About Sheila Benson

Growing up in a movie-centric household, with an abiding interest in ballet and a background in Theatre Arts at UCLA, somehow I found myself drawn to writing about films. At first on a small Mill Valley weekly, then at a slightly bigger paper, as the Los Angeles Times Film Critic (1981-1991.) Now, after 3 decades with the right husband, I read, write, sometimes cook, miss my kids, sound off about politics and watch movies as obsessively as ever.

Who I’m Reading Now – And Why (Grand Prizewinner: Zzzzzzzz Headline of 2017)

As holder of the Miss Prothero chair of this scattered family, never content unless she has provided something for someone, anyone, friends, family, firemen, acquaintances, passersby, to read, it’s been a heady month.

Over at The New Yorker, its Daily Shouts editors must be panting like greyhounds, tongues lolling, with fresh outrage arriving on the half-hour.  Not all of it has been Extra Superbly Choicest, but Rian Konc’s What’s In James Comey’s Memos? this very afternoon is a keeper, if it hasn’t gone viral by the time I finish here.  RianKonc:  What’s in James Comey’s Memos?

What’s so especially nice about it is the way Konc has caught Comey dead-on, the small humble-brags with the guys “. . . probably also true that they didn’t invite me to shoot hoops with them because I’m ‘so good, it almost wouldn’t be fair.’” Also the faint prissiness, “Someone lit a bag of feces on fire and left it outside my door. . . “ that fits perfectly with Comey’s mildly nauseous constitution.

There’s just the right amount of Tradecraft for Idiots, [Trump]” . . tries to casually drop a Talkboy onto the desk behind him.”

Then there’s this, “Someone needs to get Sessions a stool.  I’m the director of the F.B.I., not of getting cookies down from the top shelf.”

It’s as though Barry Blitt were standing there at Konc’s elbow, making sketch after sketch of Session’s cookie-ready little face.  But it’s the second half of that sentence that puts me away, because I promise you, the impulse – okay, well, yes, my crappy, lousy impulse – is to say, “ . . . not the director of getting cookies down from the top shelf” thus flat-footing the rhythm.

I want to lay this perfection in Konc’s lap, not his editor’s, because he’s shown this good ear before (look up his New Yorker dossier) and, well, because it’s Writer Uber Alles in some damaged corners of this office.  Although that’s another story.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

To digress for a moment (another chair I hold), I think it’s a hand’s down, no argument that the most breathtaking Daily Shout was, of course Melania’s Diary, by the deliciously  indefensible Paul Rudnick.   God, to think of January as the easy-peasy days of affront.  Paul Rudnick:  Melania’s Dairy

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Before we leave a consideration of great voice combined with breathtaking form, let us drop a knee to Bess Kalb’s Obituaries My Mother Wrote For Me, a New Yorker Shout from April 30, 2016.  I’m sure you-all know her these days from her gently chiding Twitter life with Donald.  I’m old school and, you know, classic and so I cling to this.  Bess Kalb:  Obituaries My Mother Wrote For Me

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

harold-and-lillian-body1-2

A movie I’m unabashedly fond of opens today, Harold and Lillian, by Daniel Raim, who seems, at his young age, to have been born with an antenna for the artisans of filmmaking –  production designers, storyboard artists, film librarians.  All of them, working alongside my family’s side of what used to be called The Business – screenwriting and costume design (men’s character design — my father never knew a gore from a gusset, but he knew what people wore from the skin out.)

Harold and Lillian got an appreciative, interested review in the Village Voice; you might very well want to see it after reading Bilge Ebiri’s commentary.  It was Ebiri’s thoughts at the end of the piece that stuck with me, when he dryly push-pins his profession:  “We love to put our blazers on and sit on panels to talk about how this or that movie redefines Truth or dares to reveal something fundamental and troubling about the Way We Live Now.  But Harold and Lillian is a movie that embodies the non-nonsense modesty of its subjects.“

He closes with an appreciation for “this charming little movie. . .[which] offers a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating people whom I had never heard of, and who shared an unlikely life filled with achievements and setbacks, wonder and pain.” It seemed so all-of-a-piece with the movie, so calmly right for its subject.  Bilge Ebiri: Harold and Lillian

I’ve been following Ebiri, a filmmaker as well as a critic, ever since I read the reviews he selected when he applied for membership in the National Society of Film Critics.  (Glad to say he’s now one of this year’s new, vigorous members.)

In the course of deftly pulling apart the threads that make up the film Arrival, which is densely concerned with language, Ebiri threw in this:  “When people ask me if switching from English to Turkish is like switching gears in a car, I tell them that it’s like stopping the car, getting out of it, stepping into a truck, and driving off in a completely different direction. I essentially become a different person.”

I think it was at that point that I became an Ebiri person.

Then, as I was writing this, I found him in last week’s Voice, wading into one of my lifetime favorites, “the magnificent Heat,” celebrating its luscious new Blu-Ray with a review and a separate, really smart, wide-ranging interview with Michael Mann.  Bilge Ebiri: Heat 

In his review, Ebiri is most deeply drawn to the counterpoint between the men’s work and their emotional, domestic lives. It shifts away from the way Mann likes to frame Heat, “as a contrapuntal, dialectical story” (which it also is) to consider  the stuff that Ebiri seems instinctively drawn to, catching a quick, untethered glance between guarded bodies, touching the bedrock of people’s lives — the essence of what fascinates me about Ebiri’s own essential humanism.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I know exactly what brought me to the great contemporary Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya:  this photograph in Ilya Kaminsky’s arresting New York Times review of her “slender, fragmentary memoir,” The Girl from the Metropol Hotel.                                                 From The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

NYTimes Book Review: Enemies of the State

Could you have resisted wanting to know more, knowing everything possible about this ten-year old, homeless “enemy of the people?”  Of course not, or you wouldn’t be here with me now.

The first, selfish fact I grabbed from this surreal, crazed, triumphant story was that Petrushevskaya, born in 1938 (and 10 in that photograph) is very much alive today.  Alive, alert, what the reviewer proudly calls  “uncrushed” – hah! if you look at those eyes, crushing was never in doubt – in full voice and absolutely rocking her Madwoman of Chaillot hats.

Ludmilla Petroshevskaya

This is the Metropol Hotel’s most precise observer on her days in the streets :  “In the summertime I begged.  I didn’t beg by holding out a hand on street corners, no.  I performed, like Edith Piaf.” She began with songs, then found that reciting Gogol’s “The Portrait”  “stunned” her audience of  kids and grandmothers in apartment courtyards. Once, it got her a rare heel of bread, another time, at the top of dark and possibly dangerous stairs, “a door opened, and a woman with a face wet with tears offered me a green open cardigan that I put on immediately.”

“The Portrait,” which Petrushevskaya’s grandmother had recited to her from memory, was talismanic to the writer-in-the-making. “The story of a young artist compelled by a mysterious portrait to sell his talent, left me dazzled,” she writes.  “To this day I considered its subject, bartering one’s gift for the worldly glory, the most important among humanity’s collective tales.”

Who could do justice to the wickedness of her childhood?  Today’s cutting- edge animators perhaps, who could show us how Petrushevskaya’s mother and her scrawny child slept under the massive dinner table in Grandpa’s room throughout their “enemies” time. Years.

“Its legs were connected with a thick plank,” she remembered, “so that one had to sleep with her feet either over that plank or under it, which was extremely uncomfortable.” Finally, with a stretching string-bean bedmate, her mother tenderly arranged a bed for young Ludmilla in the common hallway, on top of Grandpa’s trunk. Her first time sleeping alone.

“The Metropol Hotel” is fragmented, its narrator is sometimes an observer of her headstrong self and sometimes in the very thick of it.  But I know precisely when I just gave up and began hoarding her collected stories like the precious objects that they are. It was when she says of her barefoot, ragged, snot-streaming, furious self, that she lived “like Mowgli.”

I will now let all of you who’ve been light-years ahead of me in Petrushevskaya-land have a nice, collective eye-roll.  Be nice.  And yes, The New Yorker was onto her in January of 2016, when it published one of her original fairy tales. Of course. As I have to say to my far-more-knowing-how-the-world-works husband, time to time:  “You were not born knowing that.”

Finally, a full-throated shout to the design geniuses at Penguin whose simple-, sophisticated cover art for Petrushevskaya’s mordantly funny, casually heartbreaking stories keeps perfect company with the pure essence of Russia’s most dangerous export.  (For home grown ones, go back up to the James Comey link)

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

From Mother Russia to Mother’s Day.

My mother considered Mother’s Day a meaningless Hallmark/FTD money-grub. Dead right. Celebrating it at our house meant scrounging the day’s ripest, tackiest sentiments — the outsize cards, the heart-shaped pillows, the tiny bottles of cloying perfume — and presenting them for the outrage we knew they’d get. And proof of our cool.

Oh sentiment.  Oh principles.  Oh motherhood.  Want to see every hand-glued card I’ve gotten since 1956?  Top drawer of my father’s desk in the bedroom.  Mostly.

Have to say, I’ve been giving the matter of mothering a hard look recently.  A young, prolific film historian, Dr. Jennifer E. Smyth (American born, UK based) contacted me and my sister last year. In the course of researching a book on studio-era writers and women in Hollywood she’d become “fascinated and puzzled” by why Mary McCall, our mother, was so rarely mentioned in histories of screenwriting and the Screen Writers Guild in spite of her enormous work on both fronts.

Scarcely a year from her first letter, my sister Mary-David Sheiner and I were perched on high stools at the Writers Guild Theatre for a tribute to our mother, complete with a screening of her adaptation of Craig’s Wife, directed by Dorothy Arzner.  I think the night’s title, Madame President, picked last year, was supposed to be an echo of the country’s equal exuberance.  Sigh. Let’s not go back there again.

You won’t find a more succinct or impassioned case for a night of celebrating  Mary McCall than Jennifer’s introduction.

MaryCMcCallJr1942-Muray

Mary C. McCall Jr. 1942

Here it is, and with a nod to the world’s love of irony, happy Mother’s Day, dear Mamie! Jennifer Smyth: Madam President

The View from Here – with Updates and Predictions

Unless you live in Seattle, where it’s been hard to lift the head off the pillow to stare into one more day of grey dampness, diversion seems to have been afoot in the world.

UPDATE: this morning the Seattle Times put a number to my kvetching: this winter’s unrelenting rain has broken a 122-year record and we’ve got one week of April TK.

Sigh.  To continue:

Consider the Pulitzers:  I’m always relieved when a Pulitzer is given to work I can at least pretend to know about, but this year’s list was damn near a personal trifecta.  Let me share a little of the good stuff:

At The New Yorker, one went to Hilton Als, whose theatre criticism I read so avidly you’d think my next stop was the Times Square TKTS booth.  The magazine provides ten of his reviews from 2016 that were part of the Pulitzer submission;  try the one titled Dreamgirls for a riveting start, it’s Als’ layered look at a revival of The Color Purple.

Hilton Als’ New Yorker Pulitzer texts

Next was the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose persistent digging buried for all time Donald Trump’s lies about his “charitable” giving. It may even have retired the Trump Foundation for the foreseeable future.

You may have met Fahrenthold as we did, on Rachel Maddow’s show but it you haven’t, be sure to look at the picture with the WAPo’s coverage of his celebration in the newsroom. Reflecting back the grins of everyone in the room, Fahrenthold also has his comforting hands on his young daughter, the only one who doesn’t look thrilled to be there (sparkly T-shirt notwithstanding.)

David Fahrenthold’s winning investigation into Donald Trump’s philanthrophy

Remember the 2015 movie Spotlight and the insider sense it created as we watched those Boston Globe reporters dig into a child molestation coverup within their city’s own Archdiocese?  You get the same “insider” sense reading the Post’s pitch-perfect account of Fahrenthold’s alternately dogged and inspired steps that led to his award.

The 39-year-old Fahrenthold broke journalism’s cardinal rule about keeping your work- in-progress “secret and guarded” by turning to social media for tips and help as he and his assistant called 450-some charities to see if they’d had a donation from Trump. (At the 400 mark they’d found one.) Then he used Twitter to keep his readers up with his progress, and as his coverage grew, so did their encouragement. . .and their confidence in his reporting.

You probably already know the best part of this story: I’ll just say bless a reporter who’s (cautiously) open to a red-hot tip. Actually, it would be no exaggeration to call the self-effacing Farenthold the father of the post-inauguration Woman’s March, pussy hats and all. Then watch him blush.

The last of the Pulitzers I really, really follow is their Photography award, which had a telling note from its nominating jury this year. After considering Daniel Berehulak’s soul-shriving photos of the dead and dying in the nighttime streets and alleys of Manila, the nominating jury moved them from the Feature Photography category to Breaking News — exactly the right call while President Duterte’s so called “drug war” continues.

Slideshow of Daniel Berehulak’s award-winning photographs

If Berehulak’s name is familiar, it may be because two years ago, he was in the Belgian Congo, where his up-far-too-close view of the Ebola crisis won that year’s Pulitzer.  Since I am constitutionally unable to imagine the everyday dimensions of his life (or the lives of any of his photojournalist comrades-in-arms) finding this revealing interview by Jim Colton in which Berehulak describes, among other things, the nuts and bolts of his Congo shoot, was. .  . .comforting.

z PhotoJournal Interview with Daniel Berehulak

UPDATE:  As I was writing this, the I.C.C. filed its first  “mass murder” complaint against the Philippine president, as Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio cited Duterte’s  “terrifying, gruesome and disastrous drug war that has left 7,000 people dead.”   Let us hope that along with Leila de Lima, Duterte’s bravely outspoken opponent in (and out of) the Philippine Senate, lawyer Sabio stays safe.

Now for those predictions:  okay, so not this year, but as soon as it isn’t a drawback to be published in the NY Times (we’re exempting photographers here, obviously), their great book critic Dwight Garner will absolutely take home his overdue Pulitzer.

You can read every one of my exceptionally well-supported reasons in my CQF mash note, Putty in His Hands, from June 5th, 2012.  (Where did the time go?) He has only gotten better.

Putty in His Hands

Then, and this will probably take a little longer – the Committee seems to like to thumb through a thick stack of work for the same publication — check out Justin Chang’s quite astonishing film criticism at the Los Angeles Times.  Then consider that he was writing like that before at Variety, on deadline, which virtually means see it/write it/file it.  Takes the breath away. His Pulitzer will only be a matter of time.

Here’s a recent trio: Get OutAfter the StormPaterson

The regular guy, the acquired taste, and where we were on 9/11

Hullo, my dear doughty friends:

I am happier to be doing this again than you can imagine.

Time to time, I get tagged with being, shall we say, a mite removed from How The Real World Works. It still amuses my husband to watch me at a soda machine trying to get WATER, which is mysteriously behind the Pepsi-thingie, and which I invariably cock-up.  “You were not born knowing  that,” I point out, defensively. .

You might also consider the act that cemented him forever in the hearts and minds of the two younger daughters.  (The eldest?  Oh, she introduced us.)  We have just had our  34th anniversary, but if you ask those two today for the moment this boy friend was absolutely home free as a serious contender, it would have been when he off-handedly took them to the Mill Valley McDonald’s.

Goggle-eyed, like a pair of Dickens’ starvlings, they took in the whole yellow and red wonderfulness. God only knows what they ate, but I know what they said:  “Don’t ever tell mom.”

Why???” 

“We’ve never been to McDonald’s.”

“EVER?”

“Nope”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I’ve never had a Coke either.  What can I say — our paths just never crossed..

As he and I threw in together, I still made okay food, plus a few oddities from my mother’s Vassar-inflected repertoire: prune souffle, popovers. Meanwhile, he became a rampaging kitchen adventurer. His smoker — full of everything, anything — was only the beginning.  One Thanksgiving, after studying Julia like a medical student, he boned the turkey,  invisibly reassembled it, and cushioned it on the stuffing before it went into the oven.  Please do not ever tell him you have a large back yard; he’s been yearning to dig a fire pit and roast a whole pig for all the deprived years of our marriage.

(When I began writing this, I thought it was about a regular-type fella corrupted by long exposure to the rowdy irrepressible Irish. Standing back a bit, I see that we actually provided the backdrop and the excuse for someone whose tastes were impressively out of the mainstream from the get-go.)

Underpinning everything was my husband’s take on hospitality, which I discovered was more deeply Chinese than either one of us imagined. You thought the Italians invented Abbondanza!?   Marco Polo stole it from the Chinese, after a look at Kublai Khan’s fridges, groaning with leftover take-out.

Given its head, the Abbondanza philosophy goes way beyond gusto, beyond food/drink/music/lighting/more food/can I freshen your drink?  It’s also portal-to-portal nurturing, and my husband does it as well as he does because you can’t catch him at it. Mostly, it creates a sense of companionship.

Fortunately, companionship was the cornerstone of how a motley handful of Americans found themselves in the French countryside on September 11th. Some time in early 2001, our remarkable and enduring friend Milt Moscowitz invited a mix of family plus old and older friends to a remote and glorious French chateau — largesse from his Japanese businessman-friend who’d just had it renovated.  Milt’s offer was simple: you’re invited. All you have to do is get yourselves there.

We were the last pair to arrive, September 10th, driving south from Dijon into the Burgundy countryside until, finally,our headlights picked out the chateau’s creamy white outlines. The party was well begun. It wasn’t until the next day, after lunch in a nearby village that my husband found that he (or, ummm,  I, the passport-keeper) didn’t have his passport. We hustled back to the chateau.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was up in our room, frantically shaking out every stitch we owned, when the chateau’s gatekeeper, in great distress, came to the heavy door, a small TV in his arms. All he could say was that something horrible had happened, “In your country.”.

The TV produced only snow and unintelligible sound. Calls to the States were hopelesly jammed. Without cable or internet, our only link to the world was the chateau’s phone line —- and its small home FAX machine.

We called the sole person we knew in France, Bob Swaim.  A permanent American transplant to Paris, a movie director with a bent for cutting edge technology, Bob was providentially perfect for this crisis. He began pumping wire service stories into our FAX machine — literal reams of them, piling up in uncut lengths on the floor.

The moment was surreal. In this exquisitely replicated blue and pink Provencal dining room, we grabbed sections, 8 feet, 10 feet, of unspooling text and began devouring the words, passing around the pages, trying — and failing —  to comprehend the dimensions of what we were reading. Nearly half our party were New Yorkers. Milt’s stepson, a San Francisco bond trader, had close ties to colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald.

ourdiningroomchateau

It was only after midnight, when my husband strung a wire across the top of a door for an antenna and attached it to a dinky clock radio, that we heard the first English language accounts of the day from the BBC.

Next morning, Le Monde was thoughtful enough to publish our first (and my permanent) images of the poor souls who jumped, mid-air. Trying for another approach, we piled into our cars to find a hotel with television in the rooms. One hotelier, not deceived by our French, let us all into his family’s private quarters where, crowded next to his dogs, we watched CNN report about American Flight 93’s crash and read the crawl with more names of more dead.  We thanked him, dried our eyes and left.

One dear pair in our group, long standing French travelers, knew and loved a small nearby town, so we all repaired to its greenness. And as the two of them took in the moment and we sat on logs and tailgates and such, my husband unexpectedly produced cheese, baguettes, thin sliced ham and wine. With cloth napkins and glasses. When he had gotten it, or where, I have no idea. All I remember is the beatitude of that meal, appearing, as always, without fuss, but with full knowledge of how much it was needed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oscar, You’re Breaking My Heart (but you always do)

I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.

I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.

It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.

– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?

– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.

Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.

– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”

– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.

Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.

Far from Hollywood, another movement had been roiling. A headline in The Irish Times nailed it:

                          Irish talent front and centre in the 2016 Oscar nominations

You gotta love coverage that names the home counties of nominated actors like Steve Jobs’ Michael Fassbender (Kerry) and Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan (Carlow.) And quotes a genuine-sounding reaction by Room’s director Lenny Abrahamson to perhaps having nabbed Steven Spielberg’s Best Director slot.

“I don’t know how to talk about that. That is amazing and very humbling. I chatted to Spielberg when I was last in L.A. and he spoke beautifully and was very complementary. But we thought we’d be in a seat at the back. Now [Room is also up for Best Picture] it looks as though we’ll have seats at the front.”

The Irish Times continues, citing Room’s adaptor Emma Donoghue, working from her own novel, and live action short director Benjamin Cleary for Stutterer. All in all, their tally suggests that it was pints all around for the Irish Film Board.

Check out the total hard numbers of Irish nominations, I don’t trust myself to. It’s a rout.

                                                                               * * *

A good long time ago, I was close at hand for another, brave try at balance at the Oscars – this one behind the scenes. For its gala 65th Oscar ceremony, the Academy declared that 1993 was its Year of the Woman.

(For all of you with really good memories, you’re right: the country already struggled through its so-called Y. of the W. in 1992, when women popped up everywhere in Congress. What can you say, other than if you want cutting edge, you don’t go to the Oscars.)

I was in our kitchen in Los Angeles in the early evening when the phone rang. It was Gil Cates, producer of the Oscar show, whose nominations would be announced the very next pre-dawn morning. I’d met Gil before, nice guy, always pleasant, but never so much as now.

“Sheila! How ARE you? Not still at the Times. . . ? ” It was one of those fishing questions, sure but just making sure.

“Not for 2 years, Gil.”

“Well, I was just wondering how you’d like to work on an Oscar show.”

“What doing?” I asked guardedly.

“Writing. Writing!! How would YOU like to be a writer on the Academy Awards? On this Academy Awards.”

Couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t. And so my short, strange trip began, with an impressively rushed-through contract, so that when the Academy Year of the Woman gang was presented to the world, it did indeed, have a Woman Writer. Thrown right in there next to the two guys who’d been writing those snappy quips and truly fulsome film tags for years. Longer. For decades.

(The show also had a woman filmmaker, Lynne Littman, to create the night’s special presentation celebrating Women. Womanhood. Womankind. It changed frequently. She rarely looked happy. She came aboard earlier, already vetted by virtue of her short film Academy Award.)

So, it began. I turned up, ready for work, shiny-bright and redundant. Whatever was I supposed to write? It took days to sort that out. Obviously, I hadn’t been hired for banter. I wouldn’t have known what to do with banter if it had been thrown, naked and flopping on the writer’s table. On that point we were utterly in agreement.

Maybe I could do the lead-ins to the nominated pictures? Well before the 1990s, that form was set in solid Styrofoam: a mystery description, one or two overripe sentences, and an answer revealed by the title of the movie. That year’s nominees were Unforgiven (the winner), A Few Good Men, Howard’s End, Scent of a Woman and The Crying Game.

I loped off with that assignment and brought it back to my industrious fellow writers the next day. They were appalled. Not by what I’d written; every cringe-worthy mothering word of mine was used (well, more or less, we’ll get to that.) It was my timing. I was finished, already? The subtext, Now what to do with her? went unspoken, as they beavered away.

One of the pair created a larky bit for Michael Caine, scheduled as a presenter. Every scene went into the vast script we all lugged around everywhere, all but chained to our wrists. Reading it, I wondered how Caine would react to his moment in created Cockney dialect. By declining to be on the show, it turned out.

To tell the truth, almost all our labors have faded away, mercifully as any uncomplicated birth, although I do remember a joke that one of the two writers tried out on me. Not, he made clear, for this show, but for a Writer’s Guild show that he famously worked:

“They’ve made a Half-Way House for battered women. It’s called Tempura House, for lightly battered women.”

Rotten readable Irish face. It marked me forever as No Fun.

My far-off daughters kept pestering me for details, Tid-bits. Who had I seen? Not Al Pacino. Not Emma Thompson. And not Bruce Vilanch, damn it all, funniest of all Academy Special Material writers. His company wasn’t for the likes of me. I was closeted away with my famous Academy veterans.

Every word of the script was embargoed, and even if I could, I wouldn’t tell my family, because they know appalling when they hear it. But I could give one hint: watch for the intro to The Crying Game, a film with a far-ahead-of-its time transgender reveal. I was almost half-way proud of that one, which ended, “Who says a woman can’t keep a secret?”

And so, on The Night, I came off the base of my spine where I’d been parked, when my Crying Game presenter strode onstage. Even before rehearsals, I had learned not to think of any presenter as mine. They came. They went. You had no idea who you’d draw. You could hope, of course,  but it was truly one big game of Mess Around.  But here she came and it was. . . Diane Keaton.  In a white pantsuit, with a huge white beret.  Heaven.

Until she pulled out a sheaf of pages and launched into her own impassioned brief on the Rights of the Downtrodden Different, for roughly 45 minutes. Plus or minus.

To their eternal credit, my family never really thought for one minute that those were my words. Although they did ask.

Remembering Balanchine

https://i1.wp.com/cvj1llwqcyay0evy.zippykid.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/gpl-sab-edward-villella-class-with-balanchine_1000.jpg

This George Platt Lynes study of George Balanchine with School of American Ballet students was on the cover of the School’s brochure scant years after I entered, and I’ve always loved it. (The boy is 10-year-old Edward Villella.)

Only in our dreams would Mr. B. feel the need to work with dancers at our level. This is what I remember from one time that he did.

In a slightly different form, it appeared in the Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1983, just after Balanchine’s death..

Remembering Balanchine

The last thing we expected George Balanchine to be was funny. Actually the last thing we expected him to be was visible. In 1945 as a student at the School of American Ballet, you could count on an occasional harrowing glimpse of Lincoln Kirstein in the elevator to class, well over 6’4” tall and austere, and that was bad enough.

Mr.B. was legendary but largely unseen. I was sure he’d look like one of those George Platt Lynes photographs in Dance Index, with his necktie thrown dramatically back over his coat. Classmates thought he’d look imperious, since half his photographs were taken with his head back like a greyhound. But although we felt his presence at the School we almost never saw him during those long afternoons while we spattered the wooden floorboards with drops of sweat and prayed that somehow, some way we would learn the combinations. Not only learn them but begin to dance them.

Occasionally, a girl from the most advanced class would to drop into C class to work on technique; dancing what we were only holding onto with our fingernails. The one we used to stare at most, covertly, trying not to show our fascination, seemed as close to perfection as we could imagine. She had extraordinarily long legs and arms and she tied her hair back neatly with the narrowest pink satin ribbon, the color which exactly matched the pink flush her cheeks took on as the class work grew progressively harder. It gave her the effect of a porcelain doll, a comparison we suspected she had already noticed, but there was nothing doll-like in the way she covered the diagonal distance of the practice room in three long, low leaps.

There was yet no New York City Ballet company to aspire to, although we had no way of knowing how close on the horizon it was to being born. It seemed as though nothing would change, that classes from these fierce Russian emigres, Anatole Ouboukhoff and Pierre Vladimiroff who gave their directions in French strained through Russian, or from Muriel Stuart who was English and kindly and had toured with Pavlova, would continue forever; that we would learn or not learn each succeeding level of difficulty in a sort of dream-like continuum.

But it all changed one November afternoon. A large group from class, as well as soloists taken from the professional class, were quietly notified: there was to be a school performance at Carnegie Hall with Leon Barzin and the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. B. would choreograph a Mozart Symphonie Concertante, a Stravinsky Elegie for viola and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka.

And so we began to work with Balanchine. And with our pink-cheeked idol from professional class, Tanaquil LeClercq, who we found was only a year older than most of us, and not aloof but intent. She and another dancer the physical opposite of herself were to do a pas de deux. Most of the rest of us were involved in the Mozart Symphonia Concertante, forming a living background for the serious action, standing, kneeling, posing, changing arms, counting, changing arms again. All in an atmosphere of the greatest concentration. There were, you can be sure, no hysterical mothers, and no worries over costumes either. We were to wear our hideous blue regulation leotards and tie our hair back neatly. And that was that.

But we could watch. So we would line the floor, our backs against the cold mirrors, sit quietly and try not to be noticed while we watched them practice. Balanchine would get two or three dancers into a tangle, their hands linked in a long continuous movement until he ran out of human slack, and had to unknot them as you would unknot a snarled chain. And at these moments we discovered his oblique humor.

Tamara Toumanova had been through New York just then, with, among other things, a peculiar ballet done to the music of Chopin in which the pianist was on stage with her and she was his muse. A white, romantic ballet, it had been choreographed to feature one of her particular aptitudes, spectacular balance. At one moment of inspiration she balanced en pointe at his shoulder, balanced and balanced while the music filled and swelled and repeated and went back and over again until, finally, she had her fill of inspiration and got on with the rest of the dance.

And on this particular Saturday morning on Madison Avenue in this dingy, sacred school, Balanchine, working with three other dancers, had left a fourth girl on pointe as he wandered off a little to the side, head down, to figure out what in heaven’s name he was going to do next. Our eyes were riveted on her. She held her pointe, held it and held it. He had not told her to move. She began to sway. Our heads swayed slightly with her. Finally, noticing his entire room moving like palm trees in a wind, Balanchine looked up and saw her predicament.

“You can come down now, Toumanova.” The corner of his mouth twitched very slightly.

The night before the performance we lined up for one last costume check. Something distressed Mr. B. Scissors were brought. And he personally cut lower the decolletage of each dancer he felt needed it. Twelve year olds, I seem to remember, were not in that group, nor weed-like 14-year-olds either.

To tell the truth, I can’t remember much about that evening. What we had to do we did sturdily enough; it was cold but we barely felt it. A whole orchestra sounded rich to us after a rehearsal piano, and the night was over entirely too quickly. The School gave us each nosegay bouquets. Years later, after a dozen moves I finally lost mine. And cried.

But I remember vividly the morning I read that Balanchine had married Tanaquil. A classmate called me and her sigh was unenvious. “She married him for all of us,” she breathed. And so she had.

This piece came about through the generosity of Martin Bernheimer, the towering Los Angeles Times Music Critic and my next-office neighbor at the paper. When Balanchine died, Bernheimer remembered that I’d had something to do with ballet, or Balanchine or whatever in my past, and asked if I’d write something in the way of an appreciation.

Sometimes panic steadies you. It did me, that day, as I clung to the thought that personal wasn’t necessarily negative.  Besides, it was all I had to bring.  After it ran, panic came back when a warm note arrived. Toumanova had so enjoyed the piece, “Would you like to have tea one day, just me and Momma?”  I declined, polite but aghast.  All I could think was, Didn’t she realize that the joke, more or less, was on her? 

Perhaps. But it was Balanchine’s joke.
 

Balanchine, Robbins and the Egg McMuffin

PNB Soloist Benjamin Griffiths (left) and Artistic Director Peter Boal. Photo © Angela Sterling

To watch a dancer pass down the details of a signature role, gesture to gesture, body to body can be like watching the flow of electricity. Or an excessively polite family squabble, “On the diagonal? Really??” It can be generous and at the same time carry the faintest sheen of regret. It is never dull.

Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s far-seeing artistic director, has been very, very good about coaxing formidable veterans of New York City Ballet to Seattle to coach PNB’s rising tide of dancers in “their” roles. And about letting the public in on at least one of these afternoons, as history and memory collide.

The sessions that hooked me, permanently, came last year, for a PNB staging of Balanchine’s Jewels. Over the course of a month, Boal lured Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul for Emeralds; Edward Villella with Rubies, and for Diamonds, the irrepressible Jacques d’Amboise, who worked in the plaid shirt and hiking boots he wore the next day on the trails of Mt. Rainier.
Utterly different styles, same knock-out effect.

Of course these dancers would help pass the torch. Peter Boal is one of their own, a full-on NYCB creation. He’d entered the School of American Ballet at the age of 9; he retired after a 22-year career in the company. As one of their Principals, Boal was both a supreme classicist, known for his “transcendent” Apollo, and a dancer with an intriguing experimental side. He was also a deeply gifted teacher. To imagine him shaping his own company? Heaven.

(Not to appear intentionally stupid, I do know the forces that really shape any dance company: its board of directors. I’ve followed company/board imbroglios my long life long, and I still understand their dynamics the same way I grasp the bitcoin. PNB’s board seems elastic enough to embrace Boal’s forays onto the truly cutting edge as well as to appreciate what it means to have the NY Times doughty Alastair Macaulay call today’s PNB “one of the world’s foremost Balanchine companies.” Bravo. Bravos, actually..)

Balanchine hung on to few works from his very early Diaghilev days, primarily Apollo and Prodigal Son. And when he set Prodigal for NYCB, in 1970, he chose Jerome Robbins as the Prodigal and Maria Tallchief for the Siren. (Those of us who saw that pair can still feel the scorch.)

After Balanchine’s death in 1983, when it fell to Robbins to coach a new Prodigal, he picked the young (and even younger-looking) Peter Boal, as his headstrong innocent. Now, with Prodigal Son on PNB’s 2015-16 opening program, it was Boal’s turn, in a mirrored classroom, with a small audience, to tutor two Sons and two Sirens. And also to revisit, dryly, some of the heart attack moments from the Jerry and Peter show, all those decades ago.

Robbins had plunged into their session abruptly:

What did you have for breakfast?”

In the pause that followed, Boal picked honesty as the best route around a non-sequitor.

“An Egg McMuffin.”

Robbins’ eyes swept the heavens. This was going to be worse than he’d imagined. Much much worse.

“What did THE PRODIGAL have for breakfast? What time did he WAKE UP? What time did his FATHER wake up? What did his FATHER have for breakfast? What have you heard about the SIREN over the mountains? How much MONEY do you have?”

Okay. That was Robbins’ approach: dancers as actors (and not incidentally athletes), directors as Intimidators in Chief. A prickly approach, but one that worked for him from ballet to Broadway and back to ballet again.

Not Boal’s style. In soft shoes, soft pants and a T shirt, he works quietly, giving a reason as he corrects. The Prodigal passes a large wine jug to one of his two friends. “He just bought it, it’s heavy,” Boal says. Now it is, so full it almost sloshes. He changes the angle of the Son’s face just slightly; now it shows his father – not his friends – that he’s leaving.

One of the Sirens enters, at the mercy of her yards-long red plush train.
“I’m not an expert on Sirens,” Boal says, “but. . . “ he had been able to watch an 8-hour tape from WNET of Balanchine working on Prodigal with Baryshnikov. “They began in English, then quickly switched to Russian, which I don’t speak, but it was. ..” He shakes his head at the memory.

In any case, as he works with one Son and one Siren, and she buries his face in her chest, Boal fixes the boy’s expression to show the audience that this gesture was not the Son’s idea.

He moves along to the overwhelming ending, although the tall dancer playing The Father hasn’t been called for this session. Boal fills in. “I could never play the Father, “ he says, sotto voce, “I’m too short ” Still, what crosses his face as he sees his destitute, humbled, grief-wracked Son, is everything we need to know about forgiveness, majesty and wisdom. And Peter Boal.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”

               

That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt.  Dov’s you should take very very seriously.  The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both.  Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness.  I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder.  Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

I wasn’t much help, have to say, when he asked what it was about, (his second favorite question after “What’s the running time?”) because it’s not about any two-sentence summary.  Fox Seachlight and New Regency are doing a full court press currently in Los Angeles, showing all of director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s films, with a section of “themes ” from Birdman added each night  (Risk, Respect, Love, Honesty, Truth.)

Well, okay, if you say so; I’d never disrespect the publicity arm that has brought this film to so many podiums and Best Of awards thus far. Still, highlighting themes does sort of tear up the — sorry, but there’s no better word —  soaring quality of the film. The camerawork of  Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) appears to be one pell-mell, hurtling, breathless single take, following Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, indelibly stamped as the alter-ego of Birdman, a very dead franchise, as he dares to transform reclaim himself one last time — on Broadway.  (More about Keaton’s unsparing brilliance to come — as they say.)

I did like it Saturday night, when the beautiful Inarittu (below) won the Directors Guild  Award, and someone had to ask him flat-footedly What It All Means. Full of the moment, and translating from inside his head, the ebullient director answered,

“The actor as the representation of every human man who has a creative process. It’s about anyone with ambition, anything we feel; we try and fail, we question, we go deep then we rise up again.  I wanted Birdman to be an extension of that state of mind that every human being has [had] in his life, embodied in an actor.”

(Thank you Deadline Hollywood.)

I think of all the awards this shimmering film has accumulated  — and the uber-reliable IMDb logs them at 139 won and 163 nominations, excluding its 9 at the Academy Awards* — the one that truly took me aback was winning Best Film from the Producers Guild.  Until I thought about that for a long minute.

Yes, of course that Guild could be considered the bastion of old Hollywood.  I don’t even want to look at the stats on its lily-whiteness or average age or how many women are members.  But Inarritu’s words stuck in my mind:  he made his beautiful film for anyone who has a creative process, who has ambition, who tries and fails, goes deep and rises up again.

How could it not have struck a chord with Hollywood’s producers — very possibly the biggest risk-takers in the business? .

* Let’s celebrate every single nominee:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Alejandro González Iñárritu
John Lesher
James W. Skotchdopole

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Michael Keaton

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Edward Norton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Emma Stone

Best Achievement in Directing
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone
Alexander Dinelaris
Armando Bo

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Jon Taylor
Frank A. Montaño
Thomas Varga

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Aaron Glascock
Martín Hernández

.