Watching the replay of the PBS Nature documentary last night about an Alaska professor with an octopus in his living room reminded me of the other great books I’ve read about these amazing creatures. Their facility for mimicry, their distributed brains, their obvious intelligence. Such a good explanation of how far back came the divide on the evolutionary tree that led to, well, us, and to them.
Sy Montgomery’s book, Soul of an Octopus, goes even further into their fascinating behavior and how she befriended a particular octopus at the New England Aquarium. That review also has a link to my post, “Why I Don’t Eat Octopus.” I’m guessing you know the reason already!
A book that authors especially may find intriguing is Fallen Angels, from 1993. I found it sitting on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf just waiting for me to pounce. It’s a collection of six original noir stories by the masters, each followed by a half-hour script developed from it that aired on Showtime almost 30 years ago (still available on YouTube).
You’ll see from the directors and cast members involved that this was an ambitious project, with Sydney Pollack as executive producer. The hallmarks of noir—jazzy scores, cigarette-smoke veils, shoulder pads—they’re all there.
James Ellroy’s preface explains the stories’ appeal this way: “Hard-boiled fiction, spawned in the violent and flush 1920s, began as a prophecy: This country will most likely crash and burn. If it doesn’t, the price of the political accommodations and human sacrifices made in order to retain a corrupt system will be very, very high. Hard-boiled fiction is about that price.” Something to think about.
“I’ll be Waiting” by Raymond Chandler. The teleplay by C Gaby Mitchell clarified some ambiguity in the original, adding significant detail at the end. Tom Hanks directed, and it starred Bruno Kirby as a hotel dick with a deadly dilemma.
“The Frightening Frammis” by Jim Thompson, teleplay by Jon Robin Baitz and Howard A Rodman. Directed by Tom Cruise, it featured Peter Gallagher and Isabella Rossellini. Con artists and grifters lock horns, and the two stories play out differently. I liked the original story better, but the ending might have seemed too pat.
“Dead-End for Delia” by William Campbell Gault, teleplay by Scott Frank. Phil Joanou directed with Gary Oldman, Meg Tilly, Gabrielle Anwar, and Paul Guilfoyle in the leads. A cop’s estranged wife is murdered, and he strikes out with an investigation of his own.
“Murder, Obliquely” by Cornell Woolrich, teleplay by Amanda Silver. Alfonso Cuaron directed stars Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, and Diane Lane. This story of a relationship gone bad was about twice as long as the preceding ones. To fit it into the half-hour format, a lot of cuts were needed. It was interesting to see how they focused on the main event–what stayed and what didn’t. A nice exercise in concision.
“The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig, teleplay by Howard A Rodman. Steven Soderbergh directed. Joe Mantegna played a dirty cop and Bonnie Bedelia his equally larcenous partner. This story was about half the length of the others, so had to be drawn out. But it lost no dynamism in the process.
“Since I Don’t Have You” by James Ellroy, teleplay by Steven Katz. Gary Busey plays a Hollywood fixer who serves two masters—real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (James Woods) and Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson). Inevitably, this work “had to produce what lawyers nowadays would call a ‘conflict a’ interest’ Of course it was over a woman” (Aimee Graham). Meeks is from small-town Oklahoma, and the teleplay gives him “country yokel” diction, which the original story did not have (nor need).
If you’ve ever thought about seeing your stories make the leap from page to stage or screen, here’s a chance to see that process in action.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:
Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)
The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)
Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)
The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)
This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.
Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.
Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.
While a bright line has traditionally separated news and
entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In
a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film
historian Max Alvarez showed clips
of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and
fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether
this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.
Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted
its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves
news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that
portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies
that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.
Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.
Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal
decision by Washington Post publisher
Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good
Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist
Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both
films, the journalist is the hero.
A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light
was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger
(2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer).
In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San
Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan
Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps
incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew
its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many
of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized
about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment
with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.
Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to
attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon
Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse
of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing
how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under
way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect
information and relentless attack.
Overwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.
The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”
This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.
If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.
When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.
Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.
Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.
A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.
Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).
On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?
photo: wikimedia, creative commons license
Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.
A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.
photo: Vicki Weisfeld
The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.
Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.
Why Starve Yourself?
We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.
Books to Toss into Your Suitcase: The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)
Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.
In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.
In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.
In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”
An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.