Christmas Essentials

Christmas time is here again! I hope you have taken the time to enjoy some of your favorite Christmas traditions. Here are a few of my favorite Christmas things that my Christmas season simply is not complete without:

Little Women (1994)

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Perhaps considered a non-traditional Christmas film by some, but to me it is essential holiday viewing. Louisa May Alcott’s novel is one of my favorites, and it has been adapted to film several times, notably in 1933 (starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo), in 1949 (starring June Allyson as Jo and a blonde-haired Elizabeth Taylor as Amy–bizarre….), and in 1994, with Winona Ryder as Jo. The 1994 interpretation is definitely my favorite. I love that this version highlights the feminist undertones of the original novel.

Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.”

“I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” 

“I so wish I could give my girls a more just world. But I know you’ll make it a better place.”

Oh, perhaps over the mysteries of female life there is drawn a veil best left undisturbed.

I love that Christian Bale is no boy, he is Laurie! (“If I were a boy, I’d want to look just like that.”) I love that the film makes you laugh, makes you cry, and makes you appreciate your family ever so much more. That is what makes it an essential Christmas movie for me–the portrayal of a close-knit family, longing to stay together and still staying close despite challenges and tragedy.

Everything about this interpretation is perfect (aside from obvious flaws in the novel–ahem, Laurie and Amy, cough, gag, cough). Winona Ryder is the perfect Jo, who is actually me. I could strangle Mr. Davis! 

The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)

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Sigh. The deepest, longest sigh. I love The Beach Boys so much. Have I not made that clear? I used to borrow this album on cassette from the local library (and that cassette contained their sublime rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer”–why was this not included on Ultimate Christmas? Where is “The Christmas Album Sessions”? I have needs, Capitol records!) and listen it to year-round because it really is that perfect and transcendent of seasons. The first side is original compositions (the “teen side” as Brian once described it to an interviewer), and the second side is the group covering some beloved classics–and making them sound like originals because they’re just that good. Oh, I just love The Beach Boys. Did I say that already?

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (1957)

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From “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells” to “Christ the Savior is born”, this is another perfect Christmas album that I can listen to at any time of the year. I want to gag myself when I hear someone else sing “Mistletoe and Holly”, and Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the absolute best. Sorry, Judy Garland. I love how effortless Sinatra makes singing seem, but I know how hard he really worked at honing his craft. A consummate professional.

Happy Holidays from Bing and Frank (1957)

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This very special episode of The Frank Sinatra Show originally aired in black-and-white but was actually filmed in color. Thankfully, we can now watch it in color. Frank invites Bing over, and they sing several Christmas songs, including “Mistletoe and Holly,” “Away in a Manger,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”, “The Christmas Song,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Bing brings a gift for Frank (his Christmas album), and Frank gives Bing a gift in return (his Christmas album). They even travel to merry olde England for some caroling and end the evening by singing “White Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Bing.”

“Merry Christmas, Frank.”

“Merry Christmas everybody!”

Is this real life? Heavens to Betsy, this special is an absolute delight to watch. The respect and camaraderie these men share is palpable. Their admiration for one another was mutual, and Crosby was Sinatra’s idol. Instead of becoming rivals, they become friends and frequent collaborators. As a sign of his respect and admiration for Crosby, however, Sinatra always insisted that when they worked together, Crosby receive top billing, as he does in this Christmas special (despite the fact that it is The Frank Sinatra Show). Whatta guy. It was on Turner Classic Movies last night, but do a quick Google search and you can find it online. It is divinity. (Kind of like butter.)

Christmas with the Nelsons

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This four-episode collection is not only essential holiday viewing but also a holiday decoration.(That darn Ricky is so cute.)  In this collection, you get to watch the young Nelson boys work to earn extra money for Christmas, get a lesson in etiquette from Ozzie in “The Fruitcake” (why do Ozzie and Thorny go to the Campus Malt Shop to discuss their Christmas gifts?), and again work to earn extra money for a present for dear old Dad in “The Christmas Tree Lot.” As a special feature, Ricky sings! Yes, if you spend Christmas with me, I will force you to watch Ricky sing “Baby, I’m Sorry” at least a dozen times. Unfortunately, this collection does not include all of the Christmas episodes. In “Busy Christmas” (available on YouTube), you find Ozzie doing Christmas with the Kranks (worst Christmas movie ever?) fifty-odd years before Christmas with the Kranks. Talk about visionary. When this episode re-aired in 1964, the older and bigger Nelson family gathered around Rick as he sang “The Christmas Song.”

I like to imagine that is what they’re all–together once again–doing right now.

“A Christmas Memory”  by Truman Capote

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“Buddy, it’s fruitcake weather!”

I have written about this story previously, but it really is one of my favorite and most-loved stories. Truman Capote is an amazing writer, and this story is a perfect example of his skill: the clarity of his beautiful prose, the perfect rhythm of each carefully selected word, and the poignant lyricism in this evocative story about two lonely souls who find comfort and companionship in one another and their special Christmas tradition. I have to read it every year. Thank you, Mr. Wilson.

Christmas Eve Double Feature: Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life

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“George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s such a perfect film (written about previously here), I wonder why we only allow ourselves to watch it once a year? I love George Bailey, and I love Jimmy Stewart. We usually watch one of his last pieces of work, Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas, prior to watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Kreuger is a kind, lonely old man who demonstrates the true meaning of Christmas. (There’s also The Shop Around the Corner, but I’m the only one in my family who can tolerate Margaret Sullavan enough to watch it, ha.)

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

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Linus Van Pelt, I love you. Linus is undoubtedly my favorite Peanuts character. Clinging to his blanket and sucking his thumb, he shares wisdom far beyond his years. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, he shares with a sickened Charlie, disgusted with the commercialization of the holiday, the true meaning of Christmas:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” 

Oh, Linus. Your message is as relevant today as it was in 1965. Why do we always forget?

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Thank You

Where has the time gone? There’s only 16 days until Christmas, only three days until Sinatra’s 100th birthday, and yesterday marked 35 years since John Lennon was assassinated. (It’s amazing how no matter how much time passes between hearing that man sing, there is always a comfort and a chill when I hear his voice–so real and so authentic and so very missed.) Things in my life have been very strange these past few months. A few months ago, I couldn’t wait to listen to A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, so I didn’t. Oh by gosh by golly, it was time for mistletoe and holly in October. Last night, I had no desire to watch any holiday-themed films; I just wanted to watch Love and Mercy–darn that Paul Dano if he doesn’t simply radiate the spirit of Brian Wilson so darn well, especially when he’s in the studio and so incandescently happy. It warms my heart and brings a little tear to my eye. Give that man an Oscar!

It is, however, time to indulge in the Christmas spirit and begin a series of (serious) posts about some of my favorite Christmas-related things. Up first: a critical analysis of one of the best Christmas songs and videos ever, Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”

Plot synopsis: Last Christmas, George Michael gave his heart to a girl. The very next day, she gave it away to be with…the other guy from Wham!. Yeah. Totally believable.

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So we’re off to a great start when a jeep pulls up to a snowy retreat in the mountains and out jumps a waving, smiling George Michael. We meet George Michael’s former flame (the one who threw his heart away)–for the sake of simplicity, let’s refer to her from this point forward as…Sally. Friends wave each other excitedly, and George Michael strategically places his arm around his new girlfriend–with whom he has ZERO chemistry and who has ZERO personality. Just look at how dully she greets George’s friends:

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“Hi, nice to meet you. I left my personality at home. Isn’t it weird how George greets a friend with more passion than he expresses toward me throughout the entire duration of this video?” 

Once everyone is inside the cozy haven, it’s time to set the table for dinner and decorate the Christmas tree. George is on tinsel duty, which is a natural choice since every time he smiles, his Colgate-white teeth light up the room. There is some tension in the air as Sally watches George decorate the tree (more like watches George’s butt), and the tension continues to build until…GASP! George drops the tinsel and makes eye contact with Sally. Remember in Titanic when Old Rose reminisced about posing for the naked portrait for Jack? “It was the most erotic moment of my life…” Yeah.

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Since things were getting a little too heated inside, the gang moves outside to play in the snow. George Michael, though, plays it cool and aloof, melting the snow with his smoldering stare…

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He’s apparently successful because next thing we know, the gang’s back inside, enjoying Christmas dinner. George Michael sits at one end of the table, sipping a glass of wine and attempting to engage in conversation with the people around him. (Is that his new squeeze sitting there? Hard to tell because THEY DO NOT INTERACT OR HAVE ANY CHEMISTRY!!) George and Sally’s eyes meet. Oh my gosh. What is this?

“I’m melting! I’m melting!”

It’s time for a flashback. We see happier times–like Katie and Hubbell putting the books away in California. Sigh. George and Sally roll around in the snow…

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George has just told a REALLY funny joke. How could she ever give his heart away?

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We then see George, with an open shirt, give Sally THE GIFT…THE GIFT that she gives to…the other guy from Wham!? Really? Why? Are you delusional?

Cut to the gang heading up the ski lift and saying their goodbyes until they see each other again. It’s such an unhappy, unsatisfying ending. I really am struggling to grasp the fact that Sally would ditch George Michael for the other guy from Wham!–and why does George Michael have that other girl? He pays zero attention to her! It’s just like in The Way We Were. How could Hubbell leave Katie after she had the baby? She was the only one who really loved him, the only one who was going to push him to write his second novel, the only one to make him a better person, to give him a spine. George and Sally are Hubbell and Katie all over again. “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell.” Gag me! Oh, well–maybe…next year…

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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

It’s September! Students are finally returning to school, trying to figure out whether room 206 is on the first or second or maybe even third floor, turning their heads in every direction in an attempt to read an analog clock, and eagerly composing the perpetual return-to-school essay: What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Do teachers really assign this topic? I do not recall ever once being asked to write about what I did on my summer vacation. I remember being told not to fill my Language Arts journal with Beach Boys lyrics but instead my own original thoughts. Nobody wanted to know about my summers, though, and I consequently feel deprived. Even as an adult, when people ask, “How was your summer?” I respond, “Pretty good.” And you know what? They accept that! They don’t beg for details about what I did or what I saw or what I thought or anything substantial like that because apparently I’m not as fascinating to the rest of the world as I am to myself. Lacking original thought (still), let’s talk about what I did on my summer vacation.

Not update this blog, obviously. Mainly because I didn’t really read or watch anything of value or anything that provoked thought or inspired love (and obsession) as much as Love and Mercy did. Speaking of Love and Mercy, I think I saw it a total of four times. Maybe five. I’m not sure. I quit counting after I ran out of fingers, and I think I only have ten of those. I am sure of a few things, though: Love and Mercy is the best movie of the year, Love and Mercy is the only movie that matters, Paul Dano deserves an Oscar, and it comes out on DVD on Tuesday (tomorrow!), and I’ve already pre-ordered a copy for every member of the family. Merry Christmas.

Speaking of Paul Dano (who else?), I’m working on a family of popsicle sticks with this guy’s head on them. (See previous post for an explanation of popsicle sticks and men’s heads. I am a well-adjusted, mentally stable, healthy individual. Promise.) I’m slowly working through his filmography, and so far he hasn’t really disappointed me. Except for that one movie where he played a homeless guy. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s not talk at all. Let’s communicate solely by writing messages on a compact spiral notebook because that’s what Dwayne does in Little Miss Sunshine, a film I chose as the subject of my Individuals with Disabilities in Film paper because if there is a way to be graded for being obsessed with Paul Dano, I am going to find it, goshdarnit. A+!

While we’re handing out grades, let’s grade the long-anticipated second novel of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. When I first heard about this new novel from Harper Lee, I was under the mistaken impression that it was actually a new novel by Harper Lee. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Go Set a Watchman, otherwise known as A First Draft of To Kill a Mockingbird In Desperate Need of a Plot and Editor, STAT! Seriously. Whose idea was it to publish this? The whole process of reading and digesting the book was equal parts depressing, confusing, and frustrating. Save your time.

I did start to read a book called Why Sinatra Matters, published almost twenty years ago. I didn’t finish it (yet…because of course I’m slowly–oh, so slowly, am I getting old or what?!–reading about six books simultaneously), but one of the opening pages passages has stuck with me:

“The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals, they relieve the ache of loneliness, they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect.’ In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter.”

I guess this quote has stuck with me not only because it is true but because I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I like, why everyone doesn’t like these same things (and thank goodness for that! Except for the people who do not hold the belief that Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire is the most attractive man ever aka the people hanging out at the water pump with Annie Sullivan), and how these things can mean so much to me and nothing to someone else. What does it mean? What does it matter? I guess I just don’t believe that people come into our lives by accident–and that includes the artists we admire. In response to the question, “Why do I write?”, I explained that writing is like a puzzle, arranging and re-arranging words so that the rhythm and flow is a perfect fit, that writing is a search for the connection between the quiet wonder of the first (but not twenty-first) snowfall of the year and the expression on Scout Finch’s face when she sees Boo Radley for the first time. I guess that’s why Sinatra–and any artist–matters to me. There’s a unique connection there that not every one else feels. And maybe it is because that artist transcends isolation or maybe it’s more than an earthly connection. These things matter, and I spent (part of) my summer contemplating this, looking to find another artist that mattered and discovering Paul Dano and wondering what link (if any) exists between the single tear that runs down his cheek in a scene of Love and Mercy and the feeling of overwhelming comfort that comes from listening to The Verve’s “On Your Own” for the first time in eons.

I also spent more time than I care to remember in Iowa, disobeyed a sign (which I coud not see, in my defense) and jumped off a pier, and made From Here to Eternity references that nobody appreciated. Sigh. It’s tough being a ninety-something in a twenty-something body sometimes.

Until next time (which is hopefully less than three months from now with a more interesting topic),
The Count(ess) Petofi

P.S. Please don’t kill yourself tonight.

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Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

After The Beatles, The Beach Boys were the first band I really loved. I bought records that I couldn’t really play, committed an A&E Biography of Brian Wilson to memory (still looking for a way to put this skill on a resume), and I may have even fashioned some Beach Boys puppets out of popsicle sticks. Okay, so maybe I was a little obsessed–crazy, even (popsicle sticks?!)–but my love for this band, including their introverted, slightly off-center leader, was so indelible that fifteen or so years later I approached Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s biopic about Brian Wilson, with both excitement and trepidation–excitement because I love Brian Wilson and his story, trepidation because there is so much room for error.

Love and Mercy tells the story of Brian Wilson in two distinct periods of his life. His story is told by two different actors out of necessity. The Brian Wilson of the 1960s was a very different person from the Brian Wilson of the 1980s. It’s that simple. He was different, both physically and mentally. It would be impossible for a single actor to play both roles; it would be asking too much. It’s a miracle that Brian Wilson lived through the experiences. How can you ask one actor to do the same?

In the first narrative, Paul Dano plays Wilson in his mid-20s at the height of his musical powers creating Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and the ill-fated Smile album. The seeds of mental illness are evident, however, as Brian begins to suffer notably from auditory hallucinations and paranoia during this period. The later thread shows the progression and effects of this mental illness.

In the 1980s, Brian (now portrayed by John Cusack) has become a somnambulant and over-medicated prisoner of his controlling and manipulative doctor, Eugene Landy (played with terrifying ferocity by Paul Giamatti). When he meets his future wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), for the first time, he leaves her a note on the back of her business card: “Scared, Lonely, Frightened.” Each thread is equally compelling, even though I initially doubted that the 1980s story would be able to hold my attention the way the Pet Sounds sessions would. I was also uncertain that John Cusack could convincingly render Wilson.

My doubts were ill-placed. I was wrong. I feel like one of those freaks that booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965–and not even one of the freaks booing because the sound quality was poor, but one of those folk purists irate at Dylan for plugging in an electric guitar. Oh my gosh. Don’t be one of those freaks. The quality of Cusack’s performance is not poor; it is subtle and sensitive and maybe different from anything else he’s ever done before–I wouldn’t know, though, because I never made a popsicle puppet out of his head.

Brian (John Cusack) and Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) outside the Griffith Observatory.

Cusack undoubtedly has the more difficult role for one simple reason: there is virtually no music in the 1980s storyline, and if you want to know Brian Wilson, you have to listen to the music. Cusack instead has to communicate Wilson’s thoughts and feelings through his walk, his mannerisms, nervous ticks, and wooden speech. There is a single scene where Cusack’s Wilson sits at the piano and plays a song for Melinda, and for a brief moment, you catch a glimpse of the creative, trusting, sweet man that Wilson is or was or could be.

As impressive as Cusack’s depiction is, Paul Dano is, quite simply, amazing. A·maz·ing. AMAZING! Oh my gosh. I am ready to make a popsicle puppet out of this guy’s head. (I’m kidding. I think.) Dano physically bears a stronger resemblance to Wilson, and he even sings like Wilson in the film–so much so that it is often difficult to discern whether it’s actually Dano or Wilson singing. Music helps Dano’s characterization significantly. When Dano’s Wilson is in the studio, headphones on, singing with his brothers and cousin and bandmates, he just looks so happy and at ease. I felt tears welling up in my eyes because I know that’s who Brian Wilson is.

Brian (Paul Dano) plays “God Only Knows” for his cruel and abusive father, who tells him it sounds more like a suicide note than a love song.  

Dano’s skill is part of what makes the 1960s story so satisfying to watch, but it’s also the recreation of the period. The attention to detail in the film is extraordinary: the filmmakers faithfully replicated Beach Boys concert footage, the studio where Brian created Pet Sounds, and every piece of clothing, right down to Mike Love’s dumb fur hat.

There is little humor in the 1980s (mostly it derives from whatever Paul Giamatti is wearing), but the humor is abundant in the 1960s. Remember, Brian Wilson is actually a very funny person. While the rest of the band has been on tour in Japan, Brian has been at home in the studio, working tirelessly on Pet Sounds. When the band returns to the studio to record vocals, Mike Love pats cousin Brian’s belly and tells him he’s put on some weight. “You need to go on a fast with me sometime,” he tells Brian. “I’m eating as fast as I can,” Brian responds. Amen!

Humor also comes in the form of Mike Love’s existence. Concerned about the lyrics of “Hang on to Your Ego” (turned into “I Know There’s An Answer” on the released album because Love refused to sing the lyrics of “Ego”), Love whispers to Brian “Is this a druggie song?” The rest of the guys roll their eyes. (I imagine this happened a lot because Mike Love is really embarrassing. It’s kind of a mystery how and why they let him in the band.) Humor comes from one liners from brother Dennis (who looks less like Dennis but acts like Dennis so it’s OK). “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian insists in response to Mike Love’s claim that they should keep making music about surfing and cars and girls because that’s what their fans love and understand, not the radically different music and lyrics of Pet Sounds. “They don’t,” shrugs Dennis, with perfect timing. And a lot of humor comes from Brian Wilson’s two dogs, Banana and Louie, who are featured on Pet Sounds. They steal every scene they’re in, including one of my favorites.

With Pet Sounds having been completed and received lukewarmly by fans, Brian and the band are moving onto their next project. Brian has an idea for a song about the vibrations dogs pick up from people, but, as always, he’s struggling with lyrics. He calls Mike over to help. Brian sits at his piano, placed in a sandbox in the middle of his living room, and pounds out the rhythm. Mike suggests some lyrics, and they begin to put the two together. Banana barks (and maybe does something else). “Well, piss on you, Banana, I like it!” Mike scolds.

To some, the narratives of Love and Mercy may seem disjointed and unrelated. I disagree. Even though Brian Wilson was different in the 1960s than he was in the 1980s, there are striking similarities and parallels. In 1985, Brian Wilson is starving. “I’m hungry, Gene,” Brian tells his doctor. “You’re not hungry! You only think you are! Can’t you tell the difference?” Landy screams in response. Brian is starved of food, his family, his free will, his music, and love. He is the victim of Dr. Landy’s control and cruelty. In the 1960s, Brian Wilson is starving, too, even though he is saturated with food, drink, and drugs. He craves the approval of his brutal father, and he ultimately abandons Smile not just because he is taking way too many drugs (which he is) but because he is starved of the musical support and love of his bandmates. Even though he always brought so much love and happiness to others through his music, Brian Wilson himself was always looking for love.

Love and Mercy is a sensitive, factual film. Of course it doesn’t tell you everything about Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys. (To the reviewer complaining that the film doesn’t explain the presence of Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks: well, piss on you! Read a record label and figure it out for yourself. Actually, it’s pretty clear who Van Dyke Parks is in the film, so I don’t know what your hang up is.) It can’t, and it doesn’t need to. It just needs to offer you a representation of who Brian Wilson was and why he–and his music–matter. It does just that, with the finest acting and the best soundtrack. I can’t wait to see it again.

My only complaint? The actor who plays Al Jardine (who has NO speaking lines) is actually taller than Carl Wilson…
Uh, yeah. Right. Baby needs a step ladder to get up on that car.

My Other Favorite Actor From Omaha

In the past two months that I have not updated this blog, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching a select group of plays by Tennessee Williams. This has included watching A Streetcar Named Desire more times than I care to count. This has made me want to watch nothing but Brando, which works out well since TCM is celebrating the man’s 91st birthday today with a slew of films.

My favorite, though, is absent from the line-up. That’s okay because I’ve also watched it more times than I care to count. It is another perfect film. It is another film to take to that desert island. It is a film with a quote for every occassion. Overhear a conversation about weight or dieting? “When you weighed 168 pounds you were beautiful.” Someone say something that rubs you the wrong way? “You know, you’re not too funny today, fat man.” Need to pay someone a compliment? “You had your hair…Looked like a hunk of rope. And you had wires on your teeth and glasses and everything. You was really a mess.” Someone hounding you to grow up, get a real job, get some ambition? “I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Get annoyed with questions? “It’s none of your business!” See a pigeon in the road? “A pigeon for a pigeon!” Someone insults the upcoming holiday that is Easter? “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” And for everything else, there’s… “Definitely!” It is On the Waterfront

"During an acting class, when the students were told to act out 'a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,' most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, 'I’m a chicken - I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'" -- Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

“During an acting class, when the students were told to act out ‘a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,’ most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, ‘I’m a chicken – I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'” — Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

This film–like so many of his great performances–is all about Brando. You cannot take your eyes off of him–not that you would want to. Why? Because he creates a character with such a front of toughness that has such an underlying vulnerability, a character (Terry Malloy) who is constantly torn between his loyalty to his “friends” and his “conscience.” (“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”)

There’s probably no better example of Brando doing this than in the famous taxi cab scene with Rod Steiger, who plays Terry’s older brother Charlie. Charlie has been sent to talk to Terry to try to convince him to play “D&D” (“deaf and dumb”); if Charlie can’t convince him, then he has been instructed to kill his own brother. When Charlie pulls the gun on Terry, Terry gently pushes away the gun. He does not respond with anger but with sadness that suggests the depth of his pain. “Oh Charley!” he says in tone that is reproachful, loving, and sad.

"To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me 'Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!' So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.”

“To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!’ So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.” — Eva Marie Saint

Not too much later, Terry is called into the street to discover the dead body of his brother, who has been killed for not following through with his assignment. Terry is distraught and angry. He immediately seeks revenge and goes looking for mob boss Johnny Friendly with a gun in hand. His love interest, Edie, has followed him and begs him not to do anything. He ignores her and instructs her to get the Father to take care of Charley’s body, but “For God’s sake, don’t leave him alone here long!” His voice nearly cracks with emotion; there is so much concern for his brother and his dead body being left alone.

My favorite scene, though, comes toward the end of the film. Terry has testified against Johnny Friendly, and all of his friends are angry at him–even the young “Golden Warriors” Terry has befriended. Terry, who keeps pigeons, goes up on the roof to check on his pigeons. He finds that they are all dead, killed by the youth who once idolized him. “What did he have to do that for? Every one of them.” Edie has again followed him and calls his name, attempting to comfort him. Brando does not face her but turns into the pigeon coop and waves her away meekly with his hand. He needs to grieve alone–just for a moment. And Brando communicates this with a single gesture. It’s the same gesture he would use years later in The Godfather when Don Corleone learns that Michael–Michael, whom he loved so much, for whom he wanted so much more than the life of a Don–has been sent to Sicily because he is the one who killed Sollozzo. The Don lifts his hand and weakly waves away the speaker: he needs to be alone with his grief.

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“I interviewed some deaf actors and I asked them who their favorite actor was, and they said Marlon Brando. And I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because even though we can’t hear what he’s saying, we know exactly what he means.’ In other words, his expression told everything.” — Patricia Bosworth 

I could talk about every scene in this film, but I (sadly) have more research to do. (It is addicting.) Brando rightly won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. It’s one for the ages. Happy birthday, Bud.

The Perfect Film

A few months (yes, months–I am a slacker, just like George McFly) ago, I pondered the question of which films I would most like to take with me to a fictional desert island. I composed a long post sort of contemplating this question without ever reaching any conclusion.

The recent holiday season, however, reminded me of one film I would definitely want to take to that desert island. Even though I have seen this film so many times that I can recite each line of dialogue and anticipate every inflection of James Stewart’s voice, its story is just as compelling, revelatory, and poignant as its first viewing: It’s A Wonderful Life.

There is not a single mis-step in this film: every actor is perfectly cast, every line of dialogue is essential and perfectly delivered, and at no point does the film lag or lose its focus. It is a perfect film. That is not a statement of hyperbole; that is the truth. And even though in some ways, It’s A Wonderful Life is a product of its time, it remains, at the same time, essentially timeless.

A favorite scene? Impossible. Young George, his sore ear bloodied, cowering from Mr. Gower, who then embraces him for what he has done for him. George and Mary hovering near the edge of the swimming pool in the midst of a Charleston Dance Contest. “They’re cheering us, we must be good!” George and Mary, faces pressed together, on the telephone. “I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone!” Mr. Potter extends a tempting offer — George asks to have time to think it over with his wife — he reaches to shake Mr. Potter’s hand and realizes he doesn’t need 24 hours, he doesn’t need to talk to anybody, the answer is no, doggone it because Mr. Potter is nothing but a scurvy little spider. George, having seen how his absence affects the lives of those he loves, prays on the bridge where moments earlier he had contemplated suicide, “I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.” Snow falls and…Zuzu’s petals! The final scene — George, overwhelmed and overjoyed at the love and support of his family and friends. “Look, Daddy, Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” “That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy Clarence!”  

A favorite line of dialogue? Equally impossible. “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.” “Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people?” “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” “I wish I had a million dollars…Hot dog!” “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!” “And that goes for you, too!” “…and then I’m comin’ back to college and see what they know.” “Excuse you for what?” “You were born older, George.” “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

A favorite character? Ah, now that’s easy. There’s really only one choice, isn’t there? George Bailey, so proud of his membership in the National Geographic Society, was so sure he knew what he was gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that — exploring and building things — but instead he ends up staying in Bedford Falls selflessly taking over his father’s job he found so stifling, ultimately feeling like a failure who wished he’d never been born — a wish whose devastation can only be revealed to George by an angel without wings. How fitting then that the film was not a critical or commercial success upon its release — like George and his father before him — and through the years has rightly been elevated to the status of classic.

It is often difficult to separate an actor and the character he plays, and it is never so hard as with Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. He creates a character so real that the instant he speaks a line, you believe him. You believe George Bailey is a real person, not a character in movie, and Stewart does it so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that he’s acting. Without George Bailey, the people around him and the town of Bedford Falls falls apart and without Jimmy Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life, too, would fall apart.

It’s A Wonderful Life is quite possibly the most effective and affective film. You identify with George Bailey, you care about him and root for him as if you really know him, and at the end of the film, you’re so glad that he has recognized how wonderful he is that you are even able to forget that nasty old Mr. Potter is left unpunished.

It’s the perfect film to watch at Christmas. It’s the perfect film to watch in July. It’s the perfect film to watch on a desert island. It’s the perfect film.

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Happy New Year to you…in jail!

How to Select and Attack a Vampire Victim by Barnabas Collins

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve been revisiting Dark Shadows (circa 1897) and boy, is it awesome–and by it, I mean Quentin’s sideburns. I’ve been noticing a lot of things I didn’t notice before, and I’m prepared to share some of my knowledge. So to appease all you (hallo)weenies who whine about this blog’s lack of Dark Shadows content, here’s a brief tutorial on how to select and attack your vampire victims, as demonstrated by the master that is Barnabas Collins.

1. Go to the docks. 

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It’s the best place to find victims because, as you can see, the place is crawling with people–er, barrels. I think there’s a deleted subplot in On the Waterfront about this.

2. If you see something on the ground, (in)conspicuously pick it up.

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Especially if it’s a compact. Because you may need to glance at your reflection and–oh, wait, you don’t have a reflection…Pick it up anyway. It may be useful.

3. Eavesdrop, startle, and start a conversation about a lost item which you have…

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Eavesdrop on any conversations you may hear to pick up important details such as “I’m gonna go look for my compact.” Hover creepily so you can startle your victim. Then begin a conversation by asking if you can help her find something which you conveniently have…

4. Don’t mention your name. 

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Especially if you’re a Collins. Don’t want people to get the wrong idea–like that members of the Collins family actually leave Collinwood and interact with common, everyday folk who aren’t their servants.

5. Play “hard to get.” Pretend to get “cold feet.” In other words, act like you have to go to the bathroom REALLY BAD!! 

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“I don’t understand you. What’s the matter with you?” Haven’t you heard? Barnabas Collins has a really small BLADDER!! Also: you don’t look like Josette reincarnated, so you have negative one thousand percent of a chance with this guy.

6. When your cover is blown, remain calm. 

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Try not to look like you just crapped your pants when your victim asks why she can’t see your reflection. It just looks bad.

7. Just do it. 

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There’s no turning back now. Go in for the kill. Cue horrible scream. This show is never short of GREAT actors.

Good night and good luck and happy Halloween,

The Count(ess) Petofi