Monday, December 16, 2013

Remembering Peter O'Toole

What a wonderfully fascinating and eccentric actor he was. I was sorry to learn of Peter O’Toole’s death a couple of days ago. He was 81.

O’Toole “burst” onto the scene as a major film star at the age of 30, when he portrayed T.E. Lawrence in the blockbuster film, Lawrence of Arabia. That was in 1962. I saw the film on a U.S. military base in Germany when I was in high school. While I admired O’Toole’s acting, it was the character he portrayed who caught my imagination. I began reading whatever I could lay my hands on that told about the life and exploits of T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935). Lawrence was a British officer during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt during World War I. His written accounts brought him to prominence. He was another eccentric Brit. The British seem to excel in producing eccentric characters, larger-than-life figures that fire young men’s imaginations. Or at least they did the imagination of this young man.

Once I’d exhausted my interest in T.E. Lawrence, somehow I turned to an earlier eccentric associated with the Arab world, the infinitely fascinating Richard Burton. Not the actor, I hasten to say. Rather the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890), who was an adventurer par excellence. He also was a writer and translator, known famously for his unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights, which challenged the Victorian mores of his day. My late wife was captivated by this particular work, and at some point in the 1970s I was able to secure for her a boxed, three-volume set of Burton’s translation in an edition from the 1930s.

O’Toole never played the Victorian eccentric on stage or screen, though he would have been well cast. On the other hand, he was a great friend of the other Richard Burton, with whom he co-starred in Becket. The two claimed to have been drunk throughout most of the filming.

Peter O’Toole (1932 – 2013) emerged as a film star in serious dramas of the 1960s: Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), in addition to Lawrence—all three leading to Academy Award nominations. In all, he was nominated eight times and never won. In 2003 the Academy gave him an honorary award for his lifetime of work.

Though he was initially recognized for dramatic works, he also excelled at comedy—and as often on stage as on film. In the early 1980s, I was fortunate to see him in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Theatre Royal in London. What a treat! O’Toole naturally played Jack Tanner, the Don Juan character of the play. To see him work his magic on the boards from a seat midway in the stalls was sheer delight.

I suspect movie and theater buffs must all have their favorite recollections of Peter O’Toole. He is reported to have said, “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.” He certainly did that.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Out of Africa: Peace and More

The death this week of Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), the man who became the face of South Africa and a voice of peace for the world, set me pondering the huge effect that individuals with ties to the vast continent of Africa have had on American culture in every aspect. Mandela was influential as a leader of conscience. It is a role shared across fields of endeavor, whether politics, religion, the sciences, the arts, and so forth. I think of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop, another South African whose voice has extended far beyond that nation and that continent. Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984; Mandela in 1993.

But I also think of Africa’s “cultural ambassadors” whose work has touched the world’s conscience, such as Grammy-winning singer Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008), whose activism for civil rights earned her the nickname Mama Africa. I hear echoes of her voice and passion in the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the all-male vocal group from South Africa that was brought to worldwide attention with their collaboration on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, some twenty-six years after the group’s formation. I also hear Makeba in the all-female a cappella African American group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which I had the pleasure of hearing live at a reception in Washington, D.C., about a decade ago.

From African to African American—a fraught transition in many ways. But how enriched our culture, and by turns world culture, has been by the many influential individuals and groups whose ancestors, for the most part, came to our shores unwillingly. These descendants of slaves and indentured servants might just as easily have turned their backs to the culture of their oppressors. Instead, they gave us their culture in every conceivable way, whether in the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968, Nobel Peace Prize 1964), the poetry of Maya Angelou, the enduring jazz of Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971), the photography of Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006), or the work of singer and actress Audra McDonald. The list goes on forever.

And at last we have an American president who identifies as black and traces distant roots to Africa. Barack Obama, another Nobel Peace Prize winner (2009), has faced an uphill battle, not only as an individual to seek the top political job in our nation, following 43 white predecessors, but also, and perhaps most significantly, to overcome our national legacy of racism—racism that is still all-too-alive among large segments of the population. Much of the political gridlock in contemporary times can be traced not merely to political differences but to the entrenched racism of rightwing America, however conservative politicos and pundits try to whitewash it.

African influences have enriched the collective life of the United States and the world in immeasurable ways. As I paused this week to reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the recollection of many of the individuals coming out of Africa, whether historically or in the present day, who, in the words of Martin Luther King, “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” More and more Americans are achieving this ideal viewpoint, but for some it is still a challenge. That means we all simply must work harder for a quality of human connectedness that transcends place and race.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cat's Condition

The recent Indiana University Theater production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did not disappoint, as I feared it would. I was concerned that it might pale against the memory of a London production some ten years ago that starred Brendan Frazer and Ned Beatty in the roles of Brick and Big Daddy. It did not. It was well acted and admirably staged.

What struck me instead was how commonplace and less fraught the two central dramatic themes—cancer and homosexuality—have become since the play was first performed in 1955. Mendacity is the catchword. Everyone is lying. Big Daddy has been lied to about his aggressive cancer, which will soon kill him. Brick is lying about his relationship with Skipper, a “pure” friendship that nowadays can only be seen as latently, if not overtly, gay. But Brick’s lie is as much for himself as for the family, and his own mendacity drives him to drink.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1963) achieved recognition as a playwright after years of toiling in obscurity. His star finally rose with the 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie. He was at his best in the 1940s and 1950s. Williams’ genre is Southern tragedy. His plots tend to be Shakespearean in character. In Cat the king is dying. Big Daddy’s plantation empire is at stake. Rival brothers and their rapacious wives have gathered for the end that everyone except the king knows is coming. Big Daddy has been kept in the dark by the family’s treacherous secrecy and his own self-delusion. Big Daddy is lying to himself as much as Brick is lying to himself about their respective conditions.

But the conditions have lost the punch they had half a century ago. Cancer, while potentially devastating, is no longer spoken of in whispers. In Cat it is regarded as an automatic death sentence, which it usually was in the 1950s. Similarly, Brick’s homosexuality, whether he ever acted on it or not, is a dirty secret, one that has driven him into alcoholism—and drove his “friend” Skipper to suicide. Of course, homophobia and guilt still drive people to suicide today; the cyberbullying and gay teen suicide statistics are appalling. But being gay—or having homosexual thoughts—are no longer discussed only in whispers. More than a dozen U.S. states and several counties allow gay marriage. The world has changed. Mendacity regarding cancer and homosexuality is no longer the norm, no longer the stuff of great drama.

Williams’ Cat is well crafted, a classic perhaps, but no longer contemporary. The larger issues of the dying king and the lies people tell to delude themselves and others are as timeless as they are in Shakespeare. But the twin vehicles of Williams’ drama—cancer and homosexuality—throw the play into the class of historical drama. They are horse-and-buggy themes in a hybrid electric era. That said, it is no less watchable. Cat still offers an evening of compelling drama.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

By Jiminy!

Cliff Edwards’ distinctive voice and ukulele strumming are worthy of rediscovery by a new generation. Most folks of a certain age now recall him only as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. His voice is the only one I want to hear singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But Edwards had a long career before that 1940 animated hit that children still view with delight, generation after generation. We have to rely on YouTube and Netflix to see and hear his earlier performances.

He was born Clifton A. Edwards (June 14, 1895 – July 17, 1971) in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, at a time when Twain was still alive, though not living in his boyhood home by then. Edwards left school at age 14 and moved to St. Louis and nearby St. Charles, Missouri, where he entertained in saloons. He taught himself how to play the ukulele (or ukelele, as it often was spelled in those days), and soon took on the moniker “Ukelele Ike.”

Edwards got his break in Chicago in 1918 and played the vaudeville circuit, moving into the big time at the Palace in New York City and later performing in the Ziegfeld Follies. He was a headliner at the Palace in 1924.

Ukelele Ike made his first record in 1918. In 1924 he was featured along with Fred Astaire and Fred’s sister Adele in the Gershwin brothers’ first Broadway musical, Lady Be Good. Edwards had a number one hit with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” in 1928, followed by another number one in 1929: “Singin’ in the Rain.” Gene Kelly, who parlayed that song into a hit movie by the same name in 1952 was only 17 when Edwards’ version was a sensation on the airwaves.

Edwards went on to play a variety of character roles in movies, including His Girl Friday, the Howard Hawks remake of the play, The Front Page, a screwball comedy about a hard-boiled newspaper editor and his eccentric star reporter. The film starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Edwards even had his own television show in 1949 and made film and TV appearances throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Sadly, Edwards fell into alcoholism and drug addiction toward the end of his life. Broke and largely forgotten by the public, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1971. But for me and kids across the ages who have lost themselves in the Disney story of the puppet who wanted to be a “real boy,” we’ll always hear Edwards with fondness in that singing cricket.