Tuesday, 31 January 2017

BARBARA HALE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the actress Barbara Hale, who played Perry Mason's secretary Della Street, is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It had to be trimmed for space, which was largely my discussion of her career at RKO and Columbia; she made a lot of films, particularly at the latter, which tried hard to transcend their budgetary and casting limitations. Some of the cutting led to some misinterpretations: Higher and Higher isn't really a Frank Sinatra movie, he wasn't top billed, though it features his singing. Bill Williams' birth name was Herman August Wilhelm Katt, but was generall called William. They also lost my lede, which I thought was particularly relevant given I'd also written Mary Tyler Moore's obit just a few days before, so I'm posting my own full text here. I have added descriptions of a couple of the films, and mentions of the other two where she starred with her husband.

BARBARA HALE, ACTRESS

Before Mary Richards, there was Della Street. Barbara Hale, who has died aged 94, played Street, Perry Mason's secretary, in the hugely successful television series which ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966, then reprised her role in 29 television movies between 1985 and 1995. Della's indefatigable calm and poise established her as a partner to Perry and his investigator Paul Drake. Although Hale's all-American girl-next-door looks saw her cast typically as supportive wives in her film career, in Perry Mason she was, unusually in television, clearly a single career woman, fully able to out-banter Drake's flirtatious advances in almost every episode. 'When we started it was the beginning of women not working at home,' she said. 'I liked it that she was not married.'

Hale's path to Hollywood was a highly-publicized Cinderella story. Born 18 April 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, she grew up in nearby Rockford where he father Luther was a landscape gardener. She was 19 and studying commercial art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art when she was spotted by a modelling agent, and began working to pay her way through college, including modelling for a comic strip. Her agent sent photos to the RKO movie studio, who sent Hale a ticket to Los Angeles. She was sitting in a casting director's office when a phone call came asking for a starlet to replace one who'd fallen ill. Hale was sent to the set of Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943), one of a series of comedies based on the hugely popular radio show, and made her film debut. Although studio publicity trumpeted her instant stardom, in reality she had only a single line, and went unmentioned in the credits.

But she landed a contract at RKO, and got her first screen credit in Higher and Higher (1945), Frank Sinatra's fourth movie which featured him singing six songs. Her first starring role came opposite Robert Young in a gambling comedy, Lady Luck (1946). In the RKO commisary the same year she met Bill Williams (born William Katt), and after making West Of The Pecos together, where she starred with Robert Mitchum, they married, and in 1947 co-starred in a light comedy, A Likely Story. Williams would go on to star on television as Kit Carson in a successful western series. Hale, a more talented actor, was trapped in lesser studio parts until she too found success on the smaller screen.

Her best RKO parts came working with child-actors, Dean Stockwell in Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair (1948) and Bobby Driscoll in Ted Tetzlaff's noirish The Window, her penultimate RKO release. Her last was another in which she and Bill co-starred, The Clay Pigeon, a frenetic thriller, Richard Fleischer's third feature, written by Carl Foreman. It involves a soldier who wakes from a coma, is accused of treason for collaborating in a Japanese prison camp, and busts a Jap crime ring.

Hale moved to Columbia, where she generally played adoring wives and steadfast girlfriends, including twice with Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again (1949) and the comedy Emergency Wedding (1950) where she plays a doctor who puts her career ahead of her millionaire husband's needs. Her light touch saw her cast with James Stewart and opposite Robert Cummings in the early Frank Tashlin comedy The First Time (1952). Hale was loaned to James Cagney's production company to make A Lion Is In The Streets, directed by Raoul Walsh, a B movie version of All The King's Men which also prefigures A Face In The Crowd. She plays Cagney's wife, on whom he cheats (with Anne Francis as a bayou honey named Flamingo McManamee, shades of Lil' Abner) while building a political career. She had the title role in Lorna Doone (1951) but became a feature in low-budget but interesting Columbia westerns, including Andre DeToth's remake of Sahara, Last Of The Comanches (1952) and Joseph H Lewis' 7th Cavalry (1956), her last Columbia picture. She then worked in episodic television like Playhouse 90, made The Oklahoman (1957) with Joel McCrea, and an interesting picture about a manufactured western movie star, Slim Carter (1957) alongside both her husband and William Hopper, the future Paul Drake. Ironically, in her last feature film before Perry Mason, Desert Hell, she played an unfaithful wife of a Foreign Legion commander.

The Perry Mason series, one of the first to use the one-hour format, was a triumph of casting. William Talman, as the always-losing DA Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lt. Tragg, were great character actors. Raymond Burr, typecast literally as a 'heavy' in classic film noir, lost weight to reprise his role as a lawyer in A Place In The Sun (1951); Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, reportedly leapt from his chair during test screenings shouting 'that's Perry Mason'. Although publicists tried to promote the idea of a romance between Burr and Hale, in reality he lived with a man, though he and Hale became devoted friends, with a common love of horticulture. Burr bred orchids, and named one for his co-star. Hale's role in Perry Mason wasn't big in terms of screen time, she joked she basically had six scenes and costume changes to denote the changing of days, but its impact was strong enough for her to win an Emmy in 1959 as best supporting actress.

When CBS cancelled the show, Hale reverted to episodic television, including a spot on Burr's successful police series Ironside and with regular roles in Disney's Wonderful World Of Color. She became the early pitch-woman for Amana microwave ovens, someone audiences would trust with new-fangled technology. She had a telling part in the original “disaster movie”, Airport (1970), and in 1975 she played the lead opposite Steve Brodie in the unforgettable disaster of a film The Giant Spider Invasion.

Her son William Katt starred in John Milius' 1978 epic Big Wednesday and in a bit of Hollywood insider humour, she played his mother (see photo left with Katt and Patti d'Arbanville), which she did again in a 1982 episode of the TV series The Great American Hero. When, in 1985, NBC produced a TV movie, Perry Mason Returns, her son was cast as Paul Drake, Jr., replacing Hopper, who had died in 1970. It was so successful that NBC produced 25 more movies before Burr's death in 1993, and three more starring Hal Holbrooke, cast not as Mason but Wild Bill McKenzie. The last of the three, in 1995, was Hale's final acting appearance.

She lived quietly, surviving cancer and converting to Baha'i religion. Bill Williams died in 1992. Barbara Hale died from pulmonary disease at home in Sherman Oaks, California 26 January 2017. She is survived by her son, and two daughters Judy and Juanita.


Monday, 30 January 2017

NFL LIMBO: MY LOST WEEK 21 FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END COLUMN

Last Friday morning I wrote my weekly column for nfluk.com; its lede was eerily prophetic, as it indeed disappeared into limbo! It hasn't yet appeared, perhaps because there are no games whose results I can predict (except for the Pro Bowl: I got it wrong, and my score prediction turned out to be a little off too) and it is not, strictly speaking, billed as FMTE any longer. I don't know what happened, but in answer to the queries I received, here it is now, as written, complete with all-pro and all-rookie teams...

FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END, WEEK 21

Week 21 is NFL Limbo. The slow build-up of Super Bowl hype mixes with the final arguments about year-end awards, the Senior Bowl gets the three-month draftathon underway, and the Pro Bowl this year reverts back to a 'meaningful' NFC vs AFC format. As much as the idea of watching the NFL's best players go against each other appeals, I've written many times before how the game itself has outlived its usefulness, just as the College All-Star game did before it. I suspect it will require a serious injury to a real star to drive the point home, and I do not wish for that. PRO BOWL: PICK NFC 101 AFC 98

Instead let's take a serious look at the All-Pro team. One of the odd things about the Pro Bowl is that each team gets three quarterbacks, although only one can play, but also, for example, three guards, although two play. They get only one special teamer, though of course ten more of those guys surround the kickers. The current voting for all-pros gets weird as well, with two running backs even though no teams use two at once except as a gimmick, and various distinctions between interior linemen, edge rushers, and linebackers which saw Khalil Mack get picked as both a rusher and a linebacker. Sometimes they distinguish between left and right tackles, strong and free safeties, sometimes they don't. And they've added a 'flex' position (David Johnson, who I thought had a very strong case for the MVP) was AP's first team flex and second team running back, go figure. , which might be fine if this were fantasy football. As I pointed out one week in answer to the otherwise excellent Red Zone: the opposite of fantasy football is not 'reality football', it's 'football'!

The quarterback/MVP debate has been a fascinating one. Ryan has had a totally remarkable statistical season; Brady went 11-1 with a team whose offensive weapons don't fall into the all-pro voting; Rodgers engineered a brilliant run without a running back. You could take any of the three and think yourself correct. But boy would you hear arguments.

IRON MIKE'S ALL PROS:

QB: Matt Ryan, Atlanta
RB: LeVeon Bell, Pitts
FB: Kyle Juszczyk, Balt
WR: Julio Jones, Atlanta; Antonio Brown, Pitts; Odell Beckham, NYG
TE: Travis Kelce, KC
T: Joe Thomas, Clev; Andrew Whitworth, Cinn
G: Zach Martin, Dallas; Marshal Yanda, Balt
C: Travis Frederick, Dallas

DE: Khalil Mack, Oakland; Jadeveon Clowney, Houston
DT: Aaron Donald, LA; Fletcher Cox, Phil/Damon Harrison, NYG (tie)
OLB: Vic Beasley, Atlanta; Von Miller, Denver/Sean Lee, Dall (tie)
ILB: Bobby Wagner, Seattle; Luke Kuechley, Carolina
CB: Marcus Peters, KC; Patrick Peterson, Ariz; Richard Sherman, Seattle;
SS: Eric Berry, KC
FS: Devin McCourty, NE

PK: Justin Tucker, Balt (Tucker had a 1.77 score on my 'Cockup' kicker rating; the highest in about 8 years); Adam Vinatieri at 1.45 was next).
P: Jonny Hekker, LA
KR: Tyreek Hill, KC
ST: Matthew Slater, NE/Nate Ebner, NE (tie)

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick
Coordinator of the Year: Kyle Shanahan
MVP: Ryan

It's also time to tip the helmet to the way Dallas' dynamic duo of rookies, QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, led them to the very brink of the NFC championship game. If you go back to April, it was obvious Zeke was a rare talent who was likely to thrive behind Dallas' fine run-blocking line. It was less obvious that Dak was going to QB them to a 13-3 season. I was one of the few commentators high on Dak; I had him pegged top of the second round, ahead of Paxton Lynch, but even I didn't think that translated into playing right away. I did say then that he reminded me of Russell Wilson, and so it turned out.

Dak made one rookie mistake against the Packers, spiking the ball on first down as Dallas was on their game-tying drive. The loss of a down was far more important than the clock; in fact in an ideal world they wouldn't have left any time for Green Bay after scoring. Note Aaron Rodgers' clock management as he took the Packers 42 yards in 35 seconds, even after taking a 10 yard sack. There was a stranger mistake, at the end of the first half, when Cole Beasley fair-caught a punt and the Cowboys didn't take the free-kick which was available. I would have loved to see Dan Bailey with a run-up going for the posts!

It's a shame Zeke's season overshadowed Jordan Howard's which might have been good for rookie of the year in many years; running on a team with a limited passing attack Howard was a bright light for the Bears. So I've picked two running backs and only two wideouts, because no third wideout stood out from a group of about five.

IRON MIKE'S ALL-ROOKIE TEAM (draft round taken in parenthesis):

QB: Dak Prescott, Dallas (4)
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas (1); Jordan Howard, Chicago (5)
FB: Andy Janovich, Denver (6)
TE: Hunter Henry, San Diego (2)
WR: Michael Thomas, NO (2); Sterling Sheppard, NYG (2)
T: Jack Conklin, Tenn (1); Taylor Decker, Det (1); Ronnie Stanley, Balt (1)
G: Laremy Tunsil, Miami (1) Joe Thuney, NE (3)
C: Cody Whitehair, Chi (2)

DE: Joey Bosa, San Diego (1); DeForest Buckner, SF (1) Kenny Clark, GB (1)
DT: Chris Jones, KC (2); Javon Hargrave, Pitt (3); Michael Pierce, Balt (U)
ILB: Deion Jones, Atlanta (2); Jatavis Brown, San Diego (5)
OLB: Leonard Floyd, Chi (1) Emmanuel Ogbah, Clev (2)
CB: Jalen Ramsey, Jax (1); Eli Apple, NYG (1); Darryl Worley, Caro (3)
S: Keanu Neal, Atlanta (1); Karl Joseph (Oak) (1)
PK: Will Lutz, NO (U) P: Riley Dixon, Den (7) KR: Tyreek Hill, KC (5)

See you next week with the Super Bowl. I'll be down in Houston with El Chappo, Osi, and JBell on BBC1 Sunday, don't miss it!

LAST WEEK: 1-1 PLAYOFFS: 9-1

Thursday, 26 January 2017

MARY TYLER MOORE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of the actress Mary Tyler Moore went online at the Guardian last night; I had written it a few months ago. You can link to it here. It is as I wrote it, and I hope it conveys my fascination with the parallels between her life and her on screen roles. Even the way she entered the business, first as a dancer and then as a pair of legs at an answering service switchboard, seemed to suggest her difficulties in overcoming the insecurities of projecting characters who are somehow not supposed to be yourself, but reflect your own perception of self even as you bring them to life. This seemed to be her battle throughout her career, and much of her career seemed to go out of its way to make the similarities obvious.

I didn't write about how big an influence she was in the Dick Van Dyke Show. Kids my age had crushes on her, moving beyond the women we wish were our moms, like Donna Reed or Loretta Young, to her being the epitome of allure in that early 60s Jackie Kennedy way. There is something to be written about the relative nerdiness/powerlessness of the men in those early 60s sitcoms; where the 50s husband/fathers were relative inert, but strong presences, Rob Petrie and his equivalents (think Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, Green Acres) were males whose inert Father Knows Best presence was crossed with the bit of Ricky Ricardo when faced with the anarchic chaos of Lucy. This was something Mad Men captured pretty well, along with the other side of the coin, was the men you'd find in a John D MacDonald novel.

Just as importantly, she was someone the female audience identified with. Originally, she was a hoofer learning comedy; Dick Van Dyke was glowing this morning on the radio explaining what a quick study she was as a comedienne, but it was always fun to watch them dance together, or do slapstick with an easy fitting brilliance. But as Mary Richards she was just the kind of hesitant, insecure, struggling woman to whom the middle-American audience could relate. She was the Catholic school girl in the midst of New York comedy (even when set in Minneapolis) and she played brilliantly off Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod and the rest, and was especially good cutting the even-more-brittle fragile-ego'd Ted Baxter down to size.

When Mary Tyler Moore said 'I play me' she wasn't lying. I mention her exceptional performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in the TV mini-series (Sam Waterson was Lincoln) was exactly the role she had played with such emotional impact in Ordinary People eight years earlier. It's also interesting to see the close parallel with Sally Field's interpretation in Spielberg's Lincoln, Field being another who often seems to be playing herself.

In British terms her biggest impact might have been through MTM Enterprises, but that was primarily Grant Tinker's baby, and the parallel with her life is again a strong one. But were there no Hill Street Blues, there would have been no The Bill in Britain, without St. Elsewhere there would never have been a Casualty.

We often discount celebrities when they take to the confessional mode, and I have to admit feeling sadness every time I looked at her face seemingly ravaged by cosmetic surgeries. But that reminded me how Mary Tyler Moore was hard to dismiss, precisely because of how visibly difficult the process was for her. She had been an aspirational figure to American women for two decades in the 60s and 70s, she then became an inspiration one for two decades later. That is no mean feat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

THEM PUSSY GRABBERS: a Presidential poem (after Mason Williams)


How about them pussy grabbers
Ain't no wussies
Gettin around just
Grabbin they pussies

Grabbin them young uns
Grabbin them old
Grabbin lotsa pussies
Takin they hold

Them Presidential pussy grabbers
Walkin down the street
Chompin they tic tacs til
They breath smell sweet

Sayin they TV stars
Really nothin to it
Walkin up to wimmens
Always let em do it

How to be a pussy-grabber?
Wanna take a stab?
Find yourself a pussy
Say 'I'm President!' & grab!


Note: It occurred to me recently that our current President, who may well destroy satire along with the rest of the world, had walked himself right into a Mason Williams 'Them' Poem. Williams, best known for his song Classical Gas, is a multi-talented musician, writer, and stand up comic. He was head writer on The Smothers Brothers comedy show, where he conceived the Pat Paulson for President campaign (which seems prescient now), and gave Steve Martin his first break as a writer. He wrote poems and suchlike, and in 1969 published The Mason Williams Reading Matter, which included a section called 'Them Poems', which all began with 'them'. The most famous was Them Tummy Gummers, which I think became a song, but my favourite was the shortest of them Them poems: Them Hors d'oeuvres (pronounced whores doovers), which I have repeated at countless receptions and parties over the decades. I reprint it below. If I stole Mason Williams' Trumpian thunder in any way, I apologise.

from Them Poems
LII  
Them Hors d'oeuvres 
 
How about Them Hors d'oeuvres,
Ain't they sweet?
Little piece a cheese,
Little piece a meat.

Monday, 23 January 2017

CY TWOMBLY: CYCLES & SEASONS (TATE MODERN, 2008)

Note: I originally posted this at my irregular art blog, Untitled: Perspectives (On Art 
back in August 2008. I should have migrated it here before now, but as I am headed to Houston soon and hoping to visit the Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, I thought it would be nice to reacquaint myself (and you) with the artist now. I will also be writing about him at some point soon in connection with the recently finished Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy.... 

The best art exhibitions are those which open your eyes to something you haven't seen before, and Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, at the Tate Modern through 14 September is one of those. It forced me to re-think and come to a whole new appreciation of Twombly's art, which was never as strong for me as, with hindsight, I can see it probably should have been, given his background at Black Mountain College, and his close association with so many people whose work I have found centrally important.

Part of this is context. The single Twombly encountered in a gallery may seem pleasant, but often gives off an unfinished, almost fragile, quality. A single Franz Kline can overwhelm you. But seeing Twombly's works in groups, in rough chronological order, and watching what he does with the elements of squiggles and words, with colour and with the physicality of brush and pen strokes, reveals the powerful emotion which becomes more explicit in some of his later works, particularly the two Four Seasons sets on display.

It's easy to see in Twombly's work the theoretical foundation of Black Mountain poetry, as articulated by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, that 'form is never more than an extension of content' (which I've always taken to mean 'should never be more'), and that 'one perception should lead immediately to another'. Although his pencil stokes are often seen as subverting Pollack's calligraphic gestures, some of the paintings in the exhibition's first room, notably 'Tiznit' (1953) suggest something halfway between Creeley and Kline, with whom Twombly studied at with Black Mountain. The heavy whites and blacks give way to seeming doodles, as if Creeley had stopped by to write a short poem on a Kline canvas. By 1955's 'Criticism' the marks actually do seem like writing. 'Poems To The Sea' (1959) carries this even further, and I found myself again thinking of Kline, this time crossing his work with Olson's more epic writing.Kline worked in black and white for most of his career, and there's sense here in which Twombly seems wary of colour, as if not trusting, at this stage, its intense, uncontrollable emotionalism.

By the start of the 1960s 'Crimes Of Passion' and 'Murder Of Passion' move in a different direction, discarding the pencil-strokes for smears of paint which suggest both passion and anxiety, and not a little eroticism, expressed in hints in representational painting, reminding me of DeKooning. Perhaps it was a reflection of Twombly's move to Italy, set free of American context, and confronted with the heat of Italian summer in Rome. Within this, references to classical works, like 'School Of Athens' homage to Rafael, suggest an elegance that somehow doesn't seem to fit. When 'Ferragosto' (1961) adds a rusty red to his palette, it seems more than thousands of miles removed from the effects of pencil lines around strong blacks and whites. All these elements begin to merge in his 1969 paintings, made in Italy, whose calculations reflect his experience as a cryptographer in the 1950s, while celebrating the moon landings. It's a mix of American pragmatism and European classicism, and it works brilliantly. There are graphs, diagrams, geometric forms, but there is still an overarching asceticism which suggests someone learning from the past while being overcome with the future.

There is an element of challenge involved here too. Twombly's was the generation immediately following the abstract expressionists. Their emotionalism was replaced by the cool stylings of pop art, and have evolved into the heavily ironic commentaries of the modern world. Twombly, in sense, reminds me of Richard Diebenkorn, convinced the concerns of the artists he grew up with were valid, and looking for new means of executing them.

But the real fulcrum of the show comes with the next two series, starting with 1970's 'Treatise On The Veil'. It is minimalist, a grid structure of repeating rectangles, adorned with measurements; one in black and the other, opposite, in gray. It suggests the music of Philip Glass, and apparently were influenced by Muybridge's photos of a bride in motion. But looking at the shades of gray and black, and the strong brushstrokes, I was reminded of late Rothko, and it struck me that these slabs on their ends were like drawings for a Rothko mural, and that they may have been inspired, or influenced, by Rothko's suicide. Certainly they carry the same kind of quiet impact of the Tate's Rothko room, which at the moment is closed while the major Rothko retrospective is being prepared.

My feeling of elegy continued and was amplified in the next room, which contains 'Nini's Paintings', a response to the death of his Roman dealer's wife. Their mood takes the melancholy of the 'Treatise On The Veil' and transforms it to a sense of frustrated rage, like someone scribbling lines that make no sense because there is nothing useful to say. There is nothing minimalist or repetetive about them, there are no sombre grays or blacks. The brush strokes that were backgrounded in the Treatise, creating a deep atmosphere, are now in the foreground, like chaos released.

If I find those works a peak in Twombly's career, it's also evident that his work progressed on both the intellectual and emotional levels, and his white sculptures of found material seem almost like a relief. 'Two Squares' recalls Joseph Albers, another leading light of Black Mountain, and when the exhibition returns to painting, there is a greater exuberance, a more daring sense of control. By now living on the Tyrrhenian sea at Gaeta,his work begins to engage heavily with the sea, both in 'Hero and Leandro' where the waves become ever-increasingly harsh strokes of the paintbrush, and 'The Wilder Shores Of Love', whose sea effects in gray Turner might even admire.

Although the nine paintings of 'Untitled' were done for the Italian pavilion at the 1988 Biennale, and reflect 18th century Venice, they mark a progression from light to dark, in which again I find echoes of the Treatise, almost an allegory of life. Something that makes sense in light of the two versions of 'The Four Seasons' which move from the energy of Spring to the gathering darkness and pale light of Winter. Oddly, all the reproductions at the Tate are of the later version (1993-95), but I found the earlier one (1993) more powerful, particularly in the dying bursts of yellow that drop through the blacks on one side of 'Inverno' (Winter). (It's the later version of 'Inverno' which is pictured at the header of this essay).

The exhibition's end, Bacchus (2005) with its estatic vermillion ooze, came as a sort of winking coda to this, confirmation that the viewer had completed the kind of emotional journey those late paintings describe. It's a journey that reflects the progress of Twombly's art; an art concerned with perception and expression. Twombly's work, seen as a progression, takes on a modest, intellectual sort of power, unmistakably a searching for the right way to give emotional power to his apprehension of the world around him. It's a brilliant show, from a painter who's now the last,and maybe just being recognised as one of the greatest, of a crucial American generation.

Footnote: A couple of days after seeing this exhibition, I sat in as the analyst on Channel Five's Major League Baseball show. I mention this because Cy Twombly's father, also named Cy, was a pitcher in the major leagues, probably the second-best ever named Cy. The best, Cy Young, lends his name to the award for baseball's best pitcher. Baseball was surprisingly important to the people at Black Mountain, see Fielding Dawson's writing, particularly 'A Great Day For A Ballgame' (he also wrote 'An Emotional Memoir Of Franz Kline'). The abstract expressionists were always trying to prove they were red-blooded Americans, not longhaired eggheads or effete artistes. Moving to Italy was certainly a way for Twombly to get away from that need, perhaps from his own legacy. My own expat experience has been the opposite, as I always keep getting drawn back to sport as a profession, or part of it. As it is, moving from Cy Twombly to Cy Young doesn't seem unusual, their coexistence doesn't strike me as unnatural, though lots of people out there still think it should be!

MIGUEL FERRER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Miguel Ferrer, character actor and voice-over artist, is up at Guardian.co.uk. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. It appears pretty much exactly as written; the one bit that was lost was the story of his childhood friend Bill Mumy. Mumy was a successful child-actor, best known for his part as the youngest kid in Lost In Space. He was doing a sitcom in the mid-70s called Sunshine, in which he played in a band. Ferrer's TV debut apparently was the drummer (or a drummer) in the band. The story was interesting because much later in life the two would form another band, called Seduction Of The Innocent (after the infamous 1950s book condemning comic books) which included the writer Max Allan Collins, whom I would bet came up with the band's name. Mumy's career is like a distorted mirror-image of Ferrer's: he continued in music, very successfully, only occasionally acting (including a guest shot in Crossing Jordan), but doing a lot of voice-overs.

If I'd had more space it might have been interesting to examine the dynamics of his parents' marriages, a fascinating story in itself. There is also an essay to be written somewhere about the nature of acting on the big screen as opposed to the smaller one, and why some actors can dominate the latter, but seem to shrink on the bigger. And I found it particularly interesting how Ferrer's face itself changed; it was an interesting one, not least for its flexible ethnicity (recall, his mother was Irish, his father Puerto Rican). The Harvest, which I mention, happened probably just about at the end of the time he had available to be a leading man, if only in character parts. As he grew older, and his face rounded, he came to look more like his father, with  the accompanying gravitas.

My closing was also edited out, so I'll include it here:  His cousin George Clooney, referencing the inauguration of a new president in Washington the next day, said “his passing is felt so deeply in our family that events of the day, (monumental events), pale in comparison”

Monday, 16 January 2017

WILLIAM PETER BLATTY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

I've written William Peter Blatty's obituary for the Guardian; it's on the website now (link to it here); it should appear in the paper paper soon. The published piece is pretty much as written; there are a couple of extra prepositions (eg: 'from where' he graduated, rather than 'where he graduated') but the body of the story is intact.

And it's a fascinating story. Almost like a piece of literary detection: I was amazed to realise how much the novel Crazy draws together the disparate themes in his work, and it really clarified my own reading of The Exorcist from years ago. Saying audiences were distracted from his themes is not to disparage the film, nor the actors; it says more about audiences that some failed to realise the point, and about Blatty's sincere worry that they didn't.

I would have liked to give a little more time to Exorcist III, at least partly because Blatty had tried to hire Nicol Williamson for The Ninth Configuration, before realising he was wrong for the film. I would have liked to write a bit more about Jason Miller, who plays in both those movies and who seems very obviously a stand-in for Blatty. And about some of the great bits in Ninth Configuration from actors like Scott Wilson, Robert Loggia and Roscoe Browne.  When Blake Edwards died I mentioned Gunn, but not Blatty, which I probably should have done.

But what fascinated me most was Blatty's early writing career. The comparison to Perleman has been quoted everywhere, but Blatty was an early part of what I'd see as a very New York kind of satiric farce. You see in movies that feature Zero Mostel or Peter Ustinov. It has the cold war underlying it, and the odd sort of social comedy you see best in Billy Wilder's The Apartment. But mostly I wanted to link Blatty to other comic novelists, guys like Bruce Jay Friedman, Dan Greenburg, Terry Southern, Nathaniel Benchley, even Donald Westlake. There's a very strong stylistic thread running through this (see the film of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, based on Benchley's novel, and compare to John Goldfarb) which deserves more analysis than I could do in an obituary.

I mentioned seeing Catch 22 as an influence on Blatty's Twinkle Twinkle; it seems inescapable to me. It reminds me a bit of William Eastlake's Castle Keep, published a year earlier, and made into a similarly bizarre cult film. I'm not implying plagarism, just that this was what was in the air. Similarly I mentioned Blatty benefited from Rosemary's Baby, but my point about it was lost in another bit of slight editing; I had explained that he benefited because of the success of Ira Levin's novel and Roman Polanski's with respectable audiences. America was ready for the shocker Blatty delivered.

Friday, 6 January 2017

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS BOOKS OF THE PAST YEAR

This is an odd Books of the Year list, because it basically includes only those books I wrote about on Irresistible Targets, or reviewed on The Crime Vault Live, and the books I read and wrote about were not necessarily written in 2016. And of course, some I haven't yet written about, which means a number of my favourite books of 2016 will, I hope, get mentioned here soon, including Paul Hendrickson's Hemingway's Boat, Reza Aslan's Zealot, Henning Mankell's Quicksand and David Talbot's The Devil's Chessboard. 

I admit I probably should have written about the books I reviewed on The Crime Vault, but once I'd done the podcast, reviewing them in some detail, I had pretty much said what I wanted to say. You can find links to all five of the the CVL podcasts here at IT, just use the search engine.  All the other books I mention you can similarly find in the past year.

My favourite 2016 crime novels were James Sallis' Willnot and Alex Marwood's Darkest Secret (CVL). Runners up to Michael Connelly's Wrong Side Of Goodbye, Robert Crais' The Promise (CVL), Graham Hurley's The Order Of Things, Stephen King's story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams (CVL) and Johan Theorin's Made In Sweden (CVL).

I was also a judge for the CWA Short Story Dagger award, and John Connolly's Night Music, from which two stories made the judges' (and my) short list, was exceptional. The runner-up story came from another fine collection, Crimes, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, from Venezuela.

But my favourite crime novel of the year was Sara Gran's Dope, which for some reason I came to late. Read my review; it really is as good as I say.

The other two non-crime books that stand out from the year's reading were Kevin Jackson's study of modernism and 1922, Constellation of Genius, and Joe Abercrombie's hugely entertaining story collection, Sharp Ends, which proves not only that the whole sword and sorcery genre is not dead, but that a good writer can do wonderful things with it.  Serious writing in a not always very serious genre. But then you probably watch Game Of Thrones, right?

NFL SWAMI: HOW IRON MIKE FARED PICKING NFL GAMES THIS SEASON

Picking every game every week is an adventure. This was the introduction to my column this week, which wasn't included with the predictions on the nfluk website.

FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END, WEEK 18: WILD CARD WEEKEND

I never thought I would say this, but I actually miss the nfl.com 'expert' Pick Em game on which my picks (allowing for my luddite inability to move the sliders properly) appeared for the past four years. I finished second the first year, and first each of the next three, even last season when I (and almost everyone else) had a off year (just 62.5 per cent right). Doing this for a period of years teaches you that margins are small: I improved this year to 66.1 per cent, but that's just eight games better in a 17 week season, or one every other week. This year I also finished with a rush: from week 11 onward I was 82-29, which is a 74 per cent pace. I'd like to say it was because I'd figured things out better after half the season, but who knows, that would sound like Outcome Bias, which I am always criticising.  I am pretty consistent: in 12 seasons picking weekly with Friday Morning Tight End, I've finished between 165 and 176 games right ten times.

But without the Pick Em game to measure against, I looked around this week to see how I'd compare. Turns out 168 correct would put me atop Pete Prisco & Co at CBS Sportsline (Dave Richard was best with 167) and five games up on ESPN's experts (KC Joyner with 165 was best, but they also gave their guessers this season's two ties as wins). I'd run away with NFL.com's Gameday Morning, won by Kurt Warner with 154. The best I found were Sam Farmer of the LA Times and Elliott Harrison on NFL.com, both with 170 right, so they get the championship. And here's a hint: it won't get much easier in the playoffs, even though it looks like it ought to. There is a very strong pull to pick all four home teams in this Wild Card round, but that means means you'd have two nine win teams favoured against teams that won 12 and 11. Go figure....

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS: THE NEW YEAR

You may have noticed a lull in the postings on this site, and read my post last month about finding a new direction, if any, in which to take this blog. I had a modest boom in my paid writing during the election, but as that cooled off again I found my motivation for writing just for myself, and you, somewhat lessened.

In the meantime, however, I have a huge backlog of things I need to get written, books and films to review, essays I want to write, and I've decided that while I investigate other options for my output, I will continue to post them here. I have figured out how to make the site look a bit better; though the new controls which 'simplify' things also don't let me return the logo to its original, balanced and readable state. I have resurrected the lost 'Bullseyes' sidebar, and am restoring those story links manually. I've also added a sidebar with links direct to my poetry.

I have the feeling this would all be better served with a website, which is one of the things I will consider as I try to catch up here...watch this space, as they say.