Monday, May 31, 2021

Sterling Structures (Memorial Day Edition)


 It used to be much simpler to build a monument. The roll of honor on bronze tablets, or the statue of the fallen warrior holding a flag appeared predictably on the village green. Anonymous generals and unknown soldiers furnish innumerable traffic islands. Forgotten heroes dot the nation's parks. The uniform changes, the heroes sit or stand or occasionally ride a horse, but the message remains the same: a noble cause well served.

Nowadays, though, patriotism is a complicated matter. Ideas about heroism, or art, for that matter, are no longer what they were before Vietnam. And there is certainly no consensus yet about what cause might have been served by the Vietnam War.

But perhaps that is why the V-shaped, black granite lines merging gently with the sloping earth make the winning design seem a lasting and appropriate image of dignity and sadness. It conveys the only point about the war on which people may agree: that those who died should be remembered.

--The New York Times

I thought about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar. The idea occurred to me there on the site. Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it. As if you cut open the rock and polished it.

--Maya Lin 

At the age of 21 and not yet graduated from college, Maya Lin won a national design competition for the planned Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. This was back in 1981, and while she's done a lot of worthwhile architectural designing since then, the memorial remains her most well-known work.



Saturday, May 22, 2021

Vital Viewing (Riotous Repartee Edition)



Truth be told, I never enjoyed watching Charles Grodin in any film he appeared in as much as I did when he was the guest on some TV talk show. Movies seemed to diminish, almost mediocritize his talent whereas jawing with Johnny, Merv, Dave, Jay, Conan, and whoever else enhanced it. So I'm not going to bother with clips from Beethoven or Midnight Run and instead show you examples of Grodin being himself--or is he? You decide:

The general consensus is that Grodin is just kidding around in the above clips, and Johnny, Dave, and Conan are all in on the joke.

In 1995, Charles Grodin went from guest to host when he got his own talk show on the CNBC cable network. In the beginning, as you might expect from him, the whole thing had a tongue-in-cheek feel to it, with Grodin almost parodying the traditional TV interview program. One amusing recurring segment had him leaving his own studio and going elsewhere in the CNBC building, where he chatted with the hosts of the network's daytime business shows, expressing utter (and probably mock) confusion at such subjects as the Dow Jones Average and Standards and Poor's Index. The show might have continued in that humorous vein if not for a certain courtroom miniseries that began airing around the same time. The summer before Grodin's talk show debut, Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of former NFL star O.J. Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside her home in Los Angeles' tony Brentwood neighborhood. As I'm sure most of you are aware, O.J. was accused of the crime. The trial began in November 1994, with the bulk of it taking place throughout 1995. At first Grodin took a somewhat lighthearted approach to the whole thing by making fun of the media circus that surrounded the trial, once interrupting guest Marvin Hamlisch in the middle of a show biz anecdote to ask, "What does any of this have to do with the O.J. trial?" However, as the trial wound on, and as Simpson's high-priced legal team exploited tensions between the African-American community and the LAPD, claiming O.J. had been framed despite massive DNA evidence that suggested otherwise, it seemed to many people (including yours truly) that a rich man just might get away with murder. This outraged Grodin, and he shared his outrage with his CNBC audience, opening many a show with an angry tirade--quite real this time as opposed to the act he put on for Johnny Carson--about the latest developments in the trial. Charles Grodin's newly-serious side didn't end once the trial did in O.J.'s favor. Now every show opened with a Grodin editorial. His views were mostly liberal, but he occasionally took the side of conservatives, such as when he called for the end of the estate tax. I don't know if you'd call it liberal or conservative, but instead of seeing him as a fellow provocateur, Grodin basically picked a fight with Howard Stern (a rare role-reversal for the radio shock jock), calling for the FCC to take him off the air. That went back-and-forth for a while. As for Grodin's fan base, I'm sure he lost some admirers who admired him mainly for being funny, but he must have gained as many as he lost, for while the talk show ended in 1999, the editorials didn't. In a surprising career move, Charles Grodin became a pundit. 

From 2000 to 2004, Grodin was a political commentator for 60 Minutes II. While most of these commentaries were of a serious nature, humor began creeping in as time went on. Grodin had finally figured out a healthy balance between the two. His commentaries moved to the radio, and one obituary states he had a newspaper column as well. All this punditry, much of which ended up in a book (he was a very prolific author), made him a guest on the talk show circuit again. However, unlike the Carsons and Lettermans of yore, this time the talk shows were more issues-oriented. Here he is as a guest on one of the mainstays of the Fox News network: 

Sean Hannity may have thought he was in on the joke, but I'm not entirely sure Grodin was kidding this time.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Under the Radar: Norman Lloyd


I'm sure most of you recognize the man on the right, the now-legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, but you ordinarily wouldn't know the man on the left, except, well, I just gave away his name in the title of this post. Yes, it's Norman Lloyd, never a household name, though he was in or involved with movies and TV shows that themselves may have attained that status, and, if you were a bit adventuresome in your 1980s television watching choices, and not too squeamish about hospital-related matters, Lloyd's by-then elderly face would have been familiar as well.


Though he acted as a child, his career more or less begins with the now-legendary Federal Theatre Project, itself a subsidiary of the now-legendary Works Progress Administration, itself a subsidiary of the now-legendary New Deal. The goal of the FTP was to keep stage actors, stage directors, and playwrights from starving to death during the Great Depression. It did that but also had an influence on popular entertainment that lasted decades beyond its elimination by an arts-hating Congress in 1939. For instance, while involved with the theatre, Lloyd became acquainted with two very promising actors-writers-directors-producers by the names of Orson Welles and John Houseman. When Welles and Houseman left the FTP to start their own theatrical troupe, the now-legendary Mercury Theatre, they asked Lloyd to join them, which he did. In fact, he acted in the theatre's very first production, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Performed in (1930s) modern dress, common enough in Shakespeare productions these days but a novelty back then, the production is said to have had clear antifascist overtones with Lloyd as Cinna the Poet dying at the hands of the secret police-like mob in a case of mistaken identity. So successful was this and other Mercury productions that Welles and Housman were invited to do a radio version, the now-legendary Mercury Theatre of the Air, in which Lloyd also took part, though he seems to have been otherwise occupied during the now-legendary "War of the Worlds" broadcast. God only allows so many now-legendarys in a person's life, and Lloyd already had more than his share. In fact, his decision to stay in New York rather than move out to Hollywood with the rest of the Mercury Theatre meant he lost out on a role in the now-legendary Citizen Kane. Realizing his mistake, Lloyd moved out to Tinseltown on his own a year later, where he came to the attention of the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock, who, as it turned out, had a few-more now-legendarys to throw Lloyd's way.

First off was 1942's Saboteur, in which the film's hero, played by Robert Cummings, is framed for an act of sabotage in a war plant that was actually the work of the film's villain, played by Lloyd. The movie's most memorable moment is its climax--sorry if I'm giving something away but I can't help it--which has Lloyd's character dangling from the Statue of Liberty's raised hand, before falling to his death. Three years later Hitchcock called upon Lloyd once again, this time to play a psychiatric patient being treated by a couple of rather glamorous shrinks, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, in 1945's Spellbound. Though an excellent actor, Lloyd himself wasn't particularly glamorous, and so continued to play either villains or oddball characters for film directors other than Hitchcock throughout the 1940s. In The Southerner, also from 1945, he even played both. He was neither a villain nor an oddball in 1952's Limelight, and instead just a sidekick to Nigel Bruce's impresario character. It wasn't much but was written by, directed by, and, in the lead role, acted by the now-legendary--actually, he was legendary then--Charlie Chaplin, providing Lloyd with more great show biz anecdotes, as if he didn't have his allotted share already.

Now we come to not so much a now-legendary but now-notorious era of Hollywood history: the blacklist. John Houseman, Lloyd's old boss during his Mercury Theater days, was going to produce a movie version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar just as he and Orson Welles had done on Broadway (only this time with the actors clad in first century BC-appropriate togas) and wanted Lloyd once again aboard, most likely reprising his role as the doomed poet Cinna. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer balked. Like Zero Mostel, Betsy Blair, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant, Larry Parks, Betty Garrett, Will Geer, Herschel Bernardi, John Garfield, and many, many other talented actors and actresses (not to mention screenwriters and directors), Norman Lloyd's name had come to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lloyd had never been a member of the Communist Party, unlike, say, Parks, who had joined during the Great Depression (can't imagine why given how well capitalism was doing at the time.) Like Garfield, Blair, and Gilford, Lloyd may have signed petitions sponsored by or gone to political rallies of organizations deemed to be communist front groups by the HUAC. According to Lloyd himself, it was simply that he knew a lot of blacklistees, friends and acquaintances of his going back to his days in the Federal Theatre Project  as well as a brief stint in the now-legendary Group Theatre (I purposely left that one out earlier because I didn't want you to suffer from now-legendary overload.) Now in his early forties, Lloyd's show biz career seemed over with when an unlikely savior reappeared in his life. 

    Alfred Hitchcock's political views remain something of a mystery. I've read several biographies of the great filmmaker, and they don't tell you, when in England whether he voted for Labor or the Conservatives, or after he became an American citizen sometimes in the 1950s, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. It can be claimed by anybody along the political spectrum whose particular shade of thought happens to be out of style, but there is a definite distrust of authority that runs through Hitchcock's work. Policemen and British and U.S. intelligence agencies are never out-and-out villains in his movies, but then they don't have to be, since the cops and government agents are shown to be so menacingly inept, they often end up doing the real bad guys work for them! I wonder if Hitchcock viewed the McCarthy Era through that same lens. He wouldn't have to be a communist himself to think that the anticommunists were on a wild goose (or goose-stepping?) chase that could take them right to the top of the Statue of Liberty. Hitchcock at least saw Norman Lloyd as more like Robert Cummings in Saboteur than like, well, Norman Lloyd in Saboteur. But it wasn't a Hitchcock movie that hastened Lloyd's show biz resurrection but something that as much as any hit at the box office turned Hitchcock into a now-legendary figure: television. Of course, I'm talking about the long-running anthologies series titled Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and, when another 30 minutes was added to it, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.) Though he owned the show, and contributed the opening and closing remarks, Hitchcock in 1955 still had a thriving theatrical movie career (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds all still lie ahead) and so entrusted the actual production of the series to a favorite screenwriter of his, Joan Harrison, and Lloyd, who in addition to being an actor had also done some directing and producing. CBS protested the hiring of Lloyd, as had MGM earlier, but Hitchcock got his way. So why didn't John Houseman? Hard to say. It may have been that Hitchcock's apolitical demeanor made the whole thing seem like less of a threat than it did with Houseman, who owed his career to the still-controversial New Deal. And as a Hollywood power player, Hitch simply may have had more clout than Houseman (after all, The Paper Chase and all those Smith Barney commercials--"They make money the old-fashioned way, they earn it"--were still 20-some years in the future.) Under Lloyd's and Harrison's stewardship, the suspense anthology series earned high ratings and critical acclaim. In addition to producing the show, Lloyd directed 22 episodes, two more than Hitch himself.


Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour finally came to a close in 1965. For the next 17 years, Norman Lloyd kept himself busy producing and directing made-for-TV movies, interspersed with the occasional acting job, though that part of his career seemed mostly done with. An occasional acting job-turned-permanent changed all that in 1982. Lloyd was only supposed to appear in six episodes of a new medical drama series playing Dr. Daniel Auschlander, a liver specialist who finds out he has liver cancer, culminating in his character's death in episode six. However, the producers liked him so much that they put the cancer in uneasy remission, and those six episodes became six seasons, as Aushlander dealt with his own mortality while presiding over a large staff (and a large acting ensemble) in his role as Chief of Services at the run-down, inner-city, Catholic-turned-public-teaching hospital St. Eligius, derisively referred to as "St Elsewhere" by medical professionals who worked elsewhere, and from which the series took its name. Like costar Williams Daniels, who played the grouchy and sarcastic heart surgeon Dr. Mark Craig, Lloyd could go from drama to comedy and then back again, and then back again after that, at the turn of a coin, which an actor often had to do on St. Elsewhere. Though classified as a drama, the series had a wicked sense of humor (such as when a patient is crushed to death in a folding hospital bed) and, for some reason, loads of pop culture in-jokes ("Floyd has worked here forever. He may bury us all" Get it?) The humor was woven into the very fabric of the show (look at its title) and not what you would call "comedy relief". If you want that, go watch that other 1980s medical drama ("Trapper John M.D. His patients never die," Auschlander replies when asked which TV character he would most like to be.) No, St. Elsewhere would often throw a pie in the face of its serious subject matter, while still basically taking it seriously. You just had to watch it to know what that sentence means. Though it never got all that high of ratings, and at the end of every season seemed to be on the brink of cancellation, St. Elsewhere was easily the best show on TV in the 1980s, and one of the best shows of all time. If Norman Lloyd hadn't been in it, and hadn't been so wonderful in it, I probably wouldn't have bothered with this post. Two great Auschlander moments right at the top of my head, one dramatic, and one comedic. I said earlier he spent much of his time pondering his own mortality, and never more so than when he was at home with his wife, played by the equally wonderful Jane Wyatt. When Katherine has a health emergency of her own and needs an operation, Auschlander still can't quite stop talking about his own problems. However, after the surgery, which turns out to be a success, he goes to her hospital room and profusely apologizes to his unconscious wife for his self-centeredness. The comedic? Well, you wouldn't think chemotherapy is a subject that could produce a lot of yuks--I've seen first hand its effects on a close family member, and they were indeed unpleasant--yet a very funny scene has Auschlander getting his usual treatment, and trying to relax to it by listening to classical music. I don't remember if it was Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or Brahms, if I ever even knew to begin with, but the symphony is interrupted by a dog's bark. Auschlander opens his eyes and sees a German shepherd getting the same treatment! Auschlander is disabused of his self-centeredness once again. We all have problems, even dogs.

When St. Elsewhere went off the air in 1988, Lloyd was 74-years-old with thirty-three more years to go. He continued to act. Indeed the very next year he played the principal in The Dead Poets Society. His final acting job was 2015's Trainwreck, made when he was 100. In between, there was a lot of television guest shots, including Wiseguy, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Modern Family. When he wasn't acting, he played a lot of tennis, which he described as an "addiction". A fall in 2015 finally ended that pastime. And he was said by all, with ample evidence on YouTube, to be one of the all-time great raconteurs, with a neverending string of show biz stories to relate of all the famous people he had known in his long life, which finally came to an end this past Tuesday. With him, an age of classic theatre, classic movies, and classic television recedes into, you guessed it, legend.



Monday, May 10, 2021

Vital Viewing (May-December Hoofers Edition)


Actor, singer, and, above all else, dancer Fred Astaire was born on this day in 1899 (he died in 1987.) He had many dance partners during his long career, starting with his sister Adele when they were both still kids. Besides her, there was Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, Petula Clark, and, of course, Ginger Rogers, with whom he danced with through ten films. Yet when asked in 1973 who he thought was his best partner, Astaire named none of those well-known ladies but instead a woman who may not be as famous today as she suddenly found herself to be one October night in 1958: 

"Barrie Chase is the best partner--she's the latest partner that I've had, and believe me, that girl has got it--that girl can dance."

Fred Astaire's movie career was winding down toward the end of the 1950s. The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957), and Silk Stockings (1957) are today all considered film classics, and yet lost money upon their box office releases. Part of it was these movies were very expensively-made, and couldn't just be popular but needed to be very popular to turn a profit. Another was that teenagers were making up a bigger share of the moviegoing audience, and they wanted rock 'n' roll, not the Tin Pan Alley stuff that had provided the background music for Fred's fancy footwork. Now, these teenagers' parents did still want that Tin Pan Alley stuff, but they had stopped going to the movies, preferring to stay home and watch TV.  And TV was where the 59-year-old Astaire's immediate future lie. It wasn't going to be a regularly scheduled series, though, but one of those things that occasionally replace regularly scheduled series: a special. To make sure this special wouldn't be confused with a run-of-the-mill variety show, producer-director-writer Bud Yorkin convinced Astaire that it should be him alone with no guest stars. Astaire agreed that there should be no guest stars, but he wasn't about to dance every dance solo. So he went out and got himself a partner.

The 25-year-old daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter, Barrie Chase had appeared in the chorus lines of several 1950s movie musicals, including White Christmas, Hans Christian Anderson, Brigadoon, Pal Joey, and two movies with Fred Astaire himself, the first of which was Daddy Long Legs. Astaire later professed not to have first noticed her in DDL, but, ironically, on the set of a Gene Kelly movie, Les Girls, where he spotted her through an open door at MGM. Impressed, he gave her a small, uncredited part in the aforementioned Silk Stockings, where she momentarily performs the can-can in front of three decadent Bolsheviks. It doesn't sound like much of a breakthrough, and it wasn't, but then came An Evening with Fred Astaire. Here's Fred and Barrie in Techni--no, in early color videotape, but it holds up just as well:


I love that finger-snap of resignation at the end. For all his expensively-tailored duds, Astaire had a touch of the everyman about him.

Fred has better luck with Barrie in this clip, but it's in the oddest place. Jazzman Jonah Jones explains:

Now that's the kind of "taps" I wish they'd play more often at funerals!

An Evening with Fred Astaire was one of the great television successes not just of 1958 but the 1950s as a whole. In addition to winning its time slot in the ratings, it won an unprecedented nine Emmys, including a controversial one for Astaire for Best Actor (in his defense, Fred rhetorically asked, "I'm an actor, and this Emmy is for a performance by an actor, isn't it? When I do a difficult pantomime in a dance which tells a story, what do they think it is? Tiddlywinks?") The special was much written about in its day, and when it was rerun three months later, the rerun won its time slot! Between 1959 and 1968 there were three more television specials with Astaire and Chase. Also, the two danced on the 1960s variety show Hollywood Palace, and acted and danced together on the anthology show Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater in a comedy story titled "Think Pretty." In 2017, the then-83-year-old Chase discussed her famous dance partner in a BBC interview:

An 83-year-old woman in a miniskirt and stilettoes?! In the comment section of the YouTube page from which I snagged this video, the consensus seems to be, if she still got the legs for it, why not? You can certainly see where all those years of dancing paid off.

Barrie Chase's time in the limelight lasted just under 15 years. In 1972, she married for a third time to a doctor and, quite voluntarily, left show biz, left fame, to raise a family. The nearly 50-year absence has taken its toll on her name recognition, I'm afraid. Her legacy is now cemented to just one phase of Fred Astaire's legendary career. It's all they asked her about in that BBC interview. That's not the case with Ginger Rogers, who died at 83 in 1995. When she gave interviews late in life, sure, she was asked about Astaire--that was unavoidable--but there were always questions left over about the many things she did on her own, such as the Oscar she won for Kitty Foyle, her appearance alongside Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, and the classic romantic comedies Bachelor Mother and The Major and the Minor. I suspect that if Barrie Chase had hung around a little longer, like Rogers she would have been forever associated with Fred Astaire, but not exclusively so. Barrie Chase did do things on her own. As with other dancer-singers of that era, like Ann-Margaret and Joey Heatherton, she had her own nightclub act. She danced solo on a Hollywood Palace in which Astaire didn't appear. She did a few dramatic roles, most notably, and most credibly, as an unfortunate young woman who is brutally raped by Robert Mitchum in the original 1962 version of Cape Fear. If you prefer to see her in much lighter fare, she's the last surviving credited cast member of...

...this popular 1960s comedy:

Though he was a lot closer to her in age than Astaire, the dance team of Shawn and Chase just never took off.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Flying Solo Edition)



I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have...This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.

-- Michael Collins, who stayed behind on the command module Columbia as fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface of the moon in the lunar lander Eagle. Orbiting the moon all by himself 14 times, Collins was cut off from all communications with Earth for about 45 minutes every time the Columbia entered the natural satellite's renowned dark side. Even when Collins was back in contact with Earth, he was not among the estimated 600 million television viewers who got to see Armstrong and Aldrin traipse about the Sea of Tranquility. Still, he was there to pick the two men up when the Eagle bid adieu to the moon, all three returning safely to Earth. Deke Slayton, at the time the director of Flight Crew Operations, offered to put Collins back into crew rotation afterwards, which probably would have allowed him to walk on the moon himself on the final lunar mission in 1972. But having already been in space twice--he also had been a member of Gemini 10, where he had performed a spacewalk--Collins didn't want yet another long absence from his family that training for such a mission demanded, and so resigned from NASA. In his post-astronaut life, Collins wrote a best-selling autobiography, worked as an assistant secretary for the State Department, was the first director of the National Air and Space Museum, was made a vice-president of an aerospace company, and opened his own consulting firm. Aside from all that, he basically kept out of the spotlight, as he considered  celebrityhood rather silly. Nevertheless, he had his own Twitter account, and, a little more than a week ago, left this tweet: