Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Memoriam: John Steinbeck

The influence exerted by John Steinbeck over my writing cannot be measured... To be completely honest, it cannot be detected in any way, but it's still there! Whereas Steinbeck's writing is vivid and lucid, though, mine has been characterized as 'giddy and shallow'*. Still, his easy facility with adjectives and his compassion for those of his characters whose lives haven't worked out as planned had a major impact on me at the time I was first considering a life in letters. So while I know I'll never be his equal I'm still proud to call myself his acolyte.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1902 in California's Salinas Valley, the landscape made its impact on him early; again and again he extolled the region's beauty (as well as the hardships encountered by its residents) in such works as 1922's The Pastures of Heaven, perennial middle-school reading list stalwart The Red Pony, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.

So vivid was his handling of imagery, so sensitive his approach to character, that many of Steinbeck's works were made into films - including The Moon is Down and The Pearl - even as they were being written. Yet he only wrote one work directly for the screen, which happens to be Alfred Hitchcock's legendary Lifeboat, starring Tallulah Bankhead, Hume Cronyn, and John Hodiak. Steinbeck later asked that his name be removed from the film, though, believing it to have racist undertones. Another, The Wayward Bus, proved to be the highlight of Jayne Mansfield's attempts at acting.

Long pestered by the FBI for his left-wing sympathies, John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962; he died of a heart attack in December 1968, and has been accorded many of the honours which normally accrue to one of his popularity and genius, including plaques and statues galore, as well as enduring readership.

*I stand by my original assessment. ~ Chumley

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"You Raise Me Up" by Josh Groban

Although I've always thought Josh Groban was hella cute - and howled as loudly as anyone with laughter at his expletive-laden solo in Jimmy Kimmel's hilarious viral video sensation I'm Fucking Ben Affleck - it was Groban's gutsy appearance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks in December 2008 that permanently cemented my admiration of him.

Here Groban is seen performing his biggest hit to date, You Raise Me Up - with music by Secret Garden's Rolf Løvland and lyrics by Brendan Graham - on The Ellen DeGeneres Show accompanied by the African Children's Choir in August 2007; it's posted here, naturally, because today is his birthday.
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Pop History Moment: De Gaulle Escapes Assassination

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On this day in 1963 Antoine Argoud - arch enemy of French President Charles de Gaulle, member of the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète, and opponent of Algerian independence, as well as a former colonel in the French Army - was charged with an assassination attempt against the President, the second of two in which he would be involved*.

Argoud was found bound and gagged in a van parked near Paris' Quai des Orfèvres, having been heavily beaten by men he claimed were with the French Secret Police (known as Les Barbouzes, or the Bearded Ones) but whose assailants later claimed to be with the OAS; Argoud, they said, had been roughly handled as punishment for bungling to plot to kill de Gaulle.

Argoud was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the abortive plot, but subsequently released as part of a general amnesty in May 1968.

*The first - the so-called Algiers Putsch - had been masterminded by General Raoul Salan in April 1961.
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Best Of The Best: Elizabeth Taylor

National Velvet - Before she was given access to the kind of animals who'd leave their wives for her and devote themselves to buying her the kind of jewellery with which her name would one day become synonymous, Elizabeth Taylor's co-stars were the more traditional animals associated with little girls - namely dogs and horses. Of course, the previous year's Lassie Come Home (only her second film appearance) set a precedent of its own, by featuring her first gay co-star, Roddy McDowall, whereas this particular outing paired her with renowned pint-sized cherry-picker Mickey Rooney.

Little Women - The three versions of Louisa May Alcott's Civil War era chestnut each have their own unique charms; George Cukor's 1933 version is known for the verve demonstrated by its cast struggling hard to overcome the limitations of antique film-making equipment, whereas Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version has the accuracy in its art direction which is the hallmark of the modern movie industry*. Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 version might just be the version Goldilocks would choose; not only is it technically perfect and sartorially accurate, it features a sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor fairly bursting her stays with dewy goodness.

*I've neglected to mention David Lowell Rich's 1978 version because... Well, just because. Besides which, it was made for TV... 'Nuff said!

Father of the Bride - Occasionally (okay, often) art doesn't so much mirror life as plagiarize it outright; nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood where, in 1950, art held up the life of Elizabeth Taylor with a knife and thoroughly menaced it before making off with a goodly amount of loot. As Taylor prepared to embark upon the first leg of what would eventually become a 10K walk down the matrimonial aisle - in this case with Conrad 'Nicky' Hilton, great uncle of that other tabloid mainstay - MGM chose to give Taylor the gift that keeps on giving, namely publicity. Cast as her parents were screen legends Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, while her fiancee in this case was played by Don Taylor, one of the few men in Hollywood Taylor didn't end up marrying.

A Place in the Sun - The process by which a movie camera burns images onto celluloid with the assistance of light is one of the most important in my life, and yet one which I only barely understand (as evidenced by my ham-handed description of the process at the beginning of this sentence); by itself it forms the core of my faith more certainly (not to mention in the here and now) than some magic tricks performed by a Jewish troublemaker who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago ever could. Yet when it comes to over-egging the faith pudding, having Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift share a screen in the shimmering black and white that was abundant in 1951 provides for a very rich treat indeed, not to mention one high in protein. As the other side of Taylor's glamourous coin, Shelley Winters offers a rare, moving performance as a drudge.

Giant - A big movie adapted from a big book, larded with big stars and shown on some of the biggest screens in film history, no movie ever had a more accurate title than Giant. Director George Stevens' adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel costars Rock Hudson and James Dean as rival oil men or something, while Taylor is the woman who comes between them*; Giant's place in pop culture was assured when Robert Altman made his 1982 film version of the play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which was set in the Texas town of Marfa where Giant was shot.

*Talk about the willing suspension of disbelief; like a woman ever came between those two.

Raintree County - Taylor received her first Academy Award nomination under the direction of Edward Dmytryk for her portrayal of a southern belle with a secret; as would eventually become standard for any of her movies, the story of what happened behind the scenes easily rivaled the story that ended up onscreen - in this case the near-fatal car crash that shattered what little peace of mind her perennial costar Montgomery Clift would enjoy. The film also stars Eva Marie Saint and Agnes Moorehead.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - The incendiary movies adapted from the even more incendiary plays of Tennessee Williams helped to put fatal cracks in the myth of the 1950s, and who better to play the kind of woman determined not to be trapped by conformity than the raving beauty who'd only recently emerged from America's one-time sweetheart? As Maggie the Cat, Taylor gave her most nuanced performance ever, blending hurt and fury into each lengthy monologue and using the sexuality her husband rejects to plead their case with the dying Big Daddy against the grasping machinations of the hopelessly square Gooper (Jack Carson) and his perennially pregnant wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood). Opposite Paul Newman and Burl Ives Taylor gives a surprisingly strong performance, given that her real-life husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash during production.

Suddenly Last Summer - By 1959 Elizabeth Taylor's life was bound up with those of two of the world's most famous gay men - Tennessee Williams and Montgomery Clift - and one of the Broadway stage's most famous fictional gay men, Sebastian Venable. It all made this film the perfect storm, even before the involvement of Katharine Hepburn, playing against type as a villainess in major denial about her too-beloved mama's boy. Dealing with the still-shocking taboo of mental illness - and under the threat of a lobotomy - Taylor's character makes a harrowing descent into madness, culminating in a three-minute monologue in the last reel that will blow whatever part of your mind may have been left unblown by the rest of it.

BUtterfield 8 - John O'Hara's shockingly frank 1935 novel was never going to be made into a movie in the decade after it was published, nor even in the decade after that, but it had to be toned down considerably* to even reach movie screens when it did, in 1960. Despite a strong, surly performance from Taylor opposite the reptilian Laurence Harvey and the real-life paramour (Eddie Fisher) whose scandalous desertion of his wife Debbie Reynolds for the recently widowed Taylor caused the considerable sympathy directed at her following the death of her husband Mike Todd to evaporate overnight, Taylor won her first Academy Award for playing Gloria Wandrous after nominations in each of the previous three years; still, Taylor and Fisher hated the film once it was done.

*In true Hollywood fashion, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the book.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Taking a major risk by setting her sex symbol status aside at its height, Taylor tears up the screen opposite her famously on-again off-again husband Richard Burton as the slatternly, horrible Martha to his bitter, cranky George. The four handed cast* (Taylor and Burton were joined by George Segal as Nick and Sandy Dennis as Honey) gives director Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's play a claustrophobic feeling which feels perfect, given the claustrophobic feeling of many marriages, including that of George and Martha's. Nevertheless, it netted Taylor her second and final Oscar.

*There were two minor characters in the film not present in the play - the roadhouse owner and his waitress wife - portrayed by the film's gaffer Frank Flanagan, and his wife Agnes.

The Taming of the Shrew - The last time Elizabeth Taylor's extraordinary beauty found itself served by a quality script was under the able tutelage of Franco Zeffirelli; of course, it helps that the film was adapted from a work by the greatest writer who ever lived, William Shakepeare. Yet not even Shakespeare could have imagined a relationship as stormy and eternal as that of Taylor and Burton. More of an imagining of the play rather than an adaptaion - since it pushed the major subplot of Bianca and her various suitors (among them Michael York) into the background - Taylor's Kate and Burton's Petruchio got more of an opportunity to be three-dimensional characters, besides being well-photographed in a lush Italian landscape.
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Gratuitous Brunette: Elizabeth Taylor

PhotobucketOne of the most beautiful women who's ever lived, despite a brief flirtation with her Inner Diva at the height of her fame in the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor has consistently proven to be as lovely on the inside as she has been on the outside; for her friendships with gay men since childhood she has more than earned the prestigious accolade of gay icon*, and for providing comfort to people living with AIDS and HIV long before it was trendy she's distinguished herself as one of the 20th Century's foremost humanitarians as well.

Today is her birthday, which is well nigh a religious holiday around the Pop Culture Institute; may we suggest a movie marathon, consisting of A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in celebration?

*Although heaven knows what horrible thing she ever did to deserve the entirely unsought-after 'honour' of Gratuitous Brunette...
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Happy Birthday Wendy Liebman

This recent appearance by Wendy Liebman on The Late Show with David Letterman wasn't the first one she'd made since I'd become her Facebook friend, but merely the latest in a long career which has seen her win fans around the world...

I'm not sure where I first saw her - likely on a late night talk show, or else in front of a cheesy brick wall on some stand-up show on basic cable, as long ago as the late 1980s - but I know that from that first appearance I was enamoured of the way she employed redirection in landing her punchlines, giving her Catskills-inspired shtick an entirely modern twist.

Why she's never been given a sitcom is one of those eternal mysteries that keeps my ink-stained heart beating; after all, maybe one day I'll be the one to write it for her...
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Pop History Moment: The Burning of the Reichstag

PhotobucketShortly after 2:15 AM on this day in 1933 an unemployed Dutch brick layer named Marinus van der Lubbe was discovered shirtless inside the German parliament building, which was by then being inexorably engulfed in flames. He quickly confessed to having set the fire, and was arrested.

Whatever van der Lubbe had hoped to achieve by torching the Reichstag, undoubtedly it wasn't the suspension of democracy and the rise of National Socialism, although that is what happened. Newly elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler jumped on the fact that the arsonist in custody was a prominent Communist, and took the fire as an excuse to begin implementing his agenda.

Hitler's first pogrom dealt a savage blow to Germany's Left, beginning with a ban on that country's Communist Party; by the time van der Lubbe was executed 11 months later the Nazis had swept to power and the Third Reich was no longer just a paranoid fantasy but a very chilling reality.

The Reichstag became the focus of German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and was extensively renovated by Norman Foster (having been rebuilt between 1961-4 by Paul Baumgarten). It now houses the country's Bundestag once again.
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POPnews - February 27th

[It was a vast and jubilantly rowdy crowd like this one who were on hand to witness Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address - at which he opposed the pro-slavery views of Stephen A. Douglas, his greatest political rival - in advance of the Republican National Convention, which was set for mid-May.]

1594 - The famed Huguenot warrior Henri III of Navarre was crowned King Henry IV of France at Chartres Cathedral, having only recently converted to Catholicism at the behest of his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées; owing largely to his issuance of the Edict of Nantes in April 1598, which gave his former co-religionists an array of rights they had been denied, the reign of le Vert galant would mark the end of a generation of sectarian strife following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

1617 - Sweden and Russia signed the Treaty of Stolbovo - ending the Ingrian War and shutting Russia out of the Baltic Sea.

1700 - The island of New Britain was discovered by William Dampier.

1801 - Pursuant to the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 Washington, DC, was placed under the jurisdiction of the US Congress.

1812 - Poet Lord Byron gave his first address as a member of Britain's House of Lords, one of the few ever in defense of the Luddites - a radical rabble of textile workers who had been destroying looms in his home county of Nottinghamshire. A strong advocate of social reform, during his time in the upper house Byron also supported greater rights for Catholics.

1844 - The Dominican Republic gained its independence from Haiti.

1860 - Abraham Lincoln made a speech at Manhattan's Cooper Union which was later seen as largely responsible for his election to the Presidency the following November.

1900 - The British Labour Party was founded.

1902 - Australian Harry 'Breaker' Morant was executed during the Second Boer War under controversial circumstances - accused of the summary murder of prisoners under his command which may or may not have happened. A film was made about the life and death of 'Breaker' Morant in 1980 which starred Edward Woodward as its doomed hero; the film's director, Bruce Beresford, adapted the 1978 play Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts, written by Kenneth G. Ross, for the screen and was Oscar-nominated for his efforts.

1922 - Leser v. Garnett - a challenge to the US Constitution's Nineteenth Amendment, which had allowed American women the right to vote in 1920 - was rebuffed by the Supreme Court.

1940 - Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben discovered carbon-14.

1943 - The Rosenstrasse protest started in Berlin following a more general resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism by trades unionists during Fabrikaktion.

1951 - The Twenty-second Amendment to the US Constitution - limiting Presidents to two terms - was ratified.

1963 - Juan Bosch became the Dominican Republic's first democratically elected president since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo in May 1961.

1973 - The American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

1976 - The formerly Spanish territory of Western Sahara, under the auspices of the Polisario Front, declared the country's independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

1989 - Venezuela was rocked by the Caracazo.

1996 - Satoshi Tajiri created Pokémon.

2003 - Rowan Williams was enthroned as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

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