Friday, July 1, 2022

A Male Sex Worker at His Best


Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
    It's rare indeed that a movie delves into the sexual fantasies of a menopausal woman, particularly one who has committed to a bland sex life throughout her marriage and waits until her husband is safely dead to try to discover what all the fuss was about. As Nancy Stokes, retired Sex Ed teacher at a conservative Roman Catholic girls' school, the versatile and astonishing Emma Thompson reveals her considerable chops as an actress and pushes the boundaries of the long-ignored longings of women. In Daryl McCormack, as the smooth, biracial male prostitute, she has met her match as a performer and as the character he is portraying.    
    The promotion of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande seems to suggest it is something of a romantic comedy, which is definitely isn't. There are awkward laughs, yes, and two interesting, flawed people working their way from what might be considered flirtation through insights for both, but it is neither lightweight nor amusing, except for certain moments. Thompson starts out like a fluttery, conflicted virgin, wrestling her lifelong concepts about sex being dirty but pleasurable for some, and definitely resisting the notion that in order to experience what she says she wants, she must surrender all the baggage she brought to the party. As her partner, Daryl McCormack is preternaturally patient, kind, and somewhat bemused by the challenge of awakening his new client. I went from being attracted to him and embarrassed for her to half-hoping he might break through her psychological coldness and provide her with the experience she was asking for.
    I felt it was a rather long road getting there. We see Nancy awaken to his physical attraction when he takes his shirt off for her, and we see how difficult it is for her to allow that attraction to take her anywhere. We listen to the banter between them, and see that she finds more than his body appealing. He is always professional and we admire his work ethic, such as it is. She crosses a line that almost breaks both of them, yet we are given an interesting twist-ending that leaves us with a lot of food for thought. 
    I thought it was a little strange that one of Nancy's early questions to Leo is "Are you Irish?" and that his answer is simply yes. McCormack's Irishness is hardly something that one notices first. Also, I was a bit bothered that as a sex worker he was not adept at the kind of paraphernalia mandatory with menopausal women--that she was going to have sex was known from the first scene but it is treated as if she were a nubile 18-year-old perfectly moist for any encounter. I know it was a fairy tale, but it had the pretense of being realistic, so I'll just state here that it would have made more sense if a frame or two had dealt with the elephant in the room. It is true that a woman in her sixties can enjoy sex--but she needs a boost from a few simple over-the-counter items. The film presents elder sex as pretty much the same as full-on hormone-rich sex of people in their reproductive prime. It isn't. It can be good, but it is different--no big deal, of course, but why ignore the fact? I also was shocked when Leo asked her outright if she's had an orgasm. No woman wants to answer that one and as experienced a pro as he is, he wouldn't ask.
    The movie is streaming on hulu. I recommend it. I know it would be educational for men, but I think this one could be a real eye-opener for women. It's about feelings, but not the feelings we are accustomed to seeing onscreen. And it introduces an exciting young actor at the outset of his career, surely capable of rising to major stardom.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Woman Is the Center of the Multiverse


                                            Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan

 Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is a domestic drama-comedy that will knock your socks off even if you're not wearing socks. Be prepared to surrender before you enter.

We meet a struggling immigrant Chinese family trying to run a mega laundromat, with a hapless husband/father waving divorce papers around in order to get his wife's attention. Once you get the drift of the plot, you are swept up in a reality you couldn't anticipate. It turns out the frustrated wife and mother (Michelle Yeoh) is the center of the multiverse, governed (I think) by a team from the megaverse who need to force her to change her world once and for all. First she must face her own superpowers and confront her inner conflicts and own her magic.

To call this movie unique is such an understatement that it defies its own definition. Even to call it a movie is an understatement. It is an experience. Okay, it's done with camera tricks, Kung Fu, and the pushing of magic buttons, but each flash of insight challenges and entertains the audience. In the process, the aforementioned hapless husband Waymond is transformed into a messenger from the megaverse--and a Jackie Chan martial arts master--and Evelyn, the wife, gets flashes from her past comparable to those entertained by Ebenezer Scrooge in the fable from another universe. Their daughter Joy is transformed into some kind of Hollywood spirit guide who has all the answers (beginning with "Nothing matters.") but doesn't seem to like the questions. There is Evelyn's haunting quest ("Where is my Joy?") and a score of bizarre family members and peripheral characters following each other around with weapons of mass destruction, and the constant refrain of Evelyn's magnificence from awards ceremonies and performances. 

I never said it was going to be easy, but the trip is full of laughs and wonder. I began to wish I could remember where my old evening gowns were. I began to fall in love with Waymond, who we saw in full potential as a confident millionaire as well as his default position of lost loser. Jamie Lee Curtis has a great time as the most vulnerable villain in recent memory. Through it all I was surrounded in the live theater (and I recommend you see it in a theater, surrounded by live people) who gasped, chortled, and laughed spontaneously as the scenes unfolded before us all. There were moments when the movie tried to conclude and we all felt, "Okay, that's enough," and then picked up again to give us yet another twenty minutes, almost ad infinitum. But there was an exhilaration about it all. I came away having found my joy!



Sunday, April 3, 2022

A Man Who Slaps

Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock


 It was a night to celebrate--Hollywood was geared to party, and inaugurate a time of rare inclusion--more first-rate films about subjects not handled before, more diversity in casting, more openness, no masks, a spirit of optimism was in the air. The event was founded as a way to build business for the movies, back in the last century, at a time when the country was facing economic hardships and the motion picture industry itself needed a boost. Over the years, the Academy Awards ceremonies have done just that--made Hollywood happy about itself, and made moviegoers feel like going to the movies. Recent years the awards and the ceremony itself have been less successful at both goals.

But Sunday night started off happily. Comedians ribbed the actors; the actors, in their designer clothes, laughed gamely and awaited the announcement of their own moments to shine.

Until they didn't. Chris Rock, an affable insult comic of the very mild, tongue-in-cheek variety, saw two of his favorite targets in the audience--Will Smith and  his beautiful wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Both movie stars and old acquaintances of his. Jada was sporting a new look--a shiny shaved head, which on her admittedly looked very good. "Jada?" Rock said, on the stage, on national and international television. "I look forward to GI Jane 2!" Jada and Will both chuckled slightly and awaited a change of subject. But Jada's smile faded fast and she rolled her eyes heavenward and her face went serious. Will was still smiling when he caught that slight shadow on his wife's face. 

Here's where accounts of the evening differ. Almost everybody--and don't forget the world was watching--saw Will Smith bound from his seat and stride down the stage to face Chris Rock. Rock saw it too, and thought Will was going to make a joke until he saw the fury in Smith's face. Suddenly Will Smith slapped Chris Rock with some force, and a befuddled Rock looked a little scared and totally confused.  He announced to the audience, "Will Smith just slapped the shit outta me!"

When he got back to his seat, Chris Rock said, "Dude, it was a GI JANE joke!" and Will Smith, now seated, yelled at the stage, "Leave my wife's name outcha fucking mouth! I spell it phonetically, because that's the way he pronounced it. Then, in case somebody might have missed it the first time, he yelled the same line again.

All this would suggest that Rock had said something equally profane about Jada Pinkett Smith. Or that she was a fragile flower reduced to tears at the mere suggestion that somebody had noticed she had a bald head. The fact that she had shaved her head as a condition called alopecia was causing her to lose hair was something she had given details about on a podcast she manages. Whether or not Chris Rock knew about this has not yet been addressed, but the fact that she carries the bald pate with grace and elegance cannot be denied by anyone, especially not a comedian looking for someone to lob softballs at. Will Smith was enraged far beyond the provocation, and people who don't like his wife suggest somehow she put him up  to the macho display to defend her honor. It cast a pall over the room and the heretofore happy audience went silent. Will Smith was sweating and weeping, and several high-potency friends like Denzel Washington and Bradley Cooper rushed to his side to try to help him calm down. Chris Rock maintained as much composure as he could muster and continued with his introduction to the next Oscar winner, but it must be said that after that moment the air had drained from the balloon of optimism and joy. 

Will Smith was asked to leave the building but refused. He wanted to get the Oscar he was sure would be his, and so he did. His acceptance speech was embarrassing. Here was a man in crisis and it was hard to sympathize as he talked about God's plan for him and his love for so many people. He was still crying. He apologized to the Academy but not to Chris Rock. It was a low point for this gifted actor and a devastating awards ceremony for everybody. 

If I could rewrite what happened after the slap, the scenario would be this: Will Smith is escorted off the premises, after whispering to Jada "Honey, if I win the Oscar, accept it for me and apologize to everybody.." Later, he is announced as the winner of Best Actor, and Jada takes the stage. She says, "I am accepting this for my husband, who is not here..." (Uncomfortable laughter in the audience.) "Before he left Will asked me to thank you all and everybody who made this moment possible...and apologize to the  Academy for the scene he caused at this prestigious event..." long applause from a relieved crowd. "And I want to apologize to Chris from myself and my husband for our inability to take a joke."  

If only. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a Womanly Woman in a Man's World


                                                           Andrew Garfieid and Jessica Chastain


I didn't expect a biopic of Tammy Faye Bakker, powerhouse Charismatic Christian woman who was the subject of caricatures and comedy of the 1970s and 80s, to be so entertaining--much less so illuminating. Her addiction to garish makeup and tacky-expensive clothes made her a difficult human being to take seriously, but somehow this new movie, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, manages to do that--and engage the audience with sympathy, empathy, and, of course a trace of outrage.

We learn, first off, of humble origins, but that was no surprise. As a child, this Tammy Faye (played by Jessica Chastain, who has never been better) was trapped in a poor family, but more importantly, a religious one. Her mother looked on her as a source of shame, since she was a child of divorce and the hardshell religion had expelled her from services until she was needed as a pianist. The cold mother, portrayed by Cherry Jones, rejects the daughter and wants her out of sight while she provides music for the emotional congregation. Young Tammy Faye, almost literally with her nose to the glass window of the church, will not be daunted, and attends a revival-type meeting where she is immediately saved and falls to the floor, speaking in tongues. 

Grown up, Tammy gets herself to a Bible College where she meets a floundering young would-be preacher named Jim Bakker and they immediately fall in love and get married because in their minds, God wants them to have sex. They start an itinerant ministry with Tammy's inspiration of using puppets to spread Christianity to children. Jim buys a big car, falls behind on the payments, and through this initial situation, we see the beginning of the pattern that will take them to the highest heights either of them could imagine. Tammy Faye has the creativity, charm, and common sense to sell them as a couple--and Jim is the impractical, greedy partner, who hopes to tame her spirit enough to find the fame and fortune he believes God has promised him.

When broke, they fall on their knees as ask God to intervene. A stranger appears who has seen their puppet presentation on a local Christian TV channel and offers to introduce them to Pat Robertson, who is looking for new talent for his budding Christian television enterprise. From there the only way they go is up, with Tammy Faye attracting the audience while Jim plays the carnival barker for Christ. It's an unsavory story at best. In real time I admit I paid little attention to it--but in the film, which sees Tammy Faye as wise and dopey at the same time, always deferring to Jim, it becomes a cautionary tale I should not have ignored. Even when Jim asks her to bare her soul on TV--the donations always pour in when she does this--she obeys and ends up weeping profusely at her humiliation.

The Bakkers build an empire (a television empire anyway) by asking for donations to one scam or another, and invite the envy and scorn of other powerful "televangelists." Ronald Reagan congratulates them for their "charitable" work. All the while they are living beyond their means, Jim is avoiding Tammy Faye in the bedroom and blaming her, of course, and she is at sea in a world where her talents are not appreciated. Jim takes credit for being holier, which he is not, and is clear to everybody else.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn't have much to do with her eyes, but lets the audience in on the underpinnings of the political power of the Evangelical movement and how conscious its leaders were of what they were doing at the outset. It is hilarious at times, slightly serious at others, and a most valuable movie to see.  Its larger-than-life characters, settings, costumes and makeup make it better on the big screen, so go to a cinema palace for this one. But don't miss it.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

THE BLUE GARDENIA: Women Are Not Much Like Men

In many ways The Blue Gardenia looks like a typical American film of the 1950's, three young women room who work as telephone operators share an apartment in Hollywood, one of them obsessed with her fiance´ who is serving in Korea. They are supposed to be in their early 20s, but look to be in their mid-30s. They wear cocktail dresses on dates, wisecrack with each other, and don't take their lives a bit seriously, apparently each expecting better things when the right man takes them away from all this. 

Ann Sothern and Jeff Donnell fit right into this picture, with Sothern being the slightly-older and far wiser of the three. The story kicks off when Anne Baxter, more upscale and decidedly less worldly-wise, gets a Dear Jane letter from her serviceman and is devastated. Alone, she is despondent and desperate, when the phone rings. The caller is a wolf-about-town (unknown to Baxter) who, thinking he has Ann Sothern character on the phone, invites her to join him at The Blue Gardenia for dinner. Baxter dons her glad rags, in this case a glamorous black taffeta dress and even a hat, and takes herself to the Polynesian watering hole to drown her sorrows. Raymond Burr is the suave roue´ who cannot believe his luck. He sees to it that the young beauty downs the requisite number of tropical cocktails with her meal and takes her to his apartment where he proceeds to keep the drinks coming. What follows is a harrowing scene that, although it predates "Me Too" by about 50 years, gives a pretty clear picture of coming events.

When the Raymond Burr character winds up murdered by a fireplace-poker, and Baxter has blacked out all memory of the evening, the film becomes a mystery with no solution in sight. Richard Conte, playing a newspaper columnist hot on the story, falls hard for lost little lamb (or is she?). Conte was a fine actor who went unheralded in his lifetime.

The Blue Gardenia fits into the category of film noir because it's a "B" picture in black and white in the right time frame. I see it as a "woman's" picture however. I looked through the IMDb viewer reviews and found a pithy one submitted by "Judith 333" which summed up my own response better than I could have. Judith called it a masterpiece and said, "I am surprised that so many people who review it here seem not to grasp it. They complain about lack of suspense because it doesn't use hackneyed noir film devices, but the film is not about that. It's about Anne Baxter, the world through her point of view. Her life is a beautiful dream of hopes of love and happiness for the future, which turns into a horrible nightmare that spirals downward with sickening realism and pathos. Snappy characters throughout, but they are not "wasted", miscast or otherwise ill-used. They are perfectly balanced in a skilled script that is not about actors chewing the scenery, but is a real film, an art film, by the master Fritz Lang, whose every decision in creating this film up to the smallest detail seems to me to be highly intentional. Highly recommended."

Judith 333 was surprised that so many people reviewing it seemed not to grasp it. I myself am not surprised. Most movie reviewers--even amateur ones--are men. I'm not saying all men are wrong all the time, but they see everything differently than women do.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Novel I Wrote

I grew up in Utopia, in a simpler time  


A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend who is a poet and a teacher of literature and writing. I found myself telling him about the novel I wrote--and self-published--and lamented that I should have held it longer and done more rewrites before releasing it. I found I was embarrassed that it wasn't a better book. 

My novel, That Was Tomorrow, was set in my hometown in Alabama. Its protagonist was a young teacher, and I based her on what I knew about a real person who had moved to the town in 1920 to learn from the visionary teacher Marietta Johnson, who ran a school to demonstrate her theories of educating the whole child. I had a heavy mission in writing this work; I wanted to realize the power and charm of Mrs. Johnson herself, and to capture the essence of the Utopian community in which she lived, and bring them all to life. I knew much of myself would work its way onto the pages in the character of the young teacher--although I have never been a teacher, and only know second-hand what it was like to be young in the 1920s. There was fairly good response to the book, but sadly, historical novels do not sell, and even in a town that is quite infatuated with itself, there is little interest in learning what it was at its creation. In short, there was little market for my book, even had it been the brain child of a famous and successful novelist, much less a little-known local would-be writer.

I had also set a high bar for myself in the writing. I wanted to capture the style of writers of the day. I was, you might say, going for the tone of Edith Wharton. I didn't know the basics of novel writing, even that the omniscient narrator is no long acceptable. I did work with an editor who helped me in shaping it, and her best advice when I considered it finished was to leave it six months and then do a rewrite. But I didn't. I've been over my mistakes many times, and the clearest one was that if I had done that, I would not be ambivalent about the product. 

But I haven't reread the book in years, and something told me to pick it up today. I was looking for a certain chapter about a picnic on the beach. However, the book opened itself to an earlier page, and this is what I found, in the chapter when the heroine, Amelia, is a five-year-old child being taught by a cruel and sanctimonious nanny: 

                "Amelia learned to keep her fears hidden. The surface of serenity concealed that in her heart, there was a fear of almost everything."

                I was struck, reading that some nine years after I wrote it, that it was more me than I'd ever thought at the time--and that it was good. Maybe I was a better writer than I knew. More from the same section:

"Miss Pritchart imposed her doctrine of original sin on the child. It was her contention, and that of many childhood educators of her day, that children would do anything to outwit the adults in charge of them, and that the devil lurked near them at all times to lead them into sins of misbehavior and ultimately seduce them into lives of debauchery. Only by constantly relating to a child what was wrong and impressing upon him how deficient he was could an adult gain the proper respect of a child and get him to focus on work, the most important facet of his young life...

"When left alone in her room, Amelia closed the door and talked with Nicodemus [her stuffed bear], creating extremely passionate scenarios for her little friend. In these dramas he was in grave danger of being tortured by giants who sought to do him tremendous harm. He fell off cliffs simulated by the old highboy in the corner of her room; he was trapped in dark caves occupied by bats and frightening flying things; he was tortured by a wicked witch who threatened him with the fires of hell. All the while, the stoic soft stuffed toy stared with his shoe-button eyes at Amelia, the one kind heart in his stuffed-animal life. He could take anything, knowing she would come to his rescue and hug him until he fell asleep every night. Amelia had no one to do the same for her."

See what the author did there? The toy becomes as complex and lovable (and loving) as any human being, and he is transformed simply through the little girl's imagination. The last sentence smacks of the voice of an omniscient narrator--but let's just say the writer didn't know that omniscient narrators are no longer acceptable. I think it works. 

Of course the book takes Amelia into adulthood, and out of that stifling home into a larger world where she finds interesting and challenging people. She never quite gets over the damage done by Miss Pritchart, but she finds romance, friendship, and a magical utopian community where she will gain the strength to take charge of her own life. This little fragment is just a taste of the novel I wrote, and I rather like it. I hope you might too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Finding Myself in the Movies

La Strada
The Seventh Seal

Annie Hall

 I grew up watching movies. I was influenced by so many of them--from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind, Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Cyrano de Bergerac, and even Anchors Aweigh when I was about five and watched with fascination as Gene Kelly danced with Jerry the Mouse. My interest only grew as I grew up and saw movies that were designed to do more than entertain. Looking back, I can think of many that literally changed my attitude toward life.

Ninotchka was my introduction to the phenomenon that was Greta Garbo. I knew about her, of course. She was the subject of jokes and parodies throughout the 1940s, following her iconization as the queen of cinema for being distant and inaccessible. I had heard she was great, but when I saw this one I was astonished at her acting ability. I was a student actor at that time, sincerely hoping for success onstage and in films, so when the local arts society offered a look at this movie I attended happily and with great anticipation. I was not disappointed; Garbo showed great ability in creating a real, amusing character, and, although later I was to see many of her earlier films in which she was more than beautiful--she was always luminous, graceful and somehow the essence of femininity. In Ninotcha she was bold, playing a cold Russian leader whose life is opened up on a trip to Paris. I had seen Melvyn Douglas before, but not as he was here, dashing, sexy, and totally smitten by the Soviet creature Miss Garbo portrayed. Her scene drinking her first sip of champagne was like a master class in acting, and her playful approach to the serious nature of her character was a delight. This one made me want to be that kind of an actress--determined, wise, and full of wondrous surprises.

Fast forward a few years, when I was a young wife living in New Orleans with a sweet young husband who was a full-fledged cineaste. Tommy was also from a small town in Alabama, and he had spent his life escaping from a smothering life by going to the movies. He'd graduated from Tulane, and wiled away many hours going to movie after movie. If a movie was bad he'd go to the theater next door to see if what they were offering would "get the bad taste out." He took me to La Strada, a tale that I suspect might make any young wife question her choice of mate, but one that made me weep openly and relentlessly. I had seen Lili years before, and Leslie Caron was my idea of an innocent attracted to the circus. I had identified with Lili--but Giulietta Massini as Gelsomina knocked me off my pins. Anthony Quinn, the heartless strongman who bought Gelsomina from her mother for $10 (or maybe it was ten lira, which would be about a dollar, I guess), denied her her humanity as she charmed his audiences and did his bidding. Richard Basehart was never better than in this part--the whimsical tightrope walker who tried to advise her. All this hit me very hard at the time and I've never stopped thinking about this movie. It colored my thinking about everything. I've seen the movie several times since and even went to a costume party as Gelsomina a few years ago--only to learn that few people had seen the movie or had any idea what my costume and makeup was.

The Seventh Seal was a movie I saw in the same time period. I have never seen it again, but it was unforgettable--stark and symbolic--and unlike all other movies I'd ever seen. I remember the chess game with DEATH, and the traveling circus (I do love to see a traveling circus in a movie). I have this one recorded and shall watch again when the mood arises. I remember it as dark, bleak, and beautiful--but challenging. I'm seldom in that mood these days.

Two marriages later I was still in my 30s, and a film called Annie Hall came along. I was dating the man I would marry next, and this romantic comedy elevated the genre, probably more than its star and creator Woody Allen ever realized. It was sophisticated, clever, full of topical jokes and tender emotions, and featured a young actress named Diane Keaton in a role she was born to play. She introduced a style of dress that many of us tried to emulate--but I couldn't quite pull it off--and she had an offhand approach to this part that was unique and the character she created was indelible. There was an element of mutual joy in the script. Woody and Diane were forever caught in time in the film, although their own love affair was in the past and they were just friends enjoying a romp when they made it. Its effect on me was to cement the love I had for my upcoming husband, even though it could have been deceptive. He and I both loved the movie, and there's no doubt the movie itself was a factor in our romance; however, as I was to learn, he was not really a fan of almost-all movies. I was.

In the 1990s, I had relocated to my hometown in Alabama, had a new best girl friend, and was reviving contacts with people from my past. The movie Passion Fish, a gentle heartbreaker, captured the sense of place, time and circumstances, and still resonates with me. I'm not sure it changed my life but it helped me examine what I was going through. Like Mary McDonnell in the film, I had once performed in soap operas, (but for me, only as an extra) and was retiring, in a way from the larger world, while confronting the ghosts that surrounded me. The McDonnell character had one of those impossible Southern double-first names, as I do, and she was cantankerous and profane, as I can sometimes be. She has lost the use of her legs in a NY taxi accident and is having to reevaluate her life when the wondrous Alfre Woodward comes in to help. In the complex story, McDonnell meets up with a man who, years ago, had a crush on her but was too shy to approach her. As played by David Strathairn, he warms her heart (and won mine completely). My new friend said, "Mary Lois, is it just me, or did he somehow get better looking?" and indeed he had by the time of the dream sequence. I won't reveal any more spoilers here; this is a John Sayles beauty that should be seen, and seen again. It validated so much of my life that had gone unexamined and touched my heart in a special way.

The documentary Searching for the Sugar Man was a film I saw about six years ago, once I had moved to my new digs in upstate New York, at the Rosendale Theatre. It was a powerful story about an extraordinary singer who lived like none other. It is breathtaking to watch--entertaining, educational, spiritual, and delightful in every way. One way it changed my life was that I reacted to it exactly like my friend John Wackman did, and we began a bond that will literally never die. Scroll down this blog to see who John was, if you don't know, and if you can get your hands on it, see the movie.

I was going to title this post "Movies That Changed My Life." But that would have required more space, more time, and more motivation that I have just now. Movies themselves change my life and I'm never sure I can see the ways or accept that it was a movie that did it. I wouldn't say every movie changes my life, but I experience some of them down to my toes and never forget them. These are a few examples.