Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

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Donald Trump

DonaldTrumpBusinessman, author (The Art of the Deal), presidential candidate and television personality Donald Trump’s current status on top of the Republican presidential field of candidates is chiefly another ominous sign that the country is in deep, serious trouble. The nation is in a downward spiral, as I wrote here, and the presidency is a crucial mechanism for pulling out of the dive. The campaign must be serious, deadly serious, because America is in dire straits.

Trump exploits this fact. He knew when he entered the race that this is true—he’s not unintelligent—and to whatever extent he holds principles, he wants to help solve America’s problems and thinks he can. This is his right as an American and I think he makes a partially good point about illegal immigration, tragically underscored by the recent murder of an innocent American by an illegal alien granted sanctuary in San Francisco.

I also think he’s right to question whether Senator John McCain is a war hero. George Washington is a war hero. Sergeant York is a war hero. Audie Murphy is a war hero. Generals Sherman, Grant, Patton and especially MacArthur are war heroes and, as far as I’m concerned, the passengers on United Flight 93 are war heroes. It is true that John McCain was captured and tortured by the enemy, but if John McCain is a war hero, it is to a much lesser degree than these other men. Sen. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, is an elder statesman and leader and it is legitimate to question his leadership.

But what makes a war hero or an illegal immigrant is not as urgent and pressing as the assault on individual rights, America’s precarious welfare statist economy and the fact that the U.S. has a disaster in Iraq and is losing the war with states that sponsor terrorism motivated by Islam, such as Iran. Trump has no serious, tenable positions on the most critical issues of this dark moment in history. To the extent his positions, sense of purpose and reliability are known, he is mixed, anti-capitalist, unserious and unsteady or shaky, the opposite qualities needed for a good or even decent president at this pivotal point. As trader Jonathan Hoenig argues on his blog (read the post here), Trump advocates protectionism and redistribution of wealth; posing as a capitalist, he is a fraud.

America must have a serious and urgent debate of ideas during the 2016 election. Trump offers and brings nothing essential to the arena and should be dismissed as the clown or carnival barker many have said he is. That he’s right from time to time about certain isolated issues—and that this occasional correctness and brash willingness to speak his mind garners fans, attention and prospective voters—underscores the total and utter political-philosophical bankruptcy of the Republican Party, which was founded on the principle of abolishing slavery and has slithered into the party of submission to slavery by default ever since. Until and unless a serious candidate of ideas, or at least one who is not as hostile to man’s rights, emerges, Trump is a sideshow whose spotlight shows how insane American politics has become.

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Lessons from Chattanooga

The night before an Islamic terrorist (pictured) gunned down five enlisted members of the U.S. Navy and Marines in Tennessee, he sent a religious message on “declaring war”, according to Reuters. Yet the government says that the murderer’s motives are still being investigated. This evasion of reality—that America is at war with radicals motivated by religion—is why America is losing the war.

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Chattanooga Police Department

While local, state and federal government police, and their co-conspirators in the press, continue to spend time and money denying what is obvious to most Americans, refusing even to utter the words Islamic or terrorism, Reuters and the New York Times report that they have seen a text message sent by the Islamic terrorist the night before to a friend linking to a passage from the Koran, containing the verse: “Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, I will indeed declare war against him.” The full text is:

Allah the Almighty has said: “Whosoever acts with enmity towards a friend [wali] of Mine, I will indeed declare war against him. Nothing endears My servant to Me than doing of what I have made obligatory upon him to do. And My servant continues to draw nearer to Me with supererogatory [nawafil] prayers so that I shall love him. When I love him, I shall be his hearing with which he shall hear, his sight with which he shall see, his hands with which he shall hold, and his feet with which he shall walk. And if he asks [something] of Me, I shall surely give it to him, and if he takes refuge in Me, I shall certainly grant him it.”

Reuters also reports that the terrorist, returning from a trip to Jordan last year, had purchased three guns online following the visit and used them for target practice. Navy logistics specialist Randall Smith became the latest victim when he died of his wounds in addition to the four Marines who were murdered at the scene of Thursday’s shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The 24-year-old Arab terrorist had posted on his blog urging readers to “submit to Allah”. Yet a spokesman for the FBI said: “It would be premature to speculate on exactly why the [Islamic terrorist] did what he did.” The shooter was heavily armed and wore an ammo vest, according to officials, when he rented a Ford Mustang convertible and drove to two U.S. military centers to carry out the assault. He had been a naturalized U.S. citizen, college student and an active, attendant and observant Moslem at the local Chattanooga mosque.

But the U.S. government failed, once again, despite its claims that indiscriminate mass spying on Americans increases national security, to protect Americans. As in Texas, Massachusetts, the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, New York City, Washington, DC and countless other American places going back decades, the American government failed in both security intelligence and military defense of the nation. This is not to mention every American attacked or murdered by Moslem terrorists from the Marines in Beirut in 1983, Americans in passenger jets, discos, bookstores, cruise ships and minivans or the thousands lost to appeasing rules of engagement that favor the enemy in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere the U.S. military engages the enemy. With the Obama administration pushing its death pact with Islamic enemy Iran, which vows to destroy the West and the U.S., the evidence that America is losing the war is impossible to ignore.

Many historians, scholars and analysts have argued for decades that the jihadist enemy seeks to conquer the U.S. and force Americans to change from a free society to a silent submission to Islam and there is already staggering evidence that this is becoming true, from the way 9/11 has become a day of national mourning with no mention of the cause of the attack to the media’s, government’s and intellectuals’ refusal to name Islam as the ideology that motivates the terrorists to attack. The state of government control being enacted with the NSA, ObamaCare and the TSA propels the inversion of government’s proper role; the more the state does what it shouldn’t do, the less it does what it should do—its highest function is to defend the nation—and the threat of Islamic terrorist attack grows worse and larger with every expansion of government control. The nation is in a downward spiral.

The attack on Chattanooga is a perfect example. More Americans choose to remain silent in the wake of instant vilification of anyone who expresses a viewpoint which diverges from the status quo or they’re afraid of targeted terrorist strikes against individuals who speak out. Among those who do denounce the attack, the proposed solution, especially by conservatives, is arming military members at recruitment centers and giving more military authority to the National Guard. This leads to a greater risk of America becoming a police state. Without the will to name Islam as the enemy’s ideology, all the armed soldiers and police in the United States won’t stop an enemy’s nuclear bomb, not with the nuclear treaty that all but grants Iran the right to make and use the weapons to attack. Increased arms and militarization of police, military recruitment of civilians and the National Guard will hurt, not help, America’s ability to pull out of the spiral.

What helps the United States of America is the pledge of each American to honor fallen, fellow Americans, from Leon Klinghoffer, Daniel Pearl and the passengers of United Flight 93—who said “Let’s roll”—to United States Marines Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire Wells and U.S. Navy logistics specialist Randall Smith (read about them here). Today’s spiral means that every time an Islamic terrorist attacks America, the government denies, dodges or evades that it’s an act of Islamic terrorism, the media equivocates, rationalizes and asks why the terrorist went bad and the loudest intellectuals blame America while politicians on both the left and the right enact new laws that violate individual rights while losing the war with those motivated by Islam.

Pulling out of today’s death spiral for good requires the effort of every decent American and those who cherish Western civilization to learn the lessons of the savage attack in the volunteer state. I say to each American: choose a different course of action, including activism. Defend your life. Shove off the incessant push to rationalize and evade what motivates barbaric attacks by religious soldiers. Never mind the noise about why the Moslem hates America. Concern yourself with what the individual ought to love about America. Reject the false narrative about what radicalizes others. Learn what you ought to know about speaking up to defend yourself and get to it: radicalize thyself.

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Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

MrHolmesPosterLaura Linney and Ian McKellen were the main attraction for an audience at last night’s sold-out screening of director Bill Condon’s new movie about an aging Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Holmes. This hints at the film’s marketing problems. But first let me acknowledge these fine actors, who kindly appeared at ArcLight Cinemas on Hollywood Boulevard to promote Mr. Holmes.

Mr. McKellen, whose career ranges from many Shakespeare roles to parts in the popular X-Men and Lord of the Rings movie series, is a witty old ham. His humor is dry, though not as biting as it is on his PBS series Vicious, and he knows how to relax and enjoy himself, which I think is the source of his appeal. But he knows what to take seriously, too. Telling a tale of an actor’s crippling self-doubt, he deftly conveyed both the challenge of being an actor and the impact of being a critic. The upshot he delivered is a tacit urge to think about the potential impact of one’s criticism or communication before it’s finally rendered.

This is crucial and, in his confession of vulnerability, Mr. McKellen punctuated the point. The openly gay actor also cited James Whale, an openly gay director he portrayed in Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998), as a hero and he answered an intelligent question about his criteria for taking a role. He said it’s solely whether he would want to see the story. Linney, too, answered the same question, though her answer included an additional aspect. Linney, known for playing thoughtful, complicated characters such as Clara in Condon’s Kinsey (2004) and a love interest in the final season of Frasier, said that she reads a script first for story, then examines whether the character as written can even be played. This second point she said comes from the fact that she thinks many of today’s scripts are written not to depict a story with characters but to convince a filmmaker to make the script into a movie, often at the expense of story, character and theme.

Linney is as reserved as one might expect—though it’s hard to be assertive next to the charismatic Ian McKellen—and as thoughtful, too. She knew exactly why she accepted the dowdy housekeeper role in Mr. Holmes, she said: Bill Condon, who directed her in Kinsey, Ian McKellen as her co-star, the subject of Sherlock Holmes—Linney says she’s been a “fanatic” of the character since she was a child—and an opportunity to shoot in England. Her story of overcoming self-doubt was the evening’s most powerful moment. She talked of attending acting school at Julliard and, after feeling inadequate and fearing failure, wanting to drop out. An instructor took note of her decision and, choosing to physically remove her from the parts of the school with which she was most familiar, he told her to snap out of it, essentially instructing her that the purpose of an education is to learn from failure, which, in turn, seeds success.

Unfortunately, Mr. Holmes, despite the cast’s efforts, is not a success.

With revolving subplots, starring Mr. McKellen as Sherlock Holmes toward the end of his life, this is neither a leisurely stroll through his legendary past, as one might have reason to expect, nor an intellectual odyssey accounting for an unsolved or bungled case. Yet both are implied in the premise of Mr. Holmes, which seeks to cash in on what draws the audience to Sherlock Holmes: his use of reason. This is why he’s enduringly popular in Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant portrayal for PBS and gets an audience even in awful movies such as Robert Downey, Jr.‘s recent Sherlock Holmes fare.

Condon, a filmmaker with a penchant for odd and unusual figures, such as James Whale and Alfred Kinsey, diminishes the faculty of reason, choosing to emphasize instead the flaws, mistakes and failures of Sherlock Holmes. All of this robs the movie of suspense and drama. Not only is seeing the hero’s feet of clay, or, in this case, wrinkles and sour expressions, utterly boring, it is also terribly predictable. The two major plot points, including the climax, can be seen an English countryside away and this is irredeemable, especially in a movie about Sherlock Holmes. Certainly, Mr. Holmes has the attention to detail and he is adept at being rational. He sees the smallest point as part of a larger pattern when warranted and is able to discern the essentials. But Condon, basing his movie on a book, portrays his deteriorating mind in senility or memory loss, leading to endless speculation about a particular past case involving a husband, a wife and a mystic.

In the bleak resolution, which culminates with a climax of his relationship with an intelligent and precociously fatherless boy (Milo Parker) and the keeping of bees, Sherlock Holmes emerges as pained, guilt-ridden and miserable. After declaring that he’s “never had much use for imagination” and proclaiming a false dichotomy between fact and fiction reflecting a total distortion of how to use both—later contradicting himself—he finally purges his self-loathing with an admission that he’s consumed by fear and, that he’s “selfish” (gasp!) which sadly he’s never portrayed to be in this dull, dreary movie. Mr. Holmes concludes with Sherlock Holmes on his knees, brought entirely and literally down to earth, the opposite of his upright posture in the movie’s poster and how he arguably ought to be seen. That he succumbs to the sin of writing fiction in order to tell lies that spare someone’s feelings completes the inversion. This is Sherlock Holmes having been in the wrong. This is Sherlock as ultimately undone.

Some might protest that he’s redeemed by being somewhat “humanized” for once, with human, again, meaning weak, fragile, puny and insignificant and that he’s right in a final analysis. But he’s not right about what truly matters, he’s only right about a fact that bears no practical relation to anyone’s interests and this comes after considerable damage is done, even on Mr. Holmes‘ terms. None of this is the fault of Laura Linney, who as Mrs. Munro the widowed housekeeper and mother to the boy is excellent, or Ian McKellen, who, as usual, is supremely watchable in everything he says and does on screen. Their characters’ relationship is the best part of the ineffectual Mr. Holmes, which contains subtexts and half-formed elements that might have made an interesting whole.

I suspect that the lead actors did Bill Condon, whose Dreamgirls is similarly flat but brighter, a favor by appearing in Hollywood to promote the movie. I wanted to like it and I’m glad to be the beneficiary of their goodwill. Their thoughts are more enlightened than the ill-conceived Mr. Holmes.

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Movie Review: The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

SophieTuckerPosteWith commentary by Barbara Walters, among others, including Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein and the late Mickey Rooney, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker diligently retraces her career in cleverly pictured (and occasionally animated) scrapbook clippings and interviews to rediscover an influential American performer.

Sophie Tucker, in case you haven’t heard of her, was a fat, Jewish singer, actress and comedienne, as the co-producers affectionately describe her in this 2014 documentary, scheduled for theatrical release next week. After her parents came from the Ukraine to America in 1886 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they opened a kosher restaurant, Sophie was dispatched to hustle predominantly Jewish actors at a local theater’s stage door into patronizing the restaurant. It’s in this endeavor that Sophie, raised as an orthodox Jew, apparently became hooked on burlesque or Vaudeville—brash and unsophisticated—a type of live theater experience popular through the 1930s.

Without sugarcoating her early career, when Tucker did blackface on stage as a “coon shouter”, a term which Michael Feinstein thoughtfully puts into context, the filmmakers make it clear that this bawdy woman earned her reputation as a pathbreaking performer who legitimized this type of broad humor. Paving the way for Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester and Cher, not to discredit Mae West and other bossy dames of the day, Sophie Tucker, who took her name from one of three ex-husbands, broke big first in Ziegfeld’s Follies. She worked with an unknown Irving Berlin and other legendary musical and comedy acts. William Morris, whom she met before he was the owner of the famous artist agency when he was still known as a theater owner, represented her for 60 years.

Sophie Tucker was a star.

As The Outrageous Sophie Tucker demonstrates, her singing technique involved calculated hesitation and Feinstein points out that in developing her distinctive vocal style, Tucker rarely gets the credit she deserves, which usually goes to black singers such as Bessie Smith. Tony Bennett (Amy) calls her the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived. Part of what makes her worth examining as a mainstream, popular performer is her endurance. Like Bob Hope, she succeeded in a variety of show formats.

The movie sheds light on the reasons. During Prohibition, for example, she allied with criminal mobs to play in their now-illegal clubs, she was pals with Al Capone—she was pals with J. Edgar Hoover, too—and she didn’t seem ashamed to be arrested in Portland, Oregon for a show in which she implied that women crave sex as much as men. In fact, she started commissioning songs about sex after the arrest and she crowned herself the headmistress of the school of “red hot mamas” that could teach girls about sex.

Several scrapbook items and interviews show her shrewd use of publicity and knack for salesmanship. As early as 1909, Tucker took out ads in newspapers saying Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings to her fans, which was unheard of, in a kind of pre-social media grasp of the long-term value of relationship building with a fan base. She earned (and hustled herself into) numerous endorsements, was asked by Warner Bros. to be the first female lead to make a talking motion picture and kept company with her co-stars and peers such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Robert Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Carol Channing and Danny Kaye, each of whom is interviewed or chronicled here. The woman, who worked rhyming into her routines with banter, including her television debut in 1951 on Jimmy Durante’s show, was like a constantly running motor.

Sophie had standards. She didn’t like TV’s censors, for instance, though she liked doing Ed Sullivan’s show. Even this late in her career, Sophie Tucker appeared at ease integrating business with the show, timing her bi-annual appearances on Ed Sullivan with revamped routines to foster demand for her stage act. More than outrageousness, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows her business savvy as the key to her sustained popularity throughout her 60-year career. She knew what people expected from, and liked about, her and she knew her limitations.

Along the way, she played poker, gin and pinochle—her father had sneaked young Sophie out for gambling as a girl—dabbling in solitaire to calm her nerves, according to scholar Jan Lewis, PhD. Sophie’s three husbands, a man named Tuck, Frank Westphal and Al Lackey, are covered as is her only child, Bert, whom she showered with gifts including the failed Robert E. Lee hotel in Miami, which finally seemed to disabuse her of the delusion that he could make something of his life. Also featured is her longtime pianist, Ted Shapiro, who was loyal to the end. The movie suggests that she later held exclusively gay relationships such as an intimate relationship with a doctor named Margaret Chung.

Whatever personal details, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows that Tucker’s professional legacy is strong and lasting. Sophie Tucker appears on the cover of Ebony with Josephine Baker, whom she introduced at a Miami nightclub following racist death threats. American soldiers entering Nazi Berlin defiantly played her song about a “Yiddishe Momme” as a triumphant tribute to a fallen American Jewish soldier who loved and played her records. Perhaps the best measure of what makes Sophie Tucker outrageous is that Judy Garland said Sophie, with whom Garland co-starred in Broadway Melody of 1938, taught her “how to put a song over”. This 90-minute documentary, which is endearing by today’s depraved standards, demonstrates how Sophie Tucker taught herself and Americans how to put brassy over without going over the top.

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