Review: Here (2024)

This movie is so quiet and beautiful, very intriguing style and approach. I did my best to describe how it worked on me. Highly recommended. I reviewed for Ebert.

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“The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting, but never for being right and dull.” — Burt Reynolds

A couple of years ago, during a lengthy conversation about many different stars, Mitchell and I discussed Burt Reynolds. I recorded the whole thing. It was a game we played: I would throw a name at Mitchell, ask him to boil the person down into one word, and then elaborate. Here’s the transcript of the Burt Reynolds conversation. I knew it would be good and insightful – because it’s Mitchell – but our chat surpassed my wildest dreams.

ON BURT REYNOLDS

SHEILA: One word.

MITCHELL: Charisma.

Burt Reynolds had that thing that you can’t define. He was likeable. In a way, he’s sort of like the stars of today, who are learning to act on our time. They’re beautiful so they get some movie roles, and then we have to suffer through watching them learn to act if we choose to see movies that they’re in. Burt Reynolds was like that. He was so physical and so he could start in Westerns and those sorts of things, it didn’t require that much acting, but he could sit and he could study and he could watch. Burt Reynolds did one of those little TCM bios about Spencer Tracy.

MF: Spencer Tracy was his idol, his ideal. You never caught Spencer Tracy acting. Burt Reynolds was one of those people who took his charisma and took his opportunity and then became an actor. My favorite performance of his is in Starting Over with Jill Clayburgh. I think he’s wonderful in it. It was written by James L. Brooks, and Alan Pakula directed it. My point is that Burt Reynolds took his charisma and learned how to act. He took it seriously, he wanted to be good at it, and he did it. He was good in Deliverance, he was good in Starting Over.

I know we both hate the expression “guilty pleasure” but a movie that I love that isn’t great is him and Goldie Hawn in Best Friends.

The thing I want to say about Burt Reynolds has less to do with acting and it has to do with the way that he was as a person and it has to do with the kind of men that I have in my life. You know, I love a dude. I love a guy who’s a guy and is a big goofball of a guy.

MF: Look at David. Pat and Sam and all the guys in my life. They’re dudes. And Burt Reynolds was such a dude, and other dudes loved him, and dudes wanted to hang out with him, and yet one of his best friends for his entire life was Charles Nelson Reilly so he’s also the kind of dude that I like, who is not a homophobe, in a world where it would have been very easy for him to be one. This is part of Burt Reynolds’ personality that I have always really liked. I think that shifted as he got older.

My favorite Burt Reynolds was when he used to be on Carson. I have this whole thing about people who have the ability to be a talk show guest.

SOM: It’s like Neil Patrick Harris doing a magic trick on Jimmy Fallon.

MF: Yes. Neil Patrick Harris has it, Hugh Jackman has it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has it. They have a charisma that shines through, they have a personality. They have prepared something smart and a schtick and something that’s going to be cool to listen to, not like Robert Pattinson who is boring and feels like he has to pretend to have lucked into a movie career, which I think is bullshit. Or Kristen Stewart who has the personality of wet toilet paper, although I think she was good as Joan Jett. Talk shows now are all about selling a product and my point is that Burt Reynolds had that thing where he was so funny “on the couch”.

MF: I want more people to be funny “on the couch” today. He had that stupid laugh, he was rakish, he used that persona, he used it in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise were his best friends? I mean, that’s fucking funny.

SOM: And he and Cary Grant were very good friends. They would go to the track, and do the guy things, but Grant also advised him on how to be a movie star, certainly.

MF: And then something happened. His personal life took over. When the tabloid era really kicked in, and he split with Loni Anderson, we ended up knowing too much about him and he seemed a little bit bitter, like time had passed him by. And then he got sick, people thought he was dying of AIDS, but it turns out he had this whole issue with his jaw and he couldn’t eat.

MF: It’s a little bit like that Lanford Wilson play, Serenading Louie. There’s nothing worse than an aging high school jock. I think he sort of let that get the better of him. I am sure he is a very charming man but there’s a desperation there that is the flip side of charisma.

SOM: The anxiety of losing your looks.

MF: P.T. Anderson gave him that amazing gift of Boogie Nights and he was so good in that.

MF: In Boogie Nights, Burt Reynolds is the fully realized potential of everything he had in his entire career. He’s masculine, he has a gravitas that goofy Burt Reynolds as a kid didn’t have, except for his size and his sheer athleticism, but he was also very warm, very real. He became a patriarch. And it’s a shame that there weren’t more opportunities to follow that up. It would have been interesting to have Burt Reynolds to do something like a television show. LIke Sally Field doing Brothers and Sisters. She can occasionally be in a movie and be very effective, but she’s also very effective on TV. Burt Reynolds had that sitcom, and it was all charm and charisma. It wasn’t the greatest show in the world, but he was very good.

SOM: He was the biggest male star in the world for …

MF: A big chunk of the 70s.

SOM: Kim Morgan interviewed the four stars of Deliverance. The first thing Burt Reynolds said was:

I’d also like to mention…as Ronny has said too… that women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.

That’s a huge admission, I think.

MF: I think it is too. In some way, it says a lot about his persona, when he was younger, because he was very attractive. He was famously in the first famous cougar relationship. He dated Dinah Shore for many years. He was with Dinah Shore, who was his elder, and very beautiful and very famous and very respected and was in everybody’s living room every day. And on some level he was seen a little bit as a Boy Toy. But he was so confident in his masculinity and his sexuality, he didn’t sweat that. You never heard him apologizing for being on the arm of this older beautiful woman.

MF: It also makes you think what a hottie she was, too. Dinah Shore and Burt Reynolds in the 70s? You go get it, girl. She was even more wholesome than Doris Day because she didn’t have the chance to play any roles, she just really was this cheery beautiful woman who aged gracefully in front of us and scored the hottest hunk in Hollywood. The original cougar was Dinah Shore. Forget it.

SOM: One of the things I love about him is I always got the sense that he loved women. Not just as sex partners, but he thought they were hilarious and adorable and fun to be around. He got to be the person he wanted to be most with women.

MF: It’s interesting, right, because the male companions we know that he hung out with were not the most masculine of fellows. Charles Nelson Reilly and Dom DeLuise.

SOM: A lot of young male stars, who are on that sex symbol level now, have a difficult time relating to women, at least onscreen. I think it’s partly because women don’t have the place in films that they had when Burt Reynolds was coming up. Like, he had to get it up for Jill Clayburgh, he had to get it up for Goldie Hawn. These were powerful contenders on the screen. He would have been a wonderful screwball star in the 30s. There is nothing more awesome than a gorgeous guy who doesn’t give a shit and falls on his face.

MF: That’s true of William Powell and Cary Grant and so many of them.

SOM: It’s when John Wayne gets to be befuddled with Katharine Hepburn … “this woman is TORMENTING ME” – and because it’s John Wayne – yes, there is that male privilege thing that can be annoying – but we get to relax because we get to see John Wayne crack a little bit, and that’s always good. That’s what we want to see of these really powerful male stars.

MF: Glimpses of their vulnerability. I do think Burt Reynolds is one of those people, though, who did not always make good choices. Doing Lucky Lady with Liza, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or doing At Long Last Love with Peter Bogdanovich. He often missed out. He’d be like, “That’s a good director, Liza Minnelli is Liza” and Lucky Lady did not work out, know what I mean? In between his successes, were a lot of dismal choices.

He often succeeded when he was the lead and he was a rogue. Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, The Longest Yard, Cannonball Run – as stupid as that movie is. His duet with Dolly Parton in Best Little Whorehouse. They are so adorable together, I don’t even care the movie is bad.

MF: And in the movie she sings “I Will Always Love You” to him, which, of course, is perfect.

SOM: He’s wonderful with very feminine women.

MF: Goldie Hawn, Candice Bergen, Dolly Parton. Yes, you’re right.

SOM: He’s very good with Ladies.

MF: It’s that Robert Redford thing with his female co-stars. Reynolds isn’t standing in Dolly’s way. He’s letting Dolly be powerful, so he looks even more manly and successful.

You know who I think today has the Burt Reynolds charm is Ryan Reynolds, and it’s not just because I saw him do Celebrity Autobiography, and he read Burt Reynolds’s autobiography and he did a brilliant Burt Reynolds imitation. Ryan Reynolds read Burt, Sherri Shepherd read Loni Anderson, and Rachel Dratch read Burt Reynolds’ assistant. Ryan Reynolds did it AS Burt Reynolds. It was twofold: A, that was brilliant and his last name is Reynolds. But also, Ryan Reynolds walked into this very small space that this show takes place in. And Ryan Reynolds the movie star walks in, and he had to walk in through a very tight crowd from the back of the house because there’s no backstage. His charisma, his sexual charisma, his athleticism, his muscles, made the room blush.

MF: You can feel the sexual charisma of Burt Reynolds. And Ryan Reynolds has that. He also has that thing where he is very masculine, but also funny and self-deprecating, and also very charming with women.

SOM: I’ve enjoyed him very much. I like him in interviews too. He’s got some miles on him. He’s been around.

MF: And he’s done a lot of work already.

This is a total tangent. One of my favorite things as a kid was a very short-lived sitcom. It starred Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. It was called The Mothers-In-Law.

MF: It was very short-lived and my brother and I loved it so much and there’s an episode of it on right now. Eve Arden’s daughter married Kay Ballard’s son. They live next door to each other and so they are constantly trying to meddle in their kids’ lives, and getting into trouble. It’s very Lucy and Ethel. These two brilliant comediennes. I haven’t seen it 30-something years and there are four episodes on today. Eve Arden is another interesting character. She set a precedent that people are still trying to reach. There’s a high watermark in her comic delivery that has yet to be matched. It’s the lost art of delivering the one line with a withering look and a gesture and an exit. Exemplified in Mildred Pierce.

MF: You want to study comic timing? Watch Eve Arden.

SOM: It’s deceptively simple. Otherwise more people would do it.

MF: You can’t really catch her doing it. It has to do with so many things that people take for granted now. Like, the study of voice. Back then, you didn’t even get famous unless you had a voice. She started out in radio, she studied. She worked on the freeing of her natural voice that the Brits do so brilliantly. For example, if I were to play for you tape recordings with your eyes closed, of James Mason, Vivien Leigh, Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, you could tell me who they were instantly. This isn’t true of some of our best American actors. Nobody sounded like Eve Arden. She had her own show, a very successful radio and television show for years where she played the school teacher – Miss Brooks – and it was the misadventures of this lady who was unlucky in love but everybody loved her.

SOM: I just love these people who are in it for the long haul. That’s a casualty of being someone like Burt Reynolds. It’s not that I think he wasn’t in it for the long haul, but becoming that big a star is going to be a challenge for anyone, obviously.

MF: It’s almost easier for someone like Eve Arden to have a late-in-the-game success. Because she wasn’t so famous. One of the very few major movie stars who is continuing to do really interesting work is Catherine Deneuve because she is not denying what made her a movie star in the first place.

SOM: And that was what was interesting in how P.T. Anderson used Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, or used Tom Cruise in Magnolia. This is what the old studios used to do so brilliantly which we don’t do so much now: casting people because of what they remind us of. It’s like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. We bring to it so much emotion already and he’s messing with the persona, but also deepening it. It’s been a whole second wave of his career. And for Burt Reynolds, that didn’t happen. Of course he was a sex symbol in a way that Bill Murray wasn’t. And it’s very challenging to grow old as a sex symbol.

MF: I think he did get caught up in that. The whole idea of using people for their persona: It’s not the greatest movie although it is a very successful movie, but when Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand did Meet the Fockers. I can take or leave that movie, but their scenes in the movie is why that movie worked.

MF: And part of it is that we are bringing to it our emotions about them both. We are excited to see her, we are excited to see him. It’s Benjamin from The Graduate and it’s Tootsie and it’s Funny Girl, and it can be very very effective. The movie itself, blah blah, but that’s an example of how that can work. Figure it out, Hollywood.

SOM: It’s hard because film captures you in time. There are very few men who are as gorgeous as Burt Reynolds was during his prime. In Deliverance, the vest with the arms. When you’re captured at your prime on film like that, you have to have, I imagine, some sense of courage to get up there when you don’t look like that anymore. Because people are vicious. And I don’t know Burt Reynolds, obviously, but perhaps that is painful for him.

MF: With all of his charisma and confidence, and I don’t mean this in a stereotypical way, but I’m saying it in a stereotypical way to make a point, I think he does suffer from a woman’s vanity. He’s suffering from the same thing that has happened to the women of that era. Google pictures of him right now. He has had so much surgery. He is seemingly suffering from a level of vanity about his looks that is, for better or for worse, very feminine.

He was a sex symbol. He was a transition for us as well in how we viewed men and their sexuality. Men now are so happy to be objectified. Ewan McGregor‘s like, “Look at my cock” and all of the Twilight boys are like, “I will be shirtless til the day I die”, whereas men didn’t used to do that so much in the same way back then. But Burt Reynolds was the transition. He did that whole Cosmopolitan spread where all he did was cover his dick.

MF: There’s his hairy gorgeous body. That was a big deal. Men didn’t set themselves up in that cheesecake way. It’s a cheesecake photo as opposed to a beefcake photo. I mean, you can see his pubic hair in that Cosmo spread. Robert Mitchum was not showing his pubic hair.

SOM: And we are all the poorer for it.

 
 
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, Burt Reynolds: “My love is unironic.”

I will always be glad that I was assigned to review The Last Movie Star (2018), Reynolds’ final film, because it meant I got to pay tribute to him – not just his performance in the movie, but to HIM IN GENERAL – while he was still with us. So often I write about people who are already dead. But it’s wonderful to pay tribute to people while they are still here. I put my heart into that review. Not every review requires it. But that one – and Reynolds – I felt, did. Don’t just write off the film. Don’t focus on what’s wrong. In so doing, you are rejecting the enormous gift of a man like Burt Reynolds. He’s a figure who deserved – and deserves – serious critical appreciation … and if you DIS Last Movie Star and then write a heartfelt obit when he dies a couple of months later … well, okay, you do you. But I judge you for missing what’s really important. Here we were, with a film designed for him, written for him, prioritizing him, placing him at the center. Stop being so goddamned stingy.

Who in their right mind would look that gift horse in the mouth? Turns out, many critics did. And my heartfelt review brought me so many emails, some of the nicest emails I’ve ever received. I share this not to say “Look how great I am” but to say “Look at how much Burt Reynolds mattered to people that they would write me emails like this.” That’s what matters.

Here’s my review of The Last Movie Star over at Ebert.

I’m going to share an email I received about my review. I’ve removed the name of the sender. It’s the most extraordinary email I’ve ever received, and I’ve received some truly amazing letters – but this email speaks to the love people have for Mr. Reynolds. This person wrote it to me after seeing the film, so Reynolds was still alive, and out there promoting the film still. This person wrote to me in frustration with the other reviews, with critics who were dismissive of the film, treating it as not worth their serious attention. This person was CORRECT to be irritated by that.

I just saw “The Last Movie Star” and was in tears I was so overwhelmed and moved. I read your review yesterday and was just floored. It was absolutely wonderful to read. I read it after being wildly frustrated by Ben Kenisberg’s review. Sure, he doesn’t have to like Burt Reynolds or the movie, but he wrote like he didn’t give a crap and I was so put off by his laziness and by the Times for publishing such crap. It’s disheartening as a fellow writer and lover of film, and for sure, as a lover of Burt Reynolds. Your writing not only told your audience you give a crap, but that you care about the context, you care about the bigger meaning, you took the time to share the wonderful and profound and ridiculous nuances in the film, in Burt’s career.

I met him a couple weeks ago after a screening of Deliverance and I grew up with him but when I got to meet him I found that I was so overwhelmed. It’s like not until that moment did I even understand how much his Joie de vivre and the joy of that laugh and how it brought my family together—it’s like it wasn’t until that moment that I registered that impact. I told him how much I loved his work and that I grew up with him, and the man took my hand in his and kissed me on the cheek. It was one of the most magical moments in my life.

Some friends think I’m kidding around because I am still talking about him, but my love is unironic. And I can even see how someone reading this could think I’m nuts. But I can see the bigger pieces, the indelible stuff that is larger than life, that is life.

I don’t know why at 35 all of this is hitting me so intensely now, and I type this rapidly on the subway because your writing, your review, it’s life, it’s the dirt, the sun, the rain, the wind, the scent, the sky, it’s the plants getting trampled and starting over, it’s blooming, the ebb and flow of the seasons. It so movingly captures and shares the film’s essence, his essence, and the fact that you give a shit.

Let me tell you something. I hear from a lot of people. I hear from Cary Grant fans, Elvis fans, John Wayne fans, Kristen Stewart fans, because of this or that thing I’ve written. Many wonderful emails from passionate fans, who really really care about the thing that they love.

But that email about Reynolds? That’s something else entirely. And it speaks to what I was getting at in the review: the love of him was something unique to him, and something far far more intense and passionate than “admiration” for his talent, or “appreciation” of his acting. It was HIM. People loved HIM. PERSONALLY. As I wrote: agents and marketing people and studios wish they could figure out a way to manufacture what Burt Reynolds had. They try. They fail. Because what he brought to the table was his and his alone. It can’t be manufactured.

Nobody said it better. Happy birthday, Burt.

 
 
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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“Each of us have a gift, you see, given us freely by the universe. And each of us with every breath gives something back” — Kim Stanley

It’s her birthday today.

A couple things about Kim Stanley, who only appeared in 4 films, but was a hugely influential figure in theatre, live television, and Method acting. I mean, she’s the goddess. Jon Krampner’s 2006 biography of Kim Stanley is called Female Brando. And that’s how everyone talked about her. She inspired a generation. She holds the status of Laurette Taylor in the generation before. It’s so worth your while to track down the shows she did in live television (many are on Youtube). She was a sensation because of these performances. She went deeper, farther in her work than other people did.

I was happy to write about Kim Stanley for Film Comment, which gives good background to this intense and intensely talented woman.

When I interviewed my Actors Studio mentor Sam Schacht, Kim Stanley was a huge topic of conversation. Her work knocked him out as a young striving actor in New York of the 50s. (I quote Sam in the Film Comment piece too.)

And then, when I interviewed Dan Callahan about his book The Art of American Screen Acting, we got into Kim Stanley, and her position in the history of American acting, particularly in re: Lee Strasberg’s Method.

Her four films are The Goddess (based loosely on the life of Marilyn Monroe), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), Frances (where she was terrifying as Frances Farmer’s mother) and – the role for which she is most well-known, because the film itself is so iconic – Pancho, the bar owner in the desert in The Right Stuff.

But this is not where you get the full Kim Stanley. Much of her good stuff can not be seen at all, since it was performances on Broadway in the 50s. You have to take the word of people who were there, who saw her in action.

 
 
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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Josh White, singer of “the fighting blues”

You could call [Josh White] the minstrel of the Blues, except that he is more than a minstrel of the Blues… Josh is a fine folksinger of anybody’s songs — southern Negro or southern white, plantation work songs or modern union songs, English or Irish ballads — any songs that come from the heart of the people…Josh White sings with such ease that you never feel like he is trying. This is the secret of true folk singing — for the folk song never tries to get itself sung. If it doesn’t ease itself into your soul and then out of your mouth spontaneously, to stay singing around your head forever, then it isn’t a folk song. And if the singer tries too hard and gets nowhere with such a song, that singer isn’t a folksinger. . . . From Blind Lemon to Burl Ives, from Bessie Smith to Aunt Molly Jackson, there runs a wave of singing easy. Josh White also sings easy.
— Langston Hughes, liner notes to Josh White Sings Easy (1944)

Last summer, sitting out on the porch at the lake house in New Hampshire, my mother somehow started reminiscing about Josh White, and the impact of his music. Mum grew up, came of age, in the folksinger era of the 1960s, and she remembered vividly his voice, his almost otherworldly guitar playing (Mum plays guitar, and gave guitar lessons all through my childhood). I started pulling up Josh White clips on my phone and we watched some of his live performances, and listened to some of the recordings. Mum was in tears. It was a beautiful bonding moment for us, and I was happy to be there with her as she walked down memory lane through the music of this artist.

It’s Josh White’s birthday today. When he died in 1969, the tributes poured out. Lena Horne counted him as a mentor. So did Eartha Kitt. He influenced generations of singers, across every genre. He merged “hillbilly” and blues, he merged gospel and blues, he brought jazz into the picture. He did it all, and often he did it first. Elvis loved him. When he died, Harry Belafonte put out a statement:

“I can’t tell you how sad I am. I spent many, many hours with him in the years of my early development. He had a profound influence on my style. At the time I came along, he was the only popular black folk singer, and through his artistry exposed America to a wealth of material about the life and conditions of black people that had not been sung by any other artist.”


Josh White and Leadbelly

There’s a reason why his name isn’t proclaimed alongside other folk singers of the 50s and 60s, even though his talent was wider and more diverse than many of them. His reputation took a hit after he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, and the full erasure of him was so complete that there is still reparative work to be done. The man was unfairly sidelined during the “Red Scare” of the 50s. The HUAC had a vested interest in breaking up the burgeoning folk movement, for obvious reasons: God forbid we care about the poor, God forbid we point out racism, it’s all gotta be the work of the REDS. This isn’t to say the Communist Party WASN’T giving funds to support the folk music movement, because it was. But these are complicated issues requiring context and nuance, dirty words to those who consider themselves ideologically pure.

White’s situation – while related to all of this, of course, since he was a folk singer and a famous one, roped into the Red Scare – was a little bit more nuanced.

He grew up in the Jim Crow South. He witnessed horrors. When WWII broke out, he sang songs criticizing the segregation of the armed forces, he sang songs about what he hoped America could be – a place of peace and racial equality – after the war. Admirable. Only racists would disagree. He was invited to the White House by FDR himself, who felt named and shamed by some of White’s songs. He wanted to hear more. White performed at the White House. In the early 1940s. He was a pioneer: he brought issues to the President that needed to be addressed. Top down leadership was necessary. So it’s really something to be a protest singer and have the President listen. (One thinks, too, of Eleanor Roosevelt’s public support of Marian Anderson.)

I also think it’s important to note that White was singing protest songs during WWII, not exactly a popular time for anyone criticizing the status quo. But White went hard. It was a time when social conflict was supposed to be put aside, we all were supposed to be in “unity” to fight the Nazis. We’ll address racism after the war, okay? But people like Langston Hughes and Josh White saw the inequality happening in all this unity and called it out (they collaborated on a radio play, with White performing in Hughes’ script). It’s one thing to be a protest singer in the middle of the Vietnam War, when basically everyone was protesting. It’s quite another thing to come out with a song called “Uncle Sam Says”, criticizing segregation in the the armed forces, in 1941. You see what I mean?

The HUAC used all of this against him. The HUAC’s tactics wreaked havoc on people’s lives, destroying a generation to such a degree it would be decades before peoples’ reputations would recover. The same thing happened in Hollywood, a particular target for the HUAC. White’s journey is worth going into a bit since he had the distinct honor of being blacklisted by both the right and the left. It’s hard to say which side did more damage. White volunteered to appear before the HUAC (sin #1 to the folk singer community), he did not name names (sin #2, to HUAC supporters), and in his testimony before the committee he spoke patriotically of his dedication to democracy (sin #3 – to both sides). When he spoke of democracy, he meant getting rid of racism, and equality for all. Only a racist would disagree.

September 1, 1950: White’s testimony before the HUAC:

I am proud of the fact that under our system of freedom, everyone is able to speak out — or in my case sing out — against what we consider wrong and what we consider right.

The love I have for America, the land of my birth, which has given me every opportunity, is far too great to permit me any other allegiance.

I am solely devoted to the principle of democracy like ours that stands for the welfare of all its people, regardless of race, creed, or color.

America is the best and freest country in the world. It is the kind of democracy that makes it possible to fight injustice and to achieve progress.

I got to hate Jim Crow for what it did to me personally and because Jim Crow is an insult to God’s creatures and a violation of the Christian beliefs taught by my father. That’s how I became a folksinger.

Besides the family, I decided that I have a duty to other folksingers and artists in general, especially young people just getting started.

They face the same things I did. I hope they will give themselves to good causes as generally I have tried to do.

As long as my voice and spirit hold out, I will keep on singing of the hope, joy, and grievances of ordinary folk.

I shall stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are pushed around and humiliated and discriminated against no matter what their race or creed may be.

But … in the phantasmagorical atmosphere of the 50s and 60s, he would not be forgiven for this statement.

White didn’t “come up” in the 40s and 50s, like his fellow travelers in folk music. He was born in 1914, first of all. He started making music in the 1920s. He toured with Leadbelly, he did duets with Billie Holiday. He sang gospel music. His guitar playing, though: his guitar is blues, influenced, of course, but with jazz thrown into the mix. A hybrid style. While rhythm & blues songs were sung from the perspective of the downtrodden, most weren’t explicitly political. They didn’t express any particular program for social change. But White did. He wrote and sang protest blues – a hybrid form not really explored until he came along. In 1941, he came out with an album called Southern Exposure: Jim Crow Blues sung by Josh White. He and Billie Holiday were way ahead of the curve (he heard her sing “Strange Fruit” and recorded it himself a couple years later.)

1941

Richard Wright, by the way, wrote the liner notes for Southern Exposure:

“The blues, contrary to popular conception, are not always concerned with love, razors, dice, and death. Southern Exposure contains the blues, the wailing blues, the moaning blues, the laughing-crying blues, the sad-happy blues. But it contains also the fighting blues.”

So good.

It’s important to point out that White was not a peripheral figure, he wasn’t one of those people who toiled in obscurity until being re-discovered by the rising folk music movement in the 60s. He achieved an almost unprecedented success at the time, enjoying a diverse and vibrant career in the 30s and 40s. He was a star. He was a sexy man, appearing in promotional photos with his shirt unbuttoned, the hair on his chest displayed. This was something new. Maybe not new in the ’60s, but new in the ’40s.

He appeared on Broadway in 1940 alongside Paul Robeson, in the musical John Henry, where he played Blind Lemon Jefferson. The play wasn’t a huge success but it raised his profile.


Paul Robeson as John Henry, on Broadway, 1940.

He was a recording artist, he released hit songs which were then covered by other people, and he also acted in movies. In the 1940s, his unprecedented collaboration with white jazz singer Libby Holman broke ground in desegregating audiences across the United States. A mixed-race musical duo was unheard of at the time. (Plus, Libby Holman was unbelievably controversial. Look it up. lol) Because of Holman’s reputation, there were sexual connotations in the pairing, also something new. You can hear it in the recordings: she sings and he plays, supporting her, weaving around her vocals, and there’s a current of feeling and passion, a kind of supernatural communication, which tread into dangerous American waters.


Josh White and Libby Holman

White had been singing protest songs for 25 years by the time the American folk movement came along. They followed his lead. And so it’s particularly shameful how this pioneering artist was treated by the folk music community. They shunned him, dis-inviting him from its festivals, banning him from their magazines, his records weren’t reviewed, it was a complete banishment. After 40 years singing folk music, it was over. So he moved to the much saner environment of Europe, where audiences were still in love with him, treasuring his singular mix of blues and gospel and jazz.

In recent decades, some reparative work has been done. Box sets have been released. His hometown, Greenville, South Carolina, acknowledges him with plaques and days named in his honor. He’s not hard to find. Once you Google him, a wealth of information comes up. He made it to a postage stamp.

I was Googling around and tripped over a YouTube series called Reverend Robert Jones’ Blues Chronicles. Here’s his video, well worth watching in full, on Josh Whites’ guitar playing:

What matters, at the end of the day, is his art. His voice, his music, his guitar. His lyrics. His dedication to making the world a better place, using his art to do so. His music is eternal and it still feels brand new. Ahead of our time, still. Mum and I did a deep dive into all of this, sitting out on the porch, huddled by my phone, watching him and listening to him do his thing. Tears were on Mum’s face. His music means a lot to her. It was such a special moment so this post is for her.

Thank you, Josh White.

So let’s get to some clips:

This is one of the earliest recordings I could find. “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed”, from the late ’20s:

Listen to that guitar.

Two singles from his collab with Libby Holman.

“Baby Baby”, 1942:

“Fare Thee Well”, 1942:

Now let’s hear some of his WWII protest songs, a very sparsely populated genre, in general.

“Uncle Sam Says”, from 1941. This song, about the segregation of the armed forces, is the one that got Roosevelt’s attention.

Another protest song from 1941, “Defense Factory Blues”

In 1942, Langston Hughes wrote a script about Black soldiers called The Man Who Went to War. It was performed on the BBC, with Josh White playing one of the roles. In the play, White performed a song called “Freedom Road”, with lyrics by Hughes, music by White:

“Freedom Road” shows White’s ease in any style. The song isn’t the blues, it isn’t jazz. It’s something else.

“The House I Live In” was another protest song, recorded in 1944, where White dreamed of racial equality, hoping it would come to “the house I live in” after the war:

There are multiple hit singles from the 1940s, some written by him, some covers of either traditional folk songs (from around the world, in some case) or penned by contemporary songwriters. I particularly love his cover of “Miss Otis Regrets”. Like Willie Nelson, like Jimi Hendrix, like Eddie Van Halen, like Jerry Reed, you can pick his guitar-playing out of a blind lineup. Some of his 1940s work:

“One Meatball” (1945) was a big hit for him:

“Jelly Jelly”, composed by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine:

“Waltzing Matilda”, a traditional folk song which White re-arranged into a waltz tempo. This was a big hit for him, and was included on a record distributed to troops overseas to keep their spirits up:

“St. James Infirmary”, a classic, of course, which he added new lyrics to:

I love his 1940s recording of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”:

I can’t let all this go by without mentioning “House of the Rising Sun”! Naturally it will always be associated with The Animals, who made it famous, although Bob Dylan got there first. But you can’t really say anyone got there “first” with this one. It’s one of those traditional folk songs written by … who the hell knows. “Trad.” is the author. Woody Guthrie recorded it in 1941. White wrote some new lyrics for it and recorded it in 1942.

Let’s hear his great song from 1958, “Hard Time Blues”:

His Hollywood career is also undiscovered territory but I do want to mention it. In the 1944 film noir Crimson Canary he appears as himself, performing in a nightclub:

Even more notable, he appears in the 1949 film The Walking Hills, directed by Preston Sturges, starring Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, and Arthur Kennedy. Again, he sings, and plays a character who’s not a stereotype. He exists on the same plane of reality as the other characters.

Again, it was a different time, and it may be hard to see it now, but such inroads are important factors in cracking apart the edifice of racist stereotypes in film. And he was a big star at the time, through his recordings with Libby Holman, his touring, his hit singles, his Broadway appearances, etc. So this is important context too. His appearance in The Walking Hills was a star cameo.

After his forced eclipse in the United States, he moved to Europe. I came across a treasure trove of actual live recordings of him at a concert in Sweden in 1962. There’s way more where this comes from but since there isn’t a ton of footage of him playing live, this is so wonderful to watch him work an audience, to watch his quiet command of the room, and to actually watch him make those amazing sounds on the guitar. It’s haunting.

Josh White died in 1969.

In 1979, Bob Gibson and Shel Silverstein collaborated in a song written in tribute to Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, and Josh White called “Heavenly Choir”:

In 1972, Peter Yarrow, of Peter Paul & Mary fame, wrote his tribute, called “Goodbye Josh”:

In 1970, poet Leatrice Emeruwa wrote “Josh White is Dead”, the year after his passing:

White’s legacy lives on in his son, Grammy-award winning artist Josh White, Jr. who has spent his career covering his father’s songs, giving interviews about his father, and carrying on the tradition his father helped create.


Josh White and his son, Josh White, Jr.

Posted in Music, On This Day | Leave a comment

“All my work is about uncovering, especially uncovering of voices that speak without governance, or that speak without being heard.” — Seamus Deane

“So broken was my father’s family, that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire … I felt we lived in an empty space with a long cry from him ramifying through it. At other times, it appeared to be as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it.”

That’s the voice of the narrator in Seamus Deane’s Booker-shortlisted first novel Reading in the Dark: A Novel, published when Deane was 57 (this fact gives me hope).

Seamus Deane, a Catholic poet and novelist, was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, on this day. (He died in 2021 at the age of 81.) He was good friends with the OTHER Seamus. Deane was born into the thick of politics in Northern Ireland. He was a poet and critic and editor for years, and is one of the world’s pre-eminent Joyce scholars. His first novel, Reading in the Dark, was published to almost universal acclaim, and no wonder. It is a haunted story about Northern Ireland, as filtered through a young boy’s vivid mind. Tough and well-trod terrain. Perhaps because he understands his influences so well, having incorporated them so much into the whole of his work, he doesn’t suffer from intimidation (something I have written about before). He didn’t feel he needed to re-invent the wheel, or somehow push Joyce to the side – a problem many Irish writer faces, male or female (but mostly male). Especially writers who attempt to write about male childhood, which Joyce pretty much owns. Deane didn’t let Joyce silence him. I really like Andrew O’Hehir’s words in his review in Salon (link no longer works, damn the Internet, but I’ve saved some excerpts):

But there’s a sense in which Deane is ideally positioned to tackle Joyce on the great modernist’s home ground. For one thing, Deane couldn’t conceal his debt to the Irish literary colossus if he tried; Deane is one of the academic world’s leading Joyceans, and even edited the Penguin edition of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” For another, he has grown old enough to lose the fear of Joyce all young Irish writers must feel, old enough to write a very different kind of autobiographical novel.

Deane’s book is the warmly compassionate, painstakingly gorgeous work of a mature man who wishes to memorialize the dead without yielding to sentimentality; Joyce’s is a younger man’s literary tour de force, intensely self-involved, concerned above all else with the interior world of a consciousness coming to fruition. Stephen Dedalus’ creator believed that Ireland’s three bonds — family, nation, church — were imprisoning him like a seabird in a cage. Seamus Deane understands that Ireland’s endless ability to spin stories, to tell lies, to make tragedy into comedy and history into drama, is its all-in-all, both the prison and the key.

Deane’s vast perspective of history saved him from jingoism, although he was a patriot. But he can’t help but ponder how badly things usually work out, especially for nationalist causes, and why should Ireland be any different? This troubled him. Reading in the Dark is all about that, and it was published smack-dab in the middle of the hope-filled “peace process” in Northern Ireland. Deane didn’t say what people wanted to hear in the moment. He saw the present-day hope, and he couldn’t help but look back on the times when similar statements were made by similar types, followed by another round of disaster and betrayal. I like hope without optimism. lol Pessimism is helpful. Not fatalism. More like realism. We need pessimists. We need realists. Deane was a realist.

Along these lines: the following poem shows Deane’s pessimistic side as well as the scope of his vision. One can feel the budding novelist here. “Coals ripening in a light white as vodka” … isn’t that good?

History Lessons
for Ronan Sheehan and Richard Kearney

‘The proud and beautiful city of Moscow
Is no more.’ So wrote Napoleon to the Czar.
It was a November morning when we came
On this. I remember the football pitches
Beyond, stretched into wrinkles by the frost.
Someone was running across them, late for school,
His clothes scattered open by the wind.

Outside Moscow we had seen
A Napoleonic, then a Hitlerite dream
Aborted. The firegold city was burning
In the Kremlin domes, a sabred Wehrmacht
Lay opened to the bone, churches were ashen
Until heretics restored their colour
And their stone. Still that boy was running.

Fragrance of Christ, as in the whitethorn
Brightening through Lent, the stricken aroma
Of the Czars in ambered silence near Pavlovsk,
The smoking gold of icons at Zagorsk,
And this coal-smoke in the sunlight
Stealing over frost, houses huddled up in
Droves, deep drifts of lost

People. This was history, although the State
Exam confined Ireland to Grattan and allowed
Us roam from London to Moscow. I brought
Black gladioli bulbs from Samarkand
To flourish like omens in our cooler air;
Coals ripening in a light white as vodka.
Elections, hunger-strikes and shots

Greeted our return. Houses broke open
In the season’s heat and the bulbs
Burned in the ground. Men on ladders
Climbed into roselight, a roof was a swarm of fireflies
At dusk. The city is no more. The lesson’s learned.
I will remember it always as a burning
In the heart of winter and a boy running.

 
 
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 Books, On This Day, writers | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.” – Happy Birthday, Brendan Behan

“Shakespeare said pretty well everything and what he left out, James Joyce, with a judge from meself, put in.” – Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan, Irish playwright, IRA man, was born in Dublin on this day, 1923. He lived a life filled with poverty, violence, controversy, and aimlessness. He spent time in jail as a teenager for being part of a terrorist plot (there were bombs in his bag). Then he was involved in the attempted murder of two detectives, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. While in prison, he started writing. He wrote memoirs, confessions, poetry. He was still only 23 years old. His IRA activities ceased after that time, although he remained connected and friendly with most of its members (naturally – his whole family was involved). While in prison, he also learned the Irish language. He had trouble getting published in Ireland (joining the river of Irish writers who faced similar censorship issues). Behan was raised in a staunchly Catholic and Republican family. His father was involved in the Easter Uprising.

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”

Please go check out my friend Therese’s post about Behan.

In the 1950s, he left Ireland (following the path of Irish writers choosing exile) and moved to Paris.

My first published piece was in The Sewanee Review (the oldest literary journal in the United States). The essay was about my father and how my childhood was steeped in Irish literature. Brendan Behan makes an appearance. My essay, called “Two Birds,” appeared in the Irish Letters edition, along with luminaries such as William Trevor. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. We had (and still have) a big picture of Brendan Behan in our living room. It’s a pencil drawing, where his big bloated face is rendered in one uninterrupted line. When we were in Ireland as a family, my dad took us to the writer’s museum in Dublin. Even as a kid I appreciated the museum, especially because I grew up surrounded by Irish books, none of which I had read, but names like Flann O’Brien and Francis Stewart and W.B. Yeats and Brendan Behan were part of the warp and weft of our family.

Behan’s opinion about the Irish and Ireland was both complex and extremely simple. Irish people understand it intuitively.

It’s not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.

It was his “lack of respect for everything and everybody” that makes his work so exciting. He was unforgiving, but if he had worked ONLY from the unforgiving attitude, he would have been a humorless writer, a propagandist. Instead, he was a riot.

Never throw stones at your mother,
You’ll be sorry for it when she’s dead,
Never throw stones at your mother,
Throw bricks at your father instead.

Brendan Behan, “The Hostage”, 1958

Brendan Behan and Jackie Gleason became friends after Behan made a notorious drunken appearance on a television talk show where Gleason was also a guest. Behan’s behavior was shocking. Gleason saw a kindred spirit.

Jackie-Gleason-right-with-Brendan-Behan-in-Gleasons-dressing-room-1960

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

Behan’s 1954 play, The Quare Fellow, about his time in prison, had a short run in Dublin, and was a modest hit. The language shows Behan’s gift for satire. There’s a Pinter-esque quality in some of it in that a lot of times the events happening offstage have far more importance than what is happening ONstage. It adds to the audience’s feeling of imbalance. You want to peek around corners to get the whole story. The “Quare Fellow” himself is never seen in the play, although referenced constantly.

With The Quare Fellow, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop came into the picture, an essential development in the Behan story.

Joan-Littlewood

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we have Littlewood to thank for the fact that Brendan Behan is still so famous today. (You can read more about her here.) Behan was successful, but he was a fringe writer, a chaotic scrabbler-scibbler, with no organizing principle for a “career” of any kind. Fame was not inevitable for someone like him. But Littlewood, a theatre director and producer, took The Quare Fellow to England where it became a smashing success. Eventually the play moved to Broadway, bringing Behan worldwide fame.

My dad wrote me a note about The Hostage (another one of Behan’s plays):

Dearest: I saw the play done once in the 70s: it seemed like John Cleese [or some other Python] had adapted Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation for the stage. I believe that it owes most of its success to the director [Joan Littlewood?]. love, dad

My father’s comment reflects the general consensus: it was Joan Littlewood who took Behan’s work, wrestled it into a theatrical form where its strengths could shine, where its weaknesses were camouflaged or hidden. Behan owed much to Littlewood. They had a testy difficult relationship (maybe because he owed her so much).

Hostage-1

Behan’s 1958 play The Hostage was originally written in Irish – An Giall – and there were a couple of small productions in Irish (which, of course, had limited appeal). Then he translated it into English, and once again there was a production of it directed and produced by Joan Littlewood.

Interestingly enough, my copy of the book, given to me by my father, was an early edition, 1959, and in the biographical sketch on the back it says: “Brendan Behan, the son of a house painter, left school at thirteen, and three years later served his first prison term for political reasons. As an IRA terrorist he has spent eight years of his life in various jails …” That description is quite a time-traveler, from an earlier era when people weren’t hesitant to call a terrorist a terrorist.

The Hostage was an enormous theatrical success in London, Paris, and New York. The play, which takes place in a Dublin brothel owned by a former IRA commander, is laugh-out-loud funny, angry, political, slapstick. It should be played at breakneck speed. You should only “pause” when Behan tells you to pause (this, too, connects him with Pinter). The points he makes are difficult and prickly – still relevant today – but these points must not be underlined. There simply isn’t time.

When the play opens, we learn that an 18-year-old IRA member, accused of killing an Ulster policeman, is to be hanged the following day. A young Cockney soldier named Leslie is held hostage in the brothel in the hopes that somehow this might stave off the execution. To no avail. The kid is hanged. All hell breaks loose.

The Hostage was Behan’s last major success.

Critic Kenneth Tynan said:

While other writers horde words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight.

Brendan Behan makes me think, basically, of my whole damn life. You were given to me by my father, like so much else.

Wherever I look, in the timeline of my life, he is there. Just like the picture on our wall, one uninterrupted line.

Here is an excerpt from The Hostage.

One last thing: Notice in the excerpt below that a “pause” is written into the script. And, hysterically, the Officer shouts “SILENCE!” after the pause. Which is why I say it’s so important to follow Behan’s pauses as they are written. Otherwise you kill the joke.

EXCERPT FROM The Hostage, by Brendan Behan.

OFFICER: Now your rent books, please, or a list of the tenants.

PAT. I can give you that easy. There’s Bobo, Ropeen, Colette, the Mouse, Pigseye, Mulleady, Princess Grace, Rio Rita, Meg, the new girl, and myself.

OFFICER. [PAT fetches his notebook] I’ll tell you the truth, if it was my doings there’d be no such thing as us coming here. I’d have nothing to do with the place, and the bad reputation it has all over the city.

PAT. Isn’t it good enough for your prisoner?

OFFICER. It’s not good enough for the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. Isn’t it now?

OFFICER. Patrick Pearse said “To serve a cause which is splendid and holy, men must themselves be splendid and holy.”

PAT. Are you splendid, or just holy? Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? It couldn’t be you that was after coming here one Saturday night …

OFFICER. It could not.

PAT. It could have been your brother, for he was the spitting image of you.

OFFICER. If any of us were caught here now or at any time, it’s shamed before the world we’d be. Still, I see their reasons for choosing it too.

PAT. The place is so hot, it’s cold.

OFFICERE. The police wouldn’t believe we’d touch it.

PAT. If we’re all caught here, it’s not the opinion of the world or the police will be upsetting us, but the opinion of the Military Court. But then I suppose it’s all the same to you; you’ll be a hero, will you not?

OFFICER. I hope that I could never betray my trust.

PAT. Ah yes, of course, you’ve not yet been in Mountjoy or the Curragh glasshouse.

OFFICER. I have not.

PAT. That’s easily seen in you.

OFFICER. I assure you, my friend, I’m not afraid of Redcaps.

PAT. Take it from me, they’re not the worst [to audience] though they’re bastards anywhere and everywhere. No, your real trouble when you go to prison as a patriot, do you know what it will be?

OFFICER. The loss of liberty.

PAT. No, the other Irish patriots, in along with you. Which branch of the IRA are you in?

OFFICER. There is only one branch of the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. I was in the IRA in 1916, and in 1925 H.Q. sent me from Dublin to the County Kerry because the agricultural labourers were after taking over five thousand acres of an estate from Lord Trales. They had it all divided very nice and fair among themselves, and were ploughing and planting in great style. G.H.Q. gave orders that they were to get off the land, that the social question would be settled when we got the thirty-county Republic. The Kerrymen said they weren’t greedy like. They didn’t want the whole thirty-two counties to begin with, and their five thousand acres would do them for a start.

OFFICER. Those men were wrong on the social question.

PAT. Faith and I don’t think it was questions they were interested in, at all, but answers. Anyway I agreed with them, and stopped there for six months training the local unit to take on the IRA, the Free State Army, aye, or the British Navy if it had come to it.

OFFICER. That was mutiny.

PAT. I know. When I came back to Dublin, I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.

Pause.

OFFICER. Silence!

PAT. Sir!

OFFICER. i was sent here to do certain business. I would like to conclude that business.

PAT. Let us proceed, shall we, sir? When may we expect the prisoner?

OFFICER. Today.

PAT. What time?

OFFICER. Between nine and twelve.

PAT. Where is he now?

OFFICER. We haven’t got him yet.

PAT. You haven’t got a prisoner? Are you going down to Woolworths to buy one then?

OFFICER. I have no business telling you any more than has already been communicated to you.

PAT. Sure, I know that.

OFFICER. The arrangements are made for his reception. I will be here.

PAT. Well, the usual terms, rent in advance, please.

OFFICER. Is it looking for money you are?

PAT. What else? We’re not a charity. Rent in advance.

OFFICER. I might have known what to expect. I know your reputation.

PAT. How did you hear of our little convent?

OFFICER. I do social work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

PAT. I always thought they were all ex-policement. In the old days we wouldn’t go near them.

OFFICER. In the old days there were Communists in the IRA.

PAT. There were, faith, and plenty of them. What of it?

OFFICER. The man that is most loyal to his faith is the one that will prove most loyal to the cause.

PAT. Have you your initials mixed up? Is it the FBI or the IRA that you are in?

OFFICER. If I didn’t know that you were out in 1916 I’d think you were highly suspect.

PAT. Sir?

OFFICER. Well, at least you can’t be an informer.

PAT. Ah, you’re a shocking decent person. Could you give me a testimonial I could use in my election address if I wanted to get into the coroporation? The rent, please!

 
 
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 On This Day, Theatre, writers | Tagged , | 12 Comments

The First Glimpse of The Guy Who Started It All

For James Dean’s birthday

giphy

Age 13. Babysitting. Up later than I normally would be. East of Eden was on late-night television. I had never seen it. I don’t even know that I was aware of who James Dean was. And certainly not Elia Kazan. I was a ravagingly unhappy middle-schooler. I spent months in a state of literally wild despair. I was recovering from what I now realize was my first breakdown at age 12, bipolar having stepped into the room along with my first period, as it so often happens for girls. Good times. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and it would be decades before things got so harrowing that I got diagnosed. But also, even more importantly: at age 13, I was already a budding actress, involved in community theatre and drama clubs. My aunt was a professional actress and an inspiration: In my family, acting was not some weird pipe dream, acting was a JOB that could actually be DONE. I was ambitious enough to figure out – on my own – how I could get myself to New York for an Annie open call. (I learned about the open call from actually calling the Broadway theatre where it was playing, and asking questions of the poor box office lady who finally forwarded me to someone in the office. Crazy, I realize now, but that’s what happened.) I wanted to move to New York some day. I was one of those very young people who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to do one day. No question.

In East of Eden James Dean is first seen in long-shot for the haunting opening sequence, a lanky figure in the background. And this – up above – is our first real glimpse of his face. It is not an exaggeration to say that this moment shook my world. It re-arranged me. A seismic shift. My priorities, my awareness. My GOALS changed.

This one moment led me to the Actors Studio many years later, where I sat in the balcony of that famous renovated church on 44th Street, where Marilyn Monroe had sat, Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, steeped in the history I had been dreaming about since I first saw East of Eden. (After seeing the movie, I used my after-school job at the local public library to research the film. I discovered a treasure trove of biographies. I DEVOURED The Mutant King, the biography of James Dean, and followed the trail of bread crumbs available in that book. I learned of a man named “Elia Kazan”. I became obsessed with Carroll Baker and Marlon Brando. I learned of Lee Strasberg. A whole world and history opened up to me.)

And so, years later, after a nervewracking audition, I attended sessions at The Studio, I got involved in projects any way I could. I studied with Actors Studio members who had worked with Lee Strasberg, with Kazan. I was involved in a project about Joseph Cornell, developing a theatre piece about him, and actually got to work with Lois Smith (who appears in East of Eden. Joseph Cornell made one of his famous boxes for her.) And, most movingly, I finally got to MEET Elia Kazan. (A propos of nothing, recently I realized – and I have no idea how I did not notice this before – that in my life I have had not one, but TWO, romantic entanglements with men whose fathers had roles in Kazan’s autobiographical film America America. I swear I did not plan this. I wasn’t targeting people from afar, based on their IMDB credits. I swear.)

This above – my first glimpse of Dean, hunched over on the sidewalk, forehead wrinkle, clothes the same color as the light – was the Moment.

The genesis of everything. A to B.

 
 
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, Movies, Personal | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

For James Dean’s Birthday

Some links:

For Library of America: I wrote about East of Eden … an essay I had been waiting to write for almost my whole entire life.

For my Substack, a re-post of the piece I wrote in 2013 on Rebel Without a Cause.

I interviewed Dan Callahan about his book The Art of American Screen Acting, and, of course, we discussed James Dean at length.

Here’s an essay I wrote on the 60th anniversary screening of Giant at the Film Forum, special guest Carroll Baker.

 
 
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, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , , | 20 Comments

“The only people who ever called me a rebel were people who wanted me to do what they wanted.” — Nick Nolte

It’s Nick Nolte’s birthday.

He has always been one of my all-time favorites, and despite the odds – or maybe because of the odds – and his personal struggles – it’s a thrill that he is still with us, still pushing himself, still going deep as the Mariana Trench in his work. As always, with someone who goes as deep as he does (and he started OUT that way), there’s a little bit of mystery involved – because it’s not JUST talent. Or … with him, it shows that talent looks different on different people. Maybe his talent is the ability to go as deep as he goes, into the most brutal unforgiving shameful places of our human lives. But … that’s not about talent. I would say this is a LIFE skill, more than “acting talent” – the willingness to LOOK at what SUCKS about himself. The willingness to SHOW that to others. This is what Nolte does.

“To allow the fear to come on you and then pass through. If you keep cutting the fear off by intervening – let’s say, taking a Xanax to try to cure it – you’ll never understand what fear is really for. Fear is part of a survival mechanism. The way you conquer fear is to feel it all the way, and then you’ll find out that there’s nothing there – it’s just emotion.” — Nick Nolte

I’ve mentioned him in passing many times on my site, but there are two pieces in particular where I zoomed in on this aspect of him.

The first is a piece I wrote about one moment in North Dallas Forty where he, as they say – or as I say – “drops in”. He drops in to the moment, or – into himSELF – and it’s like he plunges to the center of the earth in one breath.

When I had my column at Film Comment, I devoted an entire column to the career of Nick Nolte, focusing especially on this aspect of him – that willingness to look into and SHOW his own darkness, flaws, failings, his shame. Shame is such a terrible experience people LIE to avoid feeling it. He never lies.

His acting gift is awe-inspiring.

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