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The Pope Proposes to Hollywood

The Pope has reportedly proposed a merger with Hollywood.

According to an industry trade publication report, Pope Francis wrote to top movie industry players and pitched a conference on influencing movies, television and show business to spread faith, religion and positive views of the Catholic Church. The proposed meeting, which the Pope apparently wants to include a powerful agent with connections to the Obama administration, would convene at the Vatican this fall.

Among those apparently on the invitation list are the brother of Chicago Mayor and ex-Clinton and Obama staffer Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel, and his co-CEO at William Morris Endeavor, Patrick Whitesell, producer Brian Grazer (Inside Deep Throat), Oprah Winfrey (Selma), Matt Damon (Hereafter) and industry titan David Geffen. Pope Francis seeks to discuss “how the church is perceived by Western media influencers and ways to improve its portrayal in entertainment” according to the report, which also notes that the Vatican is apparently working with the nonprofit Varkey Foundation, a charity launched by Bill Clinton with ties to UNICEF, Oxfam, an Arab state, Amnesty International, the Clinton Global Initiative (Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s troubled charity) and something called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

It’s bad enough that Big Government is expanding its pernicious influence and intervention in Hollywood, as I wrote when Mrs. Obama intruded upon the Oscars, and the mixture of Hollywood, faith and religion is not new, but an official convergence of faith, religion and state with leaders of the entertainment industry is truly a putrid notion to any respectable artist, studio or legitimate show business. Whatever the merits of their work and whatever their leftist-collectivist-altruist political philosophy, these titans of one of America’s greatest industries, with its dismal record of standing for individual rights including the freedom of speech unmolested by the state—especially a religious state—ought to break free from its track record and reject this proposal in the strongest possible terms.

Pushing faith, religion and their strong influence on statism into movies, TV, publishing and music is an abomination which calls to mind Clinton’s proposed V-chip, the Moral Majority, Tipper Gore and the endless campaign of puritanical fascists such as feminist Gloria Steinem and traditionalist Phyllis Schlafly to impose the equivalent of speech codes, censorship—and today’s insidious version, a ban on “hate speech”—on everything Americans see, watch, read and listen to. Better artists and show business industrialists than this bunch ought to speak out against the Pope’s proposal. Bad ideas silently sanctioned by the worst purveyors of sludge and mediocrity can infect the rest of Hollywood. Having Winfrey, Geffen and Grazer bow before whatever robed mystic runs the Vatican this fall may pre-determine—and contaminate—what you read, watch and consume next fall and far into the future.

Everyone decent in Hollywood (and the West), whatever his personal beliefs, should defend the principle of free expression and urge Hollywood to reject the Pope’s proposal to influence and propagandize the movie industry. In other words, speak up for freedom and turn the Pope down.

Revisiting ‘Brokeback Mountain’

To mark this year’s 10th anniversary since the release of Focus Features’ Brokeback Mountain (2005), I’ve added three articles I wrote about the movie.

brokebackmountain_posterThe first, a column on the tragic 2008 death of leading actor Heath Ledger, was written before the release of The Dark Knight (read the review—my first blog post on July 20, 2008—here). I have nothing to add to the commentary, which I wrote for a movie Web site and titled Heath Ledger Dies. The second is an interview I conducted in 2006 with an executive at the movie studio which I called Selling Brokeback Mountain. I think this freewheeling exchange is interesting for several reasons. The piece is a frank discussion about how to market a motion picture. I decided to seek the interview with Jack Foley after seeing the film. I sensed that director Ang Lee’s movie was a seminal film with potential to make money, however, I knew from my experience and observation attending the press screening that persuading theaters and moviegoers to schedule and see the film would be a challenge. Foley gave me a short, whirlwind interview which I think evokes the unique enthusiasm surrounding the movie. Third, I’ve included my original movie review of Brokeback Mountain with added home video notes on two separate editions.

I have seen it a few times—I asked the studio for two separate pre-release screenings before I wrote my review and published it, which was the first time I’d done that, as a safeguard against predisposition or bias given the unprecedented hype and ridicule in advance of the December 9, 2005 release—and I will probably watch it again before the 10th anniversary. I’ve also read the original magazine short story by Annie Proulx, which, like True Grit, Shane and Red River, is a short work of psychologically tense Western-themed fiction that elicits a distinctive movie adaptation. Much will probably be said and written this year. Readers and viewers will judge Brokeback Mountain and should. I think of it now as a tale of a loner born too soon, similar to how I regard American Sniper. Like that fine movie, I remember Brokeback Mountain as the year’s best picture, a tragic and haunting movie about the cost of living for others and the lonely, modern struggle to live for oneself.


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, the anti-intellectual Trump is a sideshow whose spotlight shows how corrupt, cynical and insane American politics has become.

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.

Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.

The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.

Buy On the Waterfront