The rich and gentle drawl of Earl Hamner is gone tonight. The old writer, who kept an office on Ventura Boulevard here in the San Fernando Valley near my home—down the hill from where he lived with his wife, Jane, who survives him, and a property full of pets—died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hamner, who was 92 years old, is also survived by his children, Scott and Caroline.
I met and interviewed Earl Hamner over 10 years ago in that office. He was one of my favorite people to interview because he was natural and unscripted, yet sharp and insightful. Everything came to him and talking about his past works invigorated him—he clearly enjoyed thinking about his work—and he wasn’t fussy and neurotic about this or that issue, problem or question, which is rare and refreshing. Earl Hamner was curious, bright and exuberant about his past, present and future. I think this comes across in the interview (read it here) which is one of my best. In this case, I am proud to say that I know Earl Hamner thought so, too, because he told me so and wrote it on his Web site.
We stayed in touch and met and talked about politics, Hollywood and writing projects and he was joyful every time. It wasn’t a put-on. Like his most enduring character, the mountain child John Boy Walton, who becomes a writer, Earl Hamner was a man whose poverty, family and wondrous life experience burnished on his mind, character and soul and, through his strength, idealism and fortitude, made him a soothing, generous and masterful storyteller of the American way. He is gone tonight and I know that I will miss this wonderful man, who was both passionate and kind but not too much of either. The writer leaves behind the treasure of his moving and meaningful stories well told—and a life well lived.
The second week of the new year begins with shocking news that rock’s renaissance man, David Bowie, died of cancer. Mr. Bowie was 69.
Whatever his artistic merits or legacy, and his music and movies are certainly indelible in my life, Mr. Bowie’s body of work is astonishing for a few reasons. Though he reportedly struggled with addiction, mental illness and serious conflicts—he apparently favored the work of his post-addiction Berlin period (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger)—David Bowie was singularly dedicated to making music.
According to biographer David Buckley, after numerous early career failures under his birth name, David Jones, he chose the last name Bowie based upon American frontiersman Jim Bowie, who fought at the Alamo. I don’t know why he chose Bowie but it marks a turning point in his self-made life.
Mr. Bowie admired Elvis Presley among other influential recording artists and he eventually wrote, recorded, performed, starred or worked with everyone from Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury in rock to Bing Crosby and Cher in classics, pop and television. The gaunt David Bowie—who appeared in many movies and created many dramatic roles including his breakout stage persona Ziggy Stardust—starred as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). He wrote a hit song with John Lennon (“Fame”), sought to adapt George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a musical, worked in pictures with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak (Just a Gigolo) and released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday last week.
I have the impression that David Bowie wasn’t just notching names, genres and lists; his uniquely wide-ranging work was meaningful to David Bowie, not a calculated endeavor for status, awards or impressing or beating others, not that he wasn’t also competitive. He was by most accounts talented, curious and insatiable, not merely a chameleon, “gender-bender”, freak, misfit or strange alien. He wrote songs, conceived of albums, played instruments, selected his projects and produced records. Perhaps most underrated were David Bowie’s versatile vocals. Whether one appreciates his style, theatricality or music, David Bowie worked hard and took pride in his work.
Mr. Bowie’s range is remarkable, which is why his death is being felt throughout the West as his pictures, concerts, movies, TV appearances, albums and songs replay in people’s minds with potent memories: the gently ascendant claim-staking of the non-conformist in “Changes”, the defiant strut of “Rebel, Rebel”, the biting lines in “Fame”, the sharp, wry, liberating “Young Americans”, the brilliant beats, licks and hooks of “Let’s Dance”, peaceful pleading of “Space Oddity”, anger of “Fashion”, despair of “Ashes to Ashes”, lament of “Under Pressure”, frenzy of “Suffragette City” and, in what may be his signature song, in waves of electronic distortion and always in quotation marks, the aching “Heroes”, which David Bowie wrote in Berlin for his 1977 album of the same name.
The droning, looping “Heroes”, brought to life by Mr. Bowie’s lyrics and vocals, is an eerie account of lovers in the German city no longer ruled by Nazis which was instead the center of the 20th century’s concretized symbol of the world’s worst dictatorship in history, the Berlin Wall. This week, Germany rightly recognized (in a statement on Mr. Bowie’s death) that the wall came down due in part to David Bowie’s strong, howling cry for love, youth and idealism; man’s triumph over slavery “just for one day”. Is it possible that a tune written by one outspoken man can topple a wall put up to keep free people out—and enslaved people trapped—and change the world?
David Bowie, may he rest in peace, shows that it is.
To mark this year’s 10th anniversary since the release of Focus Features’ Brokeback Mountain (2005), I’ve added three articles I wrote about the movie.
The first, a column on the tragic 2008 death of leading actor Heath Ledger, was written before the release of The Dark Knight (read the review—my first blog post on July 20, 2008—here). I have nothing to add to the commentary, which I wrote for a movie Web site and titled Heath Ledger Dies. The second is an interview I conducted in 2006 with an executive at the movie studio which I called Selling Brokeback Mountain. I think this freewheeling exchange is interesting for several reasons. The piece is a frank discussion about how to market a motion picture. I decided to seek the interview with Jack Foley after seeing the film. I sensed that director Ang Lee’s movie was a seminal film with potential to make money, however, I knew from my experience and observation attending the press screening that persuading theaters and moviegoers to schedule and see the film would be a challenge. Foley gave me a short, whirlwind interview which I think captures the unique enthusiasm surrounding the movie. Third, I’ve included my original movie review of Brokeback Mountain with added home video notes on two separate editions.
I have seen it a few times—I asked the studio for two separate pre-release screenings before I wrote my review and published it, which was the first time I’d done that, as a safeguard against predisposition or bias given the unprecedented hype and ridicule in advance of the December 9, 2005 release—and I will probably watch it again. I’ve also read the original magazine short story by Annie Proulx, which, like True Grit, Shane and Red River, is a short work of psychologically tense Western-themed fiction that elicits a distinctive movie adaptation. Much will probably be said and written this year. Readers and viewers will judge Brokeback Mountain and should. I think of it now as a tale of a loner born too soon, similar to how I regard American Sniper. Like that fine movie, I remember Brokeback Mountain as the year’s best picture, a tragic and haunting movie about the cost of living for others and the lonely, modern struggle to live for oneself.
Movie star Omar Sharif has died. The actor, who was 83 years old, appeared in some of Hollywood’s most moving and grand motion pictures. Sharif made them more so.
Among his roles are the passenger ship’s captain in the terrorism-themed Juggernaut (1974), leading while balancing conflicting interests with an explosives expert played by Richard Harris. I think, too, of his blend of great potential and sadness as the daring entrepreneurial Jewish playboy—which nearly cost the Egyptian actor, reported to have converted from Greek Catholicism to Islam, his citizenship and career—in Funny Girl. From his role as the desert Arabian teaming against the Ottoman empire with Peter O’Toole’s title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to his role as a Moslem Turk adopting a Jewish boy in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), Sharif dominates the screen.
But three movies capture his dark, sensually masculine and physical magnetism. In David Lean’s masterful Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif strides between measured and raw with his backswept black hair. As the title character in Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian novel, Sharif is gentle, intelligent and aristocratically civilized yet kindling with passion to write poetry, defy the Soviets and exact justice while falling in love with Lara (Julie Christie) during the Russian Revolution, always holding life as the highest standard—his is an unforgettable and powerful performance that precisely measures the impact in pictures of the incalculable toll of dictatorship on the man of ability. Doctor Zhivago is so mesmerizing, enchanting, and beautiful with its brilliant score by Maurice Jarre (which Sharif thought was too sentimental) and everlasting scenes of Moscow, Yuriatin and Varykino that it’s easy to overlook the scope and talent of Omar Sharif as the crippled man of the mind. Zhivago is Sharif’s best performance.
Perhaps my favorite role by Omar Sharif is as Davich, the peasant European revolutionary in screenwriter Terence Rattigan’s 1964 film, The Yellow Rolls-Royce. It is as the radical idealist opposite Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) in the tense, explosive, inspiring final vignette—probably more relevant than ever—that Omar Sharif matches hard, physical allure with kind, intellectual depth. His intensity is irresistible but it is also challenging. Bergman’s aristocrat is at the audience’s sympathetic center and one can’t blame her reticence to engage his character’s cause. But he is the embodiment in Rattigan’s short, polished featurette of the man of reason and the man of action. As the unconquered radical, he is every inch the hero.
Sharif lived privately as a playboy by his own admission, though was also one of the world’s top bridge players, creating a regular newspaper feature and, during his remarkable career, he portrayed Genghis Khan, Czar Nicholas II, Marco Polo and Che Guevara. He also played Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island (1973). Omar Sharif made the audience think in nearly every role. His death is a great loss.
The story of Amy Winehouse, the “North London Jewish girl” who was a jazz singer before she became a pop star and spun out in a drug-induced death in 2011 at the age of 27, is well told in Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary. A single human life is precious, indeed, and this is what makes Amy so powerful. Whatever the cynics and people who relish with contempt blaming those who destroy themselves, this 2-hour film stands as a testament against letting life go easily, cynically and without examination.
Here, in Winehouse’s own words, with unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, is her short life story. In the telling and showing, Kapadia captures a talented woman of her self-loathing generation who came of age and fame in the digital era when a media feeding frenzy could hasten one’s demise faster than, say, Princess Diana. If you primarily want to blame Elvis, Marilyn, Whitney and others such as Michael Jackson for their own deaths, don’t see Amy. If you want to see how an artist comes undone with help from today’s culture and understand how to intervene, mitigate and stop the selflessness, Amy, whether or not you’re a fan of her music, is as simple and accessible as its title suggests.
The seeds of talent and self-sacrifice were planted in the beginning, and this is documentary, not psychodrama, so definitive answers are not forthcoming. But fellow Brit and Londoner Kapadia, who was a casual fan and lived near Winehouse in the lowest days, is moved by the desire to know what happened. Amy is journalistic, with facts laid bare through research aligned with numerous audio interviews that took him three years to obtain and record.
Clearly, the young child of divorce, who went bad when she was nine years old by her account, was damaged and derailed early in life. She made bad choices. But she was also at the mercy of parents, who both survive her and participate in the film, who did not establish boundaries. Amy goes from her home movies to club footage and recording sessions—from self-made success in Camden to self-made disaster in Belgrade—and, in the pictures and what happens in them, one can see that the petite, big-haired, pierced and painted Winehouse was also sucked into the death spiral by today’s lowest parasites every time she seemed ready to go straight.
Amy is about Amy to the extent that’s possible. Whether showing her as a girl singing “Happy Birthday” and “Moon River” in the opening frames to her jazz lament about a man not acting like a man, her retro hit “Rehab” and later stylings by the guitarist, singer and songwriter, including works with rock, pop and rap acts, the evidence that she could create meaningful music is on full display. Kapadia thankfully offers lyrics and subtitles, too. Intermingled throughout her ascent to stardom is the sleazy lifestyle, which began as a daytime indulgence in marijuana and continued with a lifelong dependence on alcohol, sex and drugs, including those prescribed for her depression and heroin, crack cocaine and nicotine. Add what should be obvious in the form of her eating disorder (bulimia) and Amy is an inked up poison pill. As rapper Mos Def puts it “she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She was a sweetheart.”
In other words, Amy Winehouse was a fast-tracked, foul-mouthed time bomb that everyone from Mos Def (going by another name here) to her father and Tony Bennett kept kicking down the road trying to cash in on her fame, persona and success without accounting for the consequences. The exceptions were chiefly her manager, Nick, whom she fired, her childhood friends Juliette and Lauren, and, tellingly, at one point anyway, Lucian, a Universal Music Group recording industry executive who insisted that she sign a contract to keep clean and sober before booking her on the Grammys (she signed and delivered—both in sobriety and appearance). In and out of bad relationships and a stoner marriage and rehab, becoming a cartoonish joke with her garish cosmetics which became a self-fulfilling imprisonment of self-hate, Amy Winehouse finally dovetails talent and tragedy and goes for a final nosedive, bookended by her hero worship of Tony Bennett, who comes off as somewhat complicit despite his polished efforts. Bennett at least gets the artist right when he describes her as “a true, natural jazz singer.”
That she never really sought to heal herself cannot be escaped. Neither can the fact that she never really had a model, friend or proper intervention for the help an addict needs from those who love the addict when she’s sober. Amy’s life ended on July 23, 2011 with a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than normal. That this intelligent, bright-eyed, British artist called her old friend and flatmate Juliette with pure clarity and said over and over that she was “sorry” days before she died—with her downfall constantly ridiculed by sniveling comics such as George Lopez at the Grammys and Jay Leno—proves only that inside the self-destroyer remained that girl who could sing with soul. Whether any good comes from Amy is up to those who know someone they love who is as artful a dodger as London’s lost singer.
Amy reminded me of the first time I heard “Rehab” in a dive bar in Silver Lake, with its energetic Wall of Sound bursting forth with this fresh, smoky voice that also sang jazz, blues and standards. I wondered then what would become of one who is celebrated with snide parody for living the life she portrayed. Amy brings to mind audiences turning the other cheek to Robin Williams‘ obvious despair, the cacophony of cell phone cameras when Heath Ledger‘s corpse came out on a New York City stretcher, and the endless taunting that people—sadly, intelligent people—do to flawed, damaged but talented celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and even to relatively unblemished artists such as Sam Smith. Amy revisits the short life of Amy Winehouse with honest, candid examination of facts and, through the words, pictures and lives of those she left behind, lets the awful truth speak, sing and be silent for what it is.
That the coarse, young modern female drank herself to death in a culture that now celebrates drunkenness and coarseness among young females may come as no shock. However, Amy, as its title suggests, urges the audience to never submit to coarseness and cynicism after the fact of a horrible, and stoppable, self-made death.
Leonard Nimoy, who died today in Los Angeles, was the godfather of geek subculture. As the rational Mr. Spock on NBC’s science fiction dramatic series Star Trek, he was a voice of reason at a time in American history when audiences desperately needed to hear one. His character was both a contrast to William Shatner’s heroic Captain James T. Kirk and DeForest Kelley’s emotional Dr. McCoy and Spock emerged as a central figure on Gene Roddenberry’s show. Nimoy, a Jewish poet, actor and director (Three Men and a Baby) should be remembered for his distinguished career in show business, too, not merely for his role in the Star Trek franchise, including early performances for dramatic television that predate Star Trek.
But it is for his embrace of the genre and spirit that defines the Spock character that sets Nimoy apart and for reasons that transcend the iconic series. First, the 1966-1969 series, which heralded the “voyages of the starship Enterprise” and sought to “boldly go where no man has gone before” was a radical departure from traditional TV programming in many respects. Second, it was a commercial and critical failure, being cancelled for low ratings and largely dismissed or ridiculed by critics and dominant intellectuals. Third, the part of Spock, who was an alien though also part human, was so distinctive that Nimoy became indelibly associated with it once the cancelled series earned new fans through 1970s syndication (which, incidentally, is where I discovered it with my brother). Nimoy’s first book, I Am Not Spock (1975), was published at what was thought to be the peak of the cult success of the Desilu/Paramount produced series. It would be years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would be released and it hardly took Hollywood by storm.
In the intervening years, Nimoy carried on and memorably so in the 1978 remake of the nonconformist science fiction picture Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a psychiatrist. He later played in an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, hosted the syndicated series In Search of… (1976-1982), played in the Marco Polo telefilm and portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s husband opposite Ingrid Bergman in A Woman Called Golda for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award and of course he played Spock many more times after the Star Trek movies started to gain a wider audience. Nimoy appeared in the mediocre reboot in 2009.
Leonard Nimoy had helped bridge the gap between the wasteland of the late 1960s and the emergence and legitimization of geek culture in the 1980s. By the time the technology revolution launched in the 1990s, Star Trek was an established, respected brand in movies and television. Such acceptance may have fueled and ignited many an imagination for what huge and exciting industrial advancements were to come and Star Trek, with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in particular, led the way in cultivating an American, pro-Western, pro-industrial, pro-reason sense of life. In the words of Mr. Spock, and the late Leonard Nimoy had a hand in this, too: “Live long and prosper.”
These days, with the White House refusing to name an Islamic worldwide barbarian invasion as Islamic, it is all too rare to encounter such a blatantly pro-Western civilization, pro-capitalist, secular-rational-selfish formulation and his remarkable career on and off screen is as uniquely subversive and unusual as the roles he chose to portray (and he apparently did choose to portray Spock). May his Mr. Spock and what this iconic character means—the lone voice of reason defined by volition, not by blood, tradition or religion, acting on his own judgment, often against the collective and refusing to just follow orders—inspire future generations to be bold and radical in the spirit of uncompromising enterprise and may Leonard Nimoy rest in peace.