Happy Birthday, Chips Moman

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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

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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.

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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.

 
 
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“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.

 
 
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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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