Letter From Los Angeles April 15, 2007
Extra, Extra!!! Don Imus' Big Mouth
Everybody happy? A jerk from radio and t.v. has been silenced, Al Sharpton has ridden to the rescue with large hat and horse, long faces have filled our screens, we've waited breathlessly for a "Sorry," a "We forgive you" and a "You're out," so now we can all feel virtuous and call it a day, right?
The only way I can get a handle on this is to substitute my team, gays, for blacks. How would I have felt and what would I have wanted done if Imus had spoken of gays as "limp wristed sluts" (stop laughing) instead?
In either case, Don Imus, of whom I know little, ought to be judged by his entire career and not only by one instance. I would find a pattern of homophobia or racism intolerable and question why he wasn't sacked long ago.
Randi Rhodes stresses that ridding ourselves of Imus is of negligible value if the racial hatred expressed daily on right wing talk radio is allowed to go unchecked. Can anyone doubt that when the Imus matter blows over (given our national attention span sometime rather soon) that business will go back to usual? If General peter pace (see "peter pace," next page) were dismissed for his comments on gays, what besides retribution would have been gained? Would making pace a public example deter others from denigrating gays (in the short run, possibly) or change a single heart or mind (unlikely)?
The real work has to take place in homes, schoolrooms, places of workship, social circles, in the media and at political forums. Issues of free speech and hurtful or harmful speech need to be hashed out. First, last and always we must acknowledge that none of us has not had a racist moment and, how does it go?, to err is human.......
Shortly before my father's ninety-three year old cousin Margie died, airport security experts saved western civilization by taking away her killer mascara brush. When a sixty-three year old Irish American man we all know and love recently boarded a flight from L.A., he was made to surrender the secret weapon with which he had planned to conquer the world, a sixteen ounce jar of Trader Joe's organic mayonnaise. You must try it some time. It's delicious.
No, I'm not proposing a tax on happiness. April is here and so are the bleats. The Libertarians regard taxation as theft and the rich as a violation of some requirement of God's. I like paying taxes as much as I enjoy jury duty, colonoscopies and root canal, though I would not want to live in a world without them.
A former U.S. ambassador appointed by Reagan told the World Affairs Council, "It's my money to do with as I please," as if that freedom would be possible without the cost of courts, regulated financial institutions and a national defense.
We all crab when our tax dollars are spent on projects of which we disapprove, which could include schools, wars, mass transit, abortions, benefits for the poor, prisons or the salaries of postal workers and cops. Some would transfer these functions to the Private Sector, which we are learning values performance less than glowing quarterly reports.
To Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Surgeon General of the Army Kevin Kiley.
Good Riddance Wait List
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose picture t.v.'s Jack Cafferty suggests should appear in the dictionary next to "weasel," and hopefully former D.A. mike nifong and anyone else responsible for the unjust persecution of the lacrosse team members at Duke.
Supreme Being? No. Higher Power? Er, no. All right: Ralph Waldo Emerson bless Congressman Pete Stark. The Bay Area politician has "come out" as a Unitarian who believes neither in God nor a Supreme Being, which would automatically disqualify him as president in most Americans' view. If I ever went back to a Church it would be Unitarian Universalist, and my position of the Deity would be identical to that of Representative Stark's.
Don Imus appropriately gets his can kicked in for making racist comments on the air, but gay Americans are still fair game to some. Instead of mouthing off that gays are "immoral," our soldier boy in chief with the alliterative name of peter pace ought to stand silently erect in honor of the lesbian and gay troops who have joined their heterosexual comrades in needlessly losing their bodies, and sometimes their minds and souls, in the cities and sands of Iraq.
Now, meet a real woman and a real man in the persons of a WAC secretary and her celebrated boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of a necessary and ultimately successful war. Disturbed by the widespread presence of lesbians in the WAC, Ike dictated a directive ordering them all to immediately resign. His secretary dutifully handed him the typed directive along with a letter of her own. "Sir," she announced, "if this directive stands, I want to be the first to resign." Eisenhower turned colors, scowled and thought for several long seconds before tearing his order to shreds.
Put on a Cancer Face (to the tune of "Put on a Happy Face" from "Bye, Bye, Birdie)
If anyone has to be diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, I'm glad it was Elizabeth Edwards.
Please don't misunderstand. I wish no one a life threatening illness, least of all as decent a person as John Edwards' wife. (I wish better for Tony Snow as well) Ms. Edwards has told the American public that cancer is something to live with and not just die of, and that it serves as a warning to better live our days. In the face of heartache and troubles, her words, she chooses inspiration.
Watch this woman, for she is showing us nothing less than how to die and how to live. Regard, too, the example set by UC Berkeley Wellness Letter publisher Rodney Friedman, who "hardly conceded (to his cancer) even at the very last moment." Such people are few and far between.
Some among us are getting bent over Mrs. Edwards' not playing the pitiful victim, which brings me to The Cancer Face, an expression that combines the fear, pity and pessimism which are the last thing a person with a serious illness needs to see. We have all seen the Cancer Face and have perhaps worn one ourselves.
A once afflicted doctor we know now leads a delightful "cancer free" life, yet behind his back friends cast their eyes downwards, slowly shake their heads and make "He...had...cancer" sound like Halloween. Another friend devotes little time mourning his late prostate & the cancer that prompted him to have it removed. The seventy-two year old is too busy skiing down formidable European slopes, while friends wonder aloud when his wife will wear black. (When he falls off a cliff, that's when.)
Did you know that eighty-six year old Carol Channing had ovarian cancer about ten years ago? Her diagnosis came as she was taking Hello, Dolly! on the road one last time. Even Christian Scientist Channing chose to fly to Memorial in Manhattan for cobalt treatments on her days off.
Oh, I almost forgot. After her treatments, the seventy-five year old star returned to the road for a full week of shows and missed not one. She felt her cast and crew deserved nothing less, and neither did she. Do I detect a Cancer Face for Carol?
Recently, a study concluded that a positive attitude was no substitute for medical treatments for cancer. (They actually spend money on these kinds of thing?) After reporting this finding, however, a t.v. personality called Sanjay Gupta, M.D. was just warming up.
Optimism, he told tens of thousands of listeners, some of whom may face a health crisis someday themselves, has little to do with recovery from cancer. I hope my cancer survivor readers are surviving this one. Without optimism the recipient of a difficult diagnosis could opt for giving up before even trying, delay facing up to the tests and treatments that could save their lives, or deal poorly with related lifestyle, monetary and family issues. I can only imagine the good spirits required to cope with the tsk, tsk, tskers who are bound to litter the way. If I were Gupta's private patient and I had the spit to spare I would aim it at his eye.
So, no Cancer Face, Parkinson's Face, M.S. Face, or special face for heart disease, lupus or AIDS. When they discover that pessimism and fear are life prolonging, life enhancing therapies, then and only then will I "Put on a Cancer Face."
The Movies and Me...Me.....Me.....
Bill Maher chided Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson for saying in her acceptance speech that viewers can become anything they want. Hudson didn't want to be a singer as much as she wanted to be a star, he went on, and we are simply not all potential stars.
Not with the Internet, at least. Hopefuls no longer need agents, producers, training and struggle and even the crucible of competition to put their sorry singing, songs and selves on line. Suddenly we are all Ava Gardners and Gregory Pecks.
The devil we are. Not by accident do we call top figures in their fields not moons, planets or cosmic dust, but stars. Stars connote brilliance, sparkle and shine. In no way am I deriding the efforts of amateurs such as myself. The joy of writing, dancing or drawing can be its own reward. Less than brilliant efforts can be admirable, and who knows? Practice can make perfect.
All right, Joel, what about you who tells us how to think and act and even corrects how we speak? What is your stake in Letters From?
Certainly not the paycheck or fame. I can only hope that my chutzpah and flair distract from my signature typos and errors of style. I aim to let off a little steam and laugh at my own jokes, but my reward comes when you say to yourselves, "I've changed my mind and I agree," or, far better, "I didn't know that," or "I've never thought of it that way."
Of course I put ego into this, but I don't imagine for an instant that the world is waiting for adorable me, me, me or that just around the corner is a Pulitzer Prize. My writing hasn't been through a single competitive hoop.
So What Does This Have to Do with Hollywood Like You Promised?
Ask Neal Gabler, the film expert and author of the indispensible An Empire of Their Own, which I believe is subtitled "How the Jews Invented Hollywood and the American Dream." Alarmed over the steady, steep decline in movie house attendance that goes beyond the viewing of films on discs or online at home, Gabler concludes, "No matter how much films may improve, their prospects are not likely to. The long, long romance may finally be losing its bloom."
My gut tells me that Gabler discounts people's thirst for stories, but I share his subsequent concern. "Today, movies just don't seem to matter in the same way." Their purpose has become “to present the stars' life sagas." What happens to Tom Cruise and Brittany Spears trumps anything a screenwriter could dream up.
Gabler's central insight is that movies no longer provide "a common experience and language—a sense of unity (like when) in the dark we were one." Consumers of popular culture, especially the young, want and expect "niche" entertainment that satisfies very specific and perforce narrower tastes. And not just the young. When we program only the songs of the sixties or symphonic pieces we wish to hear, we risk closing our ears to unfamiliar experiences which may enrich our lives.
Gabler correctly indicts the Internet, which "plays to another powerful force in America..that also undermines the movies: NACISSISM. (Caps mine) Sites on the web such as MySpace and YouTube complete the job of turning the user into a star.... Who needs Brad Pitt (Joel does!) when you can be your own hero in a video game, make your own video on YouTube or feature yourself on Facebook. Anyone can be Gary Grant or Bette Davis without having to imagine it." Gabler's dreadful conclusion is that "We have become our own movies."
It seems to me that regardless of the medium, stories enable us to meet up with and develop empathy for people unlike ourselves. In recognizing our common humanity we see aspects of ourselves in others. So you see, "me" has been up there on the screen and on the printed page all along.
Norma Desmond Is Alive and Well....
In Esquire Magazine in the early 1970's, Ray Bradbury offered this stunning comparison of major U.S. cities of that day.
"Seriousness aside, let us examine American cities....San Francisco is the Taj Mahal, wondrous to see, but procreative as a hermaphrodite." Don't blame me, I'm only quoting.
"Chicago is Lenin's tomb. People line up to look at the soot and the rabbits. They come out smiling. Death makes them happy." Detroit? "Ten thousand miles up the wrong end of the rhino." Poetic, no?
Bradbury's just warming up. "And then there is that larger mugger's mausoleum on the East coast, that ninety billion dollar funeral on its way to oblivion, anxious for mortality so that it can be reborn. It is filled with beast people called siggies (for Sigmund Freud) and its real name is New York and it is doomed."
No better characterization of New York in those days exists. The "doomed" city has of course been, reborn, to the delight of those who can afford to live there and the tourists who feel safe enough to crowd in and see some lousy Broadway shows.
"Meanwhile," the author crows, "Norma Desmond survives and lives, and we with her, in Los Angeles."
For those who no longer watch older movies or appreciate high camp, Norma Desmond is Gloria Swanson's balmy silent movie queen in the 1950 Billy Wilder classic, Sunset Boulevard. Norma's saga parallels much of Hollywood's: the fallout from the transition from silents to sound, ultra eccentric, delusional behavior, exaggerated passions, separation from reality, talent, and what C.B. de Mille in the picture calls "heart."
Norma's immortal lines, such as "All those wonderful people out there in the dark," "We had faces then," and most notably "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. de Mille," have become a litmus test for anyone claiming to truly love movies and for any gay man who wishes to know me.
Disappointment, brutally hard work (when you get it), day jobs, other kinds of "jobs," has-beens, never was-beens, insecurities of every description and bosses straight from hell; still want to be in pictures? And you thought the film and stage worlds were glamorous. Wanna know something? Come closer. They are.
And what they are is—magic! No coincidence that the dictionary meaning of "glamour" embraces bewitching, mysterious and charm.
The product of a camera crew that uses lights, special effects and Potemkin Village settings, people who specialize in convincing us they are someone they are not, and creators of connected strings of events that never really took place isn't magic?
The residue fairy dust can be found on almost every boulevard and byway in this town. Soundstages, talent agencies, artists' unions and guilds, stars' addresses in Beverly Hills and Forest Lawn, the familiar faces at the next table lingering after a late lunch, the ubiquitous dark glasses that protect wearers from the sunshine and, when you think about it, anonymity; here in L.A. Norma is the norm and we love her, warts and all.
One's belief in fairies (of the kind in Grimm) is confirmed when one considers the unlikely group of gentlemen who built the movies, stars and this town. Marcus Loew and Adolph Zuckor, former furriers; Sam Goldfish Goldwyn who sold gloves; Louis B. Mayer, onetime purveyor of scrap; Harry Cohn the song plugger, Jack Warner and Jessie Lasky who started out on the stage. We call them "moguls" for the VIPs they became, though except for Lasky, ogres may be a better fit. To a man Jewish immigrants born into unimaginable poverty, poorly educated (Mayer could barely write) and consequently insecure, egocentric, driven, nasty, crude, ruthless, immature and nothing less than brilliant, these entrepreneurs gave us not only mass entertainment but the standards by which we came to measure our lives.
I've read up on them all, most recently Scott Eyman's fat, outstanding Lion of Hollywood, The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Not long ago we paid our respects to L.B., who now does business from within a wall at Home of Peace Memorial Park in one of the crumbiest sections of L.A. and mere yards from his Warner rivals and two of the Stooges Three. Helen Hayes saw fit to regard Louis, always pronounced "Louie," as "the devil incarnate," a touching tribute to the studio head who was reprehensible at the office and at home. All of them were monsters. Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn, whose tomb bears a Star of David intertwined with a cross, had a duplicate of Mussolini’s office built as his own. Visitors dreaded the sixty or so foot walk to Cohn's elevated desk (L.B. had one, too) where, more often than not, he ignored them or slapped a riding crop to underscore a point. The Warner Bros. ran a totalitarian state within Burbank, guard towers and all, and MGM exercised total control over their employee's lives.
Eyman echoes Gabler's finding that the moguls were driven by a yearning to be accepted, respected sons of Uncle Sam's. The great irony is that in moving toward being more like us, the Mayers, Goldwyns and Cohns put out product that shaped who we were to become. Every little girl wanted to be Shirley Temple, every man Gary Grant, and women somewhere in the neighborhood of looking like Rita Hayworth or Lauren Bacall. Americans yearned to look, behave and feel like those upon the screen.
Backstage, performers were regarded as the property they had become. Stars were treated in accordance with their latest box office receipts. Disagreements had a way of turning darn close to lethal. Kim Novack, who along with Jack Lemmon insisted on keeping the names they were born with, much to Harry Conn's chagrin, remembers Cohn warning that if she were ever again caught in the company of Sammy Davis, Jr., the black entertainer's life would soon after end.
One can only marvel over how Louis Mayer persuaded actor Keenan Wynn's wife and mother of his children to leave her happy marriage in order to marry Van Johnson so the latter could escape the stigma of being suspected gay. (Hint: Keenan's continuing to work in Hollywood came into play) Or the Christmas party at Columbia at which a feeling no pain Boss Cohn required everyone present to name aloud the co-worker they most wanted fired, with a guaranteed pink slip for whoever got the most votes.(Fortunately, a zaftig secretary sweet talked Harry out of it.)
Some, like Bette Davis, said "F.U." and fled to independent films, but not all could afford to be as brave. Had they been blackballed on the West coast, could a Tracy, Crawford, Gable or Garland have reached comparable heights or even sustain careers on radio or the stage? These studio creations were often emotionally unequipped or just lacking the gifts to endure eight live performances a week. On film they could be seen by millions forever. And how much steady work has Broadway ever offered?
I have a beef with Lion Mayer that goes way beyond the dreadful man he was. Biographer Eyman maintains that Mayer was almost singlehandedly responsible for the brand of escapist mass entertainment that gives me fits today. Still, Mayer and his brethren entertained us royally and at a very low cost per ticket. The moguls knew and loved motion pictures, talent and what they thought was "class," and they fought, often successfully, with those who respected only the bottom line.
So let's play a little What If. What if these Eastern European Jews had gone into cloaks and suits and left motion pictures entirely to gentiles Griffith, Zanuck, Pickford and de Mille? What kind of movie industry would have evolved? Would kinder and gentler been practiced, and would it have worked? Would pictures made by different psyches have had a different effect on ours?
On the Mark
Excuse me for being "queer," an old fashioned expression having nothing to do with gay, on a winner who nurtures little children in Holmby Park, L.A. Coach Mark is an African American man of indeterminate age who teaches what seem to be three year olds soccer each Saturday a.m.
Mark's training in physical coordination is a pretty thin disguise for what's really going on. The other week a tiny girl, bless her klutzy heart, was rewarded for moving the ball in the general vicinity of the goal with a hearty "Great!" from her coach. You should have seen her smile. Week after week parents and bystanders assemble to marvel at the building of confidence, teamwork, discipline and acceptance of others. Not that he coddles; this benign drill sergeant commands undivided attention. Does any of this coincide with your memories of the phys ed teachers of your youth?
Mark will never afford to live in the vicinity of Holmby Park, but he can pick up a star on my Hollywood Walk of Fame any time he wants.
Next "Letter From"
may include words on Education inspired by recently seen movies Freedom Writersand the PBS Hobart Shakespeareans, suicides among our returning troops and "I've Got 'The Secret.'" And words about Senators Obama and Clinton won't be that many Letters From away.