This fall, I’m focused on writing new fiction as often as possible while working with my existing customers. I am also researching topics in sports, history and the arts for new magazine assignments, so stay tuned. I recently interviewed literature scholar Shoshana Milgram about Victor Hugo for an article which is coming soon. Also, stand by for a link to an article about Pittsburgh and Ayn Rand in this winter’s edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly.
Meanwhile, I’ve added a couple of movie-themed article links to the site archives. My review of John Ford’s 1960 motion picture about a Negro soldier accused of raping a white woman, Sergeant Rutledge, which is truly heroic unlike the heavily hyped Black Panther, can be read here. This week, the World Series ended, so I’ve included my 70th anniversary review of The Stratton Story, starring June Allyson and James Stewart. This inspiring, romantic movie is a simple and heroic baseball tale; read my review here.
My recent viewing of Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix moved me to finally see Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). While I notice certain similarities, it’s the differences with that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Rocky, that really caught my attention. My analysis found both a flaw and much to appreciate. Look for a new review soon. Meanwhile, read my newest classic movie breakdown of another Academy Award-winning Best Picture, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which I recently watched in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, on The New Romanticist here and Aurora’s classic movie site, Once Upon a Screen, here. My theme about this exceptional movie is that its value lies in its depiction of one man’s intransigent pursuit of a heroic life.
New movies I’m planning to see and may review include the new Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) picture about one of my earliest heroes, Harriet Tubman, Harriet, featuring her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope) and son as well as Janelle Monae (Moonlight, Hidden Figures). I’m also planning to see the new movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks, probably while I’m on assignment in Pittsburgh among fellow Pittsburghers who knew Mr. Rogers best. Time permitting, I also want to see The Current War, Judy and Motherless Brooklyn. Later this year, I plan to preview my writing for the new year, including my adult educational media and writing courses and other new writings. Wishing you a happy Halloween until then.
The Hong Kong protests are proving to be a catalyst in the conflict between Communist China and the United States. This week, Communist China’s dictator buckled and backed down by canceling the extradition law that sparked the current protest. The Communist puppet running Hong Kong is reportedly being purged by the Communist Party for failing to crush Hong Kong’s resistance. The protesters, who wave American flags, openly defy the dictates and sing songs of liberty from a Broadway musical, are gaining — not losing — support from all over the world.
Meanwhile, Communist China cracks down on its American appeasers, such as Apple, Blizzard, Google, Nike and the National Basketball Association (NBA), which punished professional basketball businessman Daryl Morey for exercising his right to free speech in support of Hong Kong’s protests, pressuring him to apologize for aiding Hong Kong.
The severe contrast between Americans appeasing Communist China by sanctioning dictatorship and Americans opposing Communist China by denouncing dictatorship came to a climax this week in professional athletics — specifically between two Los Angeles Lakers.
Superficially, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal share similarities. Both athletes are extremely able, enduring and popular. Both men, who are black, faced serious challenges as boys. Although James is active and O’Neal is not, both sportsmen are Lakers—wealthy, high-profile men of achievement on a historic, dominant team, which originated in Minneapolis decades ago.
I do not follow, patronize or take serious interest in professional basketball. I’ve never been to a Lakers game and have no desire to attend. I’ve been to Staples Center in downtown LA where they play for my work, including covering the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and Kings hockey games, and I recently conducted research and interviews about basketball history for a book about the Munich 1972 Olympics basketball game that came out last month. So I wouldn’t call myself a sports fan. To the degree I follow professional sports, I prefer baseball. That said, I’ve taken an interest in both of these athletes.
They represent today’s fundamental political choice.
The differences between Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James reflect each man’s character. Following the controversy surrounding Morey’s single expression of free speech simply stating an individual’s choice to stand with Hong Kong against Communist China in favor of free Hong Kong, I think the gulf between James and O’Neal affords a profound contrast in moral virtue.
Simply put, LeBron James came out for Communist China. He did so plainly and without equivocation. He denounced Morey while traveling during Lakers’ competition in China and thus sanctioned the idea that the individual exists to serve the state.
James’s manner was irritable, frustrated and hostile. His statement was delivered at length without any sense of confidence, rationality or contemplation, let alone inner peace. James did not speak and act as if he had studied the issues and reached his own conclusion. He spoke and acted as though he resented the very idea that any individual should think or speak for himself, let alone about philosophy. In alignment with his self-chosen moniker, “King James”, he acted like a monarch — more exactly, and mirroring his sympathy for China, like an emperor without clothes — who believes he ought not to be bothered by his servants and subjects — as if as king he’s entitled to unearned adoration, any one who speaks that he’s wearing no clothes be damned.
Shaquille O’Neal is like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. He spoke with confidence in his knowledge that Emperor “King James” wears no clothes. In alignment with his self-chosen moniker, Shaq, he spoke and acted as an accessible, thoughtful and intelligent man who presumes to speak only for himself. Shaq did this when he spoke up in defense of Morey’s exercise of free speech. Shaq neither wavered nor equivocated. He chose his words with purpose. He spoke with clarity and emphasis. Shaq did so in a proper context. Contrary to the annoyed demeanor displayed by James, Shaq spoke and acted with precision, eloquence and with the moral absolutism that he knows he’s right.
Life can be difficult and also wonderful and both Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James have a wealth of experience on both counts. Tragically, Shaquille O’Neal lost his sister, Ayesha, who died of cancer after a three-year struggle at the age of 40 within hours after Shaq’s defense of Americanism. As far as I know, Shaq is in Orlando at this writing in grief with his mother and family.
But the 7-foot basketball star, whose distinguished career is probably best known for the sense of playfulness and joy that he brings to the game and to his perspective on the game, is now also known to be better equipped to cope with life’s greatest challenges. With millions of dollars in deals, opportunities and his job as a sports broadcaster on a network owned by AT&T at stake, when, disgracefully, neither the president nor the speaker of the House chooses to explicitly stand with Hong Kong on the proper principle, individual rights, this moral giant spoke for rights with much at risk to lose.
Shaq spoke as if his words matter — and they do. He exercised his right to free speech, knowing that, at any moment, he could be fired, punished and persecuted and he exercised his First Amendment right anyway. He showed the moral courage that Tim Cook and Apple, Blizzard, Nike, Google and the NBA have not. Shaq spoke like a man who owns himself, his ideas and his expressions.
James, on the other hand, spoke like a man who is owned by Others, the People’s Republic of China, a dictator or any and all of those, any one except himself. There is no single greater contrast I can think of in two men’s moral character than what happened in the last couple of weeks and on the defining political point of the moment — a conflict between what’s on the verge of becoming the most oppressive nation on earth and what remains, as Shaq suggests, the greatest nation on earth. Let there be no doubt that the man, who, as a broadcast journalist, is also an intellectual, who goes by the name Shaq is not merely morally superior to LeBron James.
James chose a course of action which is low, depraved, predictable, common and rotten — James did what most in his position probably would do under the circumstances of traveling in a dictatorship and working under the auspices of a league shackled by its deal with a dictatorship. Shaq chose the lonelier and more courageous, solitary, rational and enlightened course of action. This makes Shaquille O’Neal the greatest American alive right now — at least in terms of moral leadership — whose singular act of heroism, even as those claiming that their purpose on earth is to defend the rights of the individual remain silent, deserves every American’s standing ovation.
These are dark days for America, darker every day. The president, whatever his record, has no real grasp of rights and capitalism. The opposition is a band of socialists and statists who seek total government control of every one’s life and aim to impeach the president for trivial reasons with neither due process nor just cause for the sole sake of lust for power.
With his historic statement against Communist China for the ideal of free speech and the United States of America, Shaq showed a prime example of the highest moral action. Leonard Peikoff once said that to save the world is the simplest thing — all one has to do is think. Shaquille O’Neal did exactly that.
As Shaq once said:
For all my friends in the media who like quotes, mark this quote down. From this day on I’d like to be known as ‘The Big Aristotle’ because Aristotle once said: ‘Excellence is not a singular act; it’s a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.’”
Shaq’s excellence earns my deepest respect. By proclaiming that Houston Rockets businessman Morey is right to stand with Hong Kong for liberty, the Big Aristotle honors America’s philosophical forefather and lives up to his chosen nickname. Shaq’s is a powerful example of the spirit of 1776 when America needs it fast. Though the press wickedly chose not to cover his pathbreaking act of principle, Shaq’s political speech gave Americans the moral clarity and guidance they urgently need. The few who know it, including the protesters in Hong Kong, have reason to be newly invigorated and inspired not to let it go.
My title for this post refers to what’s essentially the impetus for a new book, pictured here, by my editor and friend David Sweet. I haven’t yet read Three Seconds in Munich though it’s on my reading list, which is impossibly long.
Sweet was my sports editor at the Glendale News-Press during the 1990s. We became friends and have since worked on many assignments, including a series of regional history articles for a publication in Chicagoland. Read my review of Sweet’s debut book, a biography of Lamar Hunt, the man who invented the term Super Bowl, here.
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Sweet’s followup is a work of new non-fiction. This time, he writes about the 1972 Munich summer Olympics. I remember them well (read my remembrance here). However, I did not exactly recall the untold story of the U.S. basketball team’s victory over Soviet Russia, a gold medal win which was denied to the U.S. Olympians for reasons Sweet explains in detail, with notes, bibliography and an index.
What’s more, he integrates the tale of this amateur athletics injustice with the horror of the Arab terrorist siege on the Olympic village. I know this because the author asked me to find, investigate and research and, if possible, interview men on the U.S. basketball team, one of whom I was able to persuade to conduct an interview. On the record, one of America’s Olympics basketball players recounts his memory of the controversial game and his encounter with Palestinian terrorists as they forced Jews onto mass transit toward what would become their mass execution in Germany.
“They’re all gone,” ABC Sports journalist Jim McKay told the television audience that summer in 1972. McKay was referring to the 11 Israelis who’d been seized by Arab terrorists and were then slaughtered in an act of war which was never avenged. Steven Spielberg made an awful, pro-Palestinian movie about Israel’s pinprick response to the siege by Black September (read my review of the 2005 film Munich). Documentaries also account for the assault. Only David Sweet, with a little help from yours truly, contextualizes this act of terrorism within the arena of sports.
Look at Hong Kong, relinquished by the British to Communist China in 1997, for an example of the appeasement that the West’s response to Palestinian terrorism at Munich set forth. Mass murder in Munich was, as I’ve written, an early strike in the Arab-Islamic axis of terrorism. That Israel accommodated Arab demands and negotiated with terrorists cast as standard practice the West’s appeasement of thugs.
Sweet focuses on what the world’s best athletes came to do in Munich: compete in sports. The Americans (and Israelis) did. Despite being thrust, one of the Americans at gunpoint, into an act of war, the Americans won. In the passion of athletic triumph, this band of Americans was robbed of what they earned when they defeated the Communist regime that had funded the terrorists that, in turn, gunned down the Jews.
To this day, the U.S. basketball team accepts nothing less than victory. The whole team refuses to accept anything but the gold medal they rightly won in that game with the Soviets. With his new book, Sweet offers a counterexample to both that singularly evil act of Soviet-made Palestinian terrorism and the debacle which has been Western appeasement. In Three Seconds in Munich, David Sweet chronicles the mens’ team journey, game and unified act of principle for the first time.
Comedienne Julia Sweeney’s back and I saw her new one-woman show, Older & Wider, last weekend in Westwood. I’ve always found her humor to be unique, relevant and compelling, so I was interested in seeing her return to show business after a break to be a wife and raise her daughter on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.
Happily, Older & Wider is topical, intelligent and hilarious. While I incessantly hear about “diversity and inclusion”, I rarely hear about demand for rare, intelligent artists of ability such as Julia Sweeney, who’s making the most of being an older woman in her new theatrical work. I am glad to know that she’s currently starring in a new show on Hulu. I’d love to see her get more work in Hollywood.
I’ve posted my review of Julia Sweeney: Older & Widerhere.
Also, read my new interview with screenwriter and director Robert Benton here. We met during Turner Classic Movies’ 2018 Classic Film Festival at the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve met and interviewed Benton before and found him to be incredibly sharp, thoughtful and engaging.
This time was no exception. The subject was his Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer, a groundbreaking movie about men, parenting and divorce which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We discussed his original choice for the crucial supporting role of Joanna Kramer, which eventually went to Meryl Streep, propelling her career. But Benton, who’s talked with me about working with Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, also went into detail about working with Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance in what’s probably his most personal film, Places in the Heart.
Robert Benton, whose Texas-based Places turns 35 years old this year, has created, written or directed some of the most iconic movies of the modern age, from Bonnie and Clyde to Superman (1978) to Kramer vs. Kramer. I consider it a privilege to interview this former journalist again in the heart of supposedly “inclusive” Hollywood where this masterful storyteller should be invited to create more movies.
My newest classic movie review honors the 70th anniversary of a film about great baseball legend; the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, portrayed by James Stewart. Like Places in the Heart, the Academy Award-winning motion picture, The Stratton Story (directed by Sam Wood and released in the same year he was robbed and died) partly takes place in the Lone Star state and involves tragedy, overcoming adversity and a single act of gun violence.
The picture also stars Agnes Moorehead as Stratton’s tough-minded mother and June Allyson as his romantic partner. I don’t want to spoil the experience of the 1949 film about Monty Stratton, whom I’m afraid has sadly fallen into relative oblivion. But I found this movie about rising to one’s hardest challenges inspiring. It’s about baseball, of course. It’s also about what happens when the most hardworking type of person fails, falters or makes a potentially deadly mistake — and the character of one who chooses to recover — and the type of person who loves him.
But, like the best sports-themed movies, it’s also very much about living life; the daily hustle and grind of it in simple yet daunting steps. Read my review of The Stratton Storyhere.
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 isnot 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 Bookand Get Outand 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.
I, Tonya by writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Stepmom) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl) is a scathing indictment of American culture. Starring Margot Robbie (The Legend of Tarzan, Goodbye Christopher Robin) as U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, the film satirizes today’s lynch mob-media culture, tracing it back to its surge in the nasty 1990s, climaxing in the year 1994, when Harding’s winter Olympics contest with teammate Nancy Kerrigan took the country by storm after Kerrigan was brutally downed in an attack.
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Of course, 1994 was the year the butcher of Brentwood, O.J. Simpson, took the media by storm, too. One of the best and undersold aspects of I, Tonya is its ability to turn sarcasm and satire upon the audience, public and nation, morphing the movie into a proper reflection of this rotting America. Simpson is a perfect counterpoint to Harding in terms of measuring the injustice of trial by public opinion.
This is a fictionalized movie based on fact, not a documentary, and titles clearly mark the source material. But Gillespie, whose movies tend to take intense interest in the roots of human action, and writer Rogers, whose scripts tend to portray women as intellectually strong and rational, combine their talents with Robbie’s outstanding performance (she’s a producer here as well). The result is an entirely absorbing satire which trims its humor until what’s left is the raw, bitter truth about a victim who is prejudged as a caricature and sent down the media grinder. Bobby Cannavale plays a Hard Copy tabloid type who rightly observes that his tawdry show was disowned by mainstream media — before the media aped trash media and became just like it.
Indeed, trash — the exact term the media and skating subculture tagged to Harding — describes what became of American culture in the Nineties. Hard Copy and CBS hosting the Olympics leading the way, the New York Times and New Yorker now traffic in the same unsubstantiated smut, smearing and insinuation. As Harding, Robbie is simply amazing. She captures every bit of the young athlete’s harsh exterior and wounded interior, qualities which were always apparent and made Harding’s skating and melodramatic behavior so involving to the public. Robbie portrays every physical, mental and psychological development in the Pacific Northwest-based Tonya Harding story; the muscular, frizzy-haired, foul-mouthed skater with braces who tried too hard, ruthlessly schemed and competed and reeked of ordinary insecurities.
Harding also skated a triple axel, which I, Tonya doesn’t diminish. It lets this achievement sneak up and sit there, in front of you, over and over. Eventually, as various characters break the wall in first-person narratives after the facts, the audience realizes they’re laughing at the expense of someone’s ability or attempt to acquire knowledge and develop her ability, to the extent figure skating is and/or should be considered a sport (and one of the issues the movie raises is how Harding’s hard athleticism is subjugated to poise, frills and beauty).
If she’s always spouting lines such as “it’s not my fault”, and she is, her mother (Allison Janney, arch as ever in a butch bowl haircut) explains why. This woman is an example of the worst type of parent. She embodies horrible ideas — self-sacrifice as a virtue, man-hating via feminism, brute strength over rational thought — and she means it. Janney’s terrific as always, and it’s not her fault if critics and audiences find her characterization fundamentally funny. Watch her character from frame to frame for a portrayal of pure evil. Even her musical cue, Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, one of many on-target pop song choices in I, Tonya, warns the discriminating audience of what’s to come.
“Kiss yer muther goodbye,” Janney’s working class mother seethes to her daughter early in the picture in another clue about why she hovers over the child. How could Tonya Harding not be drawn to a wife-beater like the man she marries (Sebastian Stan, Captain America, Winter Soldier, Civil War, The Martian)? In scene after scene, Harding is tossed between the two like a punching bag between boxers, ending up as bruised, nasty and embittered as you’d expect. When she spits a vulgarity at a judge, you wonder how she’s kept the anger in check for so long.
But, on some level, with her coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson nailing every scene) as the most rational person in the movie, Tonya Harding loves to skate as sport. Despite the monstrosities of the irrational motivations instilled in her, and the delusions that burrow around her rise to fame and lead to the assault on Kerrigan, this much comes through, complete with end titles and scenes that let the audience decide for themselves what to make of the damaged athlete who did her best.
More than anything, I, Tonya casts doubt upon today’s Me, Too culture of prejudice, rash, snap judgments and high and mighty moralism. It makes you look at a 23-year-old skater based on facts, transcripts and performance. With a David Letterman Top Ten bit as bait, complete with Letterman’s own brand of vulgar humor at the expense of someone’s race, I, Tonya does so through the lens of your own tendency to fall for sarcasm, cynicism and lynch media-driven mobs.
Is what happens funny when it happens to you? Tellingly, the jaded, young audience I saw this with in hardened Hollywood went from tipsy sneers and snickers to tears during the show.
The movie doesn’t exonerate Tonya Harding and it doesn’t pretend to try. Instead, to the tune of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of “The Passenger” as an angry, weary cry against the status quo, I, Tonya depicts the byproduct of bloodlust in realistic terms. What’s left is a downtrodden woman cast out, putting on a mask, with too much rouge, a vulgar mouth and a harsh shade of lipstick. The skater branded a tough tart may have had a hand in doing something very wrong and she certainly accomplished something exceptionally good. I, Tonya shows what making fun of everything costs everyone, especially someone with skill and the desire to be the best.