Amateur night

September 21, 2010

VALENTINE PRINGLE

I stepped into the room the other night long enough to hear Jackie Evancho sing a duet with Sarah Brightman a half hour or so before coming in second on “America’s Got Talent.” I don’t follow the show, so I don’t  know anything about the grown-up male singer who came in first — in fact, I don’t know his name. Whoever he is, I’m glad he won, because I found Evancho’s involvement on that show disconcerting. I worry about the impact all that excitement has on a 10-year-old psyche. When the winner was announced and the child didn’t seem the least bothered by it, I even found that unsettling.

Also, people around me who have formal training in voice tell me that it isn’t a good idea for a child that age to be singing such demanding music. It has something to do with the need for vocal cords to develop gradually. I wondered if Brightman was alluding to that when she remarked that she hoped Evancho would “preserve” her voice.

ARTHUR GODFREY

Since I so often use this blog to date myself — should I say, place myself in historical context — I might mention that I was a fan of broadcast talent shows before they became such extravaganzas. I was a loyal follower, for instance, of Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” show, which began on radio and continued on television. I believe it was “simulcast” for a while — broadcast life on radio and television at the same time. In a way, that technique has made sort of a comeback in the form of radio shows that are simultaneously webcast with video. WNYC radio in New York does that from time to time. Godfrey was preceded in the genre by Major Bowes and Ted Mack, who called his radio and later TV show “The Original Amateur Hour.” Ted Mack graduates included Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Raul Julia. Major Bowes best-known alumnus has to be Frank Sinatra.

HARRY BELAFONTE

A later attempt to exploit the same concept was “Talent Scouts,” a show on which celebrities brought unknown performers to the public’s attention. Jim Backus was the host of that show, which ran only in 1962. I remember that one of the celebrities was Harry Belafonte, who brought a singer named Valentine Pringle. If I remember correctly, Pringle sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with a bass voice that gave me the shivers. He later made two vinyl albums, and they are among my favorites to this day.

It always surprised me that Val Pringle didn’t become more widely known as a singer. He had an interesting career, though, writing songs — including “Louise” for Belafonte — acting on television and in films, and performing with folks like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Eartha Kitt. He sang the role of Porgy in a recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” produced by Readers Digest.

VALENTINE PRINGLE

Eventually, Pringle and his wife moved to Maseru in South Africa where he was murdered in 1999 by burglars whom he confronted after they had entered his home. Pringle was a U.S. Army war veteran. His ashes are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

The worst of the year?

September 11, 2010

I always read those warnings that accompany films — the ones designed to steer you, or prompt you to steer your children, away from what you consider offensive. The Joaquin Phoenix film “I’m Still Here” may not be unique in this regard, but it is for me — the first film I have seen in which the content warnings include “defecation.”

I generally don’t care about foul language, and nudity and sexuality aren’t show stoppers for me if they’re important to the context of the film, but defecation? Check, please!

I wouldn’t have seen this film even without the crap, as it were, because I’m not sufficiently interested in Joaquin Phoenix whether he’s drawing Oscar nominations or coming apart at the seams. What I do find amusing, though, is the coverage of this film — and particularly the speculation about whether it’s a true documentary, as billed, or whether it’s a put-on or a little of each.

Critics don’t often find themselves having to wonder aloud whether they’re watching fact or fiction, but they do in this case. Sheila Marikar of ABC News, for example, writes: “Joaquin Phoenix could be the most narcissistic, sniveling, drugged-up mess of a man ever to appear on a screen. Or he could be the greatest actor of all time. After watching ‘I’m Still Here,’ the just-released documentary that chronicles his 2008 departure from Hollywood and attempt to launch a rap career, the former seems more believable.”

Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer writes: “Joaquin Phoenix is either one of the greatest actors ever to walk the red carpet on his way to that Entertainment Tonight sound bite, or he’s an insufferably neurotic, narcissistic, doped-up jerk.

“Whichever turns out to be the case (I’m betting on the latter), ‘I’m Still Here’ — the documentary-like chronicle of a year in the life of the twice-Oscar-nominated thespian, as he announces his retirement from movies to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist – stands as a fascinating look at the cloistered, coddled world of a movie star who’s not quite up there in the A-list tier of, say, Leo or Tobey.”

“And Manohla Dargis of the New York Times describes the film as “a deadpan satire or a deeply sincere folly (my money is on the first option) about Mr. Phoenix’s recent roles as an acting dropout and would-be hip-hop artist.”

CASEY AFFLECK

I don’t want to go into detail about the contents of this film — the verbal abuse, the coke snorting, the prostitution, the revolting manners and, indeed the defecation — but it is spelled out in Laremy Legel’s review in the Seattle Post-Dispatch.

In 1958, a critic discussing the Broadway play “Make a Million” said he had spent the previous evening “laughing at a very bad play.” Legel acknowledges that he laughed at some parts of this film, which was directed by Casey Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister.

Legel gets to the heart of the matter when he addresses the pretense that this is a documentary account of a man who has rejected both the work and the milieu of Hollywood and set out to build himself a new career:

“We don’t see him working on his craft, we don’t see him in the clubs trying to get better, we don’t see him reaching out to rappers or starting a writing notebook. What we do see is his him leveraging his celebrity to cause a spectacle. What we do see is him not taking it seriously. What we do see is him not caring, which would be fine, if only he didn’t ask us to instead.”

From what I can discern, Phoenix is a jerk and this movie is garbage, and yet Phoenix also seems to have gotten what he was probably after all along. Everyone is writing about him — including me.

The land of the free

September 8, 2010

I started walking into my editor’s office one morning about 35 years ago, but stopped after two or three steps past the door. This man was usually red-faced and loud; he usually would greet me with an obscenity and a coarse reference to my ethnicity — just to let me know he still loved me.

On this morning, I could see that there would be none of that, because he sat behind his desk, ashen-faced, with a New York City newspaper spread out in front of him and, when he was aware of my intrusion, only muttered something that I could not hear.

Nazi youth burning books

Eventually, I learned that he had just read a story about a group of students at a New York college who had reacted to some beef they had with the school administration by burning copies of the campus newspaper. While I didn’t need my editor to explain to me the principle that was at issue, seeing this brash man nearly made physically ill by the very idea of Americans burning a publication brought the weight of it down on me as nothing has before or since.

A great deal has been written and said about the plan to burn copies of the Qur’an at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. It is born of the ignorant idea that there is something inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American — and idea John Adams debunked in the 18th century. John Adams — one of the “founding fathers” we hear so much about these days.

University of Alabama students burn desegregation literature in 1956.

There is nothing inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American, but there is something inherently incompatible about calling ones self an American and burning books. And I wouldn’t be too quick — as some have been — to dismiss the Gainesville congregation as a fringe group. American “values” are being evoked these days by a lot of people who are not associated with that church but whose idea of American values is no less distorted. For every one willing to burn a book, there are plenty who would stifle any viewpoint other than their own. Anyone who hasn’t heard that in the rhetoric of the past two years hasn’t been listening hard enough.

Meanwhile, what comes after burning the Qur’an? Detention camps?

We watched the 1983 film “The Dresser,” which was based on Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name, a critical success in both London and New York. Alfred Finney and Tom Courtenay star in the movie, and Courtenay played the same part — to applause each time — on the London and New York stages.

The story focuses on the relationship between an aging and rapidly unraveling Shakespearean actor referred to only by the name “Sir” (Finney), and an effeminate man named Norman (Courtenay), who is responsible for the most minute and intimate needs of the overbearing performer. Sir leads a troupe of

ALBERT FINNEY

actors who persevere in performing Shakespeare’s plays — “Macbeth” one night, “Richard III” the next —  in England during the blitz.

As the company copes with the grueling schedule, the pressure of the bombing raids, and their intramural tensions, Sir is coming apart at the seams. The film catches up to him as he arrives at a London theater for a week of performances beginning with “King Lear.”

TOM COURTENAY

Sir snaps in public. Norman, fortified by the pint he keeps in his back pocket, and by a loyalty that by now only he can understand, works feverishly to coax Sir back from the  border of madness while staving off the theater manager’s instinct that the performance should be cancelled.

This film has a good deal of dark comedy on the parts of Finney and Courtenay as well as some  of the supporting cast. The roles of Sir and Norman are the type that invite the actors to jump in head first, and neither actor is reluctant to do so. Both of their performances are convincing and disturbing.

“The Dresser” is not an upper, but it’s one to put on your list.

On the cover of Time

Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.

I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge.  This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose  marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.

I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The  Vinegar Tree.”

On the cover of TV Guide during the run of her second TV series, "A Touch of Grace."

She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.

I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.

“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”

And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”

Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.

Shirley Booth, Don DeFore, and Whitney Blake in a publicity shot for "Hazel."

SARAH PALIN

I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.

Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.

TODD PALIN

What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his  portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.

SARAH PALIN

And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets,  and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.

Sarah Palin campaigining for the vice presidency in 2008.

I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.

ALLEN NEUHARTH

Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.

Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:

“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”