Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TCR on Films -- "Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters" by Kirk Douglas

In Life Could Be Verse, a brief and often affecting volume, actor Kirk Douglas, who recently turned ninety-eight years old, shares poems he has written over the course of his long life and recounts the experiences that inspired the verses.

Kirk wrote his first poem -- about a sailing ship, though he had never seen the ocean -- for an English class assignment as a high school student in upstate New York back when he was still Issur Danielovitch, the child of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants. He discovered that versifying helped him better understand his thoughts. "Throughout my life I have written poems that express my true feelings," Kirk explains in the book's acknowledgments.

The poems are simple but perceptive reflections set in singsong rhyme and might be called wise doggerel. Here are the opening lines from "Luck" -- They call it 'luck'/It can't be taught/It can't be borrowed/It can't be bought'. Kirk's movie stardom, though discussed in the book, takes a back seat to his roles of son, husband, father, and grandfather.
Kirk Douglas now (photo/Dan MacMedan/USA TODAY)
Kirk Douglas is among the few classic studio-era stars still with us in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Olivia de Havilland, Maureen O'Hara, and Doris Day are others. His trademark thick blond hair has turned thin and white and is worn in a ponytail.

In Life Could Be Verse Kirk quickly runs through the highlights of his acting career which began on the New York stage in the late 1930s. There were a few years of struggle and a stint in the Navy during World War II. The big break came in 1945 when producer Hal Wallis (following a tip from young Lauren Bacall, who Kirk had briefly dated when she was a Manhattan teenager named Betty) caught Douglas's performance in the play The Wind is Ninety and lured him to Hollywood.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TCR on Films: "Watch Me: A Memoir" by Anjelica Huston

In the recently published Watch Me: A Memoir, actress and sometime director Anjelica Huston picks up where she left off in her first book, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York (discussed in TCR in April 2014).

At the start of this second volume Huston is in her early twenties and has just arrived in Los Angeles. She has been a successful fashion model in Europe and New York but is eager to commence a new life in sunny SoCal after finally extrapolating herself from a difficult relationship with a mentally ill photographer old enough to be her father.

Anjelica is a new girl in town but, being the daughter of legendary film director and bon vivant John Huston, she is an extremely well-connected one. It isn't long before she meets rising star Jack Nicholson and they begin a lengthy reign as Hollywood's coolest couple. Woody Allen immortalized their partnership in Annie Hall in which Annie's acceptance by the in-crowd is represented by her being invited to a party at Jack and Anjelica's.

Jack and Anjelica are an unequal pair. Nicholson essentially replaces John Huston as the charismatic, energetic and famous man dominating over Anjelica's life. As Jack ascends to superstardom in Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Shining, Anjelica hangs around and smokes -- sometimes on Jack's movie locations, sometimes back home at Jack's house on Mulholland, sometimes at the homes of friends in Paris, London, New York, and Aspen.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TCR on Broadway: Interview with Author Peter Filichia on Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award

In the recently published Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award author and theater critic Peter Filichia takes a vibrant and extremely well-informed look into why so many classic shows failed to win Broadway's biggest prize. The book's title refers to three especially admired non-winners -- Gypsy (strippers), Follies (showgirls) and West Side Story (Sharks, a street gang).

The Tony Awards are given out by the American Theatre Wing, a service organization founded during World War II to oversee Broadway's contribution to the war effort. The Wing ran the famous Stage Door Canteen. After the war, the Wing remained in existence, shifting its mission to supporting the theater generally and bringing theater resources to communities. The Tony Awards -- named in honor of the Wing's co-founder, director and actress Antoinette Perry -- began in 1947. The first awards ceremony was a relatively modest affair in a hotel ballroom. Only a handful awards, many of them honorary, were presented.

Peter Filichia
Over the years more competitive categories were added along with the practice of selecting winners from a list of nominees. In 1949, the first best musical award went to Kiss Me, Kate, veteran composer Cole Porter's take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. By the mid-1950s, the Tony Awards ceremony had become a larger, more formal event broadcast live on local New York television.

Filichia, a theater blogger and columnist who was for many years the theater critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, points out that it was nationwide television exposure, beginning in 1967, that truly boosted the Tony above other theater accolades. "Looking at print ads for Broadway in the 1950s and early 1960s prove that shows that had won prizes used to advertise first and foremost 'Pulitzer Prize Winner!' or 'New York Drama Critics Circle Winner!' much more often that 'Tony-winner!'" Filichia told The Committee Room. "Now no other theatrical award can touch the power of the Tony, because of that two-hour television infomercial that runs on a Sunday in June. And while ratings are a fraction of what they used to be (which, to be fair, is true of every network television show), the broadcast still reaches millions of people who say, 'Hmm, that show looks good' and reach for their telephones to call Telecharge."

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave" (Interview with biographer Dan Callahan)

At the opening of his superb new biography Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, author Dan Callahan takes readers back to 1997 when he was a drama student in New York. From a discount-price, obstructed view seat the young Callahan watched the great Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. At the end of the performance, a matinee at the Public Theater, Redgrave solemnly informed the audience that she had just received word of the death of Fred Zinnemann who had directed her Oscar winning performance in Julia two decades earlier. Redgrave praised Zinnemann's Western film classic High Noon, citing it as a brave statement against the obsessive anti-Communism that pervaded American society in the early 1950s. Then, in her soft British accent, Redgrave astonished the audience by launching into a rendition of the theme to High Noon, a twangy ballad ("Do not forsake me, oh my darling!...") originally sung by Tex Ritter.

The crowd drifted out of the theater as Redgrave continued through the verses of the song but Callahan was transfixed. Nearly twenty years later, his fascination with Redgrave has not diminished.

"I just can’t get enough of watching her. I think that there is something very special going on when she acts, and I wanted to celebrate that," Callahan told The Committee Room.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TCR Remembers Penelope Niven, author of books on Thornton Wilder and James Earl Jones

Thornton Wilder: A Life
by Penelope Niven
The Committee Room notes with sadness the death of Penelope Niven, biographer of playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder (Thornton Wilder: A Life). Niven died unexpectedly on August 28, 2014. At the time of her death, Niven was working on further Wilder projects, including a book titled Wilder on Writing.

In early 2013, Niven generously gave an engaging and in-depth interview to TCR in regard to the recently published Thornton Wilder: A Life.

Kirkus Reviews called Thornton Wilder: A Life "satisfying and insightful...a perceptive, indispensable portrait of a productive and restlessly intellectual life" and the Boston Globe praised it as "a sweeping look into the life of a man who left an indelible mark on the American theater...a vital work of scholarship."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Honor of the 75th anniversary of 'Gone with the Wind' -- An Interview with Kendra Bean, author of "Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait"

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean.
This autumn marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the release of what is by most estimates the most popular movie of all time -- producer David O. Selznick's lavish screen version of Margaret Mitchell's bestselling Civil War saga Gone with the Wind.

At the center of this immortal film is the performance of Vivien Leigh as the scheming Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara. While it may be possible to imagine another actress as Scarlett, it is difficult to see Gone with the Wind achieving such tremendous success if Leigh had not been cast. Leigh's remarkable ability to convey steely determination underscored with trembling fragility is an essential element. Even in the capable hands of Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, both of whom were among the many actresses who wanted to play Scarlett, Selznick's grandiose production may have come down to us as an overblown, dated melodrama.

As Kendra Bean shows in her excellent new book Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press) as brilliant as Leigh was as Scarlett, there was far more to this English beauty than that one role. "Vivien is like the gift that keeps on giving. There are so many angles to explore and new information is always coming out of the woodwork," Bean told The Committee Room.

There have been major biographies of Leigh by Anne Edwards (1977), Alexander Walker (1987), and Hugo Vickers (1989). Bean, a young American film historian based in London, represents a new generation of film scholars. She told TCR that she was drawn to write about Leigh, who died from a badly treated case of tuberculosis at age fifty-three in 1967, "because she’s interesting, often misunderstood, and nothing I’d read about her before seemed to satisfy my curiosity about her life or her work."

Bean is the first major Leigh biographer to have access to the papers of the actor Laurence Olivier, acquired by the British Library in 2000. Leigh and Olivier were married for twenty years before divorcing in 1960.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Committee Room's New Focus: Film, Theater, and Television

The Committee Room is pleased to announce that books pertaining to film, theater, and television are now our focus. This isn't entirely new ground for us. TCR's original subject -- the world of literature in general -- included discussion of writing done for and about the stage and screen. Articles on these subjects proved to be some of our most popular offerings.

Below are links to some of the articles on film, theater, and television that we have already published.

TCR Spotlight on Theater: Great Moments in Theatre by Benedict Nightingale

TCR Recommends: The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Sixth Edition) by David Thomson

Writing for Television: An Interview with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' a Classic