Friday, May 20, 2022

Remembering Ben Gazzara

Almost all of my blog posts this week have been about actors so I think I'll end the week by writing about one more -- the late, great Ben Gazzara.

The quintessential character actor, Gazzara had a long and impressive career. A native of NYC, a child of Italian immigrants growing up in Kips Bay, Gazzara got his start in local theater and the Actors Studio before his big break, starring in the original production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, directed by Elia Kazan.

Numerous plays, films and TV appearances followed through the 1950s, '60s, and 70s, including A Hatful of Rain and movies with the John Cassavettes including the classic Husbands in 1970 and Opening Night in 1977. 

Gazzara's brief flirtation with movie stardom happened in the 1970s when he starred as Al Capone in Capone (1975) and the Peter Bogdanovich classic Saint Jack in 1979, playing an American running a prostitution ring in Singapore -- a thriller about the depths of human greed and depravity. 

Gazzara continued to work into the 1980s and 1990s, and I became aware of him when he had another golden era in the late 1990s with such classics as David Mamet's brilliant thriller The Spanish Prisoner, the super dark comedy Happiness by Todd Solandz, and as the sleazy Jackie Treehorn in the The Big Lebowski.

Then in 2002 he won an Emmy for his role in the HBO movie Hysterical Blindness.

A few years later I saw him on the Broadway stage in a revival of the Clifford Odets play Awake and Sing! He was an adorable, charming presence in that first-class revival. 

Gazzara died in 2012, leaving behind an amazing body of work. A great NYC, the last of a great acting breed.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: "The Music Man"

The joy of live theater, live theater at its best, is to see actors and actresses execute their craft before our eyes, unshielded by the camera or editing or anything else that might interfere with the raw energy of their work. When thespians are doing it well, when it's clear that they love their roles -- the lines they're saying, the stage directions they're following -- it imparts a joy, an infectious joy, onto the audience. 

That kind of infectious joy is very much in abundance at the revival of The Music Man by Meredith Wilson on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater (if you grew up in NYC in the last 20th century, it will forever be the Cats theater to you).

The Music Man stars Hugh Jackman as the charming con man Harold Hill who descends upon the small town of River City, Iowa. Calling himself "Professor" Harold Hill, he claims to be music genius who wants to form a band of the town's young people to keep  them away from that den of inequity -- the pool hall. His racket is to get the parents of said young'uns to pay for instruments and uniforms ... then skip town with the money. But this time, he plans go awry. He comes to like the people of this town, and falls deeply in love with Marian, the local librarian played by a magnetic Sutton Foster. He inspires this dull conservative town to brighten up, to find its dormant happiness, including Marian's younger brother, the lisping Winthrop, but when the River City townsfolk get wise to him scheme ... well, you just gotta see it to find out.

This much awaited production, which I recently saw after a big COVID-related delay, is like watching Da Vinci paint. It's masters performing at the top of their respective games. The old-timey, 1950s tunes are brought strongly to life by Jackman, Foster, and the excellent supporting cast -- including the always wonderful Jefferson Mays as the befuddled Mayor Shin. You can tell that they love what their doing and that they love that you're watching them do it. There's lots of kids in this show too, and they're all really good as well. 

For a big Broadway show, the sets and costumes are modest and nowhere over-the-top -- this version fully believes that the spectacle of this show is the A+ singing and dancing on display, the pure skills of the performers. The fast moving production has one show-stopping number after another but nothing can top the "Madam, Librarian" sequence where Jackman and the cast twirl around on library carts, dance on tables, and throw books to one another in a sequence that must have been designed by engineers, the technical complexity of it so staggering to behold. 

Jackman and Foster are, at heart, two song-and-dance troupers who clearly love performing on stage more than anything -- you get the sense that they just happen to have massive movie and TV careers on the side that help supplement their income. 

This Music Man is really good -- and let's you know it over and over and over again. I'd tell you to rush out and see it -- if you could find and afford a ticket that is. (We bought ours four years ago so we had a little bit of a head start.)

P.S. My mother attended the show with me and our family and she actually saw the original 1958 version with Robert Preston and Barbara Cooke. How cool is that?

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Classic Mr NYC

In early March, 2020, I blogged about Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick who I dubbed as The First Couple of NYC Culture. The long-married thespians were just weeks away from debuting on Broadway together in a revival of Neil Simon's classic play Plaza Suite

We all know what happened next.

Now, after a two-year pandemic interruption, the show has finally gone on. Plaza Suite has opened and is a big hit (my wife saw it with a friend and loved it). SJP and MB remain one of the premiere couples of NYC showbiz, as this long joint interview with them proves.

In many ways, as popular and hip as they are, you get the sense that as actors and New Yorkers, there's something almost provincial and old-fashioned about them. I mean this in a good way! They genuinely love acting, theater, NYC, and each other -- and they want us to share it with them. They work here because they live here, and they live here because they love it here. They're not movie stars doing a high-priced turn on Broadway and then checking out to make their next blockbuster -- this profession, this show, and this city are home for them and all of us. 

You get the sense there's nothing else they'd rather do and feel blessed doing it in a place they'd no rather be. It's beautiful to behold. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Two Very Separate Visions of NYC

 ... the Blood Moon over the city on May 15, 2022 ...

... and the old Paramount movie theater on at Columbus Circle that closed on March 30, 1995.

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Great Precursor: "The Beautiful and Damned" @ 100

Last year saw the release of two movies based on musicals -- In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and tick ... tick ... BOOM! by Jonathan Larson (the movie of which was actually directed Miranda) -- that would never have been made had their respective creators not then, for their next shows, created arguably the two greatest musicals of the last 25 years -- Rent and Hamilton.  

Call them precursors, forerunners, warm-up-acts, playing in the minors before the majors, what have you -- the small things that came before the big things, the good things before the truly GREAT things. Their first shows got them attention and acclaim. Their next shows vaulted them into cultural history. 

Think Reservoir Dogs before Pulp Fiction, War of the Worlds before Citizen Kane, Llewyn Davis playing before Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, you get the idea. Before something really great, you have to have something pretty good -- but the pretty good won't get remembered unless followed by something really great. 

Got it?

Between 1919 and 1941, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote four novels (plus one uncompleted one) and numerous short stories. The voice of his generation, doyen of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald would be remembered today as a talented writer who was a product of his era had he not written what is arguably the greatest American novel of the 20th century -- The Great Gatsby. Gatsby's legacy towers over American literature, it's themes of the emptiness of the American dream, the false promise of wealth buying love and happiness, and how we can never recreate our idealized pasts even though we are haunted by them have made it truly timeless.

Every time I read Gatsby I'm just amazed by what a perfect, gorgeous, and powerful story it is -- and how its creation was nothing short of a miracle.

So what came before it? Even Fitzgerald had to have his own warm up act -- in this case, two novels: his youthful 1919 debut, This Side of Paradise, and his 1922 dark satire The Beautiful and Damned.

When Gatsby turns 100 in 2025, there will doubtless be myriad articles, documentaries, think pieces celebrating its greatness. It'll be a Gatsby melee. There will probably be a deluge of analysis of this seminal American work, this forever masterpiece. As well there should be!

But The Beautiful and Damned is being, no surprise, critically overlooked, ignored, on its 100th anniversary. It's like the ugly sibling being slighted for the gorgeous one. 

Thus it's left to yours truly to celebrate the 100 anniversary of Gatsby's precursor -- call it the Great Precursor -- The Beautiful and Damned, the novel you read constantly thinking, "And right after this book, he wrote The Great Gatsby!"

The novel is about married couple living a dissolute life in nineteen-teens NYC. Although Fitzgerald is mostly associated with the 1920s (and this novel was published in March, 1922), it's story is set between 1913 and 1921, bookending the First World War. The orphaned Anthony Patch is the grandson of a wealthy, irascible industrialist who spends his days sleeping and his evening partying -- and waiting for his grandfather to die so that he will inherit tens of millions of dollars (essentially the equivalent of a billion or more today). Anthony meets, through his friends, a debutante named Gloria from Kansas City. They marry and, together, they spend their days drinking and spending money they don't really have, alienating people and getting into trouble -- before Anthony is drafted and heads south for basic training for the First World War. Adultery and hangovers ensue, and a couple ugly twists rob Anthony of his inheritance -- and sanity. The ending is a real shock. 

It's an ugly, tragic tale but it's also a darkly funny book. Where Gatsby is elegiac, Beautiful and Damned is nasty. Fitzgerald does not get sentimental or deep here -- it's almost documentary like in showing and mocking the bad behavior of the ideal, mindless rich (who are never as rich as they think).

When I read this book in college, my professor said, "It's a very bad book." That took me by surprise since, in school, we're supposed to read the great works by the masters -- not one of their minor, or even bad, works. I didn't think the book bad at all -- it's entertaining, amusing, and quite appealing to the sarcastic mind, but it's also overlong and overwritten, clearly the work of a young writer trying to prove himself, favoring verbosity over restraint.

Still, I recommend reading The Beautiful and Damned on its centenary year since, while it's a product of its time, it's a time that reverberates today -- and, yes, because it's the one that came BEFORE, the Great Precursor to The Great Gatsby, the seeds of the timeless greatness that flowered afterwards.

P.S. I hesitated making this comparison earlier but here goes now: another way to put it is, The Beautiful and Damned is like the person you seriously dated before you met your spouse. Barack Obama, who lived in NYC during law school before making his career in Chicago, once called our city "The great love of your life that you never married." 

That's this book in a nutshell.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

George Carlin: Now More Than Ever

The great comedian George Carlin has been dead for fourteen years -- and yet he's more popular than ever.

It appears that his comedy, particularly his hilarious insights into the insanity of American life and politics, is sadly more relevant to today then when he made them -- in some cases, more than 30 years ago. He's the subject of a big article examining his continuing relevance and, here at Mr NYC, I've blogged about his timeless comedic genius many times over the years. 

You should read about, and watch, his comedy if you haven't already -- it's scary how prophetic Carlin was. 

The fact that we walked the same streets as kids (separated by four decades) fills me with unending pride and joy.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Clive James: Postcard from New York - 1994

"If New York started striking me as normal, does this mean that I've already flipped my lid?"

See this hilarious clips from this 1990s British TV show ...

... and then click here to watch the whole brilliant program on YouTube.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Ed Koch's Sad Secret

When I was a kid, Ed Koch was mayor. He presided over NYC for twelve years, from 1978-1989, and was very popular in his early years before his administration became consumed by scandal late in his tenure.

During my childhood Koch was the only mayor I knew, like he always had been and always would be running the city. In many ways every mayor since I've unintentionally compared to him. When he lost re-election in 1989 and left office on January 1st, 1990, it felt like an earthquake in NYC, like the city would never be the same.

And it wasn't -- the city changed dramatically after he left office, and many people either credit or blame Koch's time as mayor for it. 

In the twenty-plus years he lived after his mayoralty, Koch re-invented himself as a kind of city mascot, a media personality and ubiquitous commentator on everything political, cultural, social, you name it -- he had an opinion about everything, and shared it with everyone, non-stop.

But he had a secret that most suspected but that he refused to talk about and that, back then, most chose not to ask him about -- that Ed Koch was gay.

I remember some kid in my class once saying to me, "Ed Koch is gay, everyone knows it." I barely knew what "gay" meant back then but how could everyone know this if it wasn't being talked about in the press? And in the many years he lived after being mayor, it never came up in the media, was never talked about in polite society. And even in the decade since his death, this fact hasn't really been commented on -- until now.

This weekend the Times published a long article about Ed Koch's secret gay life -- and how sad, empty, and really tragic it was that he remained closeted. He did so in order to have a political career at a time when open homosexuals really couldn't get elected to anything. He did so when the AIDS crises was decimating the city's gay community and his sympathies and assistance was minimal (although a lot more than President Reagan ever did).

And most of all he did so because he was scared -- this tough-talking leader of the nation's biggest, toughest, richest city lived in constant fear and sadness that his secret might be exposed. 

It's a tribute to our times, however rough they might be, that being gay is no longer that career-killer it once was. Along with slavery and segregation, "the closet" is one of our society's great shames, and its destruction has been long overdue. In many ways, you can't blame Ed Koch for living this way -- all of us imagine ourselves as brave until the time comes when it could cost us everything we want. It's easy to say that someone else should make a sacrifice when it's not us.

I never met Ed Koch but I literally bumped into him once --  at the Union Square multiplex on December 24, 2004 in the early evening. My brother and I had just seen The Aviator and were headed to our mother's place for Christmas Eve. And leaving through the theater door I bumped into an older man waddling past, holding a tub of popcorn, staring at the ground, looking downcast and sad. It took me a moment but I knew I recognized this guy -- and then I realized it was Ed Koch, going to see a movie all alone. I felt sorry for him. Off camera, out of the spotlight, he just seemed lonely and depressed. 

This article is further proof that the "open secret" -- the thing lots of people know or suspect to be true, the thing that doesn't get talked about in mixed company, stuff that we used to consider nasty gossip, the stuff that would be considered "inappropriate" to discuss -- is dead. Everyone and everything is fair game to be laid bare. Secrets and privacy is a thing of the past. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

They Made the Cultah'

I always like to remember and pay tribute to people who may not have been super-famous but who, in their own way, left a mark on the culture of NYC.

Two such New Yorkers who passed away recently who are perfect examples (they were either from here or lived here in the past).

One is Ron Galella. He was the original NYC paparazzi, snapping pictures of celebrities on the streets, out and about the town. He created a whole genre (for better or worse) of photojournalism and it got him in trouble quite a lot -- particularly with his favorite subject, Jackie O. But today's outsider is tomorrow's insider, and Ron was a perfect example of a rebel going establishment. In his later years, there were exhibits and documentaries about his work, and organizations like TMZ, etc. wouldn't exist without his influence. He big had an impact on the celebrity culture of NYC, making the glamorous look as ordinary as the rest of us. Ron has died at the age of 91. 

The other is Judy Henske, a transplant from Wisconsin who found success in the Greenwich Village coffee house folk scene of the 1960s. She knew and played with everyone, including Dave Von Ronk, the inspiration for the movie Inside Llewellyn Davis. Judy was also, apparently, the real life inspiration for Annie Hall -- another young woman from Wisconsin who came to NYC to find success as a singer. Judy was one of the talents who made the Village folk scene of that time (which produced Bob Dylan, amongst others) almost mythic, but she a long career afterwards, a tribute to her talent. Judy has died at age 85.

Ron and Judy helped make the culture of this city. While their time on Earth over, their contributions to NYC are timeless.