Friday, February 13, 2015

Shirley Maclaine and the Wizard of OZ

Man Behind the Curtain
This post is a punch in the nose to someone who needed it. Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my actor husband and I walked among the dazzling godlings of Hollywood, who were rich beyond dreaming, and famous beyond imagining. In a moment of misguided candor, my husband once shared with a person, whom I had thought of as a friend, some of the details of his horrific childhood, to which our 'Hollywood friend' replied that he must be paying for sins from a past life. When I heard this, I was overwhelmed with the urge to punch that 'Hollywood friend' smack in the nose.

Now I read that Shirley Maclaine has written in her latest book, "The veteran Hollywood actress suggests the six million Jews and millions of others systematically murdered in Hitler’s death camps in the 1940s were ‘balancing their karma’ for crimes committed in past lives."

This Hollywood version of karma, so repellent to the average individual, so appealing to the godlings of Hollywood deserves to be exposed for the self serving fraud that it is.

I recognize now that our 'Hollywood friend' felt guilty, and that he was justifying to his twisted little conscience the great wealth and fame he was enjoying, acquired by sucking up to the rich and powerful in every way he could imagine, and by abandoning anything resembling virtue, any attempt of true artistic endeavor, any satisfying achievement, true love or even the faintest trace of integrity.

The problems of Hollywood godlings are vast, well known, and great fun to read about in the tabloids. The godlings remind me of the Wizard of Oz. They use technology to make themselves and their perceptions, ideas and stories bigger than life. We mere mortals are inspired by those images, like the Cowardly Lion, to have more courage, or the Tin Man, to have a heart, or the Scarecrow, to be smarter than we ever thought we could be.

But the godlings are also influenced by their images and the awe they inspire in the rest of us.They come to believe, in fact, it's almost impossible for them not to believe, that Hollywood godlings are inherently superior, benefiting from past lives so replete with generosity, virtue, godliness, that they actually deserve every last ounce of their pampered luxury. How else to explain their grandiose lifestyles, their fawning public, their power and influence?

Now, unlike Shirley, named after the original cutest Hollywood kid ever to tap dance into our hearts, I have not seen "into the meaning of the cosmos, including the secrets of the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, insights into human genesis, the essence of gender and sexuality, and the true path to higher love." But even if I had, I'd still punch anybody in the nose who was cold hearted and arrogant enough to advocate the self serving doctrine that those around us who are suffering, suffer due to their own sins, and even worse, that it is not incumbent upon us to do everything we can in this life to try to alleviate pain and suffering. Rather, I think it's probably the opposite. Those who are suffering, are suffering due to our sins and omissions. So there! you false godlings and 'Hollywood friends'. Gotcha! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Night with Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson
He strode onstage, ranting, fuming, and wounded. A tall, lanky man, as quick and fierce as a tiger, flashing frustration, dominating the stage with his grace and deep bass voice that seemed to emanate from the center of the earth. I was in my mid twenties, a failed marriage behind me, dysfunctional family who were only too eager to be rid of me, and somehow supporting myself as a fashion model, a person without the faintest notion of who I was, where I was going, happy to be able to pay the rent and escape the bickering family.

I went to the theater by myself, looking for something, some clues, some sense of what life was, some direction, and so many models wanted to be actresses, I thought I'd see what that was all about. Many reasons brought me to that night, where sleeping beauty woke up. I have never regretted it for a nanosecond. I fell in love with the theater that night. The play was Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya', at the Circle in the Square theater, with a spectacular cast, Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Lillian Gish, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson and directed by Mike Nicols.

Vanya, commenting on his visitor, a professor: "For twenty-five years he has been chewing on other men's thoughts about realism, naturalism, and all such foolishness; for twenty-five years he has been reading and writing things that clever men have long known and stupid ones are not interested in; for twenty-five years he has been making his imaginary mountains out of molehills. And just think of the man's self-conceit and presumption all this time!"

Some old Russian guy was talking my language, my college frustrations, my life frustrations, my frustration with professors who talked a great game, but had never had to set foot in the real world. Internally, I stood up and cheered. Some weird, classical, Russian guy, who called his plays comedies, was voicing exactly my petulant frustrations, my sense of injustice and ill use, my inability to grasp life and make it my own.

But it got better and better. The big professor Nobody from Moscow is worshiped by Vanya's mother, to the great indignation of Vanya. This was exactly like my father's mother, who never failed to point out to my research scientist father that he did not have his doctorate, that he was not a professor. Her vanity was not satisfied. Worse, much like Vanya, my father felt his work running the research lab at Columbia supported those dithering, idiot professors, who looked down on him. I, myself, was recently out of college, and was quite disillusioned to find that college had not in any meaningful way prepared me for 'real life.' Real life was horribly unjust and very confusing.

But the best was yet to come. Steeped in frustration, furious at losing 'the girl' who he accused of wasting her young vitality on the old mackerel professor rather than experiencing life, Vanya gets out a gun and threatens to shoot the professor during a dinner party. My soul, my spirit, my entire being, sat up and came alive. At that moment, I lost my virginity as a human being to Nicol and theater. Someone understood Bad Thanksgivings. Not that my father had ever gotten out a gun or threatened to shoot anybody, but family gatherings always ended explosively, just like these crazy Russians.

This was an epiphany for me; I experienced a transcendental moment of unity with all mankind. I was not alone in my misery; others, too, had horrible frustrations, crushing disappointments and explosively awful family gatherings. My whole person breathed a sigh such as I had never felt before. I was excited, thrilled beyond anything. There was hope. Like Vanya, I wanted the courage to take hold and experience life's vitality, and here was a road map for my feelings, here was the disaster I was heading for, here were the rationalizations that had sunk Vanya and threatened to sink me. But, understanding them began to free me, gave me something to aim for. If I could understand my demons, I could vanquish them. I hung on every word of that play, breathlessly. I recognized my life up there on the stage. Oh, thank you Chekhov! You genius! Thank you Russian theater! Thank you Stanislavsky for making acting lifelike!

And thank you passionately alive and electrically exciting Nicol for being a truly gifted actor, for caring enough about life and your fellow man to tread the often thankless and unremunerative stage, struggling to waken hearts and minds. I will never forget you.

Theater would help me to live and free myself from my squirrel cage, going round and round and getting nowhere. It opened up a whole other side of my brain, and connected my spirit to my intellect, like a ballet dancer getting her legs under her and executing a perfect jete, I was launched into life, through the understanding that 'Uncle Vanya' had given me.

Thanksgiving now would not be torture, anguish and bad digestion, it would be an event to watch closely and enjoy as theater of the mind and character.

I will never forget that night. I have never forgotten any live theater performance. There is just something about live theater that becomes part of your soul, if it's halfway decently done.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jane Austen and Poetry

As Austen put it so well in 'Persuasion', 'it was the misfortune of poetry,to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely: and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.'

With this, I heartily concur. However, I am one of those who enjoy it completely, and therefore must taste it but sparingly. So I will not overdo the poetry.

Yet, I have a book of poetry, the Remembering Garden which I love and have loved for years and years. It was given to me by an English friend of mine, now long gone, who owned a house, invited my husband and I to be weekend guests and eventually encouraged us to buy a house nearby.

The Remembering Garden

"He brought me into a deep remembering garden,
And I was like one that wakes from
          a dream of pain
To hear the cry of a thrush in the woods
          at evening,
And the sound of a brook and the
         whisper of Eden again."

Alfred Noyes

Child of the suburbs, when growing up, our yard consisted of patchy grass, a scrawny dogwood, a row of bright azalea's, a forsythia, pachysandra, and an ailing elm tree. It was not very sunny and mostly a place where my brother and I dug to China or played tag.

When Tom got on the Guiding Light soap opera, and we bought a house upstate New York, where so many other artists, writers and actors had homes. Our house had a large, sunny yard just begging for a garden.

It was then, with my English friend's encouragement that I fell in love with gardens and flowers, which had never seriously entered my life before. I discovered the gardening catalogs, White Flower Farm in Connecticut, Wayside Gardens in South Carolina, which had such ravishing photos and descriptions, it's a wonder I didn't spend all our salary on plants. Also, local nurseries were an excellent source for tulips, hyacinth, daffodils, etc. What a garden I planned. As we all do, who dream of gardens.

----So In Winter

The gardener sees what he will never see.
Here, in his lamp-lit parable, he'll scan
Catalogues bright with colour and with hope,
Dearest delusions of creative mind,
His lamp-lit walls, his lamp-lit table painting
Fabulous flowers flung as he desires.
Fantastic, tossed and all from shilling packet
---An acre sprung from one expended coin--
Visions of what might be.

The Garden: V. Sackville-West

Plants ordered, bulbs planted late autumn, tiller rented in early spring, tiller drags gardener around garden, shoveling way too deep, fertilizer, mulch, fence; all ready for THE PLANTS. I still remember them. They were almost family members, they received so much loving care. Hollyhocks, Asters, delphinium, Bristol Fairy Baby's Breath, yellow coreopsis, Foxglove, sweet corn, Roma tomatoes, horseradish, tarragon, parsley, and more.

The deer feasted on the Asters and delphinium. I don't believe I saw more than one or two blooms that they produced. The corn blew over in a thunderstorm, but we stood it back up with rocks, and it survived to produce some good eating. The deer left the corn alone, because by late summer they had moved on. The horseradish may have grown just fine, but I lost the little marker and never did find the root. The tomatoes produced enough sauce to feed a small army all winter, and the parsley was equally prolific. The stately, old fashioned Hollyhocks were like a stage set for "Mornings at Seven", and the Bristol Fairy Baby's Breath wreathed my little garden in a vast cloud of lacy white. I must have filled to overflowing seven or more baskets with Baby's Breath to dry and use as decoration. I gave away tons. Baby's Breath really looks remarkably lovely dried and stuffed in a basket.

My Baby's breath basket back left on bureau

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Tragic Clown - A Love Story -'Barney's Version'

Paul Giamatti as Barney
The 2011 movie 'Barney's Version' is a sublime, tear jerking, love story. A man's romance that you can cry your eyes out over. Paul Giamatti sends his performance right out of the ball park. Every nuance in the heartbreaking life of the tragic clown is fully fleshed out; Giamatti is as shameless as Pavarotti singing Pagliacci, and with good reason; he inhabits Barney from his huge, soulful eyes to his determined, head pitched forward, uncompromising march through life.

Our unlikely romantic hero, Barney, is an educated, cultured, old world guy, with old world values like honesty, loyalty, and love, that trump all else. There are three women in his life, each one a sad, love story of its own. This is a man who, as his first wife accuses him, "you really do wear your heart on your sleeve; now put it away, it's disgusting to look at." And that is what he fears most, that his big, overflowing, loving heart is vulgar and laughable. This is the essence of Barney's tragedy and undoing.

His second wife, played by the delightful Minnie Driver, is a Jewish version of the California Valley Girl, hilariously immature with a master's degree in something or other, but not life. Barney is freed from this marriage when he catches his handsome best friend in bed with his wife. That best friend very soon mysteriously disappears, and Barney is accused of murder due to a jealous rage. We later find out that the friend has been the victim of a bizarre, but entirely innocent, accident, proving that Barney was never guilty of sexual envy.

In his third marriage, Barney finds true love and the woman he can adore. His third wife submits graciously, almost like she loves him, to being the object of his worship.

In all of the most common, conservative traditions, there is a religiously sanctioned, masculine role, and Barney is completely comfortable as the man who loves his wife and family, and does whatever it takes to provide for them, thus giving him permission to enjoy smoking cigars, eating meat, watching hockey games, and strutting like a peacock, guilt free.

Dustin Hoffman plays Barney's salty, earthy father, and he has never been better. He is a tell it like it is, stand by his son Dad, and retired cop, whose simple, masculine virtues may include low grade police brutality of the sort that those who have never faced personal violence may find repellent, but he is no hypocrite. He freely admits the temptation to push people around can be a failing of a young man in a uniform. 

In his third wife Miriam, Barney finds the woman who is the center of his universe, a lovely, but modern woman, who is always cool and in control, lacking the spontaneity, warmth and humanity, which Barney has in abundance. All seems well, until Miriam falls for another man, who works in radio, as she did before her marriage. With the gender free name of Blair, he is a fey, flattering vegan. "Is that treatable?" Barney quips, sensing immediately the threat to his happiness. Miriam justifies her return to a radio career with all the usual empty nest excuses.

Miriam basks in the glow of Blair's admiration, both professionally and as a friend. When she insists on going to New York by herself, and then encounters Blair, Barney is devastated; he has lost her. But as he says later, 'Have I ever given up when it comes to you?' He does the only thing he can think of to preserve their love for all eternity; he buys a joint cemetery plot. Alone and overwhelmed by the aching certainty he is vulgar and unworthy of Miriam, he seeks solace for his battered ego in the arms of another woman. If this were a romantic comedy, he would find some way to expose Blair's regard as a fraud and save Miriam from making a horrible mistake. But, instead, he falls victim to his own tragic sense of being the clown that other people laugh at and don't respect. Miriam divorces him for his infidelity and goes off with Blair.

The fulfillment Miriam craves in her radio performances stands in stark contrast to Barney's attitude toward his very successful business, Totally Unnecessary Productions, which churns out TV soap operas. He has no illusions that his career, or for that matter, any career, is a substitute for being a good man. Miriam is hooked on the flattery of the world, demanding that even Barney serve her vanity by admiring her broadcasts.

This sets up the final, great aria by Giamatti. Miriam is married to Blair, Barney is succumbing to Alzheimer's, and they have a lunch together, where, in her disappointingly callow way, Miriam asks if they cannot at least be friends. Barney who has loved her so deeply, brokenheartedly replies, 'no.' Miriam goes to the ladies room, and when she returns to the table, Barney is gone. Frantically, she searches for him. At last, she finds him alone, reminiscing, in the old ballroom, much like where they first met. His dementia has made him confused as to why she is so upset by his disappearance. She replies, 'I thought I had lost you.' It is here that we see her begin to sense the magnitude of the love and the man she has lost. And hitting the high C, Giamatti, lost in his loving memories, assures her she could never lose him, and blessedly forgetful of the past, suggests since they have dropped the kids off at school, they should take the afternoon off together. If you're not tearing up at this point, I suggest you visit your cardiologist, because you may have a heart problem.

The last scene of Miriam, alone at the grave, which Barney bought so they could be together forever, is a tear stained, glorious triumph of enduring love. Now, at last, when he is gone, she understands; he will never give up on her; a love like Barney's can never be defeated, even by death. What a grand finale, what a love story! Get out the Kleenex.