BRING BACK NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK

Way back in the dark ages, the third week in February (an otherwise dreary and neglected month) was designated National Brotherhood Week. As designated special weeks go, it was never a big hit with the general public. In the 1980s, it disappeared completely. Probably because it failed to sell greeting cards. Which is, I believe, the point of this kind of created event.

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The National Conference for Christians and Jews (NCCJ) came up with the idea of National Brotherhood Week in 1934. Given the current political climate, maybe we can agree more brotherhood year round would be an improvement. Sadly, we no longer have even that one, measly week.

February is now Black History Month which seems to mean movie channels run films featuring non-white stars, unless you watch PBS or the History Channel. There you might see a documentary or two. A man who took it seriously — back in the ever older days — as he took all politics seriously, was Tom Lehrer. He taught math at Hahvid (Harvard, if you aren’t from around here). He didn’t write many songs. Till his dying day (which hasn’t occurred — he’s alive and living in California), he thought of himself as a math teacher who wrote silly songs — not as an entertainer.

Despite this unfair self-assessment, I’ve always felt Tom got this celebration dead to rights. Ya’ think?

Check him out on YouTube. He only wrote about 50 songs and most of them are posted in some video or other. Me? I’ve got the CDs.

Remember CDs?

BONUS!


Given recent interactions with North Korea, I thought I’d add these two extra little ditties. They seem so … appropriate.

LOSERS

We’ve been watching this show about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. They are doing this last, terrible, desperate film. They don’t like each other. They may, in fact, truly loathe one another. But they need this movie because they are getting old and they know it is their last chance to do something before the rug is pulled out from under them.

That’s the real point of the story. They didn’t make a good movie. They didn’t change the rules of Hollywood. In fact, the rules have not changed. More women get decent roles even after passing that magic age — these days more like 55 than 40 — but most don’t. Women are still underpaid, underrated. A man playing a role for which he is blatantly too old is applauded. A woman is laughed at. A woman with wrinkles, if she is really top drawer in the acting department will get some roles, but not like a man.

Men can work as long as they can totter around. Not so for women.

BOSTON HERALD 03-17-2017

Women do get work. Not as many as eventually will, but many more than used to. We keep at it and one day, we will win. The women who fought the studios, battled movie moguls who treated them like soiled hankies? They were losers. Losers in every sense of the word. But the battles they fought opened up the world for others yet to come.

If you are wondering how the things we do now can help us in the battle to survive this thing who is our so-called leader? Everything we do matters. It counts. Even thought we fight and lose, we fight again. Maybe we lose. But …

Eventually, we don’t lose. In the end, we will win. Bet on it.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – HOLLYWOOD AND MATURE ACTRESSES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn has just written a piece about Feud: Bette And Joan. However, the mini-series about the iconic Hollywood actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford plays a peripheral role in Marilyn’s offering.


My take on “Feud” focuses more on Hollywood and its disaffection for older actresses. Things are better for mature film actresses now than back in Hollywood’s “golden age.”  A look the award-winning films of the past year include names like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Viola Davis,, and Charlotte Rampling. All these ladies are AARP members. The roles essayed by these women are three-dimensional. Free of the “Norma Desmond” caricatures familiar in Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s.

Feud: Susan Sarandon (L) and Jessica Lange – December 9, 2016 – Los Angeles, CA
Photograph: Robert Trachtenberg

Feud: Bette And Joan focuses on the Davis and Crawford collaboration, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It’s art imitating life imitating art. The movie was a desperation marriage for the two legendary stars who despised each other, but had a common enemy.

The “suits.”

The studio moguls who regarded their stars as property, not flesh and blood people. La la land titans like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner treated women like clothing. Runway fashion for a few years, and then discount goods after they turned 40.

The ladies tried hard. An over-30 Norma Shearer playing Juliet in MGM’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) drew snarky comments from critics who lauded an equally mature Leslie Howard playing Romeo. Remember Ginger Rogers playing a teenager in The Major And The Minor?

There are moments in Feud: Bette And Joan when the two actresses let their guard down and share the bitterness and hatred they feel for the people who feed the publicity machine that can never be satisfied.  Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford make us believe — because they are mature actresses echoing the paths of two women who made things easier for them today.

On a very memorable afternoon in the late 60’s, Katherine Hepburn shared stories about old Hollywood. She didn’t mince words. Almost all the studios bosses were bastards in her book. She felt the same way about most directors — except George Cukor. Hepburn demanded respect, refused to play “younger” and provoked the ire of all who tried to manipulate her. She smiled at me when I told her how I routinely challenged “suits” who wanted me to be a more restrained man-of-color.

Hepburn respected both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This was 7-years after “Baby Jane” was released. Someone apparently had contacted Hepburn about doing the movie but they were really after Audrey Hepburn. Katherine was considered too old. That little nugget is covered in the FX mini-series.

Katherine Hepburn’s favorite director, George Cukor, confirmed everything she said in a chat with me in the early 70’s. Ironically, I was alerted about Cukor’s arrival at our TV station by our lobby receptionist, “Garry, there’s some old guy named George Cukor here to see you.” Cukor also confirmed the woes faced by Davis and Crawford. He was in the twilight of a magnificent career.

Bette Davis received verbal support from her ex-husband and All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill. Merrill. Over many Bloody Mary’s, he regaled me with stories about life with Margo Channing/Bette Davis. The feuds with 20th Century Fox boss, Darryl F. Zanuck and vain efforts to stay forever young in Hollywood.

Merrill admitted that booze made life easier but made remembering your lines harder. He said Bette Davis found life especially hard after All About Eve. It was all downhill for her, with one bad picture offer after another. Why? Merrill shook his head and pointed at himself, indicating age.

Feud: Bette And Joan resonates with anyone who has worked in front of a camera for more than a few years. Trust me. I know.

HONEYMOON IN IRELAND – HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY

We surprised everyone — except ourselves — when we announced our plans to honeymoon in Ireland. “Neither of you is Irish,” they said, foreheads wrinkled. I’m not sure why everyone assumes the only reason to go to Ireland is to look for “roots.” While we were there, we were often asked why we’d come and on hearing neither of us is Irish, would get looks of puzzlement.

Then, they’d look again and ask “Are you sure?”

It was a great place for Americans. There’s strain between the Irish and English for longstanding historical reasons, but they have nothing but smiles for Americans. From Dublin to Sligo, Shannon, Galway, Cashel and all the lovely towns in between, people were friendly and welcoming. When they learned we were honeymooners, we were treated to rounds of drinks and offered the best accommodations. Avoiding big hotels, we stayed in bed and breakfasts which we found using the National Tourist Board guidebook and a map.

We’d zero in on a destination and phone ahead. After a while, it began to work the opposite way. Wherever we found ourselves as evening approached, we’d see who had a room and stay. We always found a place and each home was spotlessly clean and comfortable, although tiny by American standards.

Cong and Garry

Cong and Garry

Our first stop after Shannon was Cashel. The bed-and-breakfast was like a little European pension. In the shadow of the Rock of Cashel, adjacent to the ruins of a medieval Dominican church, the location was perfect. We stayed two nights, then headed for Dublin.

Dublin was magic. Once we found our feet,  it was a city of music and good company We’d been planning to stay two nights, but stayed five. There were evening’s at Foley’s, where Irish music played every night and we all joined in, each in our own key. There were the pubs, where the Irish Coffee was always strong and the folks eager to wish us well and advise us on our itinerary. We shopped, sang, and drank, not necessarily in that order. (Note: Probably you should shop then drink.) We listened to stories, told some of our own, and would gladly have stayed another week or more.

Ashford Castle

From Dublin, we drove cross-country to Sligo. As we entered Sligo, the rain began to pelt down. For perhaps five minutes, it poured. Then, as the rain slowed to a drizzle, in front of us appeared a brilliant double rainbow. Welcome to Sligo. Our destination was a bed and breakfast called Rathnashee, which we learned means “fairy ring.” There’s an earthwork fairy ring in the field adjoining the house. I chose it because it had a room with a private bath, was on a main road (we never stopped getting lost, but we did learn to enjoy it), and had a library. Books are my weakness. Maybe my strength too.

The parlor of the house was a library, mainly the history of Ireland and Sligo in particular. Evenings, by the warmth of a peat fire, we settled in with a pot of tea and a plate of cookies. We read about Yeats, the Great Hunger, and the long, often tragic history of the north. In the course of events, Garry discovered he did, after all, have Irish roots, while I dreamed of fairy circles and magic mountains.

Abbey ruins near Ashford Castle

Sligo is bursting with magic. You can feel it as you explore the ancient earthworks, standing stones, cairns, and castles. I became convinced that the “Little People” live there still. Loch Gill, where lies the Isle of Innisfree, has its own kind of magic. We spent a grand afternoon exploring the recently restored Park Castle.

The crystal waters so clearly mirrored the sky that those viewing the pictures we shot that day have trouble telling which is water and which is sky. Later that same day, while heading toward Knocknarea, the mountain top cairn of the legendary Queen Mab, we met Gordon Winter, ex-spy, author, and local character. We were photographed in close encounters with his pet chickens, sipped tea in his kitchen, and bought an autographed copy of his latest book “Secrets of the Royals.”

Author Gordon Winter, Garry and chickens

Author Gordon Winter, Garry and chickens

Throughout our vacation, the weather never stopped changing. The sun shone, disappeared and reappeared in rapid succession. Wind blew, and clouds rolled in, and it rained. A few minutes later, the rain stopped, the wind died, the sun came out, the temperature rose, and just as you had taken off your jacket and put on your sunglasses, you’d realize it was raining again. We took our sunglasses on and off twenty times an hour, and took our jackets on and off almost as often. The second morning in Sligo, we awoke to pounding rain. I peeked out the window to see another rainbow, even brighter than the one we’d seen coming in, in the field across the road.

Rainbow over Sligo

Rainbow over Sligo

By the time we went to breakfast, the sun had come out, but by breakfast’s conclusion, it was again drizzling. Such is Irish weather. It never rained all day, but it rained a little almost every day, and we learned to ignore weather and proceed with our plans, counting on the ever-changing skies to give us enough clear weather to tramp through a ruin, scale a castle wall, or walk down by a riverside.

MarilynInnisfree

After three days in Sligo, we traveled down to Connemara. One afternoon, we drove to Cong, where John Ford shot “The Quiet Man.” Ardent movie buffs, we literally climbed over fences and wended our way through sheep pastures (Garry always greeted the sheep by reminding them how good they would taste with a bit of mint jelly; I thought in terms of sweaters and tweeds) pastures until we found the “quiet man’s cottage,” now in ruins. The setting is as idyllic as ever, though, and the stream still flows past the cottage door and under the little bridge. Clearly the movie was the biggest thing to ever hit the town. Cong is full of Quiet Man memorabilia, and the local residents full of anecdotes and memories.

Cong, September 1990

Cong, September 1990

Our time was almost up, and as we continued down along the coast, we began to realize that we would really have to go home. The idea was so depressing that we stopped in the nearest pub for solace.

The only part was driving. Keeping left was a problem. The roads were another. Narrow, a terrifying mix of blind curves, roaming sheep, and meandering cattle, locals drive these narrow roads at supersonic speeds. On roads hardly wider than our tiny compact car, we were passed, after which we felt obliged to check if the door handles and mirrors were still attached.

Irish Signs

Eventually we stopped worrying where we were or how to get someplace else. We let the road take us where it would. We knew whenever and wherever we stopped, we’d find a good pub and friendly faces.

We hoped we’d go back again, but other places called and the years ran faster than I believed possible. But we remember.

Yeats in Sligo

Post Script:

When we got home, we were visiting Garry’s folks, showing the photos to Garry’s Dad until he stopped us. It was the pictures of Yeats’ burial site. “Those are your people,” he said, pointing to a group of stones slightly behind Yeats’.

“Our people?” asked Garry.

“Your grandparents were from Sligo,” he said. “My mother,” he clarified. That explained the very light-skinned red-headed grandmother Garry remembered.

“When were you going to tell me?” he asked his father.

“I was waiting until I thought you were old enough,” his father explained. Garry was 48 at the time.

REMEMBERING THE MAN: RICHARD JAECKEL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Boston, 1973.

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was warm. We shot in shirtsleeves in the lobby of the TV station. I couldn’t get a studio and was being urged to get the shoot finished as quickly as possible. The “suits” were unimpressed with Richard Jaeckel. James Coburn was the hot interview on the circuit as “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” was being pushed by publicists. Richard Jaeckel was very pleasant and friendly even before we rolled the camera.

jaeckel -1He asked about what I did. I gave him a snapshot biography back to my radio days and shooting my own film at a previous TV station. He grinned and said it was good to be working with a “grunt”. The rapport was established.

I mentioned having interviewed Gregory Peck a decade earlier, how well we got along. Jaeckel segued into working with Peck in one of his earliest films, “The Gunfighter” (1950).

As Jaeckel talked, I nodded for my cameraman to begin shooting. He smiled. He’d been shooting since Jaeckel and I began swapping war stories. The interview flowed smoothly.

It was more like a conversation between friends than an interview to promote a film. We chatted more than 10 minutes before I mentioned “Pat Garrett” and Jaeckel again smiled, saying he’d forgotten he was supposed to be promoting the film.

He discussed working with the quirky Sam Peckinpah and scene-stealers like Chill Wills. I asked about Bob Dylan, also in the film. Jaeckel’s smile got bigger as he recalled the folk singer’s kid-like behavior working with “movie stars”.

About 20 minutes later, we wrapped the interview. I asked Jaeckel what was next on his schedule. He said he was free for the afternoon. I suggested a pub near the station might be fine for lunch. He quickly agreed.

Drinks and meals ordered, Jaeckel and I began a three-hour conversation touching on family, movie making and the business of promoting movies. We found a common thread in our roots in New York, in our frustration with management and “the suits.”

I mentioned how I was always “the kid” at every stop in my career. He nodded and jumped in with stories about working with Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Karl Malden and Richard Boone in some of his very early movies. He said they all treated him well but he was always called “the kid”.

richard-jaeckel-dirtydozen-7Jaeckel broke into guffaws when I asked about working with character actors like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Lambert — all well established screen villains. He said they were the easiest and nicest people to work “jobs” (films) in the business. Jaeckel slid into a brief note about his son, Barry who was a rising tennis player. I quoted some stats which prompted a very pleased grin and a final round of drinks. We ended the afternoon with him picking up the tab, saying he had really enjoyed the day and would check me out on the tube before leaving Boston.

The next evening, just after the 6 pm newscast, I got a call. It was Richard Jaeckel. He’d caught me doing a news piece.

“Good job, Kid”, he said.

“Thanks, Kid”, I replied. We both laughed and wished each other well.

More

“Chisum” is a goodie directed by Vic McLaglen’s son, Andrew. Jaeckel had made it 3 years before “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was, he said, fun working with Wayne and a many from the John Ford stock company.

BanacekS1During our lunch,  Jaeckel recounted the off-camera sparring between vets like Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson,  Forrest Tucker and Duke Wayne versus “kids” like Andrew Prine, Geoff Duel and Christopher George. There were drinking contests with the old guys daring the younger guys to match them shot-for-shot of the hard stuff. The old guys won.

Jaeckel said by the time he made “Chisum” he was regarded as a “tweener” by Wayne and his buddies. He wasn’t harassed like “the kids” but wasn’t quite accepted by the old guys.

Jaeckel said Bruce Cabot was a mean drunk and was reprimanded by Wayne, who himself wasn’t always friendly when he was loaded. Ben Johnson was a friendly, easy-going guy who wasn’t intimated by Wayne who tried to goad his old pal. Christopher George who I met on another occasion confirmed Jaeckel’s stories.

Another Meeting

The second meeting with Richard Jaeckel occurred when “Banacek” was shooting in Boston. We used to have a charity softball game on Boston Common. This time, it was the media all-stars versus George Peppard, the “Banacek” crew and the Playboy Bunnies.

Kegs of beer were set up for both benches. The drinking began before the game and never stopped. Before the first game, the flacks were introducing Peppard to media folks. Jaeckel was a guest star on the “Banacek” series. He pulled Peppard over and introduced me as his buddy, a “grunt” who knew his stuff a holdover from our initial meeting.

Peppard grinned broadly, shook hands and led us behind the bench where he had a carton of his private stock of “the good stuff.” I don’t remember much about the game. I do recall we did justice to the carton of the good stuff. The following day, Peppard –notoriously difficult with the press — turned up for an interview I hadn’t scheduled.

Richard Jaeckel was his driver.

NUANCED DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN DULL … DOES IT?

Let me get this straight.I am talking about reviews of things. Books, audiobooks, movies, television shows. I should include music, but I don’t real reviews of music and to be absolutely honest, I haven’t read anything about music, other than which classical pianist plays, oh I don’t know … Beethoven’s sonatas or Chopin’s nocturnes better than whoever else plays them … and that was 50 years ago. A child, was I back then.

These days, Garry usually reads the reviews and the ones he thinks I’d enjoy, he passes over to me.

The moment I see any of these words:

  • Nuance
  • Poignant
  • Sensitive
  • Touching
  • Artistic

and others I can’t think of right now because I haven’t had enough coffee, I know I will not see that movie. Anyway, who really goes to the movies? If you aren’t a kid dating another kid, who actually watches the crud they are playing? My granddaughter won’t go either because she says the stories are “stupid” and she’s not quite 21. Ah from the mouths of babes.

All those words mean one thing.

Dull. Sometimes, really boring. Occasionally, merely “lacking anything resembling a plot.” I don’t care how many Hollywood, London, or Melbourne “Big Name Actors” are in it. As often as not, when you see a big crowd of expensive actors in one cast, you can put money on the lack of a decent script. They had to save money somewhere, you know.

When asked the three most important points of movie making, Alfred Hitchcock said: “The script, the script, and the script.”

Good acting counts, too — if there’s a script. As does excellent cinematography, set design, directing … all of it matters. When there’s a story.

If you don’t have a script, the rest of it is “nuanced nothing.” A sensitive, artistic, subtle yet somehow, poignant (and deeply touching) movie which will be admired by the artsy crowd. And forgotten by everyone else before six months has passed.

This is my very nuanced opinion on nuance. Shoot me dead, I do not care. If the script, the story, the characters, the follow through don’t work? Boring. Dull. You want to make everyone older than 14 go to the movies? Make movies that feel like life. Doesn’t have to be life right now. It can be life 500 years ago. Regardless, give us life.

Give us stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Give us a tale to tell our kids. Make that story rock!

DAILY POST | NUANCE

WHEN STARS WERE STARS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s Academy Awards weekend and the buzz is on about the contenders. Who’ll win, who should win, who’s been snubbed, who’ll be wearing what, etc ad nauseam. It used to be an exciting period for me as a life long movie lover. Not any more!

We haven’t seen any of the nominated films this year. I can only judge by word of mouth. I know “La La Land” is everyone’s favorite, with 14 nominations. It’s a hot ticket with Hollywood heavyweights because it pays tribute to the golden age of movies. We should go see it.

Yet, therein lies the rub.

I grew up watching movies from the golden age. Almost all the legends were live and working. I read fan magazines about John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and other iconic figures. Stuff about their home life and upcoming projects. Lux Radio Theater carried adaptations of film hits featuring the likes of Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd and Myrna Loy. Billboards featured Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Clark Gable.

New kids on the Hollywood block included Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman. Sid Caesar made fun of Brando’s method school mumbling on his “Show of Shows” skits. Grownups snickered at Brando, saying “his kind” would never replace greats like Ronald Coleman and Leslie Howard.

My parents refused to buy me the motorcycle jacket and cap Brando wore in “The Wild One”. Geez, they were so cool and I desperately wanted to look cool. I copied John Wayne’s laconic walk and measured speech pattern. It made me feel 6-inches taller.

Movie stars were truly larger than life in those days. You didn’t see them often. Guest appearances on radio and television were special. I recall watching one Oscar telecast. It might have been 1953. The black and white images sparkled with shots of stars in the audience. Everywhere the camera turned, there were famous faces. It was wonderful to see “old” stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Lillian Gish and Mae West. There were the veterans like Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Fredric March, to name a few.

I got a kick when they focused on the newer, more “hip” stars like  Newman, Dean, Brando, Poitier, James Garner, Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron.  My jeans stiffened when I saw closeups of Mamie Van Doren, Edie Williams and Rhonda Fleming. Lordy! Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas did a song and dance act that stole the show. The applause was long and deafening. The smiles from Kirk and Burt could’ve lit up a dozen cities. Bob Hope was funny as usual, joking about being snubbed by Oscar. It never occurred to me that someone other than Bob Hope could host the Academy Awards show.

Mom, my frequent movie date, smiled widely as she watched the stars. I think she was recalling her youth. I might’ve noticed a tinge of sadness but it was fleeting.

All those images are filed away in my sense memory this Oscar awards weekend. I don’t know many of the stars. George Clooney, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are now veterans.

Dare I mention that so many of the “new” celebrities all look alike? My wife says it’s all about plastic surgery. Yet there are plenty of serious  stars. The Streeps, Washingtons, Berrys. The new old timers — Pacino and DeNiro. They’re no younger than we are. Some are older. They aren’t getting big roles, either.

So, rather than disparage the youngest group of stars, I shall simply admit time has left me in the dust.

How did this happen?