“I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’ and it’s done me just fine.”– Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Burnett, who would eventually become the legendary Howlin’ Wolf, was born on this day in 1901.

He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the “early influences” category. He is in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (He recorded at Sun Records in the early years – pre-Elvis, in other words). He is in the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame. He is in the Blues Hall of Fame. I could go on.

Sam Phillips at Sun Records talked about him with the reverence usually reserved for spiritual experiences or out-of-body close encounters with extra-terrestrials. Everyone felt that way about him. The Rolling Stones sure did. He was one of their major influences. When the Stones appeared on Shindig, they handed over the stage to Howlin’ Wolf, with a great blues band, including the great James Burton (who would eventually play for Elvis all through the 70s). It’s astonishing, and the young Rolling Stones sit on the stairs behind him, looking up at him, agog. Poor quality clip visually, but all you need are the vocals.

Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi, recorded in Memphis, but eventually would become associated with the Chicago blues. His voice is unmistakable. So powerful it’s impossible to listen to him casually. He demands full attention. His strength of persona was titanic. He had major gravitas – as though he was emerging FROM the earth – but also explosive lift-off, creating an excitement so huge it must have been absolutely overwhelming to see him life. Most artists have one or the other – gravitas or lift-off. He had both.

We’re lucky he lived long enough (he died in 1976) so there is a lot of footage of him performing live.

One final thing, a funny thing I just discovered while trying to find the photo of him at the top of this post (it’s my favorite photo of him because he’s IN ACTION, he’s coming right at you). If you Google “Howlin Wolf” he is the first thing that comes up – of course – but one of the alternate searches showing in the search bar was “Howling wolf animal.” So what this means is: the determined wolf lovers out there who just want to see pictures of their favorite animal out in the wild howling at the moon, have to add “animal” to their search, to clarify what it is they are actually looking for – otherwise all they’d see would be pictures of this legendary bluesman.

The landscape is still saturated with his name.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“If you have to be in a soap opera try not to get the worst role.” — Judy Garland

It’s the great, the irreplaceable, Judy Garland’s birthday.

The screengrab above is from John Cassavetes’ 1963 film A Child is Waiting. This film is not really well-known, except among Cassavetes/Garland completists – but some serious Cassavetes fans don’t know about it either. This was a “job” for him, it wasn’t a self-generated project, and so … to these purists … maybe it doesn’t “count” as much. Or something. I don’t know. He himself disowned it, saying the end result was not what he was going for, that there was a conflict between himself and producer Stanley Kramer about how to tell the story. All of this may be true, but that’s no reason for us to not watch the film and make up our own minds. It’s definitely filmed in a more “conventional” way than his other more personal films like Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Husbands and etc., all of which came later. But it’s interesting to watch because it shows what Cassavetes is like as a “director for hire” … and you can FEEL his sensibility in every frame, I don’t care what the purists say. A Child is Waiting is about a woman (Garland) who joins the staff of a mental hospital for disabled kids and immediately disagrees with the treatment of the patients, as decreed by the head doc (Burt Lancaster). She bonds with the kids – one in particular – whose mother, a chilly blonde played by Gena Rowlands, cannot deal with the fact that her son is not “normal” – she’s put him into the institution and basically never comes to visit, breaking the son’s heart and spirit. Garland fights for better treatment of the kids. The children in the movie were not trained actors. They were all mentally-challenged and disabled kids from a nearby state hospital. It gives the film a palpable and almost dangerous sense of reality that it certainly would not otherwise have. Cassavetes didn’t try to control the kids, or manipulate them, in either what they did, or who they were. This is where “he” is most felt in the film. He doesn’t film the kids with pathos, or pity, or sadness. He captures them in the fullness of their lives, mischievous, angry, sullen, pleased, whatever. And: He just thrust Garland among them. And the whole film, as far as I’m concerned, is about watching her take it all in. The screengrab at the top is what she is like through the whole thing: She takes them in – listens to them – intuitively cares about where they are at and what they are going through. Because it’s Cassavetes and his eye was always so tender and human – this does not feel exploitive. A Child is Waiting was produced by Stanley Kramer – who wanted to expose the plight of such children – (he was a very socially conscious guy as I’m sure you know). Other big actresses were considered for this part – offers were made, they all turned it down. Kramer had just worked with Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg so he got her to take the role.

If you want to see pure distilled empathy – felt in every thought/word/deed/gesture/expression … it’s in A Child is Waiting in Judy Garland’s performance.

Because that’s the thing with Judy Garland. She couldn’t do it any other way. It ALL was real for her. It’s how she was built, it’s how she received the world. It’s why she was a great actress, and it’s why she suffered so mightily. She paid the price for the easy accessibility to her own depths, of course, but it came from a place not of neurosis – as is so facile-ly claimed – but of generosity, fearlessness, and, above all else, reality. And actors must always “find a way” to make their fictional circumstances real. That’s the gig. Garland couldn’t do it any other way and so actors have much to learn from her.

If the pain was real for her, and it was, then so too was the joy, the love, the humor. It ALL was real. She had access to ALL of it.

This is a PHENOM in emotional availability and performance, in actors AND in regular people, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

She was DIFFERENT. This is why she is who she is and why she was who she was. It’s why she’s so wondrous to watch.

For me, one of the greatest single pieces of acting in the 20th century – and one that predicts Brando by over a decade – is the scene in Wizard of Oz when she sees Aunty Em in the big globe. This scene is one of my Talismans of Great Acting.

She’s not controlling the emotion, or even expressing it. She is IN it. And remember: Aunty Em is NOT in the glass globe. Judy is looking at nothing. Nobody’s there. She’s looking at a prop. Everything she does she does from her imagination. It’s astonishing.

Another high-water-mark: Judy Garland’s one-of-the-greatest-performances-of-all-time rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, sung on her TV show a couple of weeks after President Kennedy – a friend of hers – was killed.

Like I said: one of the greatest performances of all time.

Another high-water-mark: the scene in the dressing room in Star is Born. Again, for me, it’s another Talisman of Great Acting. Judy has a ton of those.)

It’s long. But that’s why it’s so masterful. Because I must point out: she does it with no cuts. She has to speak a huge wall of text – the scene is 5 minutes long – and she must “go” someplace during the course of the monologue. She doesn’t start out where she ends up. She can’t play the end of the monologue before she gets there … so she actually has to go THROUGH this. In front of us. No cuts, to give her time to prepare, or jump-start the final emotional state. The camera is placed on her and we watch her … she starts out sad but relatively calm, and at the end she is completely BROKEN. (The following scene is the huge number “Born in a Trunk” – which she is forced to perform with all of THIS churning around underneath it. And so that scene ALSO is a wonder, because in it she has to suppress all of THIS that we see here.)

No fakery. Never. She literally COULDN’T fake it.

Nobody like her. Happy birthday Judy.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Mike Doughty, if you’re out there …

It’s singer-songwriter Mike Doughty’s birthday today. My brother Brendan introduced me to Doughty’s music back in the day – specifically the album Skittish, which I still own – because I still believe in owning my music, not renting it from some corporate overlord.

I spent about a year and a half re-posting all my brother’s music writing – from off his blog – because I felt this stuff shouldn’t be lost or forgotten. Brendan is such a good writer. So I resurrect pieces when I can. Mike Doughty’s Skittish was # on Bren’s loosely organized “50 Best Albums” list, and I think it’s such a beautiful piece of writing I wanted to share it again: The title to this post here is from Bren’s piece.

50 Best Albums, #3. Mike Doughty, Skittish

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Happy Birthday to “Mr. Excitement”, Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson’s voice is otherworldly. He had a four-octave range, and what he could do with his voice is staggering. It’s a physical feat akin to an Olympic-level event. You just stop dead in your tracks and think, “…. A HUMAN is making that sound? It can’t be possible!” But it was. Jackie Wilson started out in talent contests in Detroit, where he had a tendency to blow away the competition. This was all local stuff. Big fish small pond, although even in the 40s it was hard to stand out in Detroit, the place was so packed with talent. Eventually, though, Jackie Wilson auditioned for and was accepted into the successful R&B group Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a staple in Las Vegas entertainment. (Elvis, famously, saw them perform in Las Vegas in 1956 and was so blown away by Jackie Wilson, whose name he didn’t know, that he went on and on … and ON about it, during the rap-riff session in 1956 now known as the “Million Dollar Quartet”. Jackie Wilson performed Elvis’ recent hit “Don’t Be Cruel” and you can hear Elvis’ awe: he didn’t know the song had THAT in it. And remember, 1956 was the year Elvis went national/global/supernatural. “Don’t Be Cruel” was huge for him. But he had performed it without exploring the real depths of it. Jackie Wilson showed him what he had missed. Seriously: listen to him regale Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins with the story. There’s no jealousy in his tone. Just sheer personal and professional respect.)


Billy Ward and his Dominoes

Jackie Wilson and Elvis eventually became friends. Jackie always had really nice things to say about Elvis – and obviously the reverse was true.

You can get a great sense of Jackie Wilson’s style in “Rags to Riches”, where his lead voice launches out of the group in an undeniable way. He will not be denied. He doesn’t obliterate the group, but there is a sense that he justifies its existence. He was basically plucked from obscurity into this position.

This was 1953.

Wilson was always getting into trouble. Like, big trouble. He was stabbed by a prostitute, for example. His life was out of control. The women, the kids, the assaults, the chaos of it all is overwhelming to read about. Dude, chill. The Dominoes were good for Wilson at first. It gave a structure to his life and a vehicle for his insane talent. He stayed with the Dominoes for 4 or 5 years, but finally left, tired of the endless “residency” in Vegas. Jackie Wilson was – so clearly – meant to be a solo artist. A headliner.

From his earliest days in local Detroit talent shows, he was already doing the songs which soon be well-known, regular staples of his performances for years to come. Like his version of “Danny Boy”. I don’t even know what to SAY about his “Danny Boy”.

WORDS ARE INADEQUATE.

You have to go to YouTube to watch this clip of him performing “Danny Boy” live. They won’t let me embed it. Don’t let that stop you. You have got to see this.

Here’s the recorded version but you have to see it live, because it just drives home the point that Wilson didn’t need the studio to shine. He was, if anything, better live.

So Jackie Wilson returns to Detroit right around the time a guy named Berry Gordy was starting to be active in the local scene. And we all know where THAT went. The two connected.

One of Wilson’s first songs recorded as a solo artist was written by Berry Gordy: “Reet Petite”. Wilson knew what his voice was capable of. He’d choose a key to sing whatever son and people – musicians, producers – thought it was too high. If you start there, there’s no way you can hit the high notes later in the song. Wilson knew he could hit them. It’s WHY he started things high up the scale. If you have four octaves in your pocket, you want to show it off.

An early hit for him was “Lonely Teardrops”, which would become a staple of his act and went to #1 on the R&B charts. Here he is performing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1962:

Jackie Wilson’s heyday was brief. (Then again, his life was brief. So.) The British Invasion was a game-changer for singers like Wilson. The whole landscape changed overnight, leaving a lot of singers – who didn’t write their own stuff – behind, no matter how talented they were. Motown also exploded, but Gordy cultivated other singers for superstardom. I’m not sure why. Wilson had fallings-out with pretty much everybody. Everybody except his audience, who went batshit NUTS every time they saw him live. People fainted. People tore their hair out. People stormed the stage. He was one of the most exciting performers ever.

He continued performing everywhere, and had a couple of hits – he’s probably most known for “Higher and Higher”, a title that also works as an analogy for his voice.

Then, in 1975, he collapsed onstage while singing “Lonely Teardrops”, and went into a coma. His life stretched on for another eight years, but he never really “woke up”. He was in an institution. It’s tragic. There’s a rumor Elvis donated money anonymously to pay for Wilson’s medical bills, which sounds like something Elvis would do. There were others. Benefit concerts were held. A lot of Motown artists donated money. Was Jackie Wilson conscious in there? It’s horrible to think about.

When he died in 1984, there wasn’t even enough money for a headstone. Eventually, friends raised the money to have him buried with his mother in a mausoleum in a Detroit ceremony, and the plaque reads “No More Lonely Teardrops”. It’s really a terrible story. What a massive talent.

Outside his hits, there’s a lot to discover and his voice is umistakable, one of those eerie miracles of humanity, where someone is given a gift – a voice like that is a gift, although Wilson cultivated it, stretched it, played with it. He knew he had a gift. He WORKED it. And he wasn’t just a voice. He was a full body performer (part of Elvis’ monologue in the Million Dollar Quartet details how Wilson moved while singing “Don’t Be Cruel”).

I found this wild clip where Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Gail Lewis and Jackie Wilson come together to sing “This Land Is Your Land”. God bless the person who recorded this – who saved it – and God bless the person who uploaded it onto YouTube. I love all of them but when Jackie Wilson comes on – and then grabs the microphone to do his verse – and you hear that voice – it makes me want to cry.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“The only gossip I’m interested in is things from the Weekly World News – ‘Woman’s bra bursts, 11 injured’. That kind of thing.” — Johnny Depp

It’s his birthday today.

In recent years, he has been taken up/hijacked/ by his personal problems and his terrible misguided marriage and subsequent trial. Before, he was taken up with gargantuan franchises, etc., and some of the clarity of his oddball status had dissipated. I miss oddball Johnny. Going back is impossible. Too much has happened. Maybe some director – (cough Jim Jarmusch cough) – could write something for him, put him back in the game.

But I’m going to talk about him BEFORE. What was striking about him at first, especially for such a pretty boy, like, who was prettier than Johnny Depp? – was his creativity and the big risks he took. You wouldn’t expect someone like him – a former teen idol – to be so risky in his choices. He was way WAY out there. Dialogue wasn’t his thing. Physical action WAS. He could be very “mannered”, but it looped in to the overall style of whatever film it was. He was sensitive to style (a lot of actors are afraid of style, or shy away from it, or do it badly, or don’t even know what it IS).

If you think back to his earliest days, the risk-taker was there from a start. His youthful soulful beauty was a force to be reckoned with, but he was 1. casual about it, it didn’t seem to interest him, and 2. “meta” about it. It’s not like he wanted to make himself ugly in order to be taken seriously (he has joked that if you ever hear him referring to himself as a “serious actor” please punch him in the face). The looks are a fact of his life, and in something like Cry Baby, the looks were used in almost a camp way, a call-back to 1950s heartthrobs, Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, and Depp was fully aware of what he was doing and referring to, and he consciously participated in the iconography – he understood it. I mean, watch this number:

He didn’t spent his youth as an actor in teeny-bop envelope-thin heart-throb love-interest roles. It was never his thing. He could have made a lot of money playing such roles. But Johnny Depp had a flaw/asset. He had IRONY. Irony is present in everything he does.

Edward Scissorhands shifted the perception of him for all time.

Okay. So … he’s a WEIRDO. Got it. He’s almost a throwback to the silent era. Full-body expressiveness, unafraid of being presentational, broad, but always with the lightest of touches.

I love Fear and Loathing. When Hunter said he wanted his ashes to be blown out of a cannon, he tapped Johnny Depp to do it. Because Depp was so “out there” he’d actually DO it. And he did.

I love Blow. I adore Ed Wood and Dead Man and Donnie Brasco.

I felt like I hadn’t written much about him, but a quick search shows me I have, a couple of them those in-depth actor-persona type things I used to do all the time here. Here are some links:

I wrote this big long thing about Depp as the Mad Hatter. I didn’t care for the movie but his performance gave me a lot to think about, and I had a lot to say – about him, in general, as an actor. So the Mad Hatter performance is discussed, but it’s more about Depp’s sensitivity to context.

Johnny Depp: The Mad Hatter’s Context

I absolutely loved Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. I wasn’t aware this was a controversial opinion, at least among cinephiles. A lot of people had issues with the look of the film. But what interests me is the performances and how those performances tell the story. Johnny Depp as John Dillinger was doing what I have called “blank” acting, and it’s one of my favorite things to talk about and to try to parse out and discuss. Actors who are able to divest themselves of normal emotional apparatus due to the character they’re playing, actors who are able to empty themselves out of typical human emotions, if warranted. John Dillinger was not a complicated man and Public Enemies presents him pretty straight.

Actors like to add things. It’s part of the actor’s job, to fill things in. But Public Enemies not only didn’t require this, it would have hurt it. Johnny Depp’s opaque performance, blank, almost flat-affect is the opposite of “filled in”. It’s more like he was literally playing an animal, an animal trying to get its needs met in uncomplicated ways. This is hard to do. Try it yourself and see. Try not to feel much. Anyway, I won’t go on and on, because I go on and on … and ON … in the piece I wrote about it. I love his performance.

Opacity Is a Virtue: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

And finally: a piece YEARS in the making – about a virtually un-seeable film called Arizona Dream (yes, it is on DVD but the film was so butchered I cannot recommend you watching it) – which I saw during its 5-day run at the Chicago Art Institute back in the mid-90s and I have never been able to get it out of my mind. Sometimes the full version shows up on YouTube. See that one. It’s a magical film and he is great in it. I wrote about Arizona Dream for my column at Film Comment.

Embroiled in controversies over the last five years, which have depleted him physically and emotionally, manipulated and lied about and silenced, there is much good will out there towards him. People say “Believe victims.” Well, I do. If you get my drift. He also clearly has substance abuse issues but aren’t we supposed to be sympathetic towards these and not look at them as character flaws but maybe a disease?

Depp is a relatively young man. He is a character actor in the body of a leading man. I would love to see him collab again with Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton … the directors who understand him. The blockbusters are fine, and he brings something weird and inventive to the table, but I’d love to see him in something smaller, lower stakes, where he can be set free. Johnny Deep set free is a “thing of beauty and a joy forever.”

I’ll leave you with this. Here’s a beautiful and sad video of Depp reading the letters he received from HST. I love it.

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May 2024 Viewing Diary

Forward Fast (2024; d. Lorraine Sovern)
I met Lorraine at the Florida Film Festival. Someone I was talking to at a party told me about her work and about this short film. He then pulled her over to our group so we could meet. We exchanged information and she sent me a link to her film. She puts together footage of her childhood, the games and role-playing, and – in a current-moment voiceover – reflects on some of the disturbing things she can now see about growing up as a girl in the early 2000s. The sexualization of young girls was off the charts. Forward Fast is heartbreaking and honest.

The Tourist, Season 2
Allison and I finished this one up when she was visiting. I really enjoyed this series.

Under the Bridge (2024; created by Quinn Shephard)
Another one watched with Allison. It’s excellent.

The Aristocrats (2005; d. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette)
I remember seeing this one at the Angelika I think? I know I saw it in the theatre. It’s so inside-baseball and in that strange sub-genre we (“we”) can’t seem to get/have enough of: comedians talking about comedy. We don’t have 150 documentaries where actors sit around talking about acting. Why are comedians so obsessed with themselves? I tend to enjoy this sub-genre because it’s one of the only places where you see artists talking about their process. I had been trying to describe this doc to Allison. “It’s about this famous joke … ” “What’s the joke?” “I can’t describe it.” “Oh come on. What is it?” “The only thing you have is the premise and the punchline. The rest is up for grabs.” So it’s been almost 20 years since I saw this but a lot of it came back to me. Especially Bob Saget and Gilbert Gottfried. (When Gottfried died, I reminisced on actually getting to see him at the Friars Club when he roasted Ricky Schroeder. I didn’t really “get” Gottfried until I saw him live. I’m so glad I saw him live at a ROAST. At the FRIARS CLUB. What he did up there had to be seen to be believed.) Which brings me to another weird thing about watching this documentary so many years after it came out. A lot of the participants are no longer with us. Robin Williams. It’s maybe 20 minutes too long but still, well worth a watch.

Friends the Reunion (2021; d. Ben Winston)
I didn’t watch this when it was on. I was definitely a Friends fan although … I fell off with a lot of TV watching once I moved to New York and went to grad school. I just didn’t have time and I was sleeping on couches for a year, and busy from morning til night. Friends “dropped” when I was in Chicago and it was instantly “appointment television”. I remember it as an instant phenomenon. The chemistry of these six people is the stuff dreams are made of. Except for the unbelievably grating presence of James Corden – God, he’s awful – it was fascinating and also … disturbing. Matthew Perry. He was clearly not doing well. He barely said a word. It made us both so sad.

Friends pilot (September 22, 1994; d. James Burrows)
So then Allison and I decided to watch the pilot. Wild to see. I don’t think I’ve watched since it aired and I look at the air date … and memories flood back. I was in Ithaca with the out of town production of Killer Joe and wrapped up in my new romance with Michael, and also heartbroken because of him. So long ago. Lifetimes ago. But sometimes it still feels so close. Eerie.

Pretty Poison (1968; d. Noel Black)
The film is thick with the stink of pollution, ravaged natural world, chopped down trees boiled down into little bottles of gleaming red liquid, hypnotic but somehow malevolent the feeling of ROT, the emptiness of modern life – its apathy and ugliness. Anthony Perkins is intense as the troubled young man fearful of being put back into an institution, struggling to concentrate at his factory job. Dazed by the gleaming red liquid. Equally dazed by the teenage Tuesday Weld, a stunning majorette whom he watches from afar, until they meet randomly at a little hamburger stand next to the polluted river. The chemistry is instant. The chemistry seems real but everything is “off”. Who’s “off”? Him? Her? Or is it just the world? A riveting work. I love it.

Tom Brady Roast (2024)
I got pretty obsessed. I spent the week after the roast watching “reactions” to it on YouTube. It was WILD. Also, it was LIVE. X-rated, in some cases. Nikki Glaser wiped the floor with everybody else on that stage.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013; d. Mohammad Rasoulof)
I watched this after the news broke of Rasoulof’s jail sentence, but before the news broke of his escape from Iran. He attended the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of his new film. I saw this one back when it was released. I couldn’t believe it even existed, especially in the climate in Iran for the last 20 years.

Fall Guy (2024; d. David Leitch)
One of my favorite films this year so far. What a blast. I went to go see it with my niece Lucy and we had so much fun.

Bodkin (2024; d. Nash Edgerton, Bronwen Hughes, Johnny Allan, Paddy Breathnach)
A new murder-mystery series on Netflix. The Irish setting makes me homesick for it. I haven’t been there in so long. Too long. I enjoyed this.

The Teachers Lounge (2023; d. Ilker Çatak)
It took me a while to get to this. It’s fantastic and upsetting. I first saw Leonie Benesch in Babylon Berlin where she was a member of the big ensemble. Here, she’s center. The whole thing is centered on her minute-to-minute sometimes second-to-second experience of the central events: She’s a teacher at an elementary school and there’s been a series of thefts. Three kids are “interviewed” and forced – coerced – to “rat” on the culprit. Soon after, Benesch accuses someone of theft. The events escalate until the entire school is in an uproar. The whole thing is very effective – great script. There’s a Stalag 17-quality to the atmosphere, one of suspicion and pessimism. Nothing will be the same after this. What has been done can’t be undone. Highly recommend.

The Death of Stalin (2018; d. Armando Iannucci)
God, this movie. I’ve already seen it about 3 times. I can’t believe how well it works. It’s so funny, the performances are so funny, and yet … this is how it went down. Almost exactly. Incredible script.

Frankenstein (1931; d. James Whale)
Boris Karloff adds so much pathos. The performance is rightly famous. The blankness of his face means we can project everything onto it. Loneliness. Sadness. Isolation. The monster was clearly FORCED to be a monster. If he had just been embraced by humanity … not tormented. He didn’t MEAN to drown that little girl. He thought she would float. He had only been alive for, like, 8 hours at that point.

Ezra (2024; d. Tony Goldwyn)
I reviewed for Ebert. Worth a watch.

La Chimera (2024; d. Alice Rohrwacher)
Her Happy as Lazarro announced her as a major new filmmaker. Happy as Lazarro was on my Top 10 of that year. Since then, she’s directed for television, and a couple of shorts. Now comes La Chimera, which – along with The Fall Guy – is one of my favorites this year. I love that my list so far includes a big Hollywood film and an Italian film about the black market in Etruscan antiquities. But it’s “about” so much more. A haunting experience with a final shot so powerful I was knocked flat. A mysterious film about the ghosts haunting the ugly rapacious modern world.

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“I was smart enough to go through any door that opened.” — Joan Rivers

It’s her birthday today.

A couple of days before Joan Rivers died, when there was still some hope she would pull through, I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about this legend with someone who loves her, and who has a lot of smart things to say about her. We had been talking about the tone of all of the Tweets in support of her, and how unique they were, and what they said about Joan Rivers (especially the comments from her fellow comics – which, as far as I’m concerned, were the only comments that mattered). So I put Mitchell on speaker and turned on the tape recorder.

JOAN RIVERS

Joan Rivers Portrait

Mitchell Fain: Joan Rivers is definitely one of the top queer icons. I don’t know a gay person who doesn’t love her.

Sheila O’Malley: And why is that?

MF: It’s twofold so stick with me on this. There’s a lot of criticism lately because of the mean things Joan says. It’s a very PC world right now. My thing is: Nobody gives that criticism to Don Rickles. They only say it to Joan, because of sexism, anti-Semitism, a kind of “keep that mouthy Jewish broad quiet” thing.

But I think what people are missing is: Yes, she says incredibly mean things. A. She’s a comedian. She’s never done anything differently than the boys. And B. if Joan Rivers were a person who said mean things about one particular group of people and not another, if she only singled out one group, it would be a very different thing. But there’s not one group of people who get a pass from her.

She’s one of those people who says things out loud what we’re all thinking, in our worst moments, and she says it with cleverness and speed. And the monster gets smaller. You know when you’re a little kid and you think there’s a monster in your closet, and you have to take the monster out of the closet and realize there is no monster? Joan Rivers makes the monster smaller. Whether it’s Kim Kardashian or menopause, she makes the monster smaller. And everybody is subject to her attention. It could be the Jewish girl sitting there, the skinny white girl, the black guy. Yes, it’s insult comedy, but it’s always felt honest, as opposed to just mean.

There was that thing recently where she was on CNN and she walked out of the interview.

I think a lot of people thought she was faking it for publicity. I don’t think that’s true. Rivers said, “You are not the person to be interviewing a comic.” The woman was taking her to task and saying, “You say really mean things …” and Rivers just walked off. We can talk about it in terms of political correctness, and of course it will be better to be a kinder gentler nation, but I will always take Auntie Joan’s honesty.

One of the big controversies recently was with Lena Dunham, where Rivers said something about Dunham’s thighs or something. Lena Dunham tweeted about Joan Rivers when she heard Rivers was ill, and she could have said any number of things, and she wrote:

We can’t lose Joan. All love and healing wishes to Her Majesty Joan Rivers- being ripped a new one by you is an honor to be treasured.

It makes me want to cry, I don’t know why. Dunham freakin’ gets it. There was an article titled Did Joan Rivers Body-Shame Lena Dunham? Yes, she did. And Lena Dunham said it was an “honor and a treasure.” So fuck you.

All I know is Joan Rivers still makes me guffaw or gasp or shake my head in shock. I am never less than entertained. She’s a loud-mouthed bubbe who tells the truth. We need her.

We can talk about her in terms of her importance to comedy. You can really count on one hand the female comics who broke that ground. What Joan was doing was different and she was doing it on a much larger scale.

Joan Rivers

The one time I saw Joan in concert was back in the 80s. My brother and I went to see her at the Warwick Musical Tent, and it was a big deal because the whole show was David Brenner and Joan Rivers. And at the time, popular conception was that you couldn’t have two comics on a bill. It wasn’t done. You’d have a singer and a comic. And Brenner and Rivers were like, “WHY can’t we do this?”

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It was a juggernaut. It was huge. It changed the game. She challenged people’s ideas, she challenged how the industry saw comedians.

She also changed the way women could speak in public. Let’s not underestimate that. Yes, a lot of what she did was self-deprecating. But the stuff she talked about, her inadequacies as a sexual partner, all of that stuff, was extraordinary.

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Her mom was like “You marry well as a Jewish lady, and make sure your husband makes a lot of money so that you can have a fur coat and rise in a society that hates Jews.” That’s how it worked. Joan’s mom married a doctor and it was the Depression and Joan’s dad would see patients for free, or take eggs as payment, and Joan’s mother was not having it. There was a lot of tension in the household about success and making money which is why Joan Rivers was always good at making money. She marries this guy Edgar, she loves him, he then loses all her money, and kills himself. And remember when that happened: this comedian’s husband kills himself, and the one commodity she has, her humor – nobody wants to see it anymore. Nobody wants to see the widow of a suicide victim tell jokes. Then she proceeds to make her fortune back by doing whatever the fuck it takes. And that is a big thing for me about Joan Rivers and her comedy. She will do whatever the fuck it takes.

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One of the things that is very fun to watch is this In Bed With Joan Rivers web series. My favorite one recently is Bianca Del Rio, who was a contestant on Rupaul’s Drag Race. Bianca is an insult comic but he does it in drag, and is definitely the descendant of Joan Rivers. So here is this drag queen basically doing Joan’s act, really well, on Joan’s show, and you see Joan Rivers sitting back, letting Bianca Del Rio get all the laughs. Joan Rivers certainly gets in her perfectly-timed digs, but that type of generosity is the real Joan Rivers.

Here’s the deal. Everybody I know has stolen from Joan Rivers’ act. We watch Joan Rivers and she said all the things we couldn’t say or felt disempowered to say. It’s like Barbra Streisand’s answer to why the gays love her so much: “I was different and I made it.”

SOM: There was a moment in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” where she’s there for the Mark Twain award for George Carlin. And what was so revealing was her saying, “I’m never included when these events come up. I’m just glad I’m included.” It takes a kind of stamina to withstand the Boys Club that still exists.

MF: In her first book, Enter Talking, she talks about Second City being a Boys Club and she tells stories of stepping forward from the back line – where you step into a scene – and seeing other people put their arms out to stop her. Now she talks very lovingly about Second City, in retrospect, but her experience there was not a positive one. It was another place where she wasn’t wanted.

SOM: And then there are these amazing moments like when Johnny Carson says on air, “You’re gonna be a big star” and then eventually hands over a permanent guest-spot to her. That was a game-changer as well.

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MF: There still isn’t a late-night talk show with a female host, except for Chelsea Handler.

SOM: At the Comedy Central roast of Joan Rivers, it was all about trashing her looks and her plastic surgery. Anytime anyone mentions the plastic surgery, I get annoyed. If she didn’t do that to her face, she’d hear about it. “Look at how she let herself go!” You can’t win, as a woman, with aging. Besides, who cares? It’s the most obnoxious concern-trolling. Men aren’t treated this way. She was also one of the first people to talk about, to admit she was getting plastic surgery.

MF: She talked about everything. Periods, menopause, how your body falls when you get older. It was the next step from Phyllis Diller who talked about not being a good housewife.

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SOM: And Diller’s schtick was including women in the conversation of comedy in a very important way. Diller was admitting something really secret, admitting that the happy homemaker thing was shit. She was telling a dirty little secret about women’s lives at that time. Then there was Carol Burnette. Elaine May. You can feel a new ground opening up.

MF: Rivers opened the door for us to talk about stuff that the boys didn’t want us to talk about. And she did it anyway and she’s been doing it for 50 years.

There was a late-night cable show a while back that was a roundtable of different comics. It was almost always boys, with an occasional girl. They would throw out names of comedians and everyone had an opinion. “Let’s talk about Pryor.” And someone threw out Joan Rivers. It was all these young boy comics, and the way that these guys talked about Joan Rivers, they were like, “Let me tell you something. Do not count Joan out. Just because she’s an old lady with plastic surgery and she’s on red carpets and Hollywood Squares – when you’re one on one with Joan Rivers, she’s still the smartest person in the room.”

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And that’s what matters. The reaction from comics to her illness has been so interesting. It’s not “Poor Joan Rivers,” it’s almost selfish. It’s like, “We need more from you, Joan. Get it together.” There’s a selfish thread of “We are not done needing Joan Rivers. We still need Auntie Joan to say shitty things.” The tone is: “No no no, there are way more people to make fun of, we need you, the Kardashians are still around, who’s next, we need you to call it out.” Who’s gonna say that stuff now?

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It also speaks volumes about Joan Rivers’ awareness of pop culture. I mean, Fashion Police, is, for me, appointment TV. She says shit you can’t believe someone is getting away with on TV. It’s amazing. Even the people on the set with her, they can’t believe what she’s saying. Joan Rivers calls out Ariana Grande, or Lena Dunham, she calls out the most brand-new and/or obscure or utterly of-the-moment pop culture person, and Joan Rivers wants to find out who the fuck they are. It seems like she’s off-the-cuff making up mean things, which she is, but the important thing is that she’s still paying attention. In a weird way, she’s a version of Will Rogers. She’s the Will Rogers of mean. She’s always observing and making comments about our culture.

I mean, what 80-something year old lady knows who Ariana Grande is? I think it’s extraordinary. Clearly it comes from a place of being driven, maybe a little bit crazy, or desperate … but she’s still doing it at a level that other people her age just are not.

SOM: What I loved in that “Piece of Work” doc were her file cabinets of jokes. One was labeled “Cooking to Tony Danza.”

[Roaring laughter.]

SOM: D comes after C. Oh my God.

MF: It’s genius.

SOM: Cooking to Tony Danza…

[More laughter.]

SOM: There’s that moment in the documentary where she’s playing the club in Wisconsin and she makes a Helen Keller joke and a guy storms out after heckling her. And afterwards there was a little Wisconsin lady getting Joan’s autograph and the lady was like, “That guy, he just doesn’t understand comedy,” and Joan said, “I know. It’s comedy. It’s not meant to be serious.” I loved that bonding moment with a real person, but then, Joan is being walked out to her car, and she’s saying, “I feel bad. His son is deaf. Maybe he had a catharsis tonight. Maybe it was good for him to shout at me.”

MF: What I love about that scene is how she handles the heckler. As someone who has spent many years onstage, making jokes, hoping the audience thinks it’s funny and then dealing with people who don’t, watching Joan deal with it is a master class. She tells the joke. He heckles. She rips him a new asshole. She improvises a joke to get the audience back on her side. And then, boom, she’s back into her act. THAT is technique. She’s an old lady. She’s a senior citizen. I know 20-year-olds who cannot recover from a moment onstage like that. She does a 3-point turn right back into her act. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It blew me away. I watch that scene over and over, asking, “How does she do that? What’s the formula?”

Here’s one of my favorite Joan Rivers moments of all time. It was from when she had a daytime talk show and it was during the whole Jessica Hahn and Jim Bakker scandal. Jessica Hahn was on Rivers’ show via satellite and Hahn turns the interview around to start attacking Joan for saying mean things. And you think, “Honey, what possessed you to take on Joan Rivers?” Underestimate her at your peril. Underestimate this old lady at your peril. It ends with Joan Rivers, legitimately pissed, saying, “I’m not the one who slept my way to the middle.” I think when the history of television is written, that is definitely a high point. It is one of my favorite moments of all time.

SOM: “I’m not the one who slept my way to the middle.” Wow. You can’t recover from a comment like that.

MF: Yup. Done. Garry Shandling tells this great story about how he opened for Joan Rivers in Vegas years ago. There was a big party afterwards, there was dancing. Joan was dancing with Edgar, and Garry was dancing with his wife, and this old Jewish woman danced up to Garry Shandling, not realizing Joan Rivers was right behind them, and she leaned into Garry Shandling and she said, “We thought you were much funnier than Joan.” And Joan turned her husband around, without missing a beat, and said, “You have no breasts,” and then danced away with Edgar.

So mean, so base, but the whole point is: You’re shaming me in my own place, and I’m going to go right for the jugular.

Joan Rivers

This is sort of a nonsequitir but it has to do with my feelings about Joan Rivers. I was recently talking with someone about Madonna. There is a world of Madonna Gays. I am not one of them. I love Madonna but I stopped paying attention after “Music.” There are Madonna apologists, you can’t say anything bad about Madonna, they lose their minds. I’m a bit of a Joan Rivers apologist.

Yes, she’s politically incorrect. Yes, she’s rude. Yes, she’s self-deprecating. Yes, she has had too much surgery. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I still love her. She’s a legend. She changed the game. She’s a trailblazer who’s still working at a certain level at her age. How many people of her generation have their own television show? Don Rickles doesn’t have his own television show.

Then there is the fact that Joan got her fortune back. Selling jewelry on QVC. Doing Hollywood Squares. There’s something about this woman as a business woman that I find unbelievably admirable. Everyone made fun of her for hawking her jewelry on QVC, and now, who DOESN’T have a line on QVC? Everyone snickered and sneered at the time, and now Mariah Carey does it, Jennifer Lopez does it, Gwyneth Paltrow does it … not that they personally sneered at Joan, but the idea that Rivers would have the gall, the lack of class, to go hawk jewelry that she thought was pretty – which, by the way, she stands by and wears all the time – and she did it anyway. She was a single mom with a daughter to raise. She made all her money back. Amazing.

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SOM: I think the fact that the boys are all rallying around her on Twitter – that it’s not just the women – speaks volumes.

MF: Yes! I mean, Seth Rogen. He’s so current-generation goofball stoner boys club, and his Tweet says

I really need Joan Rivers to be ok.

The tone of Seth Rogen’s is the tone of a lot of them. In these tweets, is the idea that Joan would want her friends and fans to be like, “Get your ass up, Joan Rivers, because we are not done with needing you.” It’s almost selfish and it’s revealing the importance that she had for people, even those who don’t admit it because she’s not hip or politically correct.

Listen, there is an argument for being kind to each other and to not use words that hurt people’s feelings. But Joan is a social commentator, Will Rogers as a pit bull. She’s making a social comment with her shark-biting humor. It’s all absurdity to her. The absurdity of life, of the human condition. If she pulls out of this, the jokes that she’ll tell about it … I am so looking forward to it.

The Tweets from other comics reminds me of the poem that we love by Frank O’Hara.

SOM: “Oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”

MF: We need our Lana Turners to get up, we need our Joan Rivers to get up. Oh Joan Rivers we love you get up.

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Later that week

Sadly, Joan Rivers did not “get up.” Here is the tribute I wrote to Rivers for Rogerebert.com.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Tennessee and Elvis in Arty Magazine

Last names not necessary in both cases.

I am psyched to have a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of the long-running Arty zine, run by Cathy Lomax. This issue is devoted to all things Tennessee Williams. I wrote about Elvis. Because naturally. There is a connection, which I wrote about here about a decade ago, but in lieu of Baz Luhrmann actually referencing this deep-DEEP-cut connection in the film, I thought it would be fun to re-visit. UK people can purchase online, and there’s a way to contact them for issues (or a subscription, which is worth it) on that main page there. You can also read Cathy’s intro – Seductive, Thrilling & Morally Deplorable… Why We Love Tennessee Williams – at the first link above. When I pitched my idea to them, I had no idea Cathy’s love of Elvis. So it was a good fit!
 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Happy Birthday, Tom Jones

I’ve written about him before, mostly here.

He’s still out there. His voice is not only intact but as powerful as it ever was. He is recently a widow after 59 years of marriage. He is beloved by his fan base who have been following him for 50, 60 years now. Let’s see who, of your young musicians today, will inspire that kind of loyalty. There will be some, I guarantee it, but you never know who it will be. Longevity is the name of the game. Staying power. Generosity. Integrity. Doing what you WANT to do. Not resting on your laurels. Continuing to create. Continuing to be generous.

Tom Jones’ cover of Gillian Welch’s killer song “Elvis Presley Blues” blows my socks off and I didn’t think anything could compare to Gillian’s version. The arrangement of Jones’ version is startling, intense, with no catharsis in it, no resolution, no let-up except in Jones’ vocals … the cover is an ongoing pulse of sound, never varying, a tightrope wire of electricity. But I am also struck by Jones’ performance. Of course, he knew Elvis. He and his wife would vacation with Elvis and Priscilla. So there’s a smile on Jones’ face, in his eyes, as he thinks of Elvis. As sad as it is that Elvis died so young, it is my belief that people should smile when they think of him. His entire life was an act of generosity. It wore him out.

As Gillian Welch so gorgeously wrote in her lyrics: Elvis went out onstage “with his soul at stake.” His SOUL at stake.

As I always say, It’s got to cost you something. Otherwise, why do it? And so someone who didn’t know any other way to do it, like Elvis … should be celebrated, admired.

Jones’ smile, as he watches the footage of Elvis, is soft and open, tender.

Powerhouse.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“Art is about building a new foundation, not just laying something on top of what’s already there.” — Prince

It’s his birthday today.

It still doesn’t seem real. I still have moments where I think, “…. wait a second … he’s dead?”

In April of 2016, I attended Ebertfest. Directly following that, I flew to Albuquerque to attend the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience, where my short film – July and Half of August – was having its premiere. I arrived and my friend Stevie (he who stalked Dean Stockwell with me) picked me up at the airport, with much shrieking of joy at seeing one another again. We went to his house, he cooked me dinner, we hung out, it was wonderful. Then he drove me to the big hotel where I would be staying. Mum was flying in to attend the festival with me. I walked into the hotel and there were all these guests, wearing badges, and you knew they were there for the festival. Somehow, as if by osmosis, after I checked in, I got the sense that something had happened. Everyone was talking very intensely and checking their phones. I can’t remember who told me the news. I am sure I checked my phone. Maybe Mitchell texted me: “have you heard?” The bottom dropped out. Literally everyone in that lobby was thinking about the same thing, talking about the same thing, huddled in upset groups. I couldn’t BELIEVE it. I texted five friends. I needed to be with my Prince people. I texted my brother. I was in a state of shock. I got in the elevator to go up to my room, stunned, and a couple of other people got in, and I said, “Prince.” And they all – strangers to me – nodded and shook their heads and said things like “I can’t believe it”. I’ll never forget it. I was in the perfect place for news like this – unwelcome as it was – to come down. These were all artists and professional musicians. Everyone feels connected to Prince. He was only 57 years old.

The festival’s closing night was a concert by its special guest, studio musician/genius guitarist Nathan East, who’s played with literally everybody. His whole family was there, musicians many of them. Mum and I still talk about that concert. There was a FEELING in that theatre, a connectivity and love and power. I wrote a piece about the spontaneous tribute that occurred.

As awful as Prince’s passing was, and as weird as it was to hear the news in a place I’d never been before, surrounded by strangers … it was the perfect place for me to grieve, feel the loss, and also just be thankful I was on the planet at the same time, that I got to experience his rise, his music, in real time.

Personal Prologue over:

The Syncopated Ladies are a tap-dancing group based in Los Angeles, headed up by Chloe Arnold (she and her sister Maud were both featured in the wonderful documentary Tap World). They have a Facebook group where you can see their latest videos.

Here is their tap-dancing tribute to Prince. Tapping away to “When Doves Cry.”

One of the fun things in the wake of his death – if you could call it fun – were all of these crazy stories emerging of Prince’s behavior, random Prince sightings, who he was “out in the wild”. This was a persona he maintained, a persona that went so deep it WAS him. Because that’s how you get to be as huge as Prince was. Jimmy Fallon’s encounter with him is my favorite:

Everyone covers Radiohead’s “Creep.” I wrote a whole post about it. The song is an anthem for the weirdos of the world, the isolated outcasts, the lonely, the self-loathing. Prince did an absolutely epic 8 minute version of it at Coachella in 2008. I can’t even describe where he goes with it, what he does with it. The self-loathing is gone. It’s a celebration, a “fuck you” to the normals – it’s better to be a creep! – and he digs deeper and deeper into it, deeper than even Radiohead itself can go. “Creep” is one of those malleable songs where you can put so much stuff onto it. I still remember the first time I watched this performance. I could barely process it.

A couple years back, I had a blast talking with Film Comment editor-in-chief Nicolas Rapold and writer/Criterion editor Andrew Chan about “concert films” on the Film Comment podcast, and one of the films we discussed was Prince’s awesome Sign o’ the Times. Have a listen!

I’ve posted a bunch of my brother Brendan’s music writing here on this site and he wrote quite a bit about Prince. They’re excellent pieces, so here they are:
on Purple Rain
on Under the Cherry Moon
Seeing Prince at Jones Beach
Seeing Prince at Madison Square Garden

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2004 ceremony, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison’s son and a host of others performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And that’s awesome enough, right?

But wait for it.

My cousin Liam said on Facebook in regards to this guitar solo by Prince:

Everyone onstage here is completely astonished and delighted. Look at George’s son Dani’s expressions. Widely claimed as the greatest guitar solo ever played. Which is of course ridiculous as that’s done every night somewhere from someone’s bedroom to a dingy dive to a soccer stadium, but this NIGHT, HERE, it was done by Prince. And it is incredible.

You keep thinking it couldn’t possibly get more epic … and then, of course, it DOES.

Prince was the music of my adolescence. I lost my virginity to a Prince song. I am a Gen X cliche, and proud of it. Even if you didn’t choose Prince specifically for your own virginity-loss, Prince would have been on the radio in the background ANYWAY. He was the biggest genius who was actually active during my lifetime. If you were in high school in the 80s, he was everything. He IS everything. And what was the song playing? “International Lover”. lol

He can’t be replaced.

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Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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