"He who forgets history is condemned to repeat it."
Dwayne McDuffie passed away unexpectedly today. A young guy, he wrote a ton of comic books, penned several feature-length animated movies and TV shows, and founded the Milestone imprint which published books with exclusively minority leads. Behind his fun and approachable writing style was a gentle (and sometimes less than gentle) conviction that minority characters continue to be underrepresented and underserved in the comic book and animation worlds.
Mostly, I'm sad because McDuffie's name was on many of my favorite things: his 'Static' character from the aforementioned Milestone venture was made into a deeply underrated animated series that ran on the WB from 2000 to 2004. With a canny touch, the show featured a rare black superhero character (who also faced the trials of teenage life) and also won awards for episodes dealing with gun violence and child abuse. The animated Justice League show, which crossed over with Static Shock here and there, is one of the best action cartoons of all time. McDuffie was story editor for the series and wrote an enormous number of episodes. Lastly, he wrote All-Star Superman which just came out today, and which I'm watching tonight. There may be crying. His name on something always stood for a quality and social conscience with a light touch.
In which we learn that confidence is borne of a way lot of swearing.
2010’s most likely (perhaps) Best Picture Oscar winner is also the year’s most obvious contender. World War II period drama? Got it. A passel of talented British acting talent? Done. As insurance, just in case the entire thing didn’t scream “classy, quirky Oscar drama,” they even threw in Miss Helena Bonham Carter. Cinema’s youthful queen of the costume drama plays the queen of England, with award-winners Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in the leads. If this thing doesn’t take home a small boatload of awards, it won’t be for lack of tryin’. Something funny happened on the way to awards season, though. Director Tom Hooper isn’t quite so cynical, and the tastes of movie-goers aren’t quite as jaded as all that. They’ve actually made a damned decent movie, even if not the year’s best.
The movie’s opening is nearly unbearable: Prince Albert, the Duke of York played by Colin Firth, has been tasked with giving the closing speech at the 1925 colonial exhibition in London. Before a packed Wembley Stadium, the future king stammers his way through the opening of his prepared remarks, evoking pity and veiled contempt before the film cuts away, mercifully. Fortunately, his brother is next in line to be king, so such public humiliations for Prince Albert will be rare. That is, of course, until his father George V (the ubiquitous and always welcome Michael Gambon) takes ill and his older brother Edward takes up with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Albert’s prospects for a relatively quiet life as prince become increasingly precarious. With the coming of the age of radio, the royal family will no longer simply wave politely from ornate windows. What’s a maybe/doesn’t wanna be king to do? Albert undertakes an increasingly ridiculous series of speech therapies before finding his way to failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). You’ll not be at all surprised that Lionel’s techniques are unconventional, and his insistence on dealing with the prince in a familiar and equal manner provides for a much of the film’s charm and a great deal of its humor. Lionel’s eccentricity is a little by-the-numbers, but it works. In addition to normal vocal exercises, Albert, or “Bertie” at Lionel’s insistence, is made to loosen up by swearing and singing his way through his diction problems (rumors are that the Weinsteins are currently at work on a re-edit that removes said swearing in order to secure a more family-friendly rating). As time passes, it becomes clear to both men that Bertie’s stammer is less the result of any physical deformity and more the product of a challenging and bullied childhood. Times are tough all over, it would seem, even for young princes.
If this all sounds terribly inconsequential, it felt that way to me for early stretches as well. It doesn’t take long, though, to develop a strong sympathy with the earnest and upstanding Bertie. For those of us who think keenly and often about embarrassment, particularly of the public variety, and for whom disdain and disappointment seem to lurk around every corner waiting to pounce, there won’t be many higher stakes than those which Bertie faces. Each of Bertie’s halting and tortured attempts at speaking publicly is almost painful to watch. And, as the threat of Nazism gathers, the stakes become more than personal. It becomes clear that Bertie is far more capable of leading the British people than his spoiled and childish brother, even as he is less likely to be taken seriously. A few words from the King may make all the difference to a frightened people, and Bertie’s inability to provide them becomes dramatically consequential. The subtly washed-out, but highly textured cinematography provides a muted backdrop that stays out of the way of the performances.
Colin Firth always manages a boyish quality in defiance of his 50 years, and that dichotomy serves him well here. He’s every bit the loyal, responsible prince, even as his ticks and boyhood traumas threaten to constantly overwhelm him. Rush, meanwhile, is as capable as he is likeable, but his character here isn’t much of a stretch. It’s exactly the type of performance one expects out of Rush: knowing, quirky, and charmingly offbeat. It fits the part, but it’s impossible to forget that it’s Geoffrey Rush. The supporting cast puts in some fine work as well: Bonham Carter plays the future Queen Mum with a dry wit that feels just right, and Guy Pearce is rather brilliant as Prince Edward. It’s a selfish character that you really want to hate, but Pearce smartly plays him as every bit as damaged as Bertie. With all of the talk about The King’s Speech leading into awards season, I haven’t heard much about Pearce’s performance. That’s too bad—it’s a standout. Timothy Spall gives it a go, but falls victim to Winston Churchill. With that ruddy bulldog face, keen eyes, gnawed cigar, and enormous waistline (with a personality to match), Churchill lends himself readily to caricature. It’s not Spall’s fault, merely Churchill’s ability to confound actors decades post-mortem. Brendan Gleeson mostly avoids the trap in 2009’s Into the Storm (by the way), but it’s no mean feat. The King’s Speech is, ultimately, a film that manages to be fabulously entertaining without breaking any new ground. It’s sure-footed, confident, and personal. If you happen to share any of Bertie’s phobias, even in small part, it also happens to be scary as hell.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on January 20th, 1961. Whatever you think or thought of Jack, it's one helluva speech. Strangely, and a bit sadly, there's almost nothing that doesn't remain relevant today.
It may be blasphemous, but I have no great love for John Wayne as an actor (I rather doubt that I would have had great love for him as a person, either, though that's beside the point.) Like many of the great actors of Hollywood's early days, his larger-than-life presence is both striking and admirable. It's also, especially later in his career, distracting. It's true that many of his great films are great precisely because he's in them. It's also true that it's impossible to separate the characters which he's portrayed from the character that Wayne created. This is all a terribly long-winded way of getting around to the fact that I haven't seen the original True Grit, nor, incidentally, have I read the novel by Charles Portis. So I come at this one with fresh eyes.
Just as it is impossible to think of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film without thinking John Wayne, Jeff Bridges equally commands this one. He's that rarest of breeds among big stars--an actor almost entirely without ego, or at least a good enough actor that you don't notice or mind what ego is there. In this movie, he plays the seedy and perpetually unwashed character of Rooster Cogburn with no vanity except that little which it is believable that Cogburn has. Cogburn is an ornery (an old-fashioned western like this one practically begs for the use of that word) U.S. Marshall (more bounty hunter, really) of limited means and with limited scruples. When Maddie Ross, the daughter of an unjustly gunned-down prospector, rolls into town she chooses Cogburn to track down her father's killer. She has other choices, more thoughtful and just men, but she's not looking for justice. She's looking for vengeance, and Cogburn strikes her as the man to procure it for her in what to her has become a rather dark business deal. Cogburn's introductory scene is in an outhouse. Just a bit later, he's awakened from his perch at the back of a Chinese grocery. In his frayed and yellowed onesie, a button missing, his just-a-bit too large and sweaty gut hanging out, you can practically smell the stale whiskey, sweat, and old cigarettes on his breath. His clothes look like they haven't been washed in years. Bridges doesn't just carry around the trappings of a man with little social grace, he inhabits it. Mattie describes him as an eponymous man of 'true grit'. She could just as easily be referring to his hygiene as to his demeanor. Bridges has quietly made himself into America's indispensable actor, and his Cogburn is a joy to follow around, even when he's mumbling his way through stories of ex-wives and looking like the worst-smelling thing in a place full of stuff that probably smells mighty damn bad. Wayne won his sole Oscar for the original. Bridges could well win another.
Hailee Steinfeld as 14-year-old Mattie similarly gives a great performance as the tough-as-can-be daughter hell-bent on vengeance. Her character gets all of the best lines (meaning the funniest) and as an actress she holds her own with not only Bridges, but Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, as well as a few of the requisite Coen brothers weirdoes. The general lack of Coen-ness of this film, with its straightforward plot and almost-old-fashioned cadences has been much remarked upon. And not without cause: there are moments here, many of them, that would not be put of place in a film of the sixties or seventies. In a different time, John Wayne probably would fit in here just about as well as he did in the original.
It all proceeds calmly apace, free of discernable moral or lesson. That makes it a rare breed, and that's where the Coens come in. Westerns, old and new, tend to fall into one of two categories: the rollicking, if world-weary adventure type (think A Fistful of Dollars) or the hard-earned-lesson type: High Noon, or Unforgiven as a more recent exemplar. Even if the hero never quite learns it, there's often a lesson: in High Noon, it's all about standing up for what's right. In Unforgiven, it's all about the soul-destroying nature of vengeance. The Coen Brothers films often have a kind of ambiguous morality, which, combined with their trademark quirky side-characters and dark senses of humor can make the least of their films, and sometimes the best of them, off-puttingly cold. We tend to expect a tidy moral with our films, and a lack thereof can feel sometimes feel alarmingly like pointlessness. It's the same here. There are no real lessons to be learned in the story of a young girl on a mission of vengeance. There is a price to be paid for her revenge, but it's not clear that anyone comes out the wiser. A beautiful, hallucinatory midnight ride comes at the films climax, and it's a deeply well-earned bit of sentiment in a thoroughly unsentimental film. It all comes down to the relationship between Rooster and Mattie, and the Coens were smart enough to leave the material to their actors, and minimize their well-known flourishes. In doing so, they've created a film that may not be their greatest, but is certainly their most human.
Photo Credits here.
"The secret of a long life is to never trust a doctor."
On Jaunary 12th, Luise Rainer will be celebrating her 101st birthday. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it's likely because she left Hollywood behind roughly seventy years ago, after winning back-to-back Best Actress Academy Awards. That Oscar feat had never happened before, and has happened only once since. In celebration, TCM will be airing her appearance at this past April's TCM classic film festival.
Her first Oscar (in only her second American film) was as the high-strung first wife of William Powell's eponymous lead in The Great Ziegfeld. It's not really a great or particularly brilliant film, but it's a great product of the 1930s Hollywood studio system. One of those big prestige biopics with solid performances and an abundance of musical numbers. It's the type of movie that's carefully calibrated to entertain a wide audience while also grabbing awards. It ain't art, exactly, but it's certainly high-class entertainment, and took home the Best Picture Oscar for that year. Not for nothing, it was also 1936's second biggest box office draw. Luise, with her sad eyes and distinctive Austrian accent, makes an indelible impression. The part of Flo Ziegfeld's first wife Anna Held is essentially a light comedy role, but she plays it with a vulnerability that borders on tragic.
Her next film, for which she won her next award, was the adaption of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. The young, German-born, Austria-raised actress played Chinese peasant O-Lan, the soft-spoken female lead. Star Anna May Wong was considered for the role, but anti-race-mixing provisions of the Hays production code made it impossible to cast an Asian-American actor as the wife when thoroughly caucasian Paul Muni had been cast as the male lead. The casting, naturally, seems silly given intervening decades demonstrating that not only white people can be actors, but there you have it. Muni's performance never really breaks through the white-dude-in-makeup thing, but Luise plays the role with the same vulnerability that won her acclaim the year before, and with even greater subtlety given The Good Earth's notable lack of comedy and musical interlude. In any event, it's a way more convincing portrayal of a Chinese peasent than the one that Katherine Hepburn gives in Dragon Seed, a later Buck book to be adapted and caucasianated. The Ain't-I-Chinese? makeup in either case is pretty awful, but Luise gives it her all.
Following The Good Earth, Luise moved away from Hollywood film acting after a few more films. The move was generally of her own accord, but the result of a studio system that didn't allow its stars a lot of creative or financial control. In the years since, she's gone to med school and done a lot of work on the stage, in addition to some sporadic appearances in movies and on television. She's had a pretty interesting life, and there aren't a lot of voices from H-wood's golden age still around. Good genes or good habits? Either way, Happy 101.
Is there anything even remotely as depressing as the prospect of growing old? Perhaps the prospect of not growing old at all, although a good many would consider that preferable to the various indignities of decrepitude which life has in store for us (which begin, oddly enough, at around 30). And that's what's in store for the luckiest of us. Which brings me to today's film: 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow. The feel-good film of the depression years.
In one sense, Make Way is very much of the great depression era (which makes it feel, perhaps unsurprisingly, current). It is the utterly straightforward story of an elderly couple whose home is taken by the bank. Barkley retired only a few years earlier and is unable to find new work because of his age. Though still modestly capable, and in generally good health, he's old and tired, and it's easy to understand how he could be turned over for younger dudes in the employment line. In an era prior to social security (or an era after the security of pension), there's very little for him and his wife to do but to prevail on their grown children. Neither Barkley, nor his wife Lucy has any desire to burden anybody, but there it is. When the assembled family wants to know why no one had heard of the bank taking the house in the months before, when there might've been time to take action, there's no good answer except the one that well-intentioned old people are inclined to give: they'd hoped that something-or-other would turn up, and that no one would ever need to know. It's that type of deeply frustrating and entirely understandable thing that old people do.
It's at this point that decades of movie-going expectations lead you to figure that the rotten-as-hell kids are going to toss aside their parents like old garbage, and presumably learn some valuable lessons about the value of respecting your elders or some such thing. We're not let off the hook nearly so easily. See, if the kids were big insensitive jerks, there'd be no reason to think too hard about any of the proceedings. It's pretty rare, actually, rarer than I realized before sitting down to think a bit about this movie: rare to not get the easy out that comes with thinking that particular characters are being complete assholes. A movie's gotta have a villain, right? If the children were truly horrible people, we'd get to leave figuring: "hey, we could never be that bad..."
Some of Lucy and Barkley's grown children have kids of their own, and they're scattered around the country. None has much room in their homes or in their lives for a couple of seventy-year-olds. The kids gripe and groan a bit, they jockey and argue over who is contributing enough. Finally it's decided that the parents will split up, though they swore that they never would. It's only temporary, they all say...mom will live with one family, and dad with another until better arrangements can be made. And, at first, everyone pretty much believes it. In fact, it all seems very reasonable, given the circumstances. I've seen the jockeying happen in my own family, with good and bad outcomes, but always with an individual, and never the added complication of a couple. Certainly any family of modest means would struggle with two extra people to house.
From that decision to split up the parents, things proceed with their own logic and on their own course. We see bits and bobs of the everyday lives of Lucy and Barkley in their separate homes. Barkley hangs out in the corner store, chatting with the accommodating owner. Lucy tries to ingratiate herself into the world of her son's family: annoying her granddaughter by trying to socialize with her young friends. Sitting in on her daughter-in-laws bridge party. And Lucy can be damned annoying with her old-timey ways. It's not hard to see why the family would struggle with her presence. Everyone's aware of their responsibilities, and there's plenty of affection, but the truth of Lucy and Barkley's situation only becomes clearer and less escapable all the time, even as Lucy indulges in hopes that she realizes are silly. After lives of hard work and family, they've become, primarily, burdens. This was the fate that my own grandmother feared above all others, and probably would be happy not to have lived to face. The movie is fearful from both ends: I'm not sure if the prospect of growing old and burdensome is sadder than the idea of being the one responsible for making someone feel that way. Both fates seem equally possible, in spite of worlds of good intentions.
This all sounds terribly dismal, I realize, and it's certainly not a chipper fantasy. There's not a single note of the film that feels false. It's among the truest films that I've ever seen: the ending is neither unsparingly bleak nor unbelievably happy. In spite of the film being quickly forgotten after its initial release, prolific director Leo McCarey considered it his masterpiece. If the truth-angle isn't quite enough to sell the film, it has moments of extraordinary beauty in it's depiction of everyday life. The entire concluding sequence involving a brief reunion for our lead characters is absolutely magical. More so because we almost never see old people given lead roles in movies. That the characters should also be poor makes it seem almost otherworldly to follow them around for a time.
It seems vaguely criminal to have come this far without mentioning the performances. A character piece like this sinks or swims on the basis of the acting, and it's all pretty darned great. Silent-film vet Victor Moore is a quietly likeable presence as Pa Cooper...all awkward nerves as a man who no longer has any confidence that the world will take him seriously. Beulah Bondi's Lucy, though, positively walks away with the movie. Bond was only around 40 at the time the film was made, playing a woman of about 70. It seems almost spoilery to mention that, since it's impossible to tell during the movie itself. The makeup and performance are such that I never for a moment questioned that this was a woman of some years. It was only when I looked her up later that I realized that she was working until the late 70s. Try to forget about her actual age when you watch Make Way. It's not a gimmicky performance that she gives...it's a pitch-perfect portrayal of an old-lady trying to fit in in a world that no longer has a whole heckuva lot of time or interest in her. It's a lovely, fun, go-for-it performance full of subtlety. Bondi's performance stands out particularly for the time. It was naturalistic in a time before naturalism was the common style in film acting. I wonder if 1930s audiences knew what to make of her.
Make Way for Tomorrow has seen a bit of a revival lately, getting a bit of the reception that it never had initially. It's been a popular feature of the Telluride Film Festival several times now, and there's a recent, and typically great Criterion Collection DVD release. It also pops up on TCM now and again, which is where I caught it. If you're not just the slightest bit more kindly disposed toward the old people in your life (even the obnoxious ones) after this film, then your heart is mercifully harder than mine. And, for God's sake, think about those retirement savings.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
All original material ©2010 Ross Johnson