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Charlie and Martin Sheen

The Subject Was RosesThe Charlie Sheen meltdown is a sad spectacle, sad that the actor is self-destructing in public (and, based on my own experiences, I think addiction expert Dr. Drew Pinsky is right that Sheen is behaving as though he’s a danger to himself and to others, as he said on CNN), sad that the press is choosing to be complicit in hurting an entire family, sad that our culture eggs it on like a mob during a beating or a gang rape. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheen’s claim to have received support from malcontent Mel Gibson is true. My thoughts are with Sheen’s family and friends and I think there’s nothing fundamentally funny here at all. His demise is sad and serious to any person who loves life.

A slice of life was recently on display with an early performance by Charlie Sheen’s father, Martin Sheen, a much better actor than Charlie, who has unfortunately turned his cynical hedonism into self-parody with a lousy sitcom, courtesy of CBS. Martin Sheen’s picture is The Subject Was Roses, a 1968 movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which he portrays a young soldier returning from service during World War 2 (I watched it during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar). It’s an interesting character study, all naturalistic of course, and it is primarily remembered as the first picture featuring actress Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead, Hud) following her strokes. Miss Neal played Sheen’s character’s mother, and actor Jack Albertson won an Oscar for the role of the father. Nothing grand here, just good, solid acting in a small family story of a tense marriage jolted by the Sheen character’s becoming a man. But it is remarkably well done, if a bit stagy and showy, and Sheen is overheated as usual in certain scenes. The Subject Was Roses shifts perspective from a nagging, negative mother (Neal), who doesn’t remember that her son’s favorite breakfast is subject to change from waffles to bacon and eggs, and a kind, apologetic father who seems aware of his flaws, to a cruel, bigoted father and philandering husband and Neal as a lonely woman who once sought to have a career in law and loves to dance the polka. Sheen’s only child Timmy Cleary, trying to decide if he’s Catholic or agnostic and whether he wants to be a writer or a lawyer, is in the middle of these forces of nature, and a mystery (who is Willis?) hangs over their heads as an emotional climax draws closer. Sheen’s Timmy is a good-natured lad, easy to laugh and amazingly self-aware, and the roses he buys for his mother are at the core of the story. Timmy, in becoming Tim, must learn not to fake reality, and that means not always medicating life’s efforts and obstacles with too much alcohol and songs about Tipperary and the light of the silvery moon. He eventually learns his role in what ails his family and he learns to introspect about himself. So do they.

Along the way, there are some humorous lines, touching moments, and memorable performances from three outstanding actors. Among them was Martin Sheen, who would go on to play Hal Holbrook’s secret gay lover, the badlands’ mass murderer, Ava Gardner’s young stud, Linda Blair’s kidnapper and America’s president, as you’ve never seen him since. His Timmy Cleary puts the pieces of his past in place and emerges as an independent man who takes responsibility for his future.

Here’s hoping that Sheen’s son Charlie will choose to do the same.

The Oscars for 2010

oscarAdd James Franco and Anne Hathaway to the names of failed Oscar hosts, practically everyone since comedian Billy Crystal, who paid tribute to an outstanding Oscar host, comedian Bob Hope. Bob Hope, frequent host Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal were the best masters of ceremonies for the same reason Sunday night’s pair was awful: they had respect for ability, genuine skill in performing on stage, and an intelligent, cheerful sense of humor.

What Hollywood gave us the other night was more of the same sneering, accompanied by an almost snoring sensibility, that dominates the culture, from droning deadbeat Jon Stewart, who leads the charge toward nihilism, to MTV’s soon-to-be-resurrected Beavis and Butthead. Oscar 2010, dropping the F bomb and flipping off the world on behalf of an industry that delivers such sniveling pap as Pulp Fiction, The Departed, and No Country for Old Men, was a bust. Don’t blame it all on James Franco (127 Hours, Milk), who is studying at Yale University, looking tired, and who seemed under-rehearsed, uninterested and vaguely contemptuous of the need to show up. He represents the worst of all youthful stereotypes; that they are utterly bored with existence and simply wish to text, play videogames, and blank out, which he did.

But there was also Anne Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland), who was like an audio file that keeps playing and you can’t turn off. She reminds me of every theater major and showy actress rolled into one, hogging the moment, trying too hard, and sucking the air out of the entire amphitheater. Insulting Hugh Jackman, for real or for fake, high-fiving choir children after a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz in an odd attempt at a 1939 theme, and changing outfits, Hathaway just came off as vain and obnoxious, exacerbating Franco’s deficiencies.

The show was an atrocity, from insinuating lesbianism in Toy Story 3 to some vulgar woman’s use of profanity when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The songs were abbreviated, with poor Alan Menken’s “I See the Light” from Tangled being beautifully rendered and horribly cut off, and chaotic clips, pacing and jokes. Add the pompous President Obama, who is incapable of expressing a personal preference without lecturing the nation like a doddering old man, the pretentious Oprah, doing an impression of British-accented Madonna in the biggest false eyelashes this side of Tammy Faye Bakker, and, with the passing of legendary motion picture artists such as Patricia Neal, among others with more stature, only Lena Horne, hardly a great movie actress, received singular recognition among those we lost in 2010. As for glamor, the ladies looked lovely and the gents were generally in fine form, too, though the smug, generic suits from the smug, generic The Social Network and Cate Blanchett (Robin Hood), looking like some sort of alien queen or Lady Gaga wannabe, matched the mood of the evening.

Leave it to the Academy voters to restore a golden touch to Oscar, choosing the year’s best movie, The King’s Speech, as Best Picture over a crowd of also-rans. Director Tom Hooper, actor Colin Firth, and writer David Seidler were nearly as magnanimous and magnificent as the Weinstein Company’s movie, elevating a disgraceful affair into at least a partial recognition of ability, humor, and strength. Much like the characters in the movie they made, a picture which earned its reputation as a finely drawn study of friendship and inspiration, these gentlemen showed how to summon one’s best during difficult circumstances in the worst of times.

25 Years of Oprah

Oprah logoMedia savvy, self-involved to the point of narcissism, and both shrewd and skilled in making money from popular culture, talk show hostess and billionaire Oprah Winfrey is wrapping up 25 years of her signature television show while launching her new cable TV network. Completing the official transition from TV star to network mogul, she recently made an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live replacement, Piers Morgan Tonight (a wreck by any standard) and spoke for herself about herself. It’s what Oprah does best, really.

I first caught her on A.M. Chicago in the 1980s, when she overtook the talk TV ratings lead from fellow Chicagoan Phil Donahue on Donahue and she gradually moved and marked a shift from ideas to personality. Where Donahue often discussed hot topics with top thinkers, Oprah did not. She was always all about Oprah, from the early forays into movies and multimedia, encouraged by sleazy Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, to the latest empty episode of a final, vapid season of the Oprah Winfrey Show. To her credit, she brings a simple, American sensibility to the cultural issues she airs, and Oprah has brought forth many media figures such as Suze Orman, who at her best respects the making of money, and Dr. Phil McGraw, who at his best advances the idea that self matters. And she’s an example of capitalism, creating an empire based on her appeal and making billions of dollars from offering what she does as a value in trade.

Intentionally or not, 25 years of Oprah represents the dumbing down of America, a slide from Donahue’s head-scratching, searching inquiries about what matters in everyday life to celebrity couch-jumping and pitiful snatches of Oprah hair, Oprah weight, Oprah selection; the topic is always tethered to the hostess. You turned off Donahue and sat and thought about what was said. You turn off Oprah and wonder where the time went. Today’s episode featured reunited soap stars, one of whom (Michael E. Knight) came on for something like 15 seconds before he was mauled by Oprah referencing Oprah and accepting accolades from others for being 25 years of Oprah. The graying, middle-aged actor sort of sat there struggling not to suffocate, like sitting next to an over-perfumed Aunt Harriet, clocking his time and waiting for the moment to end.

Oprah’s moment goes on, with books, magazines, movies and programming of dubious value, and it usually comes back to her, the opposite of Donahue, a left-wing intellectual who sought seriously to mine and explore ideas by stimulating a thoughtful examination or at least introduction to the crucial topics of our times.

When one of the most egotistical (as against egoistic) celebrities of the 20th century finally had the spotlight all to herself, as she did during her appearance with Piers Morgan, an amateur in self-involvement compared to Oprah, there was frankly not much to like after all. Her most indelible comments during the CNN exchange came when she knocked down the rumor that she’s a lesbian, stumbling uncomfortably upon the very word. In another exchange, abuse victim Oprah boasted, and that is the word, that she has never been in mental health therapy, as if there’s something decidedly and inherently wrong with it, and she tried to bully the pathetic British interviewer by demanding to know if he had been in therapy. They looked like a couple of puffed up dilettantes caught mocking their audiences by snorting that they’d never do what they’ve been urging the little people to do. In Oprah’s case, for over 25 years.

Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand

Atlas ShruggedToday is Ayn Rand’s (1905-1982) birthday. So, I decided to check out the new movie version of the first part of her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, in earnest (more on the film, which I have not seen, later). I spent some time with the picture’s screenwriter, co-producer Brian Patrick O’Toole, who is adapting the novel for the screen. Having seen a sneak preview of the trailer for the movie, scheduled to open in select theaters on April 15, I must say that this low-budget effort looks better than I had expected. Exciting enough for the uninitiated, substantial enough for Objectivists and Ayn Rand fans, the trailer opens with a man named Midas Mulligan, met by a shadowy figure who has something important to say. From there, we see skylines, speeding trains, and men of steel (including Ellis Wyatt, Hank Rearden, and, of course, Dagny Taggart), and the action and drama never let up. The trailer looks crisp, clean and polished and wraps with the question: Who is John Galt? A tag-on teases “…Ask the Question.” This is the world’s first movie about Ayn Rand’s epic theme, the mind on strike, and, though it is impossible to gauge a movie’s merits on the basis of a trailer, for what it’s worth, I’m impressed.

Another movie trailer, the two-minute trailer for the 1949 cinematic adaptation of Rand’s third novel, The Fountainhead, which she adapted for Warner Bros., wrongly refers to the story’s mediocre architect Peter Keating, as “selfish.” But a DVD feature, The Making of The Fountainhead, included with the erroneous trailer on the disc’s extras, gets Ayn Rand’s ideas right in an informative account that makes a solid companion to what is rightly called a unique and hugely entertaining movie.

Anthem stageRand’s second novel, Anthem, has been adapted for a comic book (or graphic novel) by Charles Santino with illustration by artist Joe Staton. Anthem: The Graphic Novel ($15), published this week in trade paperback, is the first ever illustrated novelization of any of Ayn Rand’s work. Anthem was also adapted by Jeff Britting for the stage in Austin, Texas, where it was apparently a resounding commercial and critical success. Rand’s unsung first novel, We the Living, was pirated in fascist Italy in 1942 for what became an outstanding screen version. I reviewed the movie for the Ayn Rand Institute’s newsletter, Impact, here.

Starbucks Story for a Monday

I want to share this story because it made my day and maybe it will make yours, too. Recently, I was waiting to meet someone and, while standing in line at Starbucks, this woman and I struck up a conversation with another gentleman in line about the long wait and an obvious lack of sufficient staffing at Starbucks (something like 40 customers served by two workers). We hit it off, trading lines about supply and demand, and the three of us were laughing and making the most of the wait. She was a cheerful, attractive woman, could have been an actress after an audition, and she would have left me smiling all day had we left it at that. But, later, at the cream and sugar stand, she came up to me and told me, in parting: “I usually say ‘groovy’ or ‘peace’, but, you know what? I’m tired of being a starving artist, so now I say ‘make a lot of money!’ So: Make a lot of money!” She was practically bubbling over when she said it, and seemed completely genuine in her good will. I smiled back, thanked her, wished her the same and that was that. But this is what I had hoped would happen after anti-business Barack Obama, who really detests the making of money, was elected president: signs of a backlash against the anti-capitalist crusades!