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Remembering Patty Duke

In the beginning of the 1960s, a child actress took the stage, screen and television ratings with remarkable creative and commercial success. Her name was Patty Duke. Sadly, the Academy Award-winning actress, pop singer and TV star of her own show died this week, apparently of sepsis. She was 69.

Courtesy of UPI

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker/Courtesy of UPI

The life she lived before her unforgettable and groundbreaking performance as Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was one of turbulence, alcoholism, depression, sexual assault and despair, a stream of child abuse which was a secret until the 1980s. The life she lived after her initial popularity and success carried a high price, too.

I think I first saw Patty Duke on a television game show. It was a 1970s CBS afternoon series titled Tattletales, a forerunner to today’s sordid and self-contradictory reality TV genre (in which nothing, in fact, is as it seems) and she would appear with other so-called celebrity couples with her then-husband, actor John Astin (The Addams Family). In retrospect, it was a flawed premise—it was maudlin—which was often uncomfortable and there is a sense in which Patty Duke, who was born as Anna Marie Duke and constantly struggled with her identity and self-esteem, became somewhat of an early reality TV star.

In fact, in a relevant prelude, Patty Duke had already been implicated in a TV scandal. She had admitted that, as a child star, she’d been given the answers in advance on a popular quiz show when quiz shows were the dominant non-fictional television genre. The genre never recovered from the scandal. But the quiz show scandal became a lesson in America’s cultural history from which Americans, many of whom currently keep up with TV sluts, nudes and bachelors and raise and pound fists at rallies for a TV fascist presidential candidate, have not learned.

Damage became part of Patty Duke’s brand as an actress and celebrity. From portraying Helen Keller in 1962 to playing a part based on Judy Garland in the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls (as doomed stage and movie star Neely O’Hara), with hit songs and her own hit sitcom—she was the youngest person to get her own show—in between, Patty Duke’s talent and success aligned with the turbulent times. What happened before and between playing larger than life opposites Keller and O’Hara was happening in the culture, too; from her portrayal of an American heroine in what Ayn Rand called her favorite epistemological play to starring as a hedonistic star, Patty Duke’s career matched America’s descent into the gutter. Her personal life was marred by semi-public instances of an extramarital affair, unwed pregnancy, addiction and suicide.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

That Patty Duke endured is an integral part of her heroism. The daughter of a manic depressive mother and an alcoholic father who was taken in by a couple who managed and, by her account, robbed and abused her triumphed over the era’s terrible secrets to continue to work and shine in an exceptional life. Patty Duke went on to write her memoirs (Call Me Anna), play the first woman president (Hail to the Chief), portray Martha Washington, and, memorably and powerfully, as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in an excellent TV version of The Miracle Worker with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. She had three sons and eventually fell in love with Michael Pearce, a sergeant she met while playing a woman in the military, marrying him and moving to an Idaho ranch.

Her son, Sean Astin, a fine actor himself, wrote this week that “Anna ‘Patty Duke’ Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 a.m…She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed.”

For being an individual of ability and mastering her own damaged life—for choosing to take personal responsibility instead of hiding in fear, shame and repression—I know that I will miss Patty Duke, whom I had hoped to interview. Describing the petite actress as “fragile, tender and pained” when she auditioned for the role of Helen Keller, Arthur Penn, who directed Patty Duke both on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker, added that what distinguished Patty Duke was her “spark of liveliness.” What distinguishes her now, besides her talent, is that she chose to reignite it, protect it and never let it go out. May Anna rest in peace.

Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! purports to depict Texas college life in 1980 and comes up with a high-brow version of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). In fact, if you love Animal House, you’re likely to love this, too. But writer and director Richard Linklater’s college raunchfest is merely in the same genre as that college raunchfest and the films that followed (i.e., Porky’s). A gauzy climax, if it is one, and postscript are afterthoughts in a college fraternity fantasy.

Everybody-Wants-Some-POSTEREverything is tediously contrived in Everybody Wants Some!! which depicts a college baseball team just before the semester starts. Jamming punk, disco, rock and country pop into one movie about 1980, Linklater (Boyhood) cleverly and not so cleverly implants audio and visual signposts here and there, leading the batch of hooligans into a disco, country and western bar and punk club. It’s a meandering, aimless slice of life, with the boys playing with titties and relentlessly hazing one another and doing so with the jaded dialogue of a post-9/11 snarky late night host. None of this looks, sounds or feels realistic, despite the tube socks and other period touches (and the scene in the poster never happens, either). People didn’t say “Sup, dude” and “I get it! I get it!” and constantly snap lines at one another like the cast of Modern Family in 1980. The whole film feels like a laugh-tracked sitcom.

None of this would matter if the movie were about something other than a few days in the purposeless lives of wasted college students. That they are baseball players is incidental, really, because these hedonistic students could have been part of any fraternity of conformists who binge drink, smoke pot and engage in mindless sex. Theirs became the way of life of many if not most college students—this could be 1990, 2000, 2020—and, if future archaeologists dig up the rubble of where we’re heading and wonder how Americans ever fell under the spell of a nationalist like Trump or socialists like Clinton or Sanders, this movie will help them understand that, after the late 1960s and widespread acceptance of mindlessness ala Animal House, the most educated citizens mentally checked out, went blank and worshipped nothing—anything—whatever’s on TV or going on—mistaking that for Nirvana.

The best scenes involve baseball. The team finally shows up for a practice at mid-point in the picture. You almost get excited that something interesting will happen on screen besides the boredom of watching everybody get stoned, laid or hazed. But even this part—unless you think that pointing out that men are competitive is profound—gets down to crude vulgarity and ends in another asinine hazing action. The women are like blowup dolls, all long-haired, pouty and sex-starved airheads whether in a punk, country or disco joint. The music is ripped off the charts and none of it’s organically integrated, including and especially a scene in which the jocks all rap together in a car, which feels as era-authentic as jocks breaking into a show tune. Seriously, I kept thinking that the truest insight in this movie is that 1980 ushered in an era in which people stopped bothering to think and just wanted to feel—no wonder Americans are dumbed down to the point of accepting Trump—and go blank. This movie deals almost exclusively in this type of roaming, vacant emotionalism.

The worst part is that it pretends not to. It plays this game of pretend to make a point that college is not about college and it’s OK to party ’til you puke because you end up magically becoming human. In two droning hours, it celebrates just going along with the herd, trivializes free choice and mainstreams mindlessness.

Everybody Wants Some!! and, I suspect, Linklater, desperately wants the audience to think it’s sending up raunchy college days, because it’s wrapped up by a happy ending. Here, too, I foresee a boring marriage that ends up with a pair of stoned conformists, bearing children who mindlessly attend college, mindlessly tune out and seek to get stoned, laid or hazed, wafting into national socialism, feeling the Bern or some other mindless bandwagon. Like their parents. Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to stoke nostalgia. But it might have been called Nobody Wants Anything!! No single character demonstrates want of any value.

Through the final scenes, this picture, like Knocked Up and The Hangover, amounts to a generic plea for collectivism, whether through leftism or conservatism: join the party, get high and magically conform. Or: get stoned, blank out and fit in. If blankness or sameness could be a movie—dramatizing pre-mob mentality with pretentiousness; the antithesis of 1980’s Breaking Away—this is it.

Goodnight, Earl Hamner

The rich and gentle drawl of Earl Hamner is gone tonight. The old writer, who kept an office on Ventura Boulevard here in the San Fernando Valley near my home—down the hill from where he lived with his wife, Jane, who survives him, and a property full of pets—died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hamner, who was 92 years old, is also survived by his children, Scott and Caroline.

earl1I met and interviewed Earl Hamner over 10 years ago in that office. He was one of my favorite people to interview because he was natural and unscripted, yet sharp and insightful. Everything came to him and talking about his past works invigorated him—he clearly enjoyed thinking about his work—and he wasn’t fussy and neurotic about this or that issue, problem or question, which is rare and refreshing. Earl Hamner was curious, bright and exuberant about his past, present and future. I think this comes across in the interview (read it here) which is one of my best. In this case, I am proud to say that I know Earl Hamner thought so, too, because he told me so and wrote it on his Web site.

We stayed in touch and met and talked about politics, Hollywood and writing projects and he was joyful every time. It wasn’t a put-on. Like his most enduring character, the mountain child John Boy Walton, who becomes a writer, Earl Hamner was a man whose poverty, family and wondrous life experience burnished on his mind, character and soul and, through his strength, idealism and fortitude, made him a soothing, generous and masterful storyteller of the American way. He is gone tonight and I know that I will miss this wonderful man, who was both passionate and kind but not too much of either. The writer leaves behind the treasure of his moving and meaningful stories well told—and a life well lived.


Interview with Scott Holleran: Earl Hamner (2005)

 

Spielberg to Direct ‘Indiana Jones’ in 2019

Disney announced this morning that another sequel based on the action character Indiana Jones will return to movie theaters on July 19, 2019.

Disney studios logoThis marks the fifth picture in the popular series, which was introduced in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and continued with 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, earning what Disney estimates as nearly $2 billion in worldwide box office receipts.

Disney announced that the legendary Steven Spielberg (War Horse, E.T., Bridge of Spies, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, Munich), who directed each movie in the series, will also direct the currently untitled project. Harrison Ford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) will return to star as the archaeologist and explorer in the title role. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are also back on board, so this new movie should deliver more of the same exciting, throwback adventurism, though Disney did not announce who will write the screenplay.

Movie Review: Sing Street

SingStreet PosterJohn Carney’s spirited Sing Street is the perfect movie for right now. Writer and director Carney (Once), who wrote or co-wrote several songs in the picture, balances the bitter with the sweet on a small scale and lets the story achieve an idealistic purpose. This fact alone makes Sing Street a rare and welcome accomplishment.

Set in Dublin in 1985 at the height of Western civilization’s burst of rock romanticism known as the New Wave, Sing Street sweeps its main character, a young teen named Conor (newcomer Ferdio Walsh-Peelo), into the hopelessness of socialism in short, brisk strokes. At first, he strums music to deflect his parents’ marital tension. Music is a hobby to pass time between bouts. That a new incarnation of melodic, glamorous rock becomes to him and his older brother Brendan (excellent Jack Reynor) a shared symbol of what can and ought to be, in the form of a Duran Duran music video, centers the multilayered plot.

Due to financial strain, his parents send him to a dodgy Catholic school where thugs roam freely and priests merely manage Dublin’s male students. His father forewarns but forces him into the school, where a bully targets the fresh-faced kid and the principal seeks to make him conform as a moral duty to authority. Restless and coached by his worldly older brother, the kid looks for any means to break the line and muddle through. He finds Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on a stoop.

In a moment of bluster, he improvises to her that he’s a singer in a band, so she dares him to sing a line from the new hit song “Take on Me” by a-ha. He stumbles through, improvises again and winds up having to deliver some of what he’s promised. Enter an assembled band with a couple of talented musicians, a chubby kid, a geek with braces and one who likes rabbits. Before you can sing “don’t you wonder what we’ll find” from Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out”, out comes the gear, the cover tunes, the rehearsals, the outfits and, of course, a music video featuring the would-be glamour girl.

As the lad’s life gets complicated, he puts himself into the new enterprise and becomes a songwriter.

With skilled and appealing leads wrapped in Irish sweaters and fitted with witty lines, Carney’s and The Weinstein Company’s radically wholesome and romantic Sing Street breaks down the bone-crushing blows and heartbreaks of being poor, young and trapped in an unhappy family on a religious welfare island. With an old-fashioned spirit of putting on a show rooted in one’s problem-solving amid the prospect of a bleak future, Sing Street finds the good in three acts. Mixed with subtle digs at predatory authority figures, intelligently and marvelously developed characters, performances and scenes about making music from “the wreckage of family”, and learning to love who you see in the mirror, Carney weaves the harshness of life for “a kid, a girl and the future” into the optimism of 1980s’ pop culture.

This essentially American sense of life is rightly named, reclaimed and layered in the invigorating and reverentially idealistic Sing Street, with an adroit sense of melancholy from The Cure and a nod to Philadelphia bop with “Maneater” by Hall and Oates. There are plain and hidden insights about songwriting, friendship and brotherhood besides the awkward romance that develops between mysteriously damaged Raphina and wide-eyed Conor and some of it is so simple that it’s tempting to gloss over its playful abandon. The cast is outstanding. So is the music.

Unexpectedly, Sing Street is the antidote to the John Hughes movie (and I like those movies, particularly Some Kind of Wonderful). Those films often take place in the 80s while playing to themes that emanate from the 1960s or, at their best, the 1970s. Sing Street instead applies the exuberant ethos of the 1980s—with scenes of strangers dancing in public, as the Irish coastline goes by, and a boy’s delightful fantasy—to universal themes relevant in today’s hard economic reality. Like the better New Wave songs and indelible music videos, it cultivates an earnest theme that life can and should be as it is in music and pictures and lets it free as a badly needed burst of youthfulness and joy.

Sing Street opens in movie theaters on April 15.