Remembering Eddie Haskell, TV’s ultimate wiseass

When I wrote for my college newspaper, I began covering hard news, though I longed to write features and entertainment stories. One of my first half-dozen articles was just that, a story about former “Leave It to Beaver” actor Ken Osmond doing a modest one-man show on campus. 

Osmond played oily, two-faced teen Eddie Haskell on the popular television show. The actor, who could never parlay his wily Haskell image into further acting gigs, died yesterday at age 76. 

I feel kind of bad sharing this, but the following is my very green, very irreverent review of Osmond’s appearance on my college campus so many years ago. The headline, which I didn’t write, reads: “Leave it to Eddie Haskell to empty the auditorium.” 

Watching Ken Osmond, Eddie Haskell of TV’s “Leave It to Beaver,” Wednesday was reminiscent of those news clips of a beaten Richard Nixon kicking around the beach in giant Bermuda shorts — a fall from grace into the ranks of pitiful anonymity.

Osmond’s lecture-presentation attracted no more than 25 people, the type that go ga-ga over cult personalities even after their coolness has long diminished. At one point, Osmond felt obliged to apologize for the thin turnout. The whole scene made me feel kind of sad inside. 

Just minutes before the Associated Students-sponsored show began, Osmond aimlessly paced around the vast, empty auditorium — hands in pockets, head down. I thought at any minute he might ask me for spare change.

Currently, Eddie, as everyone addressed Osmond, is a dead ringer for Jimmy Durante. Tan, wrinkled, and graying, Eddie donned faded 501s and, in a feeble attempt at nostalgia, a blue Mayfield High letter sweater. At about 5 feet 11 inches and 130 pounds, Osmond preserved his boyish, gee-whiz mannerisms that made him a cult commodity and even demonstrated some classic Eddie wisecracks to the group’s delight.

But that was about as good as it got.

In an obvious move to kill time, Eddie played a 20-minute video compilation of bloopers and behind-the-scenes clips from “The New Leave it to Beaver Show,” television’s windless attempt to breathe new life into the Beave’s popularity and the producer’s wallet. The series, which ran sporadically from 1984-89 on syndicated television, is on a humor level a notch below “Who’s the Boss?” The video reflected this pie-in-the-face brand of inanity.

The video showed Wally and a tubby Beaver — now adults — blowing their lines, then slapping each other on the back as they guffawed like madmen. Even June Cleaver got in on the laugh riot shenanigans as she goofed on camera then yelled, “Goddammit!”

The purpose of the clips were to show the audience that these characters whom we’ve grown up with are real people who can make real mistakes. Almost unbearably, Osmond even apologized for the video because of the audible laugh deficit during the presentation. There were more cringes than chuckles. 

“I’ve been doing Eddie for 34 years,” Osmond said. “I can just turn him off and on at will. It’s almost schizophrenic.”

And so he demonstrated for an audience member. “Why, that’s a lovely jacket you’re wearing,” he said in Eddie’s shifty manner. Then, “Get outta here, Sam!”

But it just wasn’t the same.

Eddie unabashedly described his career move to the LA police force in 1980. “I did it strictly for financial reasons,” he confessed. 

Eddie even admonished the crowd about the dangers of pursuing an acting career. “Don’t rely on it for a living. It’s the most unstable career you could ever imagine.”

This is particularly true for Osmond, since, as he said, he is irrevocably typecast as Eddie Haskell, precluding any more acting work. “I can’t complain,” he shrugged. “Eddie’s been very good to me.”

It got really depressing when Osmond discussed how some of the original members of the real Beaver show wound up. Whitey’s in Oregon, “into his art”; Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver, is dead; Beaver’s beloved school teacher, Ms. Landers, was in a brutal car accident and later died of cancer. And the rest of the cast — stuck in perhaps a worse fate — are doing shoddy programs like “The New Leave it to Beaver Show.” 

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Ken Osmond, aka Eddie — RIP.

High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

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Superman is dead.

For five good days, Superman was my pal. 

Tall and lanky, with raven-black hair and a swoopy cowlick, and of course that totemic red and blue spandex suit, flaming cape billowing aft, Superman hung out, drank and watched movies with me and my soul-buddy Shannon during the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007. Superman was our Super-friend. 

Alas, kryptonite conquers. I just learned that Superman, née Christopher Dennis, died last November, a piteous death that HuffPost reports here:

“Christopher Dennis, the ‘Hollywood Superman’ who posed for thousands of photos with tourists outside the famed Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, has died. He was 52.

“Dennis, who was homeless, was found in a used clothing donation bin in Van Nuys, a neighborhood about 10 miles from the tourist district where he earned a living. Police said he was likely looking for something to wear and that no foul play was suspected.”

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Dennis was at the film festival promoting — alongside The Hulk, Batman and Wonder Woman — the ridiculously entertaining documentary “Confessions of a Superhero,” which profiles the costumed characters of the Hollywood Walk of Fame with heart and, yes, heroics. (See the trailer here.) He appeared numerous times on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Dennis, a goofy guy with a crooked smile and sweet as a golden retriever, said he was inspired to put on the cape and tights because of his uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve, cinema’s most famous Superman. Some days he could make a bundle posing for photos; others, not so much. It was a rough life. HuffPost says that Dennis was once beaten with a golf club and robbed of his money and his Superman garb. He resorted to panhandling and drugs. Super drag.

Thirteen years after palling around with Superman, I frankly don’t remember fine details, just that we had a blast. Below is Dennis at the film festival, posing with Shannon and actor Paul Rudd, who’s now himself a screen superhero as Ant-Man. (Why is Shannon gasping? Rudd decided to grab her butt at exactly the right second. Superman looks on, wondering if he should save her. Nah.) 

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Nicolas is cagey about why he bought himself a giant tomb

One day Nicolas Cage is going to die. It will be sad, maybe shocking. Hopefully, in rightful madman form, he will spontaneously implode, eyes bugging, equine teeth gnashing, receding hairline beading with sweat, perhaps a cackle or two.

If we’re not prepared to lose this most erratic of thespians and eccentric masterminds, he apparently is. As you may know, he already has his own tomb erected in New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which was founded in 1789. He bought the tomb in 2010 for a reported $3.2 million. He has big plans. Dying is one of them.

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Amid mossy, decaying, crumbling graves from the 18th and 19th centuries stands, with majestic incongruity, Cage’s 9-foot-tall pyramid, resplendent in polished white marble and engraved with the Latin maxim “Omnia Ab Uno,” meaning “Everything from One” — fittingly enigmatic. (The cemetery is also home to late New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau, one reason it’s said Cage picked this lot, though he’s never publicly explained why he settled on New Orleans’ most revered cemetery with a 9-foot-tall pyramid.)

I just got back from touring the cemetery and of course Cage’s ostentatious, rather comical spectacle is a big draw. Women plant lipstick kisses on the marble surface (giggling facetiously we hope), and selfies are mandatory. Locals detest this empty pyramid of death, as it befits the environs with the stylistic subtlety of a Popeye’s Chicken on the Champs-Élysées.     

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The actor incidentally just visited the mausoleum a couple weeks ago during Mardi Gras with a gossiped-over “mystery girlfriend.” They wore matching black leather pants for the occasion, dig.

Cage is not a native New Orleanian, but he’s owned homes in the city, including a place so haunted it caused him ghastly tax problems (it’s called evasion), cratered a soaring movie career and kinda made him crack up. 

You don’t say. 

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One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.

Kirk Douglas: His 9 best

2181.jpgOne of my favorite Golden Age Hollywood actors, Kirk Douglas, died last week at age 103. The cause: overwhelming magnificence. Here debonair, there explosive, Douglas, he of the arresting crater chin, fetching floppy hair and feline growl, made a raft of movies, acting in, producing, or both. He could chomp a scene or recede with quiet, smirking menace. No matter what he did, the ecstatically watchable performer made every movie moment better. I’ve picked nine of his best starring roles, all worth a rewatch:

1. “Paths of Glory” — Playing against type in Stanley Kubrick’s gut-wrenching 1957 antiwar masterpiece, Douglas is a moral paragon among obscene military corruption, with scenes so emotionally powerful, they sear. (See this.) 

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2. “Ace in the Hole” — A scathing portrait of Douglas’ unscrupulous newspaper writer, who will ditch a man’s life to nail a career-making scoop, in Billy Wilder’s haunting and prophetic 1951 thriller. Deemed so cynical, one critic dissed it as “ruthless.” Consider that a compliment.

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3. “Out of the Past” — Quintessential 1947 noir, directed by mood-meister Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”), streaked with guns, fedoras, dames, snappy dialogue and mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. Douglas, as an oily, vengeful gangster, hires Robert Mitchum’s private dick to find his mistress (Jane Greer, a classic fatale). Mitchum falls for his quarry and things get very, very complicated. This is Mitchum’s film — he’s in almost every shot — but Douglas slithers his way in, like a cobra.

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4. “Detective Story” — Or: “The Angriest Cop in the World.” Douglas cleaves the screen in William Wyler’s 1951 chamber noir set over a single day in a police precinct station. He plays a draconian detective with a Vesuvian temper, always the bad cop in the face of criminal slime — “a one-man army against crime.” He has other, personal troubles brewing, too, making him even more mercurial, a violent, teeth-gnashing fury. He’s a spectacle, and he’s marvelous. 

1886-3.jpg5. “Lust for Life” — The actor’s beautiful depiction, both physically and psychically, of the tormented, misunderstood-in-his-life painter Van Gogh, brings to the fore Douglas’ primal strength: inextinguishable passion.

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6. “Lonely Are the Brave” — In screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s melancholy masterstroke from 1962, Douglas is a cowboy Quixote, living in modern times like they’re the Old West, happy to cling to a carefree existence on the back of his faithful horse. The drama, writes one critic, is a “hymn to rugged individualism and freedom slowly being strangled to death by voracious urban development.” Douglas is alternately euphoric and conflicted by the rule-bound world he must face. It’s heartbreaking. 

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7. “Spartacus” — Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick wrangled making this consummate 1960 swords and sandals epic, a friction that perhaps kindled the actor’s fiercely multifaceted performance. Through romance, slave revolts and mano-a-mano combat, he gives it his clenched-jaw all.

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8. “The Bad and the Beautiful” — With frigid duplicity, Douglas plays an amoral movie producer in Vincente Minnelli’s exemplary Hollywood takedown that’s sometimes spoken in the same breath as “Sunset Boulevard.” If not as wickedly gothic as the latter, this entertaining soundstage drama hits its Tinseltown targets with giddy marksmanship. With Lana Turner, Dick Powell and an Oscar-winning Gloria Grahame. 

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9. “Champion” — Few original dramatic strokes here, but Douglas, as boxer Michael “Midge” Kelly, rages operatically, elevating a gritty sports melodrama to near noirish heights. It’s about sacrifice, family, commitment and finally integrity, something Douglas proved the epitome of — on screen and off. The 1949 role earned him an Oscar nomination, his first of three. (Three? Shame on you, Academy.) 

Champion.jpgRunners-up“A Letter to Three Wives” (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949);  “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (Richard Fleischer, 1954); “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (John Sturges, 1957); “Seven Days in May” (John Frankenheimer, 1964); “The Fury” (Brian De Palma, 1978).

 

A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.

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I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 

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On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

The best movies of 2019

1. “Honeyland” — In this gorgeously observant documentary, weathered Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain.

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2. “Booksmart” — Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this coming-of-age comedy screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused” to John Hughes — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, yah, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books.

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3. “Pain and Glory” — Antonio Banderas, broken-in yet handsomely fit, plays an aging, ailing film director re-encountering figures from his past: his disapproving mother and a former lover, to an actor in one of his most famous movies. Pedro Almodóvar’s lavish drama, revealing the artist in peak form, brimming with soul, pinballs through time for a richly felt reflection on life, love, art and mortality.  

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4. “The Chambermaid” — Ghostly quiet and meticulously observant, this narratively spare but humanely complex Mexican drama follows a hotel maid on her monotonous rounds, evincing stark lines of class. What slowly unfurls is an unsparing character study that’s as hermetic as it is riveting. 

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5. “American Factory” — When a Chinese company takes over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio, an epic culture clash erupts in this fascinating and timely documentary. A Chinese billionaire opens a glass factory in the empty GM facility, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Things seem good until they don’t, and the stark differences between high-tech China and working-class America are exposed for explosive tension and real-life drama. 

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6. “Ford v Ferrari” — A gas. This based-on-a-true-story traces how the Ford company chased, literally, Ferrari in the pursuit of engineering the fastest racing car possible. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at their charismatic peaks as driving rivals slash pals who ping off each other, willing pawns in the big contest. 

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7. “Non-Fiction” — Olivier Assayas’ French dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit.

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8. “Parasite” — A totally implausible class fantasy set in South Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s comic-horror parable is a bit too on-the-nose meditation on wealth vs. poverty. Yet it soars with a warped originality and off-kilter atmosphere that never quite lets on where it’s going. There will be blood. 

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9. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths.

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10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and childish spasms. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

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The rest (in alphabetical order):

  • “Atlantics” — In Senegal, an engaged woman, Ada, is in love with another man, Suleiman, who takes to the ocean with co-workers for better job prospects. The men seem to vanish in the sea and a distraught Ada seeks signs of her lover everywhere. What begins as a linear romance morphs into an unpredictable drama of workers’ rights and supernatural mysteries. If it doesn’t wholly congeal, Mati Diop’s film is a uniquely promising debut.  

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  • “Climax” — With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Gaspar Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When a talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. It’s vintage Noé. 

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  • “Gloria Bell” — A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. Deeply heartfelt and human. 

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  • “Los Reyes” — A near-silent documentary following the tales, and tails, of two stray dogs — one old, one young — getting by in a Chilean skate park. The movie, dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, is astonishingly patient, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters and how they find joy in chasing balls up and down the concrete. 

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  • “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” — Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene: the chest-burster, when a gore-slimed serpent chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt. Great detail and respect are granted the monumental moment in this dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary. But the film’s focus stays mostly on the mythology behind the influential classic, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking.

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  • “The Mustang” — Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove, the film doesn’t flinch from bursts of gritty violence and chewy realism.

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  • “The Nightingale” — This bloody revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) is as unflinching as it is affecting. Set in 1825, in a British penal colony in today’s Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is raped as her family is murdered. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare, hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge. It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotionally cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling violence.

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  • “Rocketman”Parts “Tommy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher’s bedazzling, beguiling, Broadway-esque biopic of Elton John is vaulting rock opera, fire-hosed in glitter and gold, stars and sequins. The facts of John’s life — born Reginald Dwight, he was a timid piano prodigy who exploded to pop megastardom with lyricist and co-writer Bernie Taupin — are embroidered with lush fantasy that makes the perfect soundtrack (in spite of cornball “Crocodile Rock”) even more infectious. 

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(Acclaimed movies I have yet to see: “Little Women, “Uncut Gems, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “The Lighthouse, “Queen & Slim,” “Varda by Agnès.” One that conspicuously didn’t make the cut, Noah Baumbach’s both flat and histrionic “Marriage Story.)

* Bonus fun — Gaseous, over-worshipped disappointments by auteur royalty:

  • “The Irishman” — Scorsese’s plodding, punishingly overlong true-crime saga is historically engaging but rarely entertaining. Baggy and monochrome, the 3½-hour epic misses the color and snap of “Goodfellas,” which it badly wants to be. With geriatric turns by Pacino, Pesci and De Niro, it should be called “Oldfellas,” including the palsied vision behind the camera. Scorsese has recently griped about superhero movies repeating themselves with the same tropes and plots. At the height of hypocrisy, he cannibalizes his own oeuvre with diminishing returns.

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  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity is an indulgent sprawl; a brutal, unfunny mess; an embarrassing cartoon scrawled by an ego-drunk adolescent. The film is self-smitten, wearing a slap-worthy smirk, and at times, like the last half-hour, is downright despicable. onceheader.jpeg