Smile

"Tell us about that, dear...in your own words"

“Tell us about that, dear…in your own words”

Somewhere during the last three or four decades American film lost its talent to produce good-natured satire. Now everything is played for keeps, mirroring the scorched earth politics that have been the norm in recent memory. Just as an example, I doubt a movie like “His Girl Friday,” released in 1940, could be made today. The left would picket over the gender, ethnic and racial jokes, though the film is most definitely an equal opportunity offender (and funny as hell); the right would complain that the anarchist Earl Williams should have been hanged, and that the poor sheriff was done dirt by the lefty newspaper reporters (that era’s version of the “lamestream media”).

1975’s “Smile,” directed by Michael Ritchie, is the type of gentle satire that’s somehow lost its place in today’s humor. Despite its potshots at those eternal targets, beauty pageants and small town life, there’s a sweetness here. Ritchie leaves you with more winners than losers. He deliberately refrains from inviting the audience to feel superior to the characters; instead, he brings you into their world. Christopher Guest is the only filmmaker working today whose tone approaches that of “Smile,” though he’s definitely more pointed at times.

“Smile” covers the week in which small town Santa Rosa hosts the California state finals for the teen-age Young American Miss pageant. As expected, the event sponsor is the local Chamber of Commerce, among whose leading lights is Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), car dealer extraordinaire and the pageant’s Chief Judge. Relentlessly optimistic, he’s congenitally unable to open his mouth without a cliché, a catchphrase or a meme tumbling out. As can be imagined, Big Bob’s Number 1 pet peeve is anyone who “wallows in self-pity.” Nevertheless, there’s not one mean bone in his body, so it’s quite painful when events force him to question his values.

His polar opposite is Tommy French (Michael Kidd), a somewhat down on his luck director-choreographer, who’s been reduced to staging local beauty pageants. Despite all this he remains a total pro, and his frequent clashes with the squarely upright Jaycee in charge, Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis), usually find him on the winning side, even if victory comes at a cost. Above all, though, Tommy’s a realist. When a stagehand congratulates him on the fine job he’s done, French wryly replies: “Yeah. I took a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls.”

Watching the newly-minted "Vegas showgirls"

Watching the newly-minted “Vegas showgirls”

Ritchie has a keen eye and a good sense of balance. While he does go after some obvious targets like the smarmy pageant emcee, the above-mentioned Wilson Shears and Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), former Young American Miss and now professional martyr married to Andy, the town drunk (Nicholas Pryor), he shows us a fond yet rueful view of small town life. There’s the Elks Bears breakfast honoring the pageant contestants, presided over by the local funeral director (Paul Benedict, who should have been used more), and the Jaycees blowing off steam at their Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (though their rooster garb uneasily resembles the KKK’s white sheets). Yet Ritchie also shows us that Santa Rosa is like every other small town that people need to leave in order to grow up. Not because it’s a bad place—only a stifling one. When Big Bob urges Andy to stay in Santa Rosa to solve his problems, the latter, with a defiant gleam in his eye, replies “Who wants to?”

Ritchie takes a sympathetic view of the pageant contestants. We’re spared the horror of stage mothers and professional coaches; Ritchie is too smart to waste our time with that. Instead, we experience the pageant through the eyes of a contestant, Robin (Joan Prather), a sweet, naive kid who to her surprise catches the fever to win. Then there’s her roommate, Doria (Annette O’Toole, giving the type of performance you remember for years), a pageant veteran who’s used to dealing with horny dermatologists and Vaseline on her teeth to help her maintain that smile, among other travails. Her talent spot in the pageant is perhaps the high point of “Smile”—a striptease scrubbed clean by an accompanying poetry recitation, capped off by an unforgetable ending. This bit alone is worth the cost of the DVD. Trust me.

As Tommy French says, the girls are basically your average high school kids. They’re not goody-goody, they’re certainly not Ginger Rogers—they’re simply playing the game, one whose values Robin questions. We catch her in the middle of a conversation with Doria, who points out: “Boys get paid for making touchdowns. Why shouldn’t a girl get paid for being pretty?” Robin’s reply always gladdens this former band nerd’s heart: “Well, maybe boys shouldn’t get paid for making touchdowns.”

Ultimately Ritchie’s view is somewhat ambivalent. While he shows us the silliness of the pageant and the clichés that prevail (not to mention the loot the winner collects), we also see the camaraderie of the contestants, their refreshing ability to see through a ton of adult b.s. and their resilience. A pity we lose this as we grow older.

“Smile”—a lovely reminder that once upon a time films were actually made for grown-ups.

Sci-Fi Summer

extant

This summer is pig heaven if you’re a science fiction fan. “Under the Dome” has returned for Round Two of life with Big Jim. “The Leftovers” is ensconced in HBO’s Sunday night lineup. But Wednesday night saw the premiere of a show that may turn out to be the best of the lot, CBS’ “Extant,” with Halle Berry as the “how can she be pregnant?” astronaut.

Watching the pilot episode reminded me of the best of classic sci-fi, the stuff I gobbled up in seventh grade when I first started reading Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Kate Wilhelm and a host of other authors. Despite the futuristic production design (I loved the presentation to the Yasumoto board), the show hit every classic note on the genre scale. You’ve got outer space, robots passing for human (thus the “humanics” designation), possible alien life forms and suspended animation, spiced up with nefarious corporations, conspiracy and just plain old paranoia.

How can you go wrong?

I loved Goran Visnjic (hello Dr. Kovac!) as Halle’s robotics maven husband who pooh-poohs the possibility of any form of robot uprising. That’s one big fat Acme anvil right there. I suspect it won’t be long before he’s disabused of that notion if only by his “son,” the humanic Ethan who, to put it mildly, has something of an aggression problem. The creep factor is enormous: Goran’s workshop with spare humanic parts, Ethan’s abrupt switch from the dead bird to complimenting his mother’s hairstyle, only to be topped by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the space station, tracing “Help Me” on a foggy window. Shudder.

The show runners certainly packed a great deal into one hour, leaving us with a laundry list of questions:

Why was Halle alone on a space station the size of a small city? And for 13 months?

Honey, if your dead first husband shows up and the only words out of his mouth are a monotone repeat of yours, you didn’t get that maybe there’s a problem here?

Why did she erase the tape? Out of fear of a bad performance review? Because good astronauts can’t be caught hallucinating?

I can’t wait until the next episode.

___________________________________________

The Guilty Remnant's Words to Live By

The Guilty Remnant’s Words to Live By

I read Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers,” prior to the start of the HBO series, and now I almost wish I hadn’t. While it’s no surprise that the book and TV series are very different in tone, what’s bothersome is that the show suffers for it.

The novel, published in 2011, defies categorization. It’s a stark examination of people coping with unexpected, catastrophic loss (In positing the inexplicable disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, Perrotta obviously drew on 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami). The author provides no explanation for this, though many characters think it’s the Rapture. But contrary to initial expectations, Perrotta’s people for the most part respond in understandable if not always reasonable ways. The novel’s universe doesn’t feel upended. True, there’s a cult-like movement called the Guilty Remnant (see above), which in its discipline bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and various nuts come out of the woodwork, but life does go on.

However, HBO’s version, co-created by Tom Perrotta, is far darker and dystopian. In no particular order, I don’t remember anyone shooting dogs in the book, though it’s done here, the Kevin Garvey character isn’t the chief of police but the somewhat wealthy mayor of the town, and his son is no killer. For that matter, the Wayne Gilchrist character is a nondescript middle aged man; he and his followers more closely resemble Warren Jeffs and his faction than the crew manning the armed encampment you see in the show. Perhaps the TV version’s biggest failing is the casting of Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. He’s a fine actor to be sure, but he’s a walking nerve end, a far cry from the more even-tempered Kevin Garvey we meet on the page.

But dystopia sells, which no doubt is the reason why “The Leftovers” is no longer a meditation on dealing with loss but a sci-fi thriller. I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just think it would have been more interesting to retain the book’s slant for TV, though it would have been difficult to sustain for 13 episodes. But the show is doing an excellent job with the Guilty Remnant, and Jill Garvey’s struggles remain true to Perrotta’s original vision. I intend to keep watching.

Far more fun is the return of “Under the Dome,” as the residents of Chester’s Mill continue their puzzlement over the whys and wherefores. Yes, Junior in essence saved Barbie’s life, and that was indeed Stephen King himself in the diner, asking Angie for a coffee refill. Due to my commuting schedule I’m a week behind, so I can’t wait to see how the McAlisters, Norrie and Carolyn fare under Big Jim’s roof. Just one big happy family? I think not.

 

Champion Manipulators

One Toxic “Mother-Daughter” Combo

“Orange is the New Black” has come roaring back for its second season on Netflix. It’s always difficult for a smash hit series to maintain that level of excellence, but on balance I think this one has.

We’ve now gotten some pre-prison background on Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), Poussey, Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Sister Jane and Morello, though we’re still in the dark as to why some of these inmates ended up in Litchfield. But Morello’s story remains a stand-out. We learn she conflated an entire romance with her “fiancé” out of one coffee date, during which he evidently spotted the crazy and dropped her. Whereupon she began to stalk him and his girlfriend, going so far to plant a bomb under the latter’s car. Inasmuch as the luckless object of Morello’s affection is a postal worker, she ended up in a federal pen, creepily smiling her way through her trial. And it even goes downhill from there.

But it’s through Taystee that we meet the sociopath who drives OITNB’s Season Two: Vee, a drug dealer, who ensnares children and teens mired in the foster system into her network of runners and street dealers. She offers them something they’ve never had before—attention, support and family life, of a sort (Dickens’ Fagin comes to mind). She makes it all seem real because she always has her eyes on the prize, as a true sociopath does. In Litchfield she continues to prey upon anyone whom she can use, most pathetically the needy Suzanne, whom she turns into a sadistic henchman always eager for Momma Vee’s love.

The ever-skeptical Red, who knew Vee well during the latter’s earlier period of incarceration, is instantly wary upon their initial encounter in Round Two.  Paybacks abound in terms of territory taken and who runs which racket, until Red, incensed that Vee is dealing drugs inside the prison, tries but fails to strangle her. Vee’s heartfelt call for a truce results in Red’s letting her guard down, to her extreme detriment. But the way the story ultimately plays out is satisfying indeed.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences better start inscribing that Emmy now, because it belongs to Lorraine Toussaint for her portrayal of Vee. Whether warm, shrewd or coldly manipulative, there’s not one wrong note in her performance. She strikes exactly the right pitch between realism and larger than life; when she’s on-screen you want even more Vee though you’re totally appalled at what she does. Until this point Lorraine Toussaint has been best known for her appearances on multiple TV shows, including her recurring role as a defense attorney on “Law & Order” and more recently as Sheri Saum’s mother on “The Fosters” (great “Fosters” tweet the other night about grandma being in the pen). But what a break-out role Vee is turning out to be.

There are other things to savor in OITNB: that weird friendship between Pennsatuckey and Healey; Sophia instructing the other inmates re: the design and function of their ladyparts; more Piper and Alex, past and present. But watching Nicky struggle with Vee’s bribe of drugs (was I the only one yelling “Don’t do it!” at the screen?), only to turn the stuff over to Red was perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the season. The funniest by far? Pornstache’s perp walk as he shouts pregnancy advice to Daya (“Don’t eat tuna fish!”). When I read that Mary Steenburgen would be playing his Mom next season, all I could think was “Pornstache has a mother?!?” Good times are definitely ahead.

_____________________________________________________________________________

She’s Finally Got Your Number, Jackie

I’ve been a fan of “Nurse Jackie” since the beginning, and I’m amazed that after six seasons this show still has the ability to surprise, though not necessarily in a good way. Edie Falco continues to play that most anti- of anti-heroines who seems to sink lower with each episode. Yes, she’s a pill gobbling addict and the hallmark of addiction is that the junk comes before everything—husband/boyfriend, children, friends and conscience—but in the long run can this really be entertainment?

The end of last season saw Jackie relapse on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety, and this year she’s so overboard with the meds she’s managed to (a) steal a doctor’s DEA number to facilitate her trips to the pharmacy (b) entice a dying nun to take the rap for it (c) dump her terrific, supportive cop boyfriend at least twice in super-nasty fashion (d) lure her sponsor into relapse and then trick her into signing herself into rehab on the false promise that she (Jackie) would enter the program with her (e) destroy her rebuilt relationship with her ex-husband by bringing her dealer to the ex’s wedding, and worst of all (f) alienate her supervisor and co-workers by refusing to enter a diversionary program after nearly killing a patient while being high as a kite at work. There’s even more, and it’s all told in twelve increasingly depressing episodes.

It’s tough to watch. Jackie seemed to exhibit no remorse whatsoever, except in the last episode when it finally dawned on her that even her younger daughter has had enough. And yet she still has good old Eddie (Paul Schulze), her pharmacist sidekick, as her enabler. Now there’s a dysfunctional relationship for you—no matter how badly she behaves, she can always cast that line to reel him back in, and he seemingly has no other significant person in his life. At various points I thought he might be breaking away, first when he gave O’Hara a ride on his motorcycle (Eve Best, please come back!), and this season, when he hung out with Antoinette, Jackie’s sponsor (Julie White, who’s been a breath of fresh air). But once again he paved the way for Jackie’s escape from responsibility, soon thwarted by a car accident and her subsequent DUI arrest.

Despite my misgivings about the direction the show has taken, there’s some very fine acting on display here. In addition to Ms. Falco, Anna Deavere Smith is tremendous as Gloria Akalitus, Jackie’s supervisor, and Merritt Wever rightly deserved that Emmy she won as Zoe Barkow, no longer Jackie’s protegé but a true peer who finally sees through all her lies. Dr. Fitch Cooper has even become fun to watch, thanks to Peter Facinelli’s charm; I only wish the show runners had brought back his two moms, but I suppose Blythe Danner/Judith Light and/or Swoosie Kurtz was/were unavailable.

“Nurse Jackie” will be back for a seventh season, and at this point it’s hard to see how she’ll be able to put her life back together. It will literally be kill or cure time.

No Strength of Conviction

"The Death of Klinghoffer"--Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)

“The Death of Klinghoffer”–Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)

I’m furious.

The Metropolitan Opera, per General Manager Peter Gelb, has cancelled both the HD telecast and the radio broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” scheduled for next season. To anyone who has heard the opera (more about that later), the given reason for doing so is couched in something of a non-sequiter: that an international showing of the work would be “inappropriate in a time of rising anti-Semitism.” In the next breath, Gelb maintains that he doesn’t feel the work is anti-Semitic, but he understands the “genuine concern of the international Jewish community.”

Baloney.

The prime mover in this is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, supposedly representing the interests of the Klinghoffers’ daughters. In truth this is an attempt to stir a pot that doesn’t exist. Unlike Mr. Foxman, who admits he’s never seen the opera and whom I seriously doubt has even heard the music or read the libretto, I’ve listened to a recording of the work, and no way is “The Death of Klinghoffer” anti-Semitic, nor in my opinion, anti-Zionist.

What John Adams and Alice Goodman have produced is a multi-faceted, sensitive opera designed to represent multiple points of view and—horrors!—to make the audience think. The music is some of Adams’ best—eerily beautiful, yet powerful. What I suspect really galls the ADL and their supporters is that the work is not as one-sided as they would wish. The Palestinians on stage voice their aspirations; they’re not merely cardboard villains. Though Adams and Goodman make it very clear that Leon Klinghoffer’s murder was an unjustified, horrific act, this is evidently not enough for those who operate on knee-jerk reactions.

Look, I’m Jewish and I had problems with “The Death of Klinghoffer” before I listened to it. My reservations weren’t political, but emotional—my parents were of the same generation as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it didn’t take much imagination to see them on the Achille Lauro. But having listened to the opera, I think it’s a major work that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I had planned to attend the HD telecast, but unfortunately this opportunity hasn’t just been taken away—it’s been stolen from me and everyone else who had been eagerly looking forward to seeing it. The artistic loss can’t be denied: John Adams is a composer of enormous stature whose works are among the most intriguing any opera house has to offer. The Met’s productions of “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” both of which I’ve seen, are on a very short list of outright successes Peter Gelb has enjoyed during his tenure as General Manager.

I have a message for the ADL: You don’t speak for me. Abraham Foxman, he who blithely admits he never saw the opera, apparently wanted the entire run of “The Death of Klinghoffer” to be cancelled. But, as he ever so smugly told the New York Times, “We compromised.” The fact that a special interest group is evidently dictating repertory to the Metropolitan Opera should give anyone with a brain some pause.

To the Klinghoffer daughters: Your loss was immeasurable. I know you don’t see it this way, but to those familiar with the opera, John Adams and Alice Goodman have honored the memory of your parents, not exploited it. The fact that you are evidently using your influence to suppress, rather than promote, an opportunity for discourse is in itself an injustice.

To Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera: Your cancellation of the HD telecast of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is the worst expression of cowardice I’ve seen in years. You caved to political pressure in the same way that Hollywood and TV caved during the McCarthy and “Red Channels” years. You’ve compromised the very mission of the arts: to provoke thought and discussion. Integrity once lost can never be regained. So the next time your little minions call me for a donation, the answer will be no. And Peter? You just wrote the first paragraph of your obituary.

The “Klinghoffer” controversy is just one more example of the extreme fear exhibited by religious and/or special interest groups in the face of any expression that departs from orthodoxy. A number of years ago it was Catholic groups that protested the showing of Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” at the Brooklyn Museum (If you recall, the artist had used elephant dung in addition to more traditional media in executing the portrait). Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to withdraw city aid to the museum, which filed suit in federal court and won on First Amendment grounds.

Ultimately this type of suppression is unvarnished paternalism. It stands for the proposition that only Mommy and Daddy know what’s best for you. Interest groups that apply this type of pressure to arts organizations fundamentally distrust the audience, no doubt out of fear that their own ideas will be rejected. The only comfort one can take away is that those who suppress are on the wrong side of history.

Will the ADL up the ante next time by resorting to book-burning? Shonda.

 

Game Changer

arya-Brienne2

Ah….another Monday morning, another post-mortem (and I do mean “mortem”) of a “Game of Thrones” season finale. The world weighs in!

The big news of course was Tywin Lannister’s murder at the hands—er, crossbow—of his hated son, Tyrion. With brother Jamie facilitating his escape, Tyrion then strangles Shae in his father’s bed, revenge for her perjured testimony as well as getting it on with the old man. He confronts Tywin, now sitting on the un-Iron Throne, and wangs him twice with what appears to be Joffrey’s crossbow. You remember…the one he used for target practice on that poor prostitute, Ros. Lovely continuity there.

I’ll miss Charles Dance, a terrific actor who plays malevolence like nobody’s business. I loved how Tywin kept on lying through his teeth even as Tyrion loaded that crossbow. I only wish the show runners had retained George R.R. Martin’s account of Tyrion’s reaction to his father’s passing: [paraphrase] “So the Lannisters don’t shit gold after all.” George R.R. Martin is a genius.

In other news, Stannis Baratheon and his troops have arrived at the Wall to eliminate the White Walkers. Good luck. As Mance Rayder observes, they’re not dressed for the weather, and given that Stannis isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer, Melisandre or no Melisandre, I hope he’s dispatched soon. And Dany has locked up two of her dragons in the catacombs after they’ve started scorching children instead of sheep during their flyovers. However, the biggest and baddest dragon is still at large, so you can definitely plan on more barbeques in the future.

But the best was saved for last. Arya came face to face with Brienne, and the look of recognition on the latter’s face, not only of Arya’s identity but the sense that she was seeing her younger self, was lovely (kudos to Gwendoline Christie). I figured the Hound’s days were numbered anyway, what with the festering wound in his neck, but Arya’s refusal to show any mercy whatsoever by saving him from a lingering death was rather chilling. Granted, he was on her Hit Parade for murdering her friend, the butcher’s boy, way back in Season One, but how many times had he saved her hide since, even if monetarily motivated?

Watching Arya sail away on a ship headed North (“Valar morghulis” to you, too) was a great way to open the door to new possibilities. Hopefully it will finally result in a Stark meet-up with a family member. That clan has been so inept at reunions that they really should consider posting on Craigslist’s Missed Connections.

My final impressions of Season 4 of “Game of Thrones” ?

I’m satisfied, but….I really would have preferred to end the season with Lady Stoneheart’s appearance instead of Tywin’s murder. Since I don’t spoil, you’ll just have to hang on until next season to see why. And I think you’ll agree with me.

I wish Oberyn Martell had stuck around longer instead of having his head squished like a grape.

The press reaction to a certain plot twist has bugged me no end. There’s been a lot of chatter about Lysa’s drop through the Moon Door a couple of episodes back, but not the substance of her babbling that preceded it. If you’ll recall, she reminded Petyr Baelish of her collaboration in his plotting: writing the letter in which she accused the Lannisters of poisoning Jon Arryn, her late husband, and stealing Tyrion’s dagger in order to further Catelyn Stark’s belief that the attempt on Brandon’s life was his doing. So Brandon’s would-be killer was actually dispatched by Petyr Baelish? Was this merely revenge for Catelyn’s spurning him so many years before, or the opening salvo of his grab for power in setting off what was sure to be a civil war between the kingdoms?

Ten months is a long time to wait.

Brain Bits for a Busting Out June

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” looms ahead, and by my count, we have two potential shockers to go if the show runners intend to wrap up the events in “A Storm of Swords,” the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s saga, this Sunday. Can it be done in one episode? If not, I’m curious to see their choice as we’ll soon start another countdown to a new season.

_______________________________________________________

Until “Orange is the New Black” appeared with new episodes on Netflix last Friday (I’m now 5.5 episodes in, and it’s as good as, if not better than Season One), spring had me focused on books and baseball. The baseball you already know about. The books, though, unlike the New York Mets, have been more consistently rewarding.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI had been disappointed by Donna Tartt before—there are few novels with a bigger letdown than “The Little Friend,” particularly if you’ve read her first book, the riveting”The Secret History.” But “The Goldfinch,” her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is far more satisfying—that is, until 7/8ths through, when things take an oblique left turn.

“The Goldfinch” is about loss and recovery, in both the literal and figurative senses. Not to mention life’s many shades of gray, flim-flammery (both borderline and more classically criminal), loyalty and love at first sight. Thirteen year-old Theodore Decker and his mother, on a spur of the moment visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are among the victims of a terrorist bombing. Her death sets Theo off on a fourteen year journey that begins in the rubble of the explosion. A dying fellow victim urges him to salvage the Dutch master Fabritius’ portrait of a goldfinch, which becomes Theo’s talisman.

“The Goldfinch” is Dickensian in event and scope; the characters, ranging from the Park Avenue family that takes Theo in, to the inimitable Boris, who befriends Theo when he later relocates to Las Vegas, are wonderfully drawn. Equally fascinating are Tartt’s excursions into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, the profession of Hobie, Theo’s benefactor. To my surprise, these digressions, rather than detracting from the story, enrich the novel and the characters to such an extent that you wish Tartt had spent more time in this world.

But it’s Theo’s mother, beautifully drawn by the author, who may stay with you the longest. In spite of her death, she’s never really gone; her character is so vividly presented that you find yourself wondering, at the various turns Theo’s life takes, what she’d think of all this. He knows what he’s lost in her, which makes her absence even more heartbreaking.

The tale is a long one but quite rewarding, even if you feel, as I did, that the climax of “The Goldfinch” is more than a little outrageous. You’ll still enjoy the journey.

_______________________________________________________

A little book-related anecdote:

Begley_UpdikeWhen I attended law school in Boston, I lived on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. It was then a rabbit warren of studio and one bedroom apartments occupied for the most part by students (It should not surprise you that since then the area has gone so co-op and condo it’s off the charts). My building was fairly standard issue with one exception—we had a laundromat in the basement so we drew a fair amount of traffic from the neighborhood.

One weekday afternoon there I sat with highlighter and law book in hand while my clothes cycled through washer and dryer. A man walked into the laundromat with a full basket of wash and I was immediately bombarded by a machine gun, rat-a-tat series of impressions: “He’s not a student” “OH MY GOD that’s John Updike!” “How can it be John Updike? He’s too short.”

I immediately put my detective mind into overdrive. He was older than average student age: I would have said late 30’s, though that in itself wasn’t unusual since a number of older, post-grad students, primarily Viet Nam vets, lived in the neighborhood. However, he was wearing a beautiful and quite expensive-looking tweed jacket (this was the height of the bell-bottom era), which would have indicated he actually worked for a living. The nose was unmistakable, but the mystery remained. Why would John Updike be doing laundry in a rundown student ghetto? I knew he lived in Massachusetts, but why would he be doing his wash on Marlborough Street?

I was still in my shy years, so I didn’t have the nerve to just go up to him with “Aren’t you…?” Part of me was afraid that if this was John Updike, I’d start gushing over “Couples” which remains one of my all-time favorite novels (and I think few works have better portrayed mid- and late-twentieth century America than the Rabbit books). Another part of me was just plain awed into silence at the thought of speaking with him. So I let the moment pass as he loaded up a couple of machines and departed. Having spun and dried, my laundry was done and I returned upstairs to my tiny studio apartment and hours of Evidence, Estates and Trusts and the Uniform Commercial Code. I never saw him again.

Flash forward to this past Saturday when I took Adam Begley’s new biography of Updike out of the library. Naturally I sought out the good parts first—how much of “Couples” was based on his own marriage and/or those of his neighbors in Ipswich, MA (answer: plenty). And then finally after all those years, I had my confirmation: the man in the laundromat had indeed been John Updike. I saw him when he was living in a small apartment on Beacon Street, right around the corner from me, after he had split from his first wife.

Long time coming, but I’m glad for the verification. And by the way, Begley’s book is fascinating.

The Normal Heart

the-normal-heart-01_612x380

Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, “The Normal Heart”

HBO’s highly touted “The Normal Heart” left me with mixed emotions. There were definitely some moments, but on the whole, I found it a bit lacking. What I mostly felt was regret—this should have been filmed 25 years ago, when it would have squarely caught the zeitgeist. Instead it was the subject of a long-running dispute between Barbra Streisand, who originally owned the film rights, and Larry Kramer, author of the play on which the film is based.

In terms of the issues it covers, “The Normal Heart” is like an overstuffed suitcase. Opening in 1981, when reports of a mysterious illness among gay men first surfaced, it definitively shows the ensuing failure of every level of government to either address this crisis or to help the afflicted. There’s also an unblinking depiction of the gay community’s response, which primarily consists of rallying around continued free sexual expression as a proclamation of pride, but with a growing sense that restraint might be wiser in the face of a disease that seems to be sexually transmitted. And then there’s Ned Weeks (aka Larry Kramer) and his relationship with Felix Turner, who ultimately develops full-blown AIDS. Not to mention Ned’s troubled relationship with his big shot attorney brother (Alfred Molina) who’s the emblem for what’s wrong with the straight world. Whew—that’s quite a menu for one movie.

One thing “The Normal Heart” drives home with alacrity is that polite guys don’t necessarily get the job done, a lesson which, incidentally, was also taught by the civil rights and feminist movements. While the film presents a fictionalized version of the founding and early years of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the conflicts depicted within the organization were quite real. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer seeking to rally the community and a self-described “pain in the ass,” asks the tough questions and demands a response in action, not words. In contrast there’s Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), who operates at a lower decibel level and as a result is elected GMHC’s President.

Ned yells a lot, but at times you want to scream along with him. There are a number of swipes at Ed Koch, then Mayor of New York, who did little if anything as more and more of the citizens he was sworn to serve became ill and died. One of the most arresting scenes in “The Normal Heart” is a confrontation with a Koch aide sent as the Mayor’s surrogate to a meeting with GMHC leaders who had been assured they’d be talking with Ed himself (in a parking garage, yet, which neatly shows how deeply closeted Koch really was). Denis O’Hare, a wonderful actor, once again plays the weasel—he was State Senator Dan Briggs in “Milk”—this time as the aide who threatens Mickey Marcus’s (Joe Mantello) job with the city when the GMHC crew calls out the Mayor.

But the most devastating moment in “The Normal Heart” is a visual one. At a memorial service, Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), the GMHC Executive Director, relates how he copes with the death of yet another GMHC client: he removes their card from his Rolodex and rubber bands it, storing it in a separate drawer in his desk. It’s his way of remembering. At the end of “The Normal Heart” we see that the pile of cards has multiplied into three and four rubber-banded stacks, and heartbreakingly, has been added to, one by one, with the cards of several of the leading characters.

The performances in “The Normal Heart” range from superb to amateurish. Being the author’s mouthpiece is always a difficult role, but it’s even harder when you’re actually playing the author himself, as Mark Ruffalo does here. His best work is in the confrontational scenes, whether with Felix, his colleagues at GMHC or the politicians he seeks out. Matt Bomer does a nice job with Felix, but Taylor Kitsch brings very little if anything to the table for Bruce Niles, who needs to be something of an antagonist for Ned. He’s just not there, and the film suffers for it. However, Joe Mantello is a superb Mickey Marcus, delivering with great passion his long mea culpa for advocating an “anything goes” lifestyle. But for me, the best performance is Jim Parsons’s as Tommy Boatwright (practice evidently made perfect—he played this role in the Broadway revival several years ago). Words can’t quite describe the expression on his face, a perfect combination of pain and compassion, as he reaches out to hug GMHC’s first lesbian volunteer. He alone makes “The Normal Heart” worth seeing.

On the other hand, there’s Julia Roberts.

Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician-ally of Ned Weeks during the crisis, is a tricky role: she’s Cassandra, she’s disabled (a childhood polio victim), she’s a woman, and as such has to be the counterpoint to bring the drama into its own. It takes great acting chops, which in my book Julia Roberts has never had. And playing the part takes control. The scene in which Brookner is denied grant money calls for incremental outrage. Roberts goes from zero to sixty in two seconds flat, which turns this into yet another scream fest. And there are times when the role requires plain old warmth, not just compassion, which she didn’t seem to be able to muster. I’m glad Julia Roberts was one of the film’s producers who provided the muscle to finally get it made, but the end result would have been far better if Brookner had been played by someone else. Cherry Jones would have been spectacular in the part.

I wish I had liked “The Normal Heart” more. But sincerity of intent can’t always compensate for a lack of quality in the execution.