film tips over into … iconography? Myth? It’s both dream and nightmare. None of it is realistic because this kind of Beauty doesn’t REALLY exist, except in our own minds and hearts and pleasure-spots.


All of this being said, I found By the Sea a total hoot, actually. There’s a lot of humor in it. Not slapstick or obvious, but from absurdity and inexplicable behavior. But the real “hoot” comes because the film hits all of those sweet spots I’ve been going on about. It has the confidence to resist conventional pacing, to let silence dominate. It lets people be weird and incomprehensible, unsympathetic and yet tragic. It lets images be mysterious and unexplained. Pitt is wonderful as a trapped man, whose original talent is now drowning in alcohol, a guy known only for his first book, when it all came easy. Once things started getting hard for him, he was at a loss how to recover that ease. And he can’t reach his wife. He takes a condescending tone with her, almost scolding her in a parental way for her attitude. She doesn’t fight back because she knows he’s right. Besides, Jolie’s character is constantly narcotized, an opiate addict of some kind. Her responses are not just subdued, but total apathetic flat-affect. Interspersed with frightening crying jags. When he tries to touch her, she cringes, her eyes flitting about like a wild animal in a trap.

Can this marriage be saved??

Honestly, neither one of these characters seems like a prize. The film isn’t about us “investing” in their relationships because how can you really invest in a couple so fabulously wealthy and devastatingly sad? Jolie wanted to create an art film. She has said the film came out of the grief following her mother’s death, as well as some of the issues/losses/feelings she experienced with her recent decisions to get a double mastectomy/hysterectomy. The film is truly strange, but it also feels deeply personal. Posing, self-indulgence, vanity … none of that matters or grates if it’s a Strong Persona doing it, because what Strong Personae can do is bring themselves to every moment. Nothing is forced. The camera light goes on and Strong Personae people open themselves up, gently, automatically. They are more intimate with the camera than they are with other human beings. The camera goes deeper, cuts to the essence of things.

Jolie, a private person (as well as very public when she wants to be), understands ALL of this. But what is really fascinating about By the Sea is what Dargis mentioned in her review: Crucially, Vanessa’s focus moves next door to the honeymooning neighbors. It’s when the movie really starts. Jolie sets herself up as the center of the film, her character lying in bed, out on the balcony, wearing amazing clothes, smoking, popping pills, crying gorgeously. But she can’t help but crouch on that floor, peeking through that hole in the wall, at a world other than her own, at a world in which she plays ZERO part. That world/life over there is appealing, it’s destabilizing. The hole in the wall is a great device and Jolie has a lot of fun exploring it. The device takes the characters to really unexpected places of intimacy, treachery, openness, loss.

By the Sea doesn’t feel like a story in the way we usually understand stories. By the Sea feels like Jolie has created an opportunity where she and her famous husband – who go to Target with their brood of children followed by an army of photographers – can PLAY with all of these ideas, fight, cry, smolder, talk, BE, with the least amount of distraction.

Even better, even more powerfully, the film allows them to put themselves on display for us. Yes, within the structure of the film, the characters behave, listen, talk, react. Both Jolie and Pitt do wonderful work. But on another level, that meta-level, the level of Beauty, the Magic Mike XXL level, By the Sea lets us LOOK at them. Gives us time to just LOOK at them and not do ANYTHING else.

This kind of reaction is usually called “shallow.”

But Oscar Wilde, often criticized in his day for being shallow, had a thing or two to say about that, my favorite one being:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.


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Noir Night

Manhattan on a windy autumn night is straight out of a film noir. I was meeting someone near Columbus Circle for dinner. The leaves have fallen, the leaves swirled through the darkness. It was misty. Chilly, but not too cold. A brisk fall night. Columbus Circle is ablaze with neon and traffic but it’s right there that Central Park begins. A contrast. Everywhere I looked, I saw something beautiful, and striking, and singular. Darkness behind me, light in front of me. Or darkness in front, light behind. I was that jerk walking around in Central Park at night taking pictures of myself and experimenting with the light. It’s not every day that you step into a film noir. The only thing left was to meet a man in a trench coat and a fedora in a dark alley for some mysterious double-crossing exchange. The night felt wild, unfettered. I have been holed up with myself, mostly, for about two months, because of all these big writing projects. I went out into the world last Thursday night like an escaped prisoner. I was meeting someone in a loud and jostling Mexican joint across from Lincoln Center. The crush and hustle of humanity. I thought to myself, excited, bold, “I think I’ll even have a beer tonight!” (And I did. One Negra Modelo. Life on the wild side.) I had been looking forward to going out for days, because the isolation had become a bit … prolonged. Emerging into that night was beautiful, because it was the kind of night, to use Anne of Green Gables’ term, that had “scope for imagination.” I was almost late for my date because I was too busy taking pictures of grates and the buildings of Central Park West and the neon of Columbus Circle and my own mug half-in half-out of the light. Everything I looked at was beautiful, dark, and dreamy. New York at its most evocative.








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Gena Rowlands’ Oscar Speech Last Night

Listen to that ovation. Feel the emotion in that room! The explosion when she mentions “my late husband …”

She is one of a kind and every single person – even big stars and A-list actresses – know it.

The Bette Davis story makes me laugh so hard. I had heard it before, but never actually told BY Gena Rowlands. It’s even better, with her gestures!

I am also moved by her son coming forward near the end of her speech, protectively and supportively. And then Gena clearly deciding she was not done, and she wanted to stay on that stage a little bit longer.

I wish she would never leave.

Other speeches now up on Youtube from the whole night, which I haven’t watched yet. I want to revel in this one a little bit more. (And no, the tribute reel isn’t up yet.)

As much as I totally disapprove of moving the Lifetime Achievement people to a different night from the main broadcast (because God forbid Hollywood publicly remember its history, and God forbid that the ignoramuses watching – who think Quentin Tarantino invented movies, or Robert De Niro invented good acting – would learn a little bit about the history of the industry they profess to love so much) – in a way, this separate ceremony is awesome because these honorees are given TIME. Time for their speeches. Time for multiple tribute speeches. Time to RAMBLE. I hate how rushed the nominees are on the main night. I love long speeches filled with emotion, anecdotes, and not a list of “I’d like to thank the receptionist at Warner Brothers.” Jeez Louise, send a Thank You card. While you’re at that podium, show me your HEART.

So there is something very satisfying about all of this. It would have been painful to see Gena Rowlands forced to make a 45-second speech.

Give this woman TIME. More and more and more time.

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Governors Awards Last Night: Gena Rowlands, Spike Lee, Debbie Reynolds

The Motion Picture Academy’s Governors Awards happened last night, honoring Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands with Honorary Oscars, and Debbie Reynolds (who was too ill to attend) with the Humanitarian Award. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy, started off the night with a speech in tribute of France, and the lives lost in the terror attacks:

“I do feel it’s important to mention yesterday’s horrifying attacks in Paris and to say that all of us here stand in solidarity and support our friends and the French people…Our connection with the film-loving French is especially deep with waves of influence going back and forth across the Atlantic ever since the Lumiere Brothers made the first motion picture. We also mourn those who died. We send our deepest affections.”

So far, this is the only report I’ve seen from the Awards ceremony itself, which gives a nice feel for the evening, the speeches, the tributes, and some good quotes. (I had asked the Oscar people if I could attend and they basically laughed in my face. If you can imagine them laughing nicely, then that was the feeling of the interaction. One of the associate producers said, “They won’t let me go either. I’m totally bummed.” I offered to wash dishes. More laughter.)

The whole thing (including the tribute reel for Rowlands, with script by yours truly, read by Angelina Jolie) will end up on Youtube, so I’ll share those clips when they’re available. It is nice to hear the reel was called out specifically in the Deadline piece as “breathtaking.” I saw the rough cut and it was breathtaking then, even though incomplete at the time (and with someone else reading my narration, not Angelina). I feel so pleased and humble and grateful that I was a small part of that celebration.

Congratulations to all of the worthy honorees. Giants of the industry.

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La Marseillaise


And this too.

One World Trade, in the spot where the Twin Towers used to be, last night. The colors of France.

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Coming on Nov. 23 in the UK: The Quiet Man released on Blu-Ray (for the first time)


John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (with Ford regulars Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond in supporting roles), is being released on Blu-Ray in the UK for the very first time. Released by Masters of Cinema, the Blu-Ray edition has some great special features (if I do say so myself): A new video-essay about John Ford by Tag Gallagher, a doc about the “making-of”, and a booklet of essays by various writers about different aspects of the film (the Technicolor cinematography, an original 1953 profile of John Wayne, the short story from which the film was based.)

I contributed a lengthy essay about John Wayne that will be included in the booklet (not only about his performance in The Quiet Man but on his career and on HIM, in general.)

If you read my site, you know my love for John Wayne, so this was a super-fun assignment.

The Quiet Man Blu-Ray will be available at the link above or via Amazon on November 23.

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Sweet Micky for President (2015)


Member the recent election in Haiti? You know, the one where Pras Michel of The Fugees managed the campaign of one candidate, gigantic Haitian pop star “Sweet Micky”, and the one where Wyclef, also of The Fugees, threw HIS hat into the ring as a candidate? Right after the earthquake?

Well, now there’s a documentary about that presidential election in Haiti and it’s super-entertaining.

My review of Sweet Micky for President is now up at

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35 Random Facts About Me

Yes, a meme. And yes, I have posted it before. And yes, it now reminds me of Welcome to Me. I would choose 35 different facts if I started it up today. But there are some pretty funny stories here. Being an extra in that Kennedys movie! The lingerie show! I went out for dinner this week with friends and we were sharing “random facts” about ourselves, and it was hilarious, because I have known these women (in some cases) since I was 16 years old. And there’s still shit about them I don’t know.

It’s pretty stream-of-consciousness, which is really the only way to go with these things.

1. I’ve had three marriage proposals. Two I said No to (and one of those “Nos” was in the middle of a so-called romantic vacation, and we had been dating for three years, and I still don’t know how I had the guts to realize that “No” was the only answer). One I said Yes to. And yet I have never been married. The world is a mysterious place.

2. During my test to get my driver’s license, I got a bit frazzled, put the car into reverse, hit the gas, and crashed into the car behind me, which was filled with people waiting to take the test after me. Needless to say, I did not pass.

3. I have never broken a bone.

4. For “Show and Tell” in kindergarten, other kids brought in their gerbils, their Barbies, their GI Joes. I, however, sang the entirety of Don McLean’s American Pie.

5. I wish that I could figure skate at an Olympic level of skill.

6. My friend Beth and I used to dance like such banshees at high school dances that we would be drenched in sweat, our Irish faces hot and red, and we would run over to the side of the gym and press our hot sweaty heads up against the cool tiles before running back into the slam-dancing fray. And then we honestly wondered why we did not have boyfriends.

7. If I could swing it financially, I would live in hotel rooms.

8. I performed for 3,000 people at Milwaukee Summer Fest, wearing biker shorts, combat boots, a black bustier, and a black derby. One of the funnest and strangest and most unique experiences of my entire life.

9. I love a man in uniform, which I realize just makes me a cliche and I am perfectly comfortable with that.

10. At all times, my book collection is reaching a point of critical mass. But there is nothing I love better than to have my own functioning library. Yes, there is the Internet to provide information but I find it so satisfying to look up Washington’s farewell address in my own copy of his writings, and stuff like that. I am my father’s daughter. In those moments, flipping through a book looking for what I want, I feel close to him.

11. Got my first kiss at the age of 17, the last person in my age group on the Eastern Seaboard. Same thing for virginity which was years later. Late bloomer. Still am.

12. I don’t think I could live happily in a land-locked state. I need water within reach.

13. I can recite What’s Up, Doc from beginning to end. Do you have a pencil, darling?

14. I was made fun of in middle school. It got pretty bad. Prank calls to my house, a group of girls targeting me for abuse that went on for an entire year. It left a mark. One of those bitches requested my friendship on FB recently and I ignored her. Yeah, it was a long time ago, and I’m sure you were in pain back then too, sister, but so was I and I didn’t take it out on other people. We all grow and change, blah blah, fuck that, I still don’t want you anywhere near my life.

15. My first concert was Huey Lewis and the News.

16. I have lived in Rhode Island, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. I am probably missing a few pit-stops.

17. I am blind as a bat.

18. I was a lingerie model for one night only at a private event when I was in college. An all-male audience. Husbands shopping for lingerie for their wives. I look back on it like I was momentarily in a cult or something. Was I roofied? Was that me, strutting around in front of a bunch of drooling guys wearing a push-up bra and boy shorts? Or, worse, a nightie with an empire waist? Empire waists and me do not mix due to the fact that I am freakin’ stacked. There was a small revolt in the backstage area when the organizer handed the empire nightie to me. I took one look at it and said, “I’m not wearing that.” “Yes you are,” she said. “I will look horrible in that,” I said. “Well, you have to wear it.” she said. So I put the damn thing on, went back in front of the audience, and made a joke out of the whole thing, pretending I was Mae West. I got some laughs, but it was out of sheer desperation and I felt a mix of white-hot shame and fiery rage while I was doing it. In between catwalk strolls, I sat on the back steps of the house, in some naughty nightie, drinking Budweiser out of a can and wondering what the hell had happened to my life. AND. The lingerie company stiffed us on our payment, too. So I did all that jank for FREE.

19. I am usually about 6 years behind the times, when it comes to technology. (Late bloomer, remember?)

20. I worked in a factory on an assembly line after college. My shift started at 5 a.m. It made no sense.

21. I have first cousins who are still in grade school.

22. I don’t enjoy going to zoos. I find them very upsetting.

23. I learned how to read by the time I was three, maybe even two and a half. My parents didn’t even realize it had happened until one day they were driving out to the Cape and they drove past a big A-frame liquor store (that is still there by the way), and it has a big sign on the roof that says “LIQUOR” and I stated calmly, from my car seat in the back: “Lick-war.”

24. I read Shakespeare’s sonnets to calm myself down. I read them out loud.

25. The best job I think I’ve ever had was a summer gig as a waitress in a pizza joint on the beach. It was fast, furious, non-stop, every shift was like a military operation. Time RACED and also felt like it stood still. It was NEVER slow at that joint. It was always inSANE. You would literally never stop working, not a moment to breathe, over an entire eight hour shift. The staff got so tight working in those conditions. We would finally kick everyone out at the end of the night, pour a couple of pitchers of beer, sit around talking and laughing, and then go down to the beach and go skinny dipping. Drunk. Only to get up again and do it the next day. It was crazy. I worked there for about four summers.

27. I changed the flat tire of my Westfalia camper van in the breakdown lane of the 405 in Los Angeles. I had gone to an interview that day, and was wearing a tight black skirt, a white shirt, heels. I still cannot believe that I changed that tire correctly. This was pre-cell phone, and I suppose I could have waited for a tow truck to see me, or limped off an exit ramp to find help, but screw that. I knew I had to get it done myself, and I fucking did, and I am still proud. Not as proud as the time I actually parallel-parked that sonofabitch on a vertical hill in San Francisco.

28. I need a lot of down-time to even be halfway stable. This has been true since I was a kid. I am horrible at quick segues. I need time to get ready for new environments, very hard to go from one straight into the other. Guess that’s just how I’m built. I work around it.

29. When I was 13 years old, I wrote a novel about Andrea McArdle’s rise to fame. It is 300 pages long. I still have it.

30. The first and only time I ventured into a mosh pit I promptly got a black eye.

31. I shaved my head once. It’s actually the best haircut I ever had. Guy I was seeing at the time said the shape of my head was “fetching”. He did not normally talk like that, to put it mildly. He talked like a Tough Guy, taciturn and blunt. He looked at my shaved head and had to search for an appropriate descriptive term. “Fetching” is what he came up with. It’s still one of my favorite compliments.

32. I don’t believe in the concept of “beach reads”. I don’t understand. Not how I relate to the written word. Beach vacations are the time to bust out the heavy guns, the gigantic tomes I never have time to read elsewhere, the things that require space and time to comprehend and absorb. Mainly I dislike the concept of “beach reads” because it comes with a heavy suitcase of ASSUMPTIONS about how/why people read, and assumptions make me cranky. Show me an assumption and I will immediately start doing the opposite of said assumption just to show I have free will.

33. Transcript:
Me: “So, lemme ask you. Who are you.”
Him:”What do you mean?”
Me: “I have an idea of who you are and some ideas of what you might do.”
Him: “Like what?”
Me: “I think you are a secret agent of some kind in the employ of the US government, and I think you have the highest of security clearance. I’m not saying you’re a spy, but I think that you’re in that arena.”
Long pause.
Me: “Am I right?”
Him: “Yup.”
Me: “Okay, so tell me everything you know.”
This conversation actually happened. I am proud that I have lived a life where this conversation was possible. And yes, he – in his beautiful Southern accent – did tell me – well, not everything – but a hell of a lot. Stories that would blow your mind. It was AWESOME. We also drank whiskey and listened to Elvis.

34. I was an extra in the TV miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts. I played a convent girl at school with the young Rose Kennedy (played by Annette O’Toole). We all had to wear grey wool jumpers, heavy white shirts, thick tights. It was filmed on the hottest day of July. We were DYING of the heat. We were filming a scene in a church and one of the ADs kept calling out, “MAKEUP. THE CONVENT GIRLS ARE SWEATY.” In between takes, we would lie on the grass, hitching up our skirts over our waists to air ourselves out. We looked like a massive sex crime. The actresses playing nuns had it worse because they were in full habits. I remember glancing over at the Mother Superior, in between takes. She had lifted her habit up and bunched it over her shoulders like a cape, her bra, underwear on full display, she didn’t give a shit, nobody gave a shit, it was too damn hot, gaffers and sound guys strolling by not even looking at her – and best of all, she had taken two ice-cold soda cans from craft services and was rolling them around in her armpits. I cannot even explain how funny that image remains. Her wimple, her underwear, the soda cans … Show business, encapsulated. Oh, and proud moment: everyone was genuflecting wrong and people were doing the Sign of the Cross wrong, not the Catholic way. I mentioned it to one of the ADs and they had me demonstrate it for the cast so we all looked like little Catholic drones. Dammit, I’m Catholic. You touch the right shoulder first? I know you’re not one of us.

35. I am very fortunate that I have such a big great group of friends, from all eras of my life. I am very lucky. Or maybe it’s not luck. I privilege friendships, I work at them, I care about them. My friends are so wonderful.

Posted in Personal | 24 Comments

Mia Farrow on Gena Rowlands


Mia Farrow on Gena Rowlands in Lonely are the Brave in 1962:

“I had seen her when I was a teenager in Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk Douglas. I’d never seen anyone that beautiful with a certain gravitas. It was particularly unique in that time, when many women were trying to be girlish, affecting a superficial, ‘I’m a pretty girl’ attitude. It seemed to be the best way to succeed, but Gena did none of that. There was a directness — not that she wasn’t fun and didn’t smolder — but it came from a place that was both genuine and deep.”

Gena Rowlands, Kirk Douglas, “Lonely are the Brave”

Gena Rowlands is 85 years old and she’s on the cover of this month’s Elle magazine. Again, like I’ve said, seeing Gena Rowlands everywhere right now is like entering a pleasant alternate universe where everything is as it SHOULD be. There are only a couple of excerpts from that interview online, with more in the print copy.

It’s also one of the most beautiful magazine covers of the year.

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Room (2015); d. Lenny Abrahamson


Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s book of the same name, Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, deserves the term “harrowing.” It is harrowing in its quiet, in its logic, in its patience. It is harrowing in its setting. It is harrowing in the fact that it forces you to imagine what it would be like, and, even more upsetting, how would YOU handle it? Empathy isn’t just “Oh my God, I feel so bad for that person.” It’s “I am forced into that person’s shoes, and it fills me with worry and dread, because I wonder how I would fare in similar circumstances.” Roomis not manipulative on any of these scores. The film’s opening energies are “everyday,” not “high crisis”: we see routines, we see breaks in those routines, we learn the rules of “room,” we understand every corner, every object, we experience daily life with “Ma” and son Jack (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay) in a slow crawl of horror and boredom. Because the story is seen (mainly) through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy, “backstory” is slow to come, although, as adults in the audience, we can guess. That gap in understanding (between his own understanding of his reality and OUR uneasy guess at why mother and son are locked in that room) fills the film with a sense of dread from the first moment. We know more than he knows. He thinks “room” is the world. He has never been outside of “room.”


To say more about the plot would be to destroy that horrifying empathetic experience. Even the trailer gives too much away about what happens later in the film. Room‘s opening hour is so claustrophobic, so upsetting (without any of the typical cinematic devices to “up” the ante – music, quick-cuts) that it will be tough to endure for some audiences. It is brutal. The room is the room. That’s it. There is no other space. There’s a ratty bed in the corner. There’s a wardrobe with clothes in it. There’s a tub and a toilet. There’s a sink, a fridge, and a tiny counter-top. There’s a skylight. And that’s it. Brie Larson said in an interview: “Nothing would be in there unless it had a reason to be in there. Why is it there? The rag that I’m cleaning the floor with are baby clothes cut up from when Jack was a baby.” Room has that level of detail in its props and atmosphere, and it’s felt by the audience in a visceral way. Her sweat pants. His little Underoos. The little saucepan. The washcloth. That horrible rug on the floor that will play such a huge part in the film. Stained. You know it stinks. It should be thrown out with the trash. But it’s all they have to cover the concrete floor.


Ma has been in “room” (that’s what they call it, no “the”) for seven years. Jack is five. As an audience member, you do the math, horrified. Because the film is through his eyes, it’s treated as a casual matter-of-fact, although if you keep a close eye on Ma, you can see the grim endurance there. She keeps their lives active, as much as possible. They do exercises together. They make things out of eggshells and toilet paper rolls. She cooks him a birthday cake. But as adults, we see everything on her face her son can’t see. Her skin is literally grey. Her eyes are dull. Her face is covered in pimples. Even when she smiles at him, the darkness flows out of her face. It’s so cold that you can see their breath, as they lie in bed together.


Seven years before, Ma (whose name is Joy Newsome) was abducted by a maniac whom Ma and Jack refer to as “Old Nick.” It’s the Jaycee Dugard situation. We never see “room” from outside in that first hour, so you don’t know where they are. Is it a basement? A garage? The door is steel, and there’s a key-pad that keeps it locked and she doesn’t know the combination. “Old Nick” shows up on occasion, bringing groceries. He forces himself on Joy, all as Jack lies at the bottom of the wardrobe, holding his toy truck, hearing the sounds “Old Nick” makes through the wardrobe walls. Joy submits. She has to. Unless Jack comes out of the closet, we don’t see “Old Nick” directly. Jack peers through the slats in the wardrobe, and we see a figure seated at the table, but there is only his back, his hands. Slowly, deliberately, the picture of their circumstance emerges. Jack does not like “Old Nick,” and feels protective of his mother, but other than that, his life is his life. There’s a TV in “room” and he watches “Dora the Explorer.” He draws pictures of a dog. But to him, there is no outside world. Ma has tried to protect him from realizing they are trapped, and so although she tells him about things like turtles and other things seen on the television, she makes sure to let him know that they are not real, they are just pictures on the screen. He buys it.

Until two things happen, one after the other: A mouse crawls out from beneath the refrigerator and Ma beats it back into the wall. And Jack turns 5 years old.


Those two events create an alchemy of connection that opens up a tiny space where Ma can make her move. There is no voiceover narration. We, the audience, are as stuck in their lives as they are. Whatever they think we have to guess. Whatever Ma’s plan is, we have to learn it as she tries to explain it to her son.

Watching Brie Larson play all of this is one of the most pleasurable (ironically) experiences I have had as an audience member this year. What an intense satisfaction there is in seeing an actress submit so fully to the imaginary reality, and to do so with such logic, such absence of fanfare, such humility. (I met Ms. Larson at Ebertfest, when she was there to present the wonderful Short Term 12, and she was such a homey presence, saying after she introduced the film, “I’ll be here for the next couple of days, so please find me and say Hi” … she didn’t just fly in for her film and fly out. She participated on panels, she attended panels, she went to the parties during the course of the Fest. She’s not just an actress “to watch.” She is literally one of the best things going right now. A stealth bomber kind of actress. Breaking in from beneath or from the side. Showing everybody else up, frankly.)

Ma is not perfect, or a brave martyr. She’s a young woman whose life has been stolen from her, who does the best she could for her son in horrific circumstances, who eventually realizes (almost in a flash, although you also get the sense that her son turning 5 was something she had in her mind all along as “the moment” when she would start to explain “room” to him) that it is up to her to try to save them both. When she makes her move, it must be big and bold. And the possibility of failure is almost certain. How many times has she tried to escape before? How many times has she gotten her hopes up? To then have to endure yet another year in cold dark “room.”

But life is important, and we all must do whatever we can do to save our own lives.


That’s where Room digs in to the deeper philosophical questions it poses, through the extraordinary circumstances of Ma and Jack. Life is not meaningless. A life in “room” may suck, but it is still life. Ma has endured something so horrifying we think, out in the audience, it would “break” us. You hear parents say stuff like that all the time: “I would be put in a mental institution if anything happened to my child.” “I would not be able to go on if such a horrible thing happened to me.” Such statements seem to be a way for parents to deal with the anxiety of having brought life into the world, their fear of the dangers that are out there. But you just don’t know. People endure all kinds of unbelievably terrible things. Look at the refugees flooding out of Syria right now. Humanity is strong strong stuff. It is not that there is inspiration to be found in horror. That is not what I am saying. I don’t look at a woman sitting in a refugee camp who has no idea where her children are and think, “It is so inspiring that she is able to keep going.” Screw that. I think, “It is outrageous and evil that human beings put each other in this situation.” But my point is: Life is strong. It can be taken from us, it can be reduced to the bare minimum of survival, it can be ruined. We can, actually, be damaged beyond repair. And maybe that will be true for Ma and Jack, too. It’s a possibility. The triumph of the human spirit works well with audiences who want to believe in hope, but that’s not the ONLY story to be told. But in Room, it is driven home that being alive is important in and of itself, so much so that we (our spirits, our minds) almost have nothing to do with it. The body holds onto life, regardless of outward misery. Life is worth saving because it is Life. That’s how the human race has endured and lasted. It’s not inspirational – or, it’s not ONLY inspirational. It’s biology.

Ma remembers life “out there.” She was 17 when she was taken. In 7 years, she has become a grey pimpled ghost. And her son, born in “room,” knows no other world. And so if their lives have worth, even just on a biological level, then Ma must be the one to take the reins, break that routine that has been so carefully set up in the first hour of the film, help her son be brave too (and also understand that “room” is not all there is) and make that big bold almost foolhardy move to get them both OUT.

I won’t lie. Room is nearly unbearable, from beginning to end. The acting is extraordinary. The situation alone is so painful you don’t want to look at it directly. It forces itself on you. This is the difficult kind of empathy. The kind of “catharsis” that has nothing to do with breaking down in easy tears but the kind the Greeks understood: a release of pity and fear. Catharsis can be terrible. Young Jacob Tremblay does not feel like an actor. He is 5, 6 years old. He is so completely convincing as an unworldly little boy who has only known his Mother that his performance does not feel like a performance, making it even more of a miracle. Jack is a realistic 5-year-old. He’s not always adorable. Sometimes he is irrational, he throws tantrums, he turns on Ma on a dime. And the relationship Brie Larson has created with this small boy, her only real co-star throughout, is so close that it is almost as though he is still in her womb. He’s “out here” in the world, but he’s still “in there” too. Not for one second do you not believe that they are mother and son, that they have lived in that 11’x11′ room for five years together, that they have not once – except for when Jack goes in the wardrobe so that Old Nick can rape his mother again – been out of each others’ sight. This is not Brie Larson’s movie. It’s a two-hander. It lives/dies on that relationship. These two beautiful humans, one in her 20s, one 6 years old, create it together.

Nothing in Room is sentimentalized.

Not even the second half, which you would think would pour on the violin strings.

Life is hard. Being in “room” is hard. But the world is hard too. No one is safe from any of it. But endurance is built into us biologically. We do not know how strong we are until the Test comes. Be ready.

Room is one of the best films of the year.

Posted in Movies | 7 Comments