Substack: Various updates + Dabney Coleman

My latest – some thoughts on Dabney Coleman up on my Substack.

Thanks so much for subscribing. Your support means so much.

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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“I am the most famous unknown of the century.” — Djuna Barnes

When Barnes called herself a “famous unknown” she may have been being elliptical or ironic. Her writing was not known for its literal through-line. But she was also very well-known for her love affairs with women, and immortalized in print by all the memoirs written by the lesbian community in ex-pat Paris, particularly its main scribe, the glorious Amazon (her real nickname) Natalie Clifford Barney. Barnes knew everyone. Pals with James Joyce, pals with Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, everyone. She was a writer and illustrator, and is most well-known today for Nightwood (1936), a lesbian cult classic, written in a curlicue almost Gothic style but flavored with the ironic Modernist detachment. An eccentric. They all were. She shows up briefly in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (played by Emmanuelle Uzan) – gratifying to any Barnes fan. She dances with Owen Wilson, and he comments afterwards, when he realizes who she was: “That was Djuna Barnes? No wonder she wanted to lead.” Ba-dum-ching.

She wrote Nightwood in 1932, and worked on it for a couple of years, giving public readings, editing, passing the manuscript around for feedback. Nobody wanted to publish. It is a difficult book. Nightwood was finally passed on to T.S. Eliot, who edited – and published – it through Faber and Faber in 1936. (He also said, famously, of Barnes: “Never has so much genius been combined with so little talent.” He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.) Nightwood is practically a roman a clef, with barely-disguised portraits of Barnes, her lovers, the women in that fascinating crowd.

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“It’s innately in me to want to yell and love at the same time.” — Jessie Reyez

“I haven’t been compromising this whole time as an artist. Why would I start with my album?” — Jessie Reyez

It’s her birthday today.

Jessie Reyez first came on my radar, as I’m sure is true for a lot of people, because of her 2017 song “Gatekeeper.” Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it. And you also never forget the first time you heard it. The sound of her voice, first of all, goes right through you, it pins you to the wall and demands: “LISTEN TO ME. I DON’T SOUND LIKE ANYONE ELSE.” And she doesn’t. All comparisons fall flat. There’s some Amy Winehouse in there (Reyez clocks her as an influence), but there’s Billie Holliday too. There’s a raspy quality to her belting low voice, but she can also go up the octave, into a fragile crystal-clear soprano, vibrating with vulnerability. Her voice is astonishing. It’s what they call in the serious singing business as a real INSTRUMENT. Some people are singers, but their voices aren’t instruments.

Her music is difficult to categorize. It’s a hybrid-style, a little jazz, some R&B, hip hop elements, folk music – simple guitar accompaniment (she accompanies herself), and also, intriguingly, 50s-era doo wop. It’s a romantic style, nothing too huge or orchestrated or over-produced – nothing that detracts from her voice and what she’s saying. I want to call it “dreamy”. Dreamy as in she draws you into her world, she draws you into her experience, and she provides details – specific unforgettable details – that weaves a spell, like you’re entering a dream. And not necessarily a good dream.

So let’s listen to “Gatekeeper.”

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“People always think of me as Maria and I think of me as Maria all the time.” –Sonia Manzano


“I realized that I was going to end up being my own role model. I became what I myself needed to see growing up as a kid, and I think I succeeded as Maria by never forgetting that there was some kid out there, in the outer boroughs, stressed out maybe, feeling invisible, looking to me the same way that I looked at television, trying to find someone like me.”
–Sonia Manzano on getting the role of Maria on Sesame Street

Sonia Manzano played “Maria” on Sesame Street for 45 years before retiring in 2015. In 2016, she received a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy. She is also a very successful author of children’s books. I am a child of the 1970s. I was a first-generation Sesame Street fan. Maria was part of the family.

Of all of the memories I have of “Maria”, her moment in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is the one I want to talk about today.

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“I like to demonstrate a sense of fun and leadership on the set when I’m there.” — Treat Williams

It’s his birthday today. His death is such a loss!

In Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies, he talked about the choice to cast Treat Williams in Prince of the City:

I wasn’t sure whether we were in drama or tragedy territory [with Prince of the City]. knew I wanted to wind up somewhere between the two, leaning towards the tragic. Tragedy, when it works, leaves no room for tears. Tears would have been too easy in that movie. The classic definition of tragedy still works: pity and terror or awe, arriving at catharsis. That sense of awe requires a certain distance.

It’s hard to be in awe of someone you know well. The first thing affected was casting. If the leading role of Danny Ciello was played by DeNiro or Pacino, all ambivalence would disappear. By their nature, stars invite your faculty of identification. You empathize with them immediately, even if they’re playing monsters. A major star would defeat the picture with just the advertising.

I chose a superb but not very well known actor, Treat Williams. This may have defeated the commerciality of the movie, but it was the right choice dramatically.

Then I went further. I cast as many new faces as possible. If the actor had done lots of movies, I didn’t use him. In fact, for the first time in one of my pictures, out of 125 speaking parts, I cast 52 of them from “civilians” — people who had never acted before. This helped enormously in two areas: first, in distancing the audience by not giving them actors with whom they had associations; and second, in giving the picture a disguised “naturalism”, which would be slowly eroded as the picture went on.

If you’ve seen Prince of the City, and for a long time it was very hard to see – which is why I held on to my battered VHS tape – then you know the intelligence of Lumet’s choice. Williams owns that movie.

Williams said in a 2011 interview, “It’s a big film. It’s big emotionally. It’s operatic. It’s a great, great film, I think. I wish I’d had more experience and been a little older when I did it, but it’s the best I could do at the time, and I’m very proud of it.”

More after the jump!

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Happy Birthday, Chips Moman

Elvis Presley and producer Chips Moman, American Sound Studio, Memphis, 1969

Great music producer, songwriter, and American Sound studio owner Chips Moman was an essential part of the thrilling warp-and-weft of the Memphis music scene from the 1960s on. His work at Stax resulted in hits. He could be a visionary. He was very tough, very dedicated to what he saw, and how to bring it about. He did not want to coast on an artist’s established reputation. He wanted to move into uncharted waters. He encouraged risk-taking. One of his specialties was providing an injection of new energy for an artist whose career was coasting or flat-lining. One of Moman’s gifts as a producer was strolling into the established career of an already-developed artist and revolutionizing them and their art. He created a space where artists – fearful of losing a toehold – took risks, moved into new and bold directions. Dusty Springfield’s legendary album Dusty in Memphis, produced by Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, was recorded at Moman’s American Sound. Not a coincidence. Moman created an electric atmosphere of possibility and risk.

More after the jump.

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For Liberties: Interview with Sean Abley, co-editor of Queer Horror: A Film Guide

For the next essay in my “Movies Before Breakfast” column at Liberties magazine, I interviewed Sean Abley about his upcoming book Queer Horror: A Film Guide (a book which he co-edited). 8 writers are on the marquee, all of whom wrote capsule reviews for almost 1,000 horror films. It’s extremely impressive, spanning the 20th-21st century. Sean and I go way WAY back. We were theatre kids in Chicago together, and I did a show at the theatre company he founded. I’ve looked on in wonder and happiness at all he has accomplished since then. I am not surprised at all. This is the book he was BORN to do.

Please enjoy my interview with Sean!

SCREAM QUEENS AND KINGS: Interview with Sean Abley, co-editor of Queer Horror: A Film Guide

Movies Before Breakfast column
Movies Before Breakfast: Lombard: Queen of Screwball
Movies Before Breakfast: The Question

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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“Language most shows a man. Speak that I may see thee.” — Ben Jonson

“O rare Benn Johnson.” — Jonson’s incorrectly-spelled epitaph in Westminster Abbey

It’s his birthday today.

Ben Jonson did everything. Plays, poems, satires, elegies, epigrams. His talent was wide and flexible. Everything he wrote feels inevitable. However, as Michael Schmidt writes in his wonderful Lives of the Poets: “Jonson suffers one irremediable disability: Shakespeare.”

When people have discussed him, throughout history, more often than not they do so in comparison to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the context, Jonson is in that context’s shadow. As giant as Ben Jonson was, and he was a GIANT, he is not allowed to stand alone, because Shakespeare hovers over all. One cannot exist without consciousness of the other.

The men are placed in opposition merely because of their closeness in the timeline.

Bing Crosby once said something along these lines in re: Frank Sinatra: “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come along in my lifetime?”

One can imagine Ben Jonson thinking something similar about Shakespeare.

More beneath the jump:

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“What good is a character who’s always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?” –Gene Wilder


It’s his birthday today.

Where does the humor lie? Can this moment be broken down to discover its secret? Is it the eye pan to the right? Is it the delayed eyebrow raise? Is it what’s happening with his mouth? Is it that it’s one of his specialties – the comedic pause?

Trying to describe in words why this moment is so funny is like trying to describe in words how a complicated calculus equation works. At a certain point, you just have to be good enough at calculus to even understand the lingo. Same here. All is really left is to sit back and be awed at someone who is this good at what he does.

Humphrey Bogart said that good acting was “6 feet back” in the eyes. Gene Wilder went that deep. Like … where WAS he? When he was at his most lunatic – he – whoever he was – was gone. All that remained was a devotion to the maniacal moment.

For example this:

Actors watch a moment like that and have the same reaction a young violinist probably has to seeing Ihtzak Perlman. You are in the same field as the genius, but in watching you realize it is in name only. You’re not even in the same hemisphere, really. A moment like Wilder’s turns the actors I know into Salieris. That’s the breaks. Just be grateful there are such artists who come down among us for a short while and grace us with their presence, their generosity, their gifts. We can learn from them and be inspired to be better.


This is a famous story, but worth repeating:

In Gene Wilder’s book Kiss Me Like a Stranger, he describes his first meeting with the director Mel Stuart, before he had decided to do Willy Wonka. Wilder had reservations about the script as is. He had an idea. Listen to him, and learn. This is how specific he was as an actor. This is how much he understood story and character and AUDIENCE, too, let’s not forget. Those who think actors just do what the director tells them … well, they haven’t ever ever been involved in a creative process. Ever.

Although I liked Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play Willy Wonka. The script was good, but there was something that was bothering me. Mel Stuart, the man who was going to direct the movie, came to my home to talk about it.

“What’s bothering you?”

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk towards the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees that Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk towards them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself … but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

” … Why do you want to do that?”

“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

Mel Stuart looked a little puzzled. I knew he wanted to please me, but he wasn’t quite sure about this change.

“You mean – if you can’t do what you just said, you won’t do the part?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

Mel mumbled to himself, ” … comes out of the door, has a cane, cane gets stuck in a cobblestone, falls forward, does a somersault, and bounces back up …” He shrugged his shoulders. “Okay!”

Imagine Willy Wonka without that tumble.

Best of all: Mel Stuart filmed it exactly as Gene Wilder told him to. Shot for shot.

Wilder was RIGHT.

He was also right about Willy Wonka’s costume. Mel Stuart sent Wilder some sketches. Wilder looked them over, and wrote Stuart a note back with his thoughts.

Don’t miss Wilder’s letter. “The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.”

Gene Wilder came and spoke at my grad school. He would say something, or pause to think a bit before saying something, and the moment wasn’t even funny but his TONE and his TIMING had us roaring. He would stop when he heard us laugh, and say, “Y’know, that happens to me all the time.” He wasn’t annoyed. He calmly accepted that when he spoke in a serious way large groups of people began to laugh.

His timing was otherworldly.

My favorite Gene Wilder story (it’s in his book, but he told it to us when he visited my school) was about his first day on Bonnie & Clyde, his debut in film. He had done tons of theatre, but no movies.

He’s in the back of the car for the scene where the criminals take him hostage, and director Arthur Penn yells, “ACTION” and Wilder immediately started the scene. Penn stopped Wilder and said, “Just because I say Action doesn’t mean you have to start. It means that we are ready for when you are ready.” In other words, Penn felt Wilder’s nerves, and wanted him to chill. “Just take your time, and start when you’re ready.” Wilder was grateful. He took a moment after Penn called “Action”, got himself together, and then played the scene brilliantly. Afterwards, someone on the crew said to him, “Don’t get used to that.”

Wilder told that story in praise of Arthur Penn as a director (who was present in the room, this was an Actors Studio event), but also to illustrate that it’s an actor’s job to get himself together, however he has to, in the middle of the chaos of a set, so that you’re ready to go when everyone else is ready. That’s the job. Be ready when the director calls “Action.” And Penn gave him the space to learn that lesson on his first day on a movie set, without being yelled at/shamed/scorned.

He also told the story of seeing Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus when he was a kid, and having an “A-ha” moment in re: comedy. There’s the bit with the little boy and the hotdog.

Wilder watched it, agog, his analytical mind trying to break down WHY it was so hilarious. There was the timing of the bit with the hot dog, and Chaplin making goo-goo faces at the baby and then eating the hot dog, etc. Finally, Wilder realized that why the scene was so funny was that nobody in it – including Chaplin – was “acting funny.” The situation was funny. Chaplin played it for the reality of it. Wilder said that that one moment in The Circus inspired his whole career and he would come back to it if he got stuck. It was a roadmap of what to do, how to solve any given problem. Create a situation that is so funny that nobody needs to “act funny.”

Which brings me back to him saying something serious and all of us bursting into laughter.

His genius was untouchable. It’s like musical genius or a genius for math.

You can get more proficient in those things. But you cannot learn to do what the geniuses do. You’ll never EVER catch up.

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.

Posted in Actors, On This Day | Tagged | 7 Comments

“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.

Posted in Music, On This Day | 3 Comments