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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.

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.

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)

 

David Bowie

BowieLowThe second week of the new year begins with shocking news that rock’s renaissance man, David Bowie, died of cancer. Mr. Bowie was 69.

Whatever his artistic merits or legacy, and his music and movies are certainly indelible in my life, Mr. Bowie’s body of work is astonishing for a few reasons. Though he reportedly struggled with addiction, mental illness and serious conflicts—he apparently favored the work of his post-addiction Berlin period (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger)—David Bowie was singularly dedicated to making music.

According to biographer David Buckley, after numerous early career failures under his birth name, David Jones, he chose the last name Bowie based upon American frontiersman Jim Bowie, who fought at the Alamo. I don’t know why he chose Bowie but it marks a turning point in his self-made life.

Mr. Bowie admired Elvis Presley among other influential recording artists and he eventually wrote, recorded, performed, starred or worked with everyone from Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury in rock to Bing Crosby and Cher in classics, pop and television. The gaunt David Bowie—who appeared in many movies and created many dramatic roles including his breakout stage persona Ziggy Stardust—starred as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). He wrote a hit song with John Lennon (“Fame”), sought to adapt George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a musical, worked in pictures with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak (Just a Gigolo) and released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday last week.

BowieLodgerI have the impression that David Bowie wasn’t just notching names, genres and lists; his uniquely wide-ranging work was meaningful to David Bowie, not a calculated endeavor for status, awards or impressing or beating others, not that he wasn’t also competitive. He was by most accounts talented, curious and insatiable, not merely a chameleon, “gender-bender”, freak, misfit or strange alien. He wrote songs, conceived of albums, played instruments, selected his projects and produced records. Perhaps most underrated were David Bowie’s versatile vocals. Whether one appreciates his style, theatricality or music, David Bowie worked hard and took pride in his work.

David_Bowie_-_HeroesMr. Bowie’s range is remarkable, which is why his death is being felt throughout the West as his pictures, concerts, movies, TV appearances, albums and songs replay in people’s minds with potent memories: the gently ascendant claim-staking of the non-conformist in “Changes”, the defiant strut of “Rebel, Rebel”, the biting lines in “Fame”, the sharp, wry, liberating “Young Americans”, the brilliant beats, licks and hooks of “Let’s Dance”, peaceful pleading of “Space Oddity”, anger of “Fashion”, despair of “Ashes to Ashes”, lament of “Under Pressure”, frenzy of “Suffragette City” and, in what may be his signature song, in waves of electronic distortion and always in quotation marks, the aching “Heroes”, which David Bowie wrote in Berlin for his 1977 album of the same name.

The droning, looping “Heroes”, brought to life by Mr. Bowie’s lyrics and vocals, is an eerie account of lovers in the German city no longer ruled by Nazis which was instead the center of the 20th century’s concretized symbol of the world’s worst dictatorship in history, the Berlin Wall. This week, Germany rightly recognized (in a statement on Mr. Bowie’s death) that the wall came down due in part to David Bowie’s strong, howling cry for love, youth and idealism; man’s triumph over slavery “just for one day”. Is it possible that a tune written by one outspoken man can topple a wall put up to keep free people out—and enslaved people trapped—and change the world?

David Bowie, may he rest in peace, shows that it is.

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 captures 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. 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.