Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

Erica Obey, president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, had some preparatory thoughts about our panel on New Jersey crime/mystery writers, taking advantage of having Mally Becker with us. Just last week, Becker published her first novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, set in the Revolutionary War period. Aside from Malley, we were Jeff Markowitz, me, and discussion leader RG Belsky, and Obey wondered how each of us connects with the past.

This was an interesting question. My public school education included very little history, none of it presented in an interesting or memorable way. It really wasn’t until I married Neil, who trained in history, that I learned what I was missing.

But history didn’t come to live in my heart until I started working on my family genealogy. In 2012, I extended my stay at Killer Nashville, and my cousin from Texas joined me for a two-day excursion to Wilson County, just east of the Music City. We wanted to see if we could learn anything about our great-great grandparents who’d lived there two hundred years ago. As it turned out, we learned a lot (patient people there, at the Wilson County historical society).

The artist Jeff Koons advises people to “take your history on board,” and I’m still working on it. One of the chief benefits of genealogy is recognizing more acutely how my ancestors’ lives were affected by where they lived and when they lived there. It gives me a specific, personal reason to become aware of the movements and events of the past. It isn’t all pretty.

When you start asking “why,” you come up with some powerful answers. Why did my family end up in Central Texas? Because the ruin and devastation of the Civil War was so great in Central Tennessee, my great-great grandparents and their eight children became part of the GTT (Gone To Texas movement). They had to start new lives with nothing but each other. Why were they so badly affected? Their homes and farms and animals were collateral damage in the Civil War Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), just twelve miles south of them and involving more than 78,000 soldiers. (The abandoned cannon pictured is from the Stones River National Battlefield.) So, why were they in Tennessee in the first place? Because the men served in the Revolutionary War and were given settlement land in western North Carolina (now central Tennessee). Lots of drama and passionate feeling there for sure.

Among their Tennessee neighbors was the Huddleston family, ancestors of New Yorker and Atlantic writer George Packer, who says, “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.” I do know it’s affected my writing. Only two of my stories are overtly historical, but genealogy has taught me to think about more kinds of connections, past and present, as I write. It’s helpful grounding in this era of “nothing matters but the last five minutes” attention spans.

Tennessee Williams: The Deep Dive

What do you think of when you think about the man many critics believe is one of America’s three greatest 20th century playwrights, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller? Other than thinking that’s a good way to start an argument, as I can hear you saying, “What about August Wilson?” “What about Sam Shepard?” “What about . . . ?” So, forget “one of the three” and just say, “one of the greatest.”

Probably you instantly call to mind several of his best-known plays. Maybe you think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor pictured), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. With further thought, you probably come up with The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth. Oh, and Night of the Iguana. And . . .

Go ahead, Google him, and you’ll find the sheer number of famous plays he wrote is remarkable. And the best-known ones may not even be the best plays. Like great artists in many fields—painting, music—sometimes he’s ahead of the rest of us. Two hundred years ago, audiences gave Beethoven a cool reception too.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Book Club is conducting a six-week Zoom course on Tennessee Williams and his plays, led by STNJ artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte. The predominant reason the forty-plus (number, not age) students signed on was to learn more about this author, of course. That’s a more interesting reason than it sounds, given how well known many of his plays are.

Several students commented on productions of his works they’d seen decades ago that they still remember well. I recall STNJ’s powerful 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. At the end, the audience was momentarily too stunned to applaud, and the leads (Laila Robins as Blanche and Nisi Sturgis as Stella) looked as though they might weep through the curtain call.

Monte had a particular exposure to Williams while she was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in its 1982 season. The festival’s artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos planned a production of excerpts from the plays, billed as Tennessee Williams: A Celebration. Monte put the show together, and Williams was pleased with the result.

Not so Hollywood’s treatment of his work. Endings have been changed, material excised, and portrayals skewed, so if the versions you’re most familiar with are Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives in Cat or Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, and Deborah Kerr in Iguana, or Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster in Tattoo, you’ve missed the real Williams. Of course, with casts like those, the films were bound  to be memorable! All the worse, Williams must have thought.

My interest in Williams was sparked by a personal encounter too. I attended the 1980 Kennedy Center premiere of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, his play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and during intermission, I saw Williams standing alone, leaning against a wall, not eight feet from me. Thrilled, I turned around to tell my husband and bumped into Elizabeth Taylor. Alas, those moments are what I most remember about the play, which was not a critical success. Still waiting for me to catch up, perhaps.

It’s Magic!

We celebrated a recent family birthday with a Zoom event, as all things are these days, hosted by the Chicago Magic Lounge. Every Friday evening at 6:30 Central Time, the Lounge’s (virtual) Cocktail Hour, sponsors a new performance every Friday night. In an hour and a half four magicians, two men and two women, did excerpts from their magic acts that lend themselves to the not-in-person format. It was a fully-produced, live show.

The Chicago Magic Lounge is “dedicated to the art of sleight of hand, prestidigitation, and Chicago’s contribution to the magical arts,” and, as they say, it’s a brief escape from the real world “because we could all use a little misdirection in our lives.

From an audience member’s point of view, it was great, because the camera took you in so close. Three of them did table magic, and the fourth was standing. They performed a variety of card tricks, coin tricks, and “science” tricks. One of the magicians is a science teacher, in real life. It was fun, low-key, and a great way to celebrate together, but separately.

There was even audience participation and, as a special bonus, the club’s bartender demonstrated how to make the cocktail of the evening.

There’s a modest per household/screen charge. Have an event coming up? In search of something novel? If this sounds like fun, find out more here!

Movies That Matter

New Plaza Cinema last week hosted one of its popular Zoom presentations with film historian Max Alvarez. The theme this time: The Cinema Seeks Justice, and the examples included courtroom dramas and other stories in which the law was used to achieve greater fairness or to redress wrongs.

Filmmakers wanting to make an “issue movie” face a number of challenges. Perhaps the first challenge is to move past Samuel Goldwyn’s famous admonition: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If their story based on real life, as all of Alvarez’s examples were, situations probably don’t work out as quickly or neatly as the film portrays. Real life is messy; a film has to be selective about the size of the cast of characters (too many are confusing and require too much backstory) and they may simplify complex stories. Nevertheless, they can be powerful emotional touchstones. Alvarez illustrated a half-dozen issues with the films that portrayed them. This type of film must be popular in my family, because we’d seen most of them.

The issue of human rights emerged in a 2006 film from the late Michael Apted, Amazing Grace, set in 1787 England, in which William Wilberforce struggled to persuade Parliament to abolish Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it wasn’t until 1833 that the practice officially ended. A young Benedict Cumberbatch appears as William Pitt on the anti-slavery side.

The quest for racial justice has any number of strong films, and Alvarez selected the 2017 movie Marshall, set in 1941, in which young NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) defends a young Black man on a false charge of raping a white woman. His second example was Loving, from 2016, the story of a mixed-race couple who lived in a Virginia county where such marriages were illegal. Their case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to the elimination of laws banning miscegenation.

In the environmental justice category, the 2019 film Dark Waters dealt with a DuPont chemical disaster (with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the company’s practice of deny, deny, deny. I especially admired Tim Robbins’s performance as the conservative head of Ruffalo’s Cincinnati law firm. In 1998’s A Civil Action, lawyer John Travolta takes on the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods also for contaminating the local water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is a good example of the long tail of these cases. The lawyers lost this one, but the EPA took it up and, years later, the environmental cleanup in Woburn finally began.

Several noteworthy films have been made about justice for Holocaust victims, including, most memorably, Judgment at Nuremberg, with its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster pictured). Alvarez also highlighted Denial, about the 2000 British trial of David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, played by the always excellent Timothy Spall. Playwright David Hare took much of the dialog verbatim from the trial transcript. Glues you to your seat.

The legal system itself can perpetuate injustices, which Alvarez illustrated with the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four—young men wrongfully convicted of a 1974 London bombing. Police lies resulted in life sentences for them men. After 15 years in prison,  they were exonerated and released.

Finally, Alvarez illustrated the issue of what he called global justice with the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (in French), a slightly fictionalized depiction of the assassination of a democratic Greek politician. It received Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning the latter. (Costa-Gavras, never one to shun controversy, also was responsible for the terrific film Missing, about an American father and wife trying to learn the fate of their son and husband in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Here, the U.S. legal system was no help.)

“The Most Expensive TV Series Ever Made” – Part II

Last week, Part I of this post described the several British sites that stand in for the (reportedly much less elegant) Buckingham Palace in the Netflix tv series, The Crown. In addition to the three properties mentioned, Lancaster House, built in the 19th century for the Duke of York, offers the Picture Gallery where Diana roller-skated. It also was used in Young Victoria, The King’s Speech, and the episode of Downton Abbey where the Crawleys are presented to the King and Queen.

Interiors of the French chateau in Buckinghamshire called Waddesdon Manor (pictured above)—the only one of the forty-some properties once owned by the Rothschilds that remains intact—also are used and have appeared in The Queen, An Ideal Husband, and the Lovejoy series. Goldsmith’s Hall, much fancier I trust than U.S. union halls, is where Diana’s grandmother began schooling her on being part of the royal family.

Windsor Castle

Windsor is the largest occupied castle in the world. It’s portrayed by a number of locations: Audley End in Essex (especially the great hall with heraldry in the coffered ceiling, pictured); Burghley House in Lincolnshire (seen in Bleak House, The Buccaneers, and Pride and Prejudice); and Belvoir Castle, in Lincolnshire, which belongs to the Dukes of Rutland. Viewers of The Crown saw Princess Margaret there. Also filmed at Belvoir Castle: Young Sherlock Holmes, The Da Vinci Code, and The Golden Bowl.

Kensington Palace

The one requirement for stand-ins for Kensington Palace is that they display a lot of red brick. IRL Princess Margaret and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Kate and William) have lived there. 

Kensington’s stand-ins have included Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, which is a popular location for shooting ballroom scenes, and has appeared in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Love in a Cold Climate and an Inspector Morse episode. When Princesses Margaret and Diana meet in a courtyard, they are actually at Wellington College in Berkshire. Another Hertfordshire shooting location is Wrotham Park, location of the room where Queen Elizabeth meets with her Prime Ministers. Its exteriors, staircase, and several rooms were used in Gosford Park.

Balmoral Castle

This is the only royal residence that uses only one filming location. The Ardverikie Estate in the Scottish Highlands (pictured above). Balmoral was constructed under the direction of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in the Scottish Baronial style. It also was used in the filming of Mrs. Brown and No Time to Die, the new James Bond movie whose release has been postponed, yet again.

See the sites used to give us a more glamorous Buckingham Palace here.

“The Most Expensive TV Series Ever Made” – Part I

The Netflix series “The Crown” reportedly costs more to produce than any other television series in history. Its four seasons so far have cost an estimated $260 million. The largest contributor to the hefty pricetag is location shooting, accounting for some 75 percent of the show’s costs. Last Friday, I took a virtual tour of the locations intended to simulate Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral.

Led by Curt Di Camillo, curator of special collections for American Ancestors, we zoomers saw interiors of the many grand houses and other buildings where The Crown is filmed. Ironically, according to Di Camillo, many of these interiors are far nicer than anything in the actual palaces, especially so since only the very best room (or two) is used from each. When an actor exits from one room into another or into a spacious hallway, the first room may be in one grand old house and the hallway in another. That’s the magic of continuity.

One “economy” the filmmakers employ is to film everything they can in Britain or nearby. When Diana visited “New York,” for example, that was Manchester. When Diana and Charles visited “Australia,” that was Spain.

Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live in Buckingham Palace, still referred to as the “new palace.” It replaced St. James Palace as the sovereign’s primary residence, and you’ll recall that the U.S. Ambassador is still referred to as the ambassador to the Court of St. James. Sites where Buckingham Palace scenes are filmed include:

The Old Royal Naval College, which derives more money from renting itself out for filming than most (or was it all?) other sources. (The Painted Hall is pictured above.) Also partly filmed there: Patriot Games, The King’s Speech, The Madness of King George.

Osterley House—You may recall when Prince Philip’s mother came to live in the Palace, there was a particular staircase he climbed in order to visit her. This was Osterley House’s Robert Adam’s staircase (pictured). The house is situated in Osterley Park, one of the largest open spaces in London. Also filmed there: Mansfield Park, Young Victoria, Great Expectations.

Wilton House in Wiltshire is the home of the Earls of Pembroke; an early one was the patron of William Shakespeare. The Smoking Room serves as the Queen’s office; its dining room as the Palace dining room, and the Double Cube Room (30 by 30 by 60 feet in length) has appeared several times. It’s where JFK and Jackie meet Elizabeth and Philip. It’s where Diana practices dance. The Double Cube Room and the Single Cube Room next door, between them, display a large collection of paintings, notably 14 van Dykes.

You may recognize these rooms (pictured below) from Bridgerton, as well, and as some of the interiors of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice—alas, the horrible 2005 version with Kiera Knightley, not the 1995 TV series with Colin Firth. Of much greater significance, in World War II, these rooms were the headquarters for D-Day planning.

Next Week: Part II on 1/26

Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)

Precious Metals

Gold, silver, platinum. These tempting elements have brought more than their share of joy and woe to people over millennia. The final session of my gemstones class covered the precious metals in which those beautiful stones are set. The fictional criminal I have in mind picked up a few good tips in this session too.

Gold’s purity is measured in karats, with 24K gold 100 percent pure. 18K gold is 75 percent gold and 25 percent alloy, and so on. Pure gold is much too soft to be made into jewelry. In the United States, 14K (58.3 percent gold) is common in fine jewelry. In other countries—notably, India and the Near East—18K gold is more typical.

Not only are gold alloys more durable for jewelry, having less gold makes them less expensive than pure gold would be and allows for a change in the color. Our instructor emphasized that gold is yellow. White gold, rose gold, and green gold are all possible because of the alloys used. Pink gold is produced through the addition of copper; green gold by adding silver; and white gold includes palladium (expensive) or nickel (cheap), for example. An opportunity for a scam there, it seems.

Gold is also hypoallergenic, so if someone has an allergic reaction to their gold jewelry, they are actually sensitive to whatever metal the gold was alloyed with. Many people (including me!) get an itchy rash when there’s nickel in their jewelry (the backs of inexpensive earrings, for example), so sticking to yellow gold is best for them. Of course, such a dermatologic reaction might raise a buyer’s suspicions. Interestingly, and of potential benefit to our fictional jewelry scammer, the Federal Trade Commission does not regulate the alloys used in jewelry manufacture, just the percentage of gold present.

While nickel is inexpensive, palladium is very expensive, so to achieve the desirable level of whiteness in white gold, it may be plated with some other metal—typically rhodium. White gold today is so expensive, “you might as well buy platinum,” our instructor said. My thief is pondering that in planning his next smash-and-grab.

Prices of the precious metals are high, because of high demand, and can rise quickly when people are nervous about other investments or in the midst of various national or international crises. And some of the countries gold is mined in are not the most stable or as subject to environmental or purity standards as is the United States or European Union. (Foreign intrigue afoot.)

Like gold, most silver is an alloy. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver and the remainder copper, which provides strength. It’s not as hard or as tough as gold.

Previous posts in this series:
Diamonds and Pearls
Colored Gemstones

Photo: PhotoMIX-Company for Pixabay