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The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Apollo 13 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

On Saturday, February 27 (check local listings), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs Universal’s 1995 box office hit, Apollo 13. As with all its featured movies, TCM will air the movie unedited and without interruption.

This is at once an engaging, intelligent and intimate movie, one of both director Ron Howard’s and leading man Tom Hanks’ best pictures, and well worth seeing once and again.

I remember first seeing it in a movie theater in Glendale, California with a friend. I still recall the experience; the theater was packed and everyone seemed affected and moved. Only 10 years later, upon a second viewing and reflection on assignment for a movie review, did I think twice about the experience. Read my 2005 review, including thoughts on the anniversary DVD edition, here.

Apollo13PatchBesides the review, I also added a feature article about the Apollo space program to the archives. It was an article I started writing after seeing the movie again and attending a Universal press junket at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Because my thesis was (and remains) that it’s an excellent movie if viewed a certain way and that its theme is troubling at best, I began to think about, challenge and question why Hollywood’s only major feature films about manned space programs were generally either negative about manned space flight or focused on what goes wrong.

What I discovered during my research about the press coverage, cultural attitudes and responses to America’s historic space program—which was denounced by an American president—helped me to better understand today’s culture, the antipathy toward heroism and the rampant anti-heroism in movies. Read the article, “Measuring the Apollo Missions”, which includes links to the NASA history, pictures and a detailed chronology of Apollo 13’s events, here.

In retrospect, my 2005 coverage of Apollo 13 and the manned space program shaped my own negative views on NASA and its Space Shuttle program, which was established by President Nixon and is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Apollo program. The motion picture industry and the space program are both fabulously successful examples of the manmade which are uniquely catapulted by extraordinary advancements in technology. Movies, such as The Martian, can give audiences a vision of the future of space exploration which is possible to mankind, and it is up to scientists to make such visions realistic and relevant to people’s lives and it is up to philosophers to explain why it matters, as Ayn Rand did when she attended the 1969 launch of Apollo 11 and wrote about it afterwards. With private space travel becoming reality, it’s worth noting that Hollywood visionaries have yet to make a movie that depicts the great, strenuous effort that goes into getting science and space exploration exactly right—not merely fixing something when it goes wrong.

In the meantime, Apollo 13 and The Martian will have to do.


Related Links

Movie and Anniversary Edition DVD Review: Apollo 13

Measuring the Apollo Missions: A History and Analysis (2005)

 

Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.

The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.

Glencoe, Illinois waiting station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.

These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.


Related

Murder in Kenilworth

Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

Sheridan Road: My First Intellectual Activism

Sheridan Road: Former State Senator Roger Keats

Sheridan Road: Interview with Kathryn Cameron Porter

Movie Review: Suffragette

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Suffragette is a haunting portrayal of woman as activist.

Depicting an often silent, secret sisterhood bonded by women’s shared endurance of oppression, director Sarah Gavron, who discussed the movie at a screening I recently attended, layers several characters deftly created by writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and delivers an emotionally powerful elegy to the feminine rebel. Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, Public Enemies) as a composite, not true to life, character is marvelous in the lead.

Mulligan carries the movie, which can be cold, distant and slow. Also, and this is important, to what extent Suffragette in its final estimates is based on history is dubious, probably wrong, and the picture’s feminist bent, which glorifies terrorism as a tactic, distorts the truth of injustice against women. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of this problem in Suffragette, as it is not always apparent in any movie whom to credit or blame, but the role of the British suffragette movement for “votes for women” in obtaining individual rights or similar or equal treatment under the law for women is exaggerated, possibly to fantastic proportions. Suffragette makes a real, causal connection which most likely does not exist, a matter for historians to address, and it welds progress for the rights of women to collectivism, anti-capitalism and altruism when, in fact, the opposite is true.

But its heroine, Mulligan’s Maud Watts, is Suffragette‘s best case to the contrary. Maud is a worker, a wife and a mother and, without proper historical exposition, the movie subtly puts her front and center of the British women’s suffrage movement. She herself is a victim of a terrorist attack on private property on London’s posh West End at the film’s beginning in 1912 and she is accordingly disposed against such initiation of force. Maud is also a victim of abuse by a male boss at the laundry where she works, so she seeks to express herself through protest and exercise her right to free association with the militant women, led by a medical practitioner played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech), known as suffragettes (the terms suffrage, suffragist and suffragette are neither addressed nor explained).

Maud is moved by a desire to improve her own station in life, including a desire to make more money, and she clearly loves both her husband (excellent Ben Whishaw) and her son, George (heartbreaking Adam Michael Dodd). Maud, who does not show contempt for those who make more money, is not motivated by a desire to sacrifice herself for others. She does not define herself solely by the fact that she’s a woman.

She wants to live as an individual with rights. For this reason, it is Maud above the rest in whom the moral of the violent story resides. Though Gavron’s gray London cinematography, blurred action scenes and wordless signals keep an emphasis on action, or on “deeds, not words”, Maud Watts becomes a distinctive character, presence and heroine. While her husband teaches son George to worship a government leader, whose portrait hangs in their modest home, Mrs. Watts, like others who become aware of the law’s unequal treatment of certain people, is rightly skeptical of the state. Like a congressman calling out to the president from the floor of Congress, the suffragettes shout “Liar!” to a government spokesman. Their intellectual leader, portrayed by Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Giver, Hope Springs, The Iron Lady), openly seeks to “incite” women to “defy this government”, which ought to evoke today’s Tea Party activists and cause leftists to think twice. Streep’s cameo includes a line which reflects the movie’s Patrick Henry-inspired moral theme that it is better to “be a rebel than a slave.”

As this applies to giggling, politically indifferent and impish Maud Watts, whose treatment by police, boss and husband don’t so much cause her radicalization as affirm her conviction that there is no halfway point between subservience to the state and advocacy for her own rights, a weary, sad story animates her decline and liberation. It is enhanced with a penetrating and powerful score by Alexandre Desplat. It is underscored by the relationship between Maud and a grizzled police chief played by Brendan Gleeson (Green Zone). Gleeson, too, is magnificent in every scene with Mulligan. Theirs is the core of marking the success of Suffragette‘s somewhat transparent activism, though writer Morgan adds depth and dimension to several characters and pairings, including Maud’s sharp moral judgment of a heroic wealthy woman named Alice, powerfully played by Romola Garai (Atonement, Rory O’Shea Was Here), which leads to the picture’s most rational and poignant act of heroism; a rescue made possible by the mutual bond of understanding between Alice and Maud.

There are nods to martyrdom, collectivism and altruism—a funeral banner emblazoned with praise for sacrifice “for others”—yet there is also a profound recognition for the unique alienation that accompanies the full awareness and knowledge, commitment and fortitude of one who lives by ideals that come too soon for this life, or too late by another measure. With a reverent line about the serenity of being able to project the future of “those that shall follow you” in the march of the unconquered and persecuted toward progress for civilization, and disclaimed with a fact check of history, Suffragette is a moving depiction of a woman transformed from working stiff to the radical who thinks and acts upon her principles.