Friday, May 14, 2010

Happy Birthday Cate Blanchett

Generally speaking, the actors with the greatest chameleonic abilities tend to be quite plain - slip them under a wig, paint their face, and with the adoption of some body language and a bit of voice coaching you can watch them disappear... How then to explain the success of Cate Blanchett? Not only is hers a light so bright it wouldn't fit under the biggest bushel, but the sheer effort it would take to plain her down would quickly deplete even a Hollywood-sized CGI budget.

Photobucket Her first big film role was in Paradise Road, Bruce Beresford's 1997 shot-in-Australia costumer about the inmates of a women's prison in Sumatra during World War II - opposite the likes of Glenn Close and Frances McDormand; the following year she tackled a quite different role, playing a young Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur's fact-challenged albeit emotionally accurate Elizabeth.

Ever since then she's moved from strength to strength, racking up accolades and awards for performances as diverse as The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epic trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, and The Shipping News; along the way she's tackled roles such as Elizabeth I at mid-life, Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, and playing Dame Judi Dench's lust-interest in Notes on a Scandal. She even played the villainous Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - as expected - to the hilt!

One of Australia's brightest stars - in a vibrant constellation which includes Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Toni Collette, Guy Pearce, and the late Heath Ledger among many others - offscreen Blanchett has used her fame to increase the profile of the Australian theatre, where her roots as an actor are; along with her husband Andrew Upton she became the co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company in January 2008 shortly before the birth of her third son Iggy.
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"She Sells Sanctuary" by The Cult

During my youthful transition from preppie to Goth, The Cult were amongst my favourite listening material; although She Sells Sanctuary - from their 1985 album Love - was a huge hit and therefore something to be scorned by us pretentious posers, I nevertheless always appreciated birthday boy Ian Astbury's howling vocals and the general sense of frenzy this song inspired.
The Cult is shown here performing their big hit live...
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Pop History Moment: The Re-birth of Israel

On this day in 1948 the British Mandate for Palestine expired, at which time the provisional government declared the State of Israel; the day is now celebrated by some in Israel as Yom Ha'atzmaut.

PhotobucketShortly after 4 PM, David Ben-Gurion (shown, at left) called the meeting to order beneath a portrait of Theodor Herzl; with the banging of his gavel the crowd of 250 broke into a spontaneous rendition of the Hatikvah. Ben-Gurion then read the document aloud, which took 16 minutes, following which Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon offered the Shehecheyanu blessing.

The first person to sign the document was Ben-Gurion himself, who was leader of the Yishuv; although all 37 members of the Moetzet HaAm were intended to affix their signatures that day, 12 were trapped by the Siege of Jerusalem and one was overseas. The 24 who did sign made sure to leave spaces so that the rest could be filled in, which they were in due time. Among those who signed that day were Eliyahu Dobkin, Meir Vilner, Zerach Warhaftig, Herzl Vardi, Meir Argov, Peretz Bernstein, Avraham Granot, Avraham Nissan, Moshe Kol, Golda Meir, Pinchas Rosen, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, David Remez, Eliyahu Berligne, and Saadia Kobashi. After the last signatory, Moshe Shertok, did his duty the assembled crowd rose and once again sang the Hatikvah. Eleven minutes later the United States became the first to recognize the new country, followed later that day by Iran, Guatemala, Iceland, Nicaragua, Romania and Uruguay.

The proclamation was made in secret at Tel Aviv Museum (now known as Independence Hall), although it was broadcast over the radio station Kol Yisrael; already there were fears that the fledgling nation would be the object of militaristic anti-Semitism. They were right. Almost immediately the Arab-Israeli War broke out; principally motivated by Syria, and utilizing troops from Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, fighting continued on and off until... Well, any day now hopefully, although that specific war was ended in July 1949.

The scroll on which the text of the declaration of independence appears is now housed in the National Archives of Israel.
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Remembering... Billie Burke

Few actors have had the good fortune to have appeared in as wide a variety of show business endeavours as Billie Burke; those who only know her as Glinda the Good Witch of the North - in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz - have barely scratched the surface of her career, which would end up including theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, vaudeville, movies, radio, and television...

PhotobucketBorn into a circus family in August 1884 she'd already toured the US and Europe extensively when she made her stage debut in London's West End in 1903; later settling into a life in New York, by 1914 she was one of Broadway's most acclaimed musical comedy talents. That was also the year she met and married the nation's premiere showman Florenz Ziegfeld, with whom she had a daughter in 1916; the same year she made her movie debut. She never cared for movies, though, because they didn't give her a chance to speak, so she never more than dabbled in them, returning again and again to the stage.

Financially devastated (along with so many others) by the Crash of 1929, she was forced to return to the silver screen; fortunately, by now not only had the silents learned to talk, but they were eagerly in search of unique and distinctive voices to do their talking for them. In every way, Billie Burke was made to order.

Her big screen comeback was in 1932's A Bill of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor, which also marked the movie debut of Katharine Hepburn; during the shooting of the film, her by-now estranged husband Flo died. The following year Burke appeared in Dinner at Eight (again by Cukor) whose ensemble cast and solid script make it one of the Pop Culture Institute's favourite films of all times. In 1936, the Widow Ziegfeld attained a new level of pop stardom when MGM made a film about her late husband's life; William Powell played Ziegfeld, but she was not asked to play herself in the story - that singular honour went to Myrna Loy, who did such a good job it's spooky. The Great Ziegfeld went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Unlike many actresses, the older she got the more she was offered; she made eight films in 1935 alone! In 1937 she was a smash opposite Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in the comedy ghost story Topper, in which she played her by-now archetypal featherbrained matron character to the hilt. All before she'd floated into Munchkinland in her pink bubble in the role that would ensure her lasting appeal.

In the 1940s she appeared on her own radio sitcom, The Billie Burke Show, and in the 1950s starred in a television sitcom entitled Doc Corkle; during that time she co-wrote two volumes of memoir with Cameron Van Shippe - 1949's With a Feather on My Nose and 1959's With Powder on My Nose. Her last film appearance was in 1960, in a John Ford Western entitled Sergeant Rutledge; by then she was faced with the sad reality that her memory was beginning to fade, and she died from some sort of dementia-related illness on this day in 1970.
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"Once In A Lifetime" by Talking Heads

Birthday wishes go out today to David Byrne, the Scottish-born pioneering New Wave musician whose band Talking Heads produced a string of indelible hits in the early 1980s. Once in a Lifetime appeared on their 1980 album Remain in Light, and was co-written by Byrne and Brian Eno; it's a song whose refrain comes back to me again and again as I'm blogging, and not just because it's a mainstay of my iPod playlist - shown here in a clip from their 1984 concert film - Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme - which was essential watching for the culturally elite clique to which I aspired in high school.

There's nothing like the study of history, combined with a survey of current affairs, to make the words 'same as it ever was' echo in the brain as they do in this song. In fact, while once again I found myself faced with the dilemna of which Talking Heads song to feature (since they're all so amazing) this particular lyric became the deciding factor, as it fits both the ethos and the agenda of the Pop Culture Institute so perfectly.
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The Death of Lyle Alzado


Lyle Alzado was one of the best-known professional athletes of the 1970s, whose gridiron feats* and telegenic appearance led to various onscreen roles in the 1980s; he terrified Jim Varney in 1987's Ernest Goes to Camp, and even starred in a Canadian-made sitcom called Learning the Ropes in which he played a high school principal with a secret... That he moonlighted as a professional wrestler!

In real life, too, Alzado had a secret - one which finally caught up with him in the early 1990s; far from the first professional athlete to use steroids, he did become the first to own up to it. Whether or not steroid use caused the brain tumour that ultimately claimed his life - which seems unlikely - it did cause him to become violent, shrank his testicles, and played havoc with his liver. In his last months he made television appearances and gave print interviews warning kids about the dangers of steroid use.

He died on this day in 1992, aged 42, and is buried in River View Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.

*Including a victory at Super Bowl XVIII in his penultimate season with the Los Angeles Raiders.
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Remembering... Rita Hayworth

The daughter of a flamenco dancer and a Ziegfeld girl, Rita Hayworth was fortunate* to have been born with her father's ability and her mother's beauty; despite it, though, Hayworth's life was in essence a series of tragedies which culminated in the greatest tragedy of all - her early death from Alzheimer's disease on this day in 1987. Hayworth was one of the first big stars to go public with her diagnosis, and in the years since Hayworth's look-alike daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan has worked tirelessly at eradicating the affliction which claimed her mother at the age of 68.

PhotobucketIn symbolic terms, of course, it's apt that a disease which attacks the memory should have taken her; according to celebrity biographer Barbara Leaming there's evidence that young Rita was molested by her father well into her teens. The eventual makeover that honed her already remarkable beauty was painful - involving, among other things, electrolysis of her hairline**. Likely owing to her treatment as a child - apart from allegations of abuse she began performing at a young age under strict discipline - she seemed unable to make a happy home life for herself, marrying and rancourously divorcing five times. In later years, haunted by the loss of her looks, she took to drinking (which only exacerbated the problem***).

A naturally shy and reclusive person, behind the sexy image she projected in films like Cover Girl (1941) and Gilda (1946), behind the sultry smile which comforted millions of GIs during World War II, was a scared little girl who'd never been treated as anything but an object - good only for sex or to make money to support her family. Unable to trust in anyone or anything, thrust into show business with its shallow pleasures and fickle relationships, labelled 'The Love Goddess' and then forced to live up to the expectations of such a moniker offstage as well, as frightened as she must have been when she first felt her memory failing, in a way it must have been a relief as well.

*Or unfortunate, depending on your perspective.
**Mere words cannot express how painful electrolysis is; with all the nerve endings in the scalp and hairline, electrolysis there could only be that much worse!
***Nothing will ruin your looks faster than the consumption of alcohol.  Nothing.
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"No Milk Today" by Herman's Hermits

Birthday wishes go out to Derek Leckenby, lead guitarist with popular beat combo Herman's Hermits; they'll have to be posthumous birthday wishes, though, as he died in June 1994.

This has long been one of my favourite of the band's numerous hits, which include I'm Into Something Good, Can't You Hear My Heartbeat?, Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter, I'm Henry VIII, I Am, and There's a Kind of Hush among many others; originally written and perfromed by Graham Gouldman (who achieved a degree of fame as part of 10cc) it was released in October 1966, getting all the way to #7 in the UK, but only going as high as #35 in the US.
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Pop History Moment: The Launching of Skylab

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On this day in 1973 Skylab, the first American space station, was launched by NASA atop the last of its Saturn V rockets. Weighing 100 tons, the station was visited by three crews in 1973 and 1974; the first of these, and at 28 days the shortest, was commanded by Pete Conrad. Subsequent missions lasted 59 and 84 days and were led by Jack Lousma and William Pogue respectively.

Two fully functional Skylabs were built; the second one is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. A third, used for training purposes, resides at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, while a fourth - constructed mostly from spare parts - is currently being restored at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Skylab famously de-orbited in July 1979, at which time chunks of it were scattered over the Australian town of Esperance...  When the San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 reward to the first person to return a piece of the debris to their offices Stan Thornton, 17, simply took a piece off of the roof of his house, hopped on a plane, and claimed the money. Even stranger: days later, at the Miss Universe pageant (that year held in Perth) a piece of the wreckage was displayed onstage.  A $400 fine for littering issued by the Shire of Esperance at the time* remained in default for 30 years, but was finally paid** in April 2009 - although not by NASA but rather on NASA's behalf - by listeners to a program on California-based Highway Radio, hosted by Scott Barley.

*Somewhat tongue-in-cheekily it must be pointed out!
**As reported by our new media cohorts at the blog Radio 2020.
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POPnews - May 14th

[In a gown designed by Uffe Frank and supported by her two sisters and her best friend, Australian-born Mary Donaldson took part in her own fairytale when she became Denmark's Crown Princess, elevated with a kiss to the exalted position of second lady in the land following a discreet four-year courtship.]

1264 - The Battle of Lewes - between England's King Henry III and the rebel Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester - began on the Sussex Downs above the village; following de Montfort's routing of the smaller force commanded by Henry's sons Prince Edward (the future Edward I) and Prince Richard, 1st Duke of Cornwall the King was forced to sign the Provisions of Oxford, while both he and Prince Edward were taken hostage (although the Prince later escaped from captivity at Kenilworth Castle).

1607 - Jamestown, Virginia, was settled as an English colony.

1610 - France's King Henri IV was assassinated by François Ravaillac, bringing his son Louis XIII to the throne.

1643 - Four-year-old Louis XIV became King of France upon the death of his father, Louis XIII; his reign would last just over 72 years, and remains the longest of any European monarch.

1747 - A British fleet under Admiral George Anson defeated a French one commanded by the Marquis de la Jonquière at the first battle of Cape Finisterre during the War of the Austrian Succession.

1804 - The Lewis and Clark Expedition departed from Camp Dubois to begin their historic journey westward by traveling up the Missouri River.

1811 - Paraguay gained its independence from Spain, under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.

1913 - New York Governor William Sulzer approved the charter for the Rockefeller Foundation, which began operations with a $100 million donation from John D. Rockefeller.

1925 - Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway was published.

1931 - Five people were killed during the Ådalen shootings when soldiers opened fire on an unarmed trade union demonstration in Sweden.

1939 - Lina Medina became the youngest confirmed mother in medical history at the age of five; she named the baby boy after the doctor who'd delivered him, Gerardo Lozada. Medina later married Raúl Jurado, but has repeatedly refused to be interviewed, and has never admitted who the father was; her son Gerardo died in 1979.

1940 - Rotterdam was bombed by the Luftwaffe, four days after the Nazi invasion; the Netherlands surrendered the same day, although fighting persisted in the southern province of Zeeland so as to enable the French to retreat and become entrenched.

1943 - The Australian Hospital Ship Centaur was torpedoed and sunk near North Stradbroke Island off the coast of Queensland by an unknown and unsighted Japanese submarine, killing 332; it took 36 hours to rescue the 64 survivors.

1955 - Eight communist countries in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, signed a mutual defense treaty called the Warsaw Pact at the Presidential Palace in that city.

1991 - Winnie Mandela was jailed for her part in the kidnap of 14 year-old James Seipei (also known as Stompie Moeketsi) who later died of injuries incurred during a savage beating; her sentence was later reduced to a fine on appeal, but her personal appeal (not to mention her marriage to Nelson Mandela and revered position as "Mother of the Nation") was permanently lost.

1995 - Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, proclaimed six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

2002 - Ten members of the Darwin-based Network Against Prohibition invaded the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory of Australia to protest archaic and ineffective anti-drug policies.

2004 - Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark married the Australian-born Mary Donaldson at Copenhagen Cathedral.

2005 - Pope Benedict XVI observed his first beatification, elevating Blessed Marianne of Molokai on the road to canonization into sainthood.
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