Newman and Woodward: Acting Up!

This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.

So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict [1982]). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.

Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.

Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)

Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.

Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).

Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”

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Favorite Literary Detectives–Who’s Yours?

Last month The Guardian asked a number of today’s best crime writers to ID their favorite literary detectives. This is what they said:

John Banville became a crime novel devotee when he met Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the pages of The Big Sleep. He admits Marlowe is “his creator’s dream version of himself: tough, but tender too, wised up but not cynical, a private eye who has read a book.” Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, favorite of author Dreda Say Mitchell, seems to me to similarly represent authorial wish-fulfillment.

Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder—ex New York cop cum private eye—was the choice of Ian Rankin. He says Scudder is a detective with all of the conventional baggage, yet achieving “the perfect hardboiled mix of grit and poetry: cool jazz with surface noise.” Rankin’s own protagonist John Rebus would get this.

Mark Billingham credits Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade with launching the American hardboiled private eye genre in The Maltese Falcon. Yet, the book’s “most enduring mystery” is Spade himself, a character with much more going on than what is revealed on the page. Perhaps this contributes to the perennial appeal of Sherlock Holmes, too (what is going on in that head of his?), the choice of author Saima Mir.

Australian author Chris Hammer’s detective Nell Buchanan is the pick of Ann Cleeves, while Val McDermid’s favorite is Scottish writer Josephine Tey’s chameleonlike Inspector Alan Grant, who appeared in six novels from 1929 to 1952. He’s featured in Tey’s 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, selected by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1990 as the greatest crime novel of all time. OK, I’m ordering it.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and even Jessica Fletcher were cited by several of the authors and are beloved by readers of all ages. I most resonated with Stella Duffy’s choice, Trixie Belden, a pre-teen favorite at my house. “almost always fierce and brave, confronting what she saw as injustice.”

David Baldacci picked Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, popular heir to the Los Angeles mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He says “Archer brought to the table a heart and a soul, and a way of making sense of the world that was deeply, viscerally connected to the reader.”

In general, these were safe choices. Mostly they represented series—that is, a body of work. Ten years from now, who’d be your nominees? I’d hope to see Joe Ide’s Isaiah Quintabe, Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash, and Mick Herron’s Slough House team in the mix.

Death of a Salesman

Having missed the opportunity to see a performance of Death of a Salesman in Portuguese last spring in Lisbon (I’m kidding), we eagerly bought tickets for the current Broadway version. It stars Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman and Sharon D Clarke as his wife, Linda. Both could not be better and gave affecting, memorable performances. Pierce was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance in a London production of the play.

I know I’ve seen this play several times, including when I was much younger, possibly even as a college student, as Arthur Miller had roots in Ann Arbor. The current version at the Hudson Theater offers whole new vistas of meaning for me now. I remember it being talky and, frankly, a little dull, but it shimmers with life in this version, almost as much as Willie shakes trying to pull his thoughts together. The themes of life disappointments, deluded parenting, and coming to the end of a road, all mean more to the older me, I suppose.

The New Yorker review wasn’t wild about the performances of Khris Davis as Biff Loman and McKinley Belcher III as his brother, Happy, young men in their late twenties. I found them energetic and mesmerizing. They carry out the stylized movements signaling events from their teens with verve. André De Shields appears as the ghost of Ben, haunting his younger brother Willie with his tales of brilliant success in “the diamond mines.” His mantra that all it took was hard work is a lesson that has failed Willie.

Director Miranda Cromwell has subtly updated the production of this 70-plus-year-old gem. There are a few references to its original era, but you don’t feel trapped in a time capsule. Plus, it fits the Black cast so well, you may think the Lomans should have been cast with Black actors all along. Certainly, some ways in which Willie is treated become freighted with new meanings.

So glad I saw it; you will be too!

Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

Tales of the Red River of the North

Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything That Rises Must Converge comes to mind whenever life brings seemingly random stuff together around a common theme. It happens all the time. Recently, I’ve read two books about the same patch of land on the Red River of the North, which forms most of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, then flows into Canada (pictured). You can’t even say that I gravitated to these geographically linked books out of personal interest—one was a pick of my book club and the other a gift. Both by prize-winning authors; both great.

The mystery Murder on the Red River, first of a series of three by Marcie R. Rendon, features 19-year-old Cash Blackbear who lives alone in Fargo, North Dakota, and drives trucks for local farmers. Her lifestyle choices leave room for improvement: too much beer, lots of cigarettes. She earns extra money playing competitive pool, often with her romantic partner, a married man. Playing pool isn’t destructive, per se, of course, but being out late at night in honky-tonk bars where the pool-playing events are held does expose Cash to certain dangers.

When she was a child, she fell under the watchful eye of Sheriff Wheaton, who can recognize an at-risk kid when he sees one. They are still friends. He thinks she’s the smartest person he knows and she has intuition so strong, it produces visions. When an Indian man turns up dead in a field, she helps the sheriff investigate, and an engrossing story is launched.

Multiple award-winner Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence is wonderfully rich and evocative, not only of the cultural background and nuanced relationship of her main characters Tookie, an Ojibwe tribe member, and her husband Pollux, a Potawatomi. The ways—big and small—that they integrate tribal teachings with their present lives is fascinating. At the book’s outset, Tookie commits a crime that takes her to prison (one of the meanings of the book’s title), and the first chapter begins, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” With that juxtaposition of unlikely elements, you just have to keep reading!

The dictionary was sent to her by a former teacher, and when Tookie’s sentence is commuted, the teacher hires her to work in her bookstore. (Erdrich herself owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books). This story takes place in Minneapolis, with the occasional reference to Red River places and people—all very fresh in my mind, thanks to Marcie Rendon.

The bookstore’s most annoying customer dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, and the story takes place over the following year, one full of incident. In the wider world, there’s the pandemic, with employees having to figure out how to work, how to keep the business going, even how to live, in the face of that upheaval. A couple of months in, George Floyd is murdered, and social isolation seems not the right way to go, when conscience urges people onto the streets. Aggressive police tactics have affective the Indian community too, as the bookstore employees are quick to point out.

Tookie’s own life has its complications. The dead customer haunts the store, especially her. The staff try any number of stratagems to persuade the poor woman to go. Will they ever get rid of her? At the other end of the life cycle, Pollux’s daughter has come home, bringing her baby, and Tookie is smitten.

It’s a lovely book, and one where my interest never flagged. Can recommend this Red River excursion to whole-heartedly.

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Florence and Mojo

These two short plays by pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress are now on stage in a riveting production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, under the direction of Lindsay Smiling. Premiering October 26, the show runs through November 13.

Childress wrote, produced, and published plays for forty years. Born in Charleston, she said “Coming out of the Jim Crow experience was what I and many others had to do,” and the first of the plays (Childress’s first play), Florence (1949), addresses this experience directly. It takes place in a small-town train station waiting room in the South. The room is divided into two sections, alike except for the “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs and the segregated bathrooms. Oh, and the whites are offered a battered standing ashtray.

Mama (played by April Armstrong), is waiting for a train to take her to New York to check on her daughter, an aspiring actress, whom Mama fears is near destitute. Her younger daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) tries to persuade Mama to bring her sister home. After Marge leaves, a white woman, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest) appears, and the two talk. The ingrained attitudes and structures of racism are revealed, made even more painful when Mrs. Carter makes a gesture she intends as kind, which is anything but.

Mojo (1970), the longer of the two plays, takes place twenty years later, near the tail-end of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The setting is the mid-century modern Manhattan apartment of Teddy (Chris White). He’s preparing to meet his white girlfriend and make arrangements for a poker game he feels confident he’ll win. As he’s off-stage, a woman opens the door with a key. She’s laden with a suitcase and shopping bag of gifts. Clearly, she plans to stay a while.

Irene (played brilliantly by Darlene Hope) is Teddy’s ex-wife, and through the sparring between them, their backgrounds and secrets gradually emerge. When Renie divulges how she looked for the face of her lost daughter in every child she saw, Hope’s intensity brought tears to my eyes.

Childress was raised in Harlem by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write and challenged her to focus on people struggling to get by. She does exactly that in these two plays. She creates especially complex female characters in both Mama and Irene.

It would be interesting to know how today’s Black audiences regard Irene and Teddy’s attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. They speak as if they are indifferent to it, yet in the two decades between the stories, much had changed and much hadn’t. In the fifty years since Mojo was written, you could say the same.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Inspector Maigret: A French Sense of Justice

Providing food for thought for authors and readers alike is a recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik that probes the enduring popularity of Belgian author Georges Simenon and his police inspector Jules Maigret (portrayed above by Michael Gambon).

Anyone who can write five hundred books—seventy-five about his most famous invention, Maigret—must have something to say to us. Simenon attributed his massive output to his stripping away of everything “literary” from his work—no adjectives! no adverbs! But, as Gopnik points out, his books are full of simple modifiers. What he does not do is comment on the narrative. You might have, as in Gopnik’s example, “The lethargic blonde cashier”—two adjectives right there—but not “The lethargic blonde cashier, of a kind you find in every bar of this sort, usually a former dancer . . .” She’s lethargic, she’s blonde. Leave it at that.

Unlike the modern police procedural (which I quite like, because I’m fascinated with the details of how people do things), Maigret relies more on manipulating the psychology of his suspects. Gopnik suggests they confess out of a sort of collaboration between them and the inspector, rather than because of the weight of forensic evidence. Possibly, in countries where people believed in the power of the confessional, where a priest could intercede with God, a police inspector could intercede with the State.

He says, “Maigret knows that people want to tell their stories, and, if prompted, will. Listening, not inquiring, is the detective’s gift.” Here’s where Maigret’s pipe-smoking becomes an investigatory tool. The long drawn-out process of finding a pipe in some pocket, then the tobacco, filling it, finding the matches in some other place, and getting the pipe properly lit, offers ample realms of silence that a suspect may feel compelled to fill.

Marked differences exist between Maigret’s world and that of detectives in typical American police procedurals. You may have noticed these peculiarities in your reading or capitalized on them in writing set outside the United States. Mostly, as Gopnik says, Maigret is “so French!” What makes him so? He’s a salaried government employee, a functionary, and proud to be one. He doesn’t see the system itself as a problem, just those who try to keep it from working. (No structural problems there. No Don Winslow’s The Force.)

American detectives tend to be independent spirits, chafing under official policy, threatened with demotion for insubordination, and the like. With Maigret, it’s the opposite. Maigret is frustrated not by his bosses, but by his underlings, with their inefficiency and dullness of brain.

Maigret also is not afflicted by a mania for justice, or at least he sees that justice comes in many guises, one of which may not be the need for conviction and incarceration. On this point, Gopnik’s argument reminded me of Inspector Montalbano, which, in several episodes, the Sicilian detective decides not to follow down a particular case where the situation is resolving itself. Stories set in the U.S. rarely go that way, perhaps only when there’s a particularly worldly-wise sheriff who’s seen it all. “Sanctimony and self-righteousness, favored American traits, are disfavored in Simenon’s world.” (This is leaving aside the implacable Inspector Javert, of course.)

Put it like this: it’s a world not dominated so much by black and white, but by gray.

Penguin has released newly translated paperback versions of the full Maigret series, with covers resembling that of his first Inspector Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian.

Reading Lessons: Green Monsters & Flawed Characters

see, eye, green

In Nicky Shearsby’s new psychological thriller, Green Monsters, the first-person narrator, Stacey Adams, makes no secret of her hatred (her word, not mine) for her married older sister, Emma. Emma is a successful businesswoman, lives in a huge house with her dishy husband Jason and toddler daughter, has a designer wardrobe, yada-yada-yada. Perfect, in other words.

Emma’s every remark is perceived as a subtle dig at Stacey’s lack of achievement, her lower status, all the ways she is less. Implications all the more piercing by being true. Stacey lives alone in a cramped apartment and squeaks by with work for a temp agency at a job she cares about not one little bit.

This is a book that, despite its strengths, has a number of significant challenges buried in the set-up described above. Stacey has an almost Manichean view of the world. People are unambiguously either bad (Emma) or good (herself). There’s no gray here.

Shearsby does a powerful job conveying Stacey’s obsessions. The book cover describes her as a “narcissistic psychopath”; however, no mental health professional makes that diagnosis. When, eventually, the plot requires a reversal of Stacy’s attitude, I had been so persuaded of her pathology, I doubted whether Stacey would be capable of any recalibration. If she’s truly a psychopath, it isn’t plausible to me that one day she would simply get past it.

Any story where the main character has a severe mental disorder faces difficulties. And, in Green Monsters is also the narrator Leaving aside that a character’s quirks could become tiresome to the reader, it can be almost too easy to predict their actions. (Of course she sleeps with her sister’s husband—not a spoiler, says so on the cover. Of course, he’ll pursue revenge to the ends of the earth.) Such characters, propelled by their pathology, typically have little control over their lives, and all the reader can do is watch their downward spiral. (By contrast, in Tana French’s Broken Harbor, the apparent schizophrenia of the main character’s younger sister is brilliantly portrayed and viewed not through her eyes, but his.)

This isn’t to say that all characters need to be “likeable,” far from it. But they do need dimension. What do they do all day? What do they value? What are they interested in, and is it something that makes the reader interested in them? I never had the impression Stacey was interested in anything other than her sister’s husband and their trysts.

In the right hands, with the right project, there are always exceptions to any general observations about writing. But I’ve read enough stories that take the point of view of a deranged serial killer (which, thankfully, Stacey is not) that I have seen how hard that is to pull off. If I were trying to distill the main lesson for me from reading Green Monsters, it would be to give my characters the kinds of lives that will keep readers interested even when they are monsters, green or otherwise.

Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

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