Thursday, December 27, 2012

Post Christmas Blues

It;s been a long time since last I posted on here and some of you may know that the reason for that is that I wrote a new book! A mystery, the first, I hope in a series, that follows the adventures o a middle aged school Film Study, A.P. teacher at the fictional town of Cromwell, Long Island. The book is called THE BODY UNDER THE BLEACHERS and its the kind of book that you can curl up with, possibly with a blanket wrapped around you, the book in one hand, a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate in the other and lose yourselves for an hour or two in the lives of some wonderful people and some dastardly evil ones as well. Nothing really deep going on here as there was in GONE THE SUN, but a fun ride from the beginning to end. for sale at, and Hard cover, paper back, kindle, nook etc. I hoe you like it and if you do, please let me know here, on facebook or on Amazon. The next one in the series is underway. Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday and will have an amazing new year. As always, Jeff

Monday, June 11, 2012

WHEN BOOKS MAKE YOU CRY Those of you who know me know that I am one of the great "softies" of all time. Just let me hear the opening notes of James Horner's score for FIELD OF DREAMS and I am gone. Let me see a puppy and a child at play and I am an instant mess. This morning I was thinking back to those books that made me cry. Something in the wording, the message; the knowledge that you are in the presence of greatness, all of these and more can do it. The following are a few of the books that, over the years have reduced me to a driveling idiot. The first such book that I can remember was Albert Peyson Terhune's novel for kids, LAD, A DOG. Well come on, a beautiful collie in harm's way. I think I was seven or eight when I read it and remember that I was glad my bedroom door was closed so that I wouldn't be embarrassed in front of my parents. The next one came in college. I had a rather "sensitive" and flamboyant professor whom now I realize was gay, who used to read Paul Galico's "The Snow Goose" to his classes before Christmas break and go into floods of tears as he reached the last words. We smiled tolerantly for we would never fall prey to such outright sentimentality. After all, we were eighteen. And then said professor assigned DAVID COPPERFIELD. We groaned and moaned about having to read such a long tome in a week's time, but read it we had to. A dear friend of mine, who was a "townie" invited me and my roommate to have Sunday dinner with him and his parents. I remember it as though it were yesterday instead of so many years ago. A cold, rainy upstate New York autumn afternoon and while the mouthwatering fragrances of Sunday dinner floated in from the kitchen, my friend and roommate, both, coincidentally named Paul, and I sat in the snug living room, doing our schoolwork for the following week. My task was COPPERFIELD, which, by this time had stopped being a task at all, as I had fallen under the Dickens spell for the first, but not the last, time. As the rain fell, (SPOILER ALERT) Dora died and her little dog Gyp died of a broken heart. Thank God there was a box of Kleenex on the table next to me. Obviously, I have never forgotten that wonderful moment. The next book, and, probably, the most profound was the just published TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I had just started teaching and was still living at home in what I had fashioned into a basement bachelor flat, with my family. I was immediately caught up in the story and when, almost at the end of the book, I turned a page and saw the words, "Hey, Boo" I couldn't catch my breath. Here in two simple words was a girl growing into a young woman, the understanding that often one mistakes good for evil, the climax of a magnificent tale and more. With tears streaming down my face, I climbed the basement stairs, walked silently past my mother who was cooking and who was used to the fact that her son was somewhat strange, past my father and sister in the living room, out the front door and around the block again and again for maybe ten times. An epiphany. That's what it was, an epiphany. The same that happened at the end of ULYSSES and LES MISERABLES. To know tangibly that there was this kind of beauty in the world. To know that I had joined the millions of people through the years who had been moved as I. That there had been a connection between me and the authors. Oh, the joy of reading that brings forth such tears.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Some kids lose their innocence when they find that there is no Santa. I lost mine a few years later when I realized that the best picture didn't always win the Oscar!

Picture it, as Sophia Petrillo used to put it, "New Paltz, 1959. No T.V. in the student union so Marian Harding a beloved music teacher invites a number of us to watch the Academy Awards at her home. She, as an older, unmarried lady, has a warm spot in her heart for "her kids" and we for her. She has made popcorn, and there is soda and coffee. There is a warmth in her little house that I remember fondly to this day. I cannot tell you what film won best picture that year (well, I could cheat and look at IMDB, but I'll let you do that), but I can tell you who was up for best original screenplay; Ingmar Bergman's brilliant WILD STRAWBERRIES and the light and frothy, Doris Day/Rock Hudson starrer, PILLOW TALK. As a young kid who was just learning about symbolism, I had been blown away by WILD STRAWBERRIES, probably having seen it three times before Oscar night...and don't forget, these were the days before VCR's, Netflix and went to the movies each time you wanted to see a film. So, as my friends ate their popcorn, I waited impatiently for the best screenplay award to be announced. To this day I can still feel the disbelief, the sadness, the actual betrayal in my heart when PILLOW TALK took home the Oscar. I had lost my Oscar virginity.

Through the following years I noticed with a jaundiced eye when undeserving films won different Oscars but I didn't care. The WILD STRAWBERRIES snub still hurt. Fast forward MANY years and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is up for best picture. Now I AM interested. I loved that film. Brilliant on all counts. And the winner is.... SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE!?! What! Now a lot has been written about that race and about how Miramax and Harvey Weinstein put tons of money into advertising and wining and dining Academy voters, but to me it was PILLOW TALK all over again. I would not, I vowed, ever care about what film wins what award again! And then came BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a film of such grace, brilliance of directing, acting and cinematography that it HAD to win best picture. When director Ang Lee won I thought for sure it would......."And the winner of the Oscar for Best picture is....CRASH!!!!! Okay, CRASH had some terrific moments and dealt with prejudice and the Hollywood mentality, but as a better film than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which, by the way had been the odds on favorite, no way. The Academy was clearly afraid of anointing a film about gay cowboys as their best picture. AGAIN, THERE IS NO WAY THAT I WILL EVER CARE ENOUGH ABOUT A SINGLE FILM TO BE HURT IF THAT FILM LOSES. NEVER. NEVER......until this year.

I have a sinking feeling in my stomach that THE ARTIST, one of the most wonderful films to come along in many years may get snubbed by the Academy. I will be sorely disappointed if THE HELP wins, though I can see the merits in its winning, if it does, but if something like THE DESCENDANTS wins...I mean come on. Give me a break.CRASH 2! (Now I know that all that I have said is all about subjectivity, but if you can honestly tell me that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE or CRASH were better than their betters, well, that's just nuts. But enough of that rant and on to those I think will win the big awards this year. Again, I haven't seen all of the films nominated, but of the ones I have seen, here are my choices.

George Clooney was good in THE DESCENDANTS, though I thought he was better in THE IDES OF MARCH and he looks like the odds on favorite. My pick; Jean Dujardin for THE ARTIST. What a talent! What a performance! (And why were Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) and Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR) not nominated?)

This is the hardest of the lot. Viola Davis was luminous as Aibileen in THE HELP, but Meryl Streep inhabited Margaret Thatcher at all different times of her life in THE IRON LADY. If either of these incredible ladies wins I will be quite happy, so I will hedge here and say that I don't have a favorite.

The field is kind of thin in this one so I am sure it will be Christopher Plummer for his role as a 75 year old man who finally comes out as gay. I thought he was excellent, but, in all honesty, I liked his co-star Ewan McGregor better and he wasn't nominated.(Nor was Tom Hardy who was amazing in WARRIOR and Gosling, again, who rocked in THE IDES OF MARCH). Plummer in a walk!

I think Octavia Spencer has the lock on this one for her role as Minnie THE HELP, and well deserved it will be should she win. My favorite, who does not have a chance in hell is the luminous Berenice Bejo for her role as Peppy Miller in THE ARTIST. If you see this film and don't fall in love with her, check your pulse, you might be dead.

This is an interesting category for me as, with the exception of Alexander Payne for THE DESCENDANTS, I think each nominee is worthy of the award. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is one of the finest things Woody Allen has done in his long and illustrious career. The film was one of the most satisfying of the year, especially for those of us who tend to live in the past! Terence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE was, like Kubrick's monumental 2001, a film that dealt with man and his place in the universe. Far too esoteric to win, the film is absolutely magnificent in every way. I love Martin Scorcese, but with HUGO there is a problem. Scorcese is a cool or even cold director, dealing with the raw realities of life. HUGO is a child's picture, meant to convey wonder in every frame. I think Scorcese's coolness just didn't work with the subject matter, though, at the end, where George Melies is recognized as the great film innovator that he was, a spark is lit with the director and the film blazes to life. (By the way, the 3-D in HUGO is amazing!) So, we are left with Michel Hazanavicius the director of THE ARTIST, who is my choice for best director.

I hope all my choices win, but if THE ARTIST loses to THE DESCENDANTS, which it just might, for me it will be WILD STRAWBERRIES, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN all over again. (And Miss Marian Harding, please know that I will be thinking of you this Sunday as I watch the awards, as I always do. No popcorn since has ever tasted better.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


A number of years ago, when I was teaching English at Elmont Memorial High School, a forward thinking principal, Richard Caliendo, realized that there was a need for a class that would review and discuss the classic films from Hollywood and Europe. I was lucky to have him build a "Little Theater" for me where, on a giant wide screen, I showed Hollywood's best. (Remember, this was just before the advent of the VCR and Turner Classic Films on TV so there was no way of seeing these films in any form). Dr. Caliendo gave me a small budget and with it I booked the greats, Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Mankiewicz's ALL ABOUT EVE, Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES and Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT among many others. One of those others was William Wellman's early color film (1937) of A STAR IS BORN, with a screenplay written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. I must have shown that film hundreds of times and yet I still bought the new blu ray DVD and watched it again this evening. What a truly delightful film with so many brilliant moments! This Hollywood saga tells the story of Norman Maine, an alcoholic actor whose star is slowly falling, and Vicki Lester a youngster from out West whose star is on the ascent. In a magnificent performance, Fredric March plays Maine as a pathetic alcoholic before the Betty Ford clinic and AA, whose self destruction is out of his hands. He cannot stop going back to the bottle when anything untoward happens. The only good thing in his life is Vicki Lester, whom he marries and whose career he nurtures. She is desperate to help him but is unable to do so. The end is inevitable, yet every time I see the film I keep hoping for a different resolution. As you watch the film you keep thinking, "No matter how hard they try, the just don't make them with this kind of care anymore." Case in point; early in their relationship, Norman kisses Vicki goodnight. He is the major star, she, at this point is a nobody. As he says goodnight the shadow of his face covers almost all of hers. He is in control and will be the Svengali to her Trilby. Vicki stays at a seedy Hollywood Hotel called The Oleander Arms. Screenwriter Parker, with no love for Hollywood, names the hotel after a poisonous flower. These and other such touches are no mistakes. They are the small things that enrich this version of the classic story to make it better (at least to me) than the Judy Garland (1954) version, as good as that one was...and it was, or the misbegotten version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristoferson of the 1970's which was simply a vehicle for Streisand. I understand yet another version is in the planning stages, this one an African- American version and I wish it well. No matter how good it will be, it will have to be judged by the fine William Wellman version and that is going to be, as they say, a hard act to follow.

Friday, January 27, 2012


The other day I listed a bunch of musical plays that had affected me greatly. One I left out, my favorite of all, and left out only as I have never seen a good production of it, is the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic, SHOWBOAT. The magnificent musical has been filmed three times, two of note; 1936 (directed by James (FRANKENSTEIN)Whale and 1951 in color, the story cut in half and truly sanitized from the earlier version. Unhappily the '36 version is not available on DVD, but it is magnificent, with many of the stars from the original production (Helen Morgan and the superb Paul Robson) in the cast. I was listening to the complete recording made about twenty years ago (3 discs-EMI) a little while ago and though the music swelled around me as I walked down Second Avenue with my trusty Ipod going full blast, I was caught short by the vernacular used to make the show(circa 1926) authentic. "N-----rs all work on the Mississippi", starts one song while in a bit of dialogue one of the characters says to another, "Where you get that necklace, n------r?" Appalling and chilling listening to it in this day and age when,hopefully, racism in its most virulent form is a thing long gone, but would changing the lyrics to "Darkies all work on the Mississippi", as they did at MGM in 1951 be any better; any less offensive? But what to do as SHOWBOAT (as Huckleberry Finn which had the same problem)is an American classic. Do you throw the baby out with the bathwater? Paul Robson who was a strong defender of human rights and dignity starred in the stage production and the 1936 film and it obviously didn't faze him as he, and I think rightly, saw the word as an offense that would put the audience on the side of the black characters. (Indeed, one of the story lines is between Julie and Steve, a married couple, she part black, he white who have to deal with the crime of miscegenation in the post Civil War South. Famously, he pricks her finger with a knife and takes drops of blood into his mouth making him black, as the law says that even with a drop of black blood in you, you cannot play on a white stage as with the showboat. Also by tasting her blood, they can no longer be accused of miscegenation as they are both technically black. If listeners today could be educated to the story before hearing the offensive lyrics I believe they would, as with Huckleberry Finn, have to be left in no matter how repugnant they are.

Now, mind you, this goes only for classic works of art that have a positive reason for using pejorative terms. The other day, for instance, I was flipping channels and on TCM there was an old Jack Lemmon film playing where a landlady of an apartment house says, "Well there's a married couple on the first floor and next to them a couple of fags." Click. No classic that; no way I would stoop to the level of crap the film offered to go further.As the British say the whole topic is a "sticky wicket" but one that has to be addressed. Not to mention the fact that there is a subtle racism in what could seem to be tame language, i.e the Tea Party chanting, "We want our country back!" I didn't know it was missing. Ohhhhhh, you mean to get that black dude and his family out of the White House. Got it, and shame on you!!!

Monday, January 23, 2012

FOLLIES and Other Great Musicals

(For Bern)
Musicals! I have been a fan since I was a little kid. Having two aunts with no children of their own I was (happily) dragged along to Saturday matinees at the theater for as long as I can remember. SOUTH PACIFIC. PAINT YOUR WAGON. GUYS AND DOLLS. and many, many more. Once I got old enough to go with friends or, sometimes by myself, with balcony seats being incredibly cheap, I went to see everything. The hits, NEW FACES OF 1952 (yes, I AM that old!), BYE, BYE BIRDIE, BELLS ARE RINGING, and the flops, BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, KEAN, HERE'S LOVE and THE VAMP. And even the not so great musicals had their pluses. The stars; Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Judy Holliday, Tammy Grimes, Alfred Drake, Dolores Grey. What an amazing world of color and sound there was. (I remember being taken to see MY FAIR LADY just after it opened by a wealthy friend's family for his birthday, and then, because a friend knew the producers, I attended the very last night when, in tribute to its long run, the curtain was not rung down and a single flower was placed on Professor Higgins' chair. How wonderful to be able to bookmark a show like that!) The memories are amazing, but of all those memories a few stand out as the most memorable. Not the greatest, as that is totally subjective, but what I was moved by in a visceral way that no other musical had done. The top four in no particular order are WEST SIDE STORY (with the original cast), FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (again, original cast), 110 IN THE SHADE, because of one of the greatest performances I have ever seen by the magnificent Audra MacDonald and the original and most recent staging of FOLLIES. (There are others that come close; LES MISERABLES, SUNSET BOULEVARD, but the aforementioned four totally blew me away.

I saw WEST SIDE STORY at the New Year's day matinee in 1958. I double dated with my close friend and the woman who was to become his first wife and a lovely young woman I had dated all through senior year at Jamaica and into freshman year at New Paltz. I remember that we sat dead center in the small loge area (maybe three rows) and from the moment the music started I knew that I was in a place I had never been in before. I was witnessing greatness. I remember stumbling out of the theater into the cold New Years Day and, and no I'm not being melodramatic, knowing that somehow my life had been changed forever; that I had entered a world where greatness was possible. The problem with that, as I recall, was that the standard had been set so high that no other musicals I saw came close.

Until 1964.

I had wanted to see FIDDLER ON THE ROOF from when I had first read about it in Variety as I had loved Zero Mostel in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and he was now to star as Tevye the milkman in this new production. I remember I was working at a summer camp in Pennsylvania the summer before FIDDLER opened when I read that it was having trouble in its Detroit tryout. That mattered not to me. All it meant was that it would be easier to get good seats without a hassle. And good seats I got. Again, at a matinee, with colleagues and friends Joe Prenoveau, Dorothy White and my Mom, a week after the rapturous reviews came out, the magic happened again. Coincidence that Jerome Robbins had something to do with both WSS and this, not really, but as with Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim adding their brilliance to the former, Bock and Harnick added so much with their music and lyrics. And Zero! Oh, Zero! From the vaudevillian in FORUM he now became the poor Jewish milkman on a shtetl in Anatevka, and though many of his vaudevillian asides were still visible, they fit the character and made him and the musical memorable. (Later productions, especially those with Topol in the London production and in the film, lost the magic that Mostel brought to the character. Only Jim Landers, in an amateur production I am still very fond of, caught the twinkle and humanity that Mostel had and helped make that production memorable.) The thing that educated me to what great theater could do, was the four of us as we shakily left the theater after being totally wrung out at the end of the show. All of us were crying. Joe a good Catholic from Plattsburgh, Dorothy a beautiful African-American woman who had recently moved to New York, my mother, a Jewish lady (though not practicing, and that's another story for another time) and me, a Deist who had no truck with organized religion; all of us had been moved to tears by the story that transcended ethnicity and religion in its text and the music that leveled the playing field for all races and religions by its majesty and beauty.

Then came the years of felines crawling all over the orchestra of the theater (really disliked that show), chandeliers crashing into the audience and helicopters taking off from the fall of Saigon.

Then came a revival of a show I had seen and not cared for much in the sixties called 110 IN THE SHADE. Other than the fact that Audra MacDonald was its star (and I had loved her in MASTER CLASS and CAROUSEL) I would have given it a pass. Am I glad I didn't! With staging by Lonnie Price (whose track record for me is spotty at best; I paid $100 to see a concert version of CANDIDE that he staged for the New York Philharmonic, sat in the nether regions of the balcony at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, and found the production childish, campy and a tremendous disappointment. But, oh, not 110 IN THE SHADE! With the magnificent Audra playing the lead, everything fell into place and what had been a so-so show in the sixties, was turned into a moving, heartbreaking experience. (I was so taken by Ms. MacDonald that I saw the show four times in as many weeks and actually waited at the stage door to shake her hand. I even have a picture taken with her (on my Facebook page), something I hadn't done since I was ten. It didn't matter; I had to meet this great talent and to tell her how wonderful I thought she was. Had to connect with her brilliance and genius.Still one of the great performances I have ever seen.

And then, FOLLIES. I had seen the original production in 1971 and had loved it because of my love for the theater which it glorified. And the glittering array of stars, Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson and some of the actual vaudevillians like Ethel Shutta and MaryMcCarty who were playing characters based on themselves or others they had known back in the day. Saw it three times over the span of its run. Then I saw it in London, again back in New York in the 90's and now this just closed production that topped them all. With the glorious Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters, Ron Raines, Elaine Page and Danny Burstein, the show soared as never before. Fascinating that when I saw it first in 1971 I was too young and removed to get the full power of what age, memory and regret do to people, but boy, did I get it now. Saw it four times again (Thank you Theater Development Fund!) and verklempt and totally moved each time. Had I the money and the opportunity I would have seen it even more.

So why do these musicals move me (and, of course, there have been plays that do it as well, the original production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? for one magnificent example)? I think it's so many things. The coming together of disperate elements to create a cohesive whole. The moment when you know that everything "works", that there will never be another moment like this again. (That's why I see the productions as often as I can, for, unlike film, once they're gone, they're gone.)

Like the ghosts that haunt the Weissman Theater in FOLLIES, the ghosts of these productions will stay with me in my memory until the day I join them in a dimension where everything beautiful lives and waits. Call it religion if you will, I call it great and visceral art.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Everyone tosses the word "classic" around in talking of a favorite film. For example, one man's favorite UNFORGIVEN become his definition of a classic, while others can't see the film for dust. So what makes a classic? Did people watching the first screenings of CITIZEN KANE or CASABLANCA or ALL ABOUT EVE, now acknowledged classics, know they were in the presence of greatness. I am asking this as I just watched THE ARTIST again (twice in as many days) and think this is going to be considered a classic down the line...and not just because I related to it.

Everything in this film works, from the brilliant acting of the stars to the magnificent musical score (1:45 of pure music) to the seamless direction and editing to the brilliant screenplay. The more you see the film you can see how clever the writers were in designing it. This is a film for everyone who loves film as the references to other films and the homage paid to them is brilliant. An old limo pulling into the lot where the silent film star is no longer wanted: SUNSET BOULEVARD! The down at his heels hero seeing his shadow on a movie screen; Kathy Seldon to Don Lockwood in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN: "You're not an actor? You're just a shadow. A shadow on a screen." A little terrier running down the street to save his owner; many OUR GANG comedies as well as other silents. And on and on and on. From camera angles to the use of sound, everything clicks into place making this an instant classic. I truly hope it wins the Oscar for best picture this year, but if it doesn't it will just be one more classic to join CITIZEN KANE, any Hitchcock film, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and many other deserving films that did not take home the gold. I'd love to be here in fifty years to see if I was right, but alas, that's not going to happen. So in 2062, try to remember this old blogger and see if he was right on the money!