Sean Connery, 1930-2020

Though I doubt I’ve seen most of his motion pictures, I know that Sean Connery, who died in the Bahamas at the age of 90, is a great actor, activist and movie star. As I’ve observed about the late Chadwick Boseman and Mary Tyler Moore, I think it’s unfortunate that this actor of ability is primarily associated with a single character, which he memorably played in a series of popular but generally mindless franchise films. If there’s to be a future for motion picture art and science, I think Mr. Connery will ultimately be remembered for his small gestures and intimate performances.

Unfortunately, the future looks grim. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) failed to mention the name of the artist who created the iconic character for which Sean Connery is primarily remembered. The writer’s name is Ian Fleming. Instead, the BBC’s obituary chides the old films in the franchise by judging them by post-Me, Too movement standards. Worse, because the source ought to be more credible and reliable, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) wrongly describes Sean Connery as an “Oscar Winner” in a social media post linking to an obituary in the barely credible trade publication Variety. Never mind that he was an actor, activist and movie star—all of which are more essential to his life and career than winning an award.

It’s true that Sean Connery is best known for playing James Bond, a character created by British author Fleming, who like Sean Connery also lived on a tropical island close to America. His portrayal as Bond in the series’ first motion picture Dr. No in 1962 is excellent. But it is one of many great performances made distinct by the Scotsman — a self-made bodybuilder, truck driver and son of a cleaning woman who had served in the Navy — throughout a distinguished career.

The Bond movies, including Connery’s (Dr. No is the exception), were at best a joke. I contend that they are worse than that. On the whole, the popular commercial films damaged civilization and progress by minimizing the threat of totalitarianism. Mindless titillation trivializing extremely serious conflicts, values and issues makes it easier for Americans and other Westerners to become dolts, morons and pod people for pre-dictatorship, which is what Americans have become or are becoming.

I shall remember Sean Connery instead for playing flawed men born in the wrong time, which is emblematic of great 20th century men. I find his roles in The Untouchables and as a rogue Steven Spielberg character’s father to be forgettable. I can’t recall a single quality about either character. But as a handsome and dashing adventurer, friend and man of passion in John Huston‘s 1975 epic The Man Who Would Be King (which would never be made today) — as Robin Hood in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Marian in a love story the following year (Robin and Marian) — or as various villains, criminals and con men in The Great Train Robbery, Marnie and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), magnificent Sean Connery captivated the audience and dominated the screen.

Mr. Connery was the best thing about the flat Finding Forrester. He was often the only compelling reason to sit through one of those boring bastardizations of Ian Fleming’s novels for the screen. He played Agamemnon in Time Bandits. He even made an impression in a small role in 1977’s war epic A Bridge Too Far based on the book by Cornelius Ryan. I remember him being excellent in 1990’s The Russia House based on the book by John le Carre and in an underrated and delightful caper movie titled Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones in 1999.

Perhaps his last great leading role, echoing his first major breakthrough role as an anti-Communist spy in Dr. No, is as a defector from Soviet Russia in the 1990 adaptation of Tom Clancy’s first novel The Hunt for Red October, a plodding affair made better by Alec Baldwin as the protagonist and Mr. Connery as a submarine commander determined to breathe free.

As a boy, I saw many Sean Connery movies during opening weeks in the movie theater. These are some of my earliest and happiest memories of seeing movies when Americans were at liberty to see movies, especially movies meant to be experienced as movies. Most memorable among the Sean Connery pictures I saw in theaters is an epic in 1975 by John Milius titled The Wind and the Lion. The score is sweeping. The pictures are majestic. It’s a flawed film. In retrospect, having seen the movie again after Black Tuesday with a friend who was raised in a predominantly Islamic country, The Wind and the Lion glamorizes Islam, jihad and Islamic terrorism through no fault of Sean Connery’s.

But his performance is breathtaking. Sean Connery is so committed to the quality of his performance as an ignorant but gallant savage who kidnaps an American woman and her children as prisoners in a holy war for Islam that he adds an element of mischief, danger and daring that elevates the movie.

Sean Connery was a movie star — he was a movie star at a time when movie stars were fading and being faded out — blanked out — vilified for being handsome, absolute and upright. He was also an activist and an outspoken advocate for political independence in his native Scotland. Contrary to the blather about his being the best Bond, an increasingly asinine and useless distinction, Sean Connery was foremost an actor of ability. With dark, manly confidence, seriousness and beauty, he gave Western audiences a glimpse of man, even when he’s lowdown, deficient and lacking, as he can and ought to be.

Chadwick Boseman

The recent death of Chadwick Boseman of colon cancer at the age of 43 is a sad reminder that reality is objective and that one must be at absolute liberty to live, create and trade.

Boseman first came to my attention as a leading actor in the motion picture 42 as baseball player Jackie Robinson. His performances in other movies, such as his leading title performance as a young lawyer in Marshall, were outstanding. Boseman rose above his title role in Black Panther, the mediocre comic book movie from Disney’s Marvel series.

However, as with Whitney Houston, who died at the age of 48, and similarly chose to conceal her personal life, including her struggles and illnesses, Chadwick Boseman is best remembered for the whole scope and range of his ability as an artist. He ought not to be reduced to being primarily known as the actor who appeared for several scenes in a forgettable movie. Other young actors, such as Paul Walker and Heath Ledger, have also died before they reached their fullest potential. Boseman, who portrayed at least three men of distinct ability, especially Jackie Robinson, deserves nothing less.

Don Imus

Don Imus died at age 79 this week. What was disturbing about him has only spread in the culture and worsened. What was distinctive and unique about this radio broadcaster has almost disappeared in today’s culture. In either case, his is a career worth knowing and thinking about.

He debuted on New York City radio at the dawn of New Left predominance. The year was 1971. America was in a steep and rapid decline. In retrospect, Imus represents part of the downward slide.

I remember hearing him on the radio in New York City for the first time. The disc jockey was sarcastic, really caustic. He was a complete turn-off. I didn’t become part of his audience. He struck me then as small, petty and cynical, not what I expected from a popular—one of the most influential—radio hosts in America’s greatest city.

I didn’t listen again for another decade which turned out to be the high point of his career. It was the 1990s. President Clinton was being impeached. Imus, with other so-called radio shock jocks, applied his caustic commentary to the news of the day.

This time, something clicked.

Whatever his faults, whatever his errors and flaws, Imus expressed himself with both biting humor and intelligence. I never became a regular listener, let alone fan. But between the early 1970s, when the New Left’s crusade for environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism appeared to many Americans as odd or innocuous departures from mainstream ideas, and the mid-90s, when Republicans presumably opposing New Left madness did so on the grounds of seeking to remove a president from office for lying about sex, Don Imus became a counterpoint to America’s decline.

Around this time, I worked as a production assistant for Leonard Peikoff who had launched his own talk radio show in LA. It struck me that reducing Imus to sensationalistic radio host wasn’t fair whatever one’s view of his broadcasts. For one thing, his sarcasm was thoughtful (and often right on). Though he could be harsh, he was not malicious. When he went for the joke, it was not at the expense of the thought. Cynical humor had, by then, with South Park, The Simpsons and most modern comedy, consumed American culture. Imus became less a cynic than a curmudgeon rejecting the status quo.

Like showman Rush Limbaugh and philosopher Leonard Peikoff, Imus raised the level of discourse. He didn’t broadcast for the sole purpose of titillation. Imus reported the news, commentating, in this context, as a relatively reliable source.

Imus found humor in the increasingly absurd slogans of the day. Occasionally, I would tune in or watch his morning program on MSNBC in the late 1990s. Typically, I was repelled. Sometimes, he tried too hard to crack the joke. But I grew to appreciate his sincerity. He was self-made. Like me, he was self-educated. He created a charity to let kids with cancer experience the cowboy lifestyle at a ranch he owned. The native Southern Californian who grew up in the Grand Canyon State wore a cowboy hat, speaking freely and authentically. As far as I could tell, Imus was honest and sincere, which is more than I can say for many of today’s broadcasters.

Unlike today’s media hosts, Imus did not pander to others or distort facts or news to fit an agenda. He was relatively detached and objective, as I recall. If biased, he was transparent about it. He criticized conservatives and leftists alike.

Don Imus spoke his mind. He did so freely without overfiltering. He called out New Left irrationalism which worsened with each year. His career stalled from telling a bad joke, for which he repeatedly apologized, and he became a victim of exactly what he opposed. But Imus left his mark on broadcasting. Without him, I can’t think of a single East Coast media host that didn’t hold back, go flat and seek to silence proper discourse.

Like Johnny Carson, Don Imus blended irony with intelligent inquiry in broadcasting. His approach had a major impact and influence for the better on modern mass communication. Talk radio was never the same and led to new media, podcasting, which in my estimation elevates the caliber of debate and improves Americans’ willingness to think and speak freely.

With anti-capitalist frontrunners in the Democratic Party‘s 2020 presidential campaign, a mass surveillance and welfare state and a political circus bordering on dysfunction which has led to paralysis and incompetence in American government, thinking and speaking freely matters more than ever. Don Imus, an addict who made his career out of biting commentary paired with his brand of cowboy individualism, showed the way. May Imus rest in peace.


Podcast Review: Mobituaries with Mo Rocca

CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca’s podcast episode on three American forerunners who may have been forgotten centers upon three favorite topics: activism, baseball and movies.

The newest episode of Rocca’s podcast, Mobituaries, begins with the story of a New York woman who, over 100 years before individualist Rosa Parks refused to be persecuted based on her race on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, demanded justice after being forcibly thrown off a segregated streetcar in lower Manhattan.

In fact, I learned that the woman, a black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings, sought legal aid from a future president of the United States to sue the rail company for breaking the law. What’s more, her father, an inventor and businessman, enlisted others by waging a crowdfunding campaign for his daughter.

Jennings, who had additionally been physically assaulted during the crime by both the streetcar’s conductor and a New York City policeman, focused on a fundamental legal challenge which led to integrated transportation in New York. Her lawyer, Chester Arthur, was an abolitionist. He became an American president.

Listen to Mobituaries

I also learned about an Ohio historical marker honoring the first African-American major league ballplayer who is not Jackie Robinson. What in Toledo, Ohio, is now called Moses Fleetwood Walker Square is dedicated to the Negro catcher who broke the color barrier when the Toledo Blue Stockings briefly joined the majors in 1884. Rocca details Walker’s little-known story.

Rocca tells another story about an early Hollywood filmmaker, a woman named Lois Weber, whose movies were both successful and unusual. He explores a birth control-themed picture this highly paid director made, how she may have leveraged her status to achieve success and that she became the mayor of Universal City, which today is still home to a major movie studio — one which released Green Book and Get Out and is owned by Comcast.

What I like about Mobituaries, in particular this episode, is the curious, easygoing and investigative manner in which Rocca discusses, interviews and goes by facts. With an enthusiasm one rarely hears on today’s broadcasting, especially modern programs including podcasts, Rocca examines each individual as an individual and provokes serious thought. He expends the right amount of time, effort and energy on certain facets and details. He doesn’t overstate certain aspects. Rocca emphasizes each individual’s achievements — for example, that Jennings’ father was a wealthy businessman who had been granted his own patent — in terms of what is essential.

Also, Rocca reaches a logical conclusion, while allowing the listener to judge for himself. In this case, as the period of time known as Black History Month begins, he cautions against overemphasizing who’s the first this or that in a given field of endeavor. Clearly, but gently, his implication is that such emphasis comes at the expense of the truth.

Never has this been a more relevant cautionary note.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

Buy the Album

The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.

Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.

RIP, Hugh Hefner

Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.

In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”

On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.

The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.