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Posts tagged ‘Southern’

Extraordinary “Follies of God, Tennessee Williams & the Women of the Fog”!

Follies of God 1Every now & then a book comes along that is so extraordinary that you just have to drop everything & run to it! Such a book is “Follies of God, Tennessee Williams & the Women of the Fog” by James Grissom. Just when you thought you’d heard everything that there was to hear about the late, great, multiply-awarded as well as multiply-addicted playwright Tennessee Williams, along comes “Follies of God” and blows nearly everything else that’s been written about “Tenn” out of the water.

It’s an absolute must-have, must-read for anyone who loves the theater, as I do, and loves great actresses, as I do, and loves to write great roles for great actresses, as well, I try to do.You can’t put it down! It’s an absolute page turner. And the story behind “Follies of God” is as amazing as any plot Williams ever concocted for his great heroines.

You see, a year and half before his death, he summoned a young fan who had written him a letter, and that young man was James Grissom. Williams dubbed him “Dixie” (They were both in Louisiana at the time) and unbeknownst to the 20-year-old aspiring actor/writer, Williams concocted an epic plan of the book, a pseudo-memoir, he would endow Dixie with the task of writing sometime in the future when he was long gone. And 30 years or more later, he did.

He had Dixie write down nearly every word he said in little blue note books. And Dixie(Grissom)like Boswell, with Samuel Johnson, wrote down EVERYTHING. And Williams gave him MORE. Shopping bags full of fragments of unfinished plays and poems,”leaves of his mind” Williams said.

And most importantly, he gave him introductions to the greatest actresses of the past 50 years, the greats of the American Theater, and he tasked Dixie with writing down what THEY thought of him. And he wrote lyrical elegies to them all, and sent mementos, which inevitably reduced all of them to tears. They, to a one, had no idea how he felt about them.Follies of God 2

Williams knew instinctively that he had the right person for this incredibly daunting task, and he did. But it’s taken nearly a lifetime for Dixie, who turned into a wonderful adult writer, James Grissom to bring this book into print. But the work and the wait were well worth it.

Focusing ONLY on the relationships of these great stage actresses to the iconic roles in his plays, it’s a fascinating, breath-taking read. As Dixie encounters saints (Marian Seldes, Maureen Stapleton),sinners(Kim Stanley, Jo Van Fleet) and stars (Geraldine Page, Katharine Hepburn) who all burst into tears on reading what Williams wrote about them.

And wait! There’s more!

Grissom reveals, for perhaps the first time, that Williams and William Inge were life-long lovers, as well as sometimes haters. That on-again, off-again tempestuous romance fueled both writers and in turn endowed the theater(and the films) of mid-Twentieth century America with some of its’ greatest writing. And the greatest parts for actresses, bar none.

Some are missing. Elizabeth Taylor, for instance. But most are there.Jo Van Fleet 1

The worst of them was evidently Jo Van Fleet, the Oscar-winning mother of James Dean in “East of Eden” who became so penurious & eccentric in her sad later years that she would carry her “mottled” Oscar with her in a tote bag and plunk it down whenever she couldn’t cash a check or pay a bill.”THIS is who I am!” she would angrily declare. Frightening all who heard her.Jo Van Fleet 2

Why “Women of the Fog”? The fog was what Tennessee would always declare his great female characters came to him out of, as it rolled across the proscenium stage of his mind.

Gossipy, gilded and glorious, it’s all  here in James Grissom’s wonderful “Follies of  God, Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog.” It’s now out in paperback, too. By all that is holy, you must read this great book!

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” Her First or Second Novel?

Harper leeEveryone in the reading world right now seems to be obsessed with Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And the question of why did she write only one book?

A Southern novelist to the core, the same question can be applied to that other great Southern writer of one,  only one highly successful novel,Margaret Mitchell. And that novel, of course, was “Gone with the Wind.”

I never thought it was a particularly confusing question. The international acclaim, critically and monetarily would be hard to top. They said what they had to say, and that was that. Same question as why did Greta Garbo retire so early? She wanted to.

But now another NEW book by Harper Lee has purportedly been discovered and will now be published in July. The suspense is mounting. Is it any good? Will it be the caliber of “To Kill A Mockingbird”?

How can it be?

It’s an impossible mountain to climb, and the fact that it was written a long time ago, maybe a VERY long time ago makes me feel that Harper Lee, being the wise woman that she was/is, just didn’t want it to be seen or read.

This may and I emphasize MAY have been the first book she wrote BEFORE “To Kill a Mockingbird” made her a literary sensation.

The book that she shopped around to publishers when she was an unknown first novelist in New York struggling to make her name. And it was rejected by everyone. I know the feeling.

And THEN she wrote “Mockingbird” plainly and simply and it, like “Gone With the Wind” really did not need a follow-up.

“Go Set a Watchman” – What an awkward, collegiate writing class title! Is probably not a patch on “Mockingbird.”

I think this whole thing is a literary stunt of the first water. Maybe she needs the money in her twilight years. Maybe, it’s been suggested, she doesn’t really know, cognitively, what really is going on with her unheard of, silent second book. Or was it her first surpressed one?

We’ll find out very soon. One thing’s for sure. It will be an international best seller. Interest in it is very, very high. But will it be any good? Or will it be very bad? That remains to be seen.

I, for one, can’t wait. And “Hey, Boo!” is a great documentary on Lee and is coming up soon on PBS. Don’t miss it.

“Hey, Boo!” intriguing new doc on the mysterious Harper Lee

I really was quite enchanted with the lovely, new documentary film “Hey, Boo!” about the reclusive Southern authoress Harper Lee. She wrote the  classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, won the Pulitzer Prize, then never wrote anything again and disappeared from sight. This very well done doc by Emmy-winning documentarian Mary McDonagh Murphy explains why.

I had no clear picture of this elusive author, except what one could glean from, of all things, the TWO films about Truman Capote that came out one right after the other in a two year period. “Capote” won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and got Catherine Keener a supporting actress nomination. It was her second, and she was playing a lesbian in both films, “Capote” and “Being John Malkovich.” 

Sandra Bullock, in her best performance ever, and pre-“The Blind Side”, played an even butcher Harper Lee in the 2nd (and I thought superior) Capote film, “Infamous.” These two films made sure that Truman Capote was back in the public’s eye, even though he’s been dead for a number of years…But no Oscars or nominations were coming the way of “Infamous.” It sucks to be second in this kind of close filmic race. But Truman would’ve loved all this posthumous attention. Harper Lee, no.

However, there Harper Lee was depicted on screen in two movies, helping, traveling and being the all around best pal to Truman Capote, as he traveled to Kansas  by train to investigate the horrific deaths of the Clutter family. Massacred en masse by two gay drifters, one of whom Capote fell madly in love with Perry Smith, and who he pretty much immortalized in his greatest work “In Cold Blood.” And Smith is depicted in all THREE films.

Harper Lee doesn’t appear in “In Cold Blood.” And Capote did not win a Pulitzer Prize, fairly or un-fairly, for his greatest work. And he never forgave his former best friend since childhood, Harper Lee, for this. She had a Pulitzer. He didn’t. And this revelation, among many others, sort of forms the climax of “Hey, Boo!”

“Hey, Boo!” performs the magic trick/tap dance of not having the central character Harper Lee anywhere in it. Yet it still remains compelling. No mean feat. Kudos to filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murpphy who is also the author of the New York Times Best-Seller “Scout, Atticus & Boo: Fifty Years of to Kill a Mockingbird.” This film is so complete, Oprah Winfrey is even in it, telling how much this small, succinct book impacted her young life. To this day, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still sells a million copies a year!

We see pictures of her, and hear her heavily Southern-inflected voice on a radio broadcast from the early ’60s, but that’s about it.

Nell Harper Lee, for that is her full name, and all her friends who are interviewed in the movie call her, Nell, was Capote’s next door neighbor in the small Southern town of Munroeville, Alabama. That these two children would both become considered America’s great writers of that time is a fateful historic co-incidence.

And the film reveals many things we did not know about Nell. She was, when she came to New York in the ’50s an airline reservation ticket counter clerk for a quite a long time before some well-meaning friends, who are interviewed extensively in the movie, generously gave her money to take a year off to write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And it wasn’t a breeze doing so for Nell, even with this generous support.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was rejected by many publishers before Nell Harper hit pay dirt and got a sympathetic editor…and the rest as they say is history.

She always reminded me more than a bit of Margaret Mitchell, that other Southern female writer, who wrote one great, best-selling novel, “Gone With the Wind” then was never heard from again, literaray-il-ly speaking.

And “Hey, Boo!” lays out why. Suddenly famous, then also suddenly weary of all the non-stop press attention she was getting, she just says simply to someone, “I have given enough. I don’t want to give any more.”

And I guess, she, being a woman of carefully chosen words, meant was she said.

In this Internet age, one wonders if one book, and a novel at that, could ever make such a stir these days. But in its’ day “To Kill a Mockingbird” coupled with the great Black and White film that won three Oscars, one for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer, patterned to a T on Harper Lee’s own father, and one for Horton Foote’s screenplay and one for Haskell Wexler’s cinematography.

It’s also a question if the book without the film’s monumental impact would have achieved the legendary, classic status both the novel and the film enjoy to this day.

But “To Kill a Mockingbird” endures and endures, and this great, thought-provoking documentary explains why.

Vanessa Redgrave & James Earl Jones Magnificent “Daisy”!

Just when you think this terrific, multitudinous Broadway season couldn’t get any more bountiful – Suddenly! There are two of the greatest actors of our time the hitting never-dreamed-of theatrical heights in “Driving Miss Daisy.” That would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in what is surely going to be considered one of the highpoints of their already legendary careers.

This is great acting of the highest order. The likes of which we rarely if ever see on Broadway. And how do they accomplish this amazing, but not wholly unexpected feat? Well, Vanessa Redgrave does it by utterly underplaying the sour, snippy, uppity, totally self-righteous Miss Daisy, who is a spritely 72 when the play starts in 1948.

Miss Daisy has crashed her car into her neighbors’ garage and now is no longer allowed to drive. And her doting son, Boolie (Boyd Gaines, who is just serviceable here) insists that she get a “colored” chauffeur to make sure she gets from point A to point B without catastrophe. And thereby hangs quite a tale and a play that proves itself here to be a durable American classic.

Miss Daisy  Wertham is Jewish and rich, but she’s the type who can pinch a penny until it screams. She comes from an impoverished background herself, and climbed to freedom and respectabilty through education,  becoming a school teacher  and eventually marrying her rich (now late) husband, the father of Mr.Gaines’ character.

“We had NOTHING!” Redgrave’s voice rises for one of the few times in the Alfred Uhry’s 1987 Pulitizer Prize-Winning play, “NOTHING!” But she does it all with a control and a simplicity that is startling, in that it renders this very familiar play, fresh as…well, a daisy!

Miss Redgrave only lets the gestures fly or her voice ring when she’s onstage with her son Boolie( Mr. Gaines), as his less-than-doting mother. Miss Daisy’s maternal instincts run to the nasty, the snide put-downs of her ever-helpful, ernestly do-gooding son. She’s quite insufferable as a mother.

HOWEVER,  when James Earl Jones finally enters the play (it seemed like it took forever to get them into their famous car-ride together) Redgrave hands the play totally over to him. On a veritable silver platter of well-seasoned acting chops. She gets very, very simple and true, and just let’s James Earl Jones rip the roof off the Golden Theater.

Jones, when we first see him is a shockingly-aged figure. White hair, he’s almost bent over double, with what one hopes is a character choice and not osteoporosis. He seems eager to make some extra money, desperate almost for a job. Especially driving a white lady of “means.” As if to make double-sure, he shuffles and “Yes’M”s and “No,’M”s drip from his lips, shockingly often, and in Jones’ sonorous voice, here controlled like I’ve never seen him before, they sound like honey, and fall throughout the play as naturally as Southern rain. The naturalness of their frequency locks Hoke into his subservient role, like a vise.

And when the Two Greats get together, the sparks fly. And how do they soar so? By absolutely, completely disappearing into their characters in this play that has NEVER,  ever been done on Broadway. Ever. After this magnificent revival, it will be done all the time now.

This theatrical power couple par excellence banish thoughts of the great 1989 cinematic version, which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year and Jessica Tandy was named Best Actress. Making her the oldest Best Actress recipient ever. Morgan Freeman, who also originated the role in the stage play, Off-Broadway, was nominated, but didn’t win.Though he did eventually garner a Supporting Actor Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby.”

Jones, who’s never won an Oscar, but has Two Tonys to his credit for “The Great White Hope” and “Fences,” just takes the part of Hoke and runs with it. Or drives with it, right into the theatrical firmament. And our hearts. And memories.

It’s one of his greatest performances, and hers, too. Taking his cue from her, Jones is also totally without frills and simple, simple, simple.  And as the times change (“Miss Daisy” starts in 1948 and goes on through the tumultous civil right area and into the ’70s) the power shifts from the back seat to the front seat. And when Miss Daisy’s synagogue is bombed, Jones’ Hoke is all protection and help for the distraught, disbelieving Miss Daisy.

You know he knows just how ugly Southern racism of that time can be. Whether it’s directed at Jews or at Blacks, it’s all the same thing, the playwright is saying.

When Hoke describes the lynching of a relative he witnessed as a young boy to the thunderstruck Miss Daisy, Jones is simplicity and quiet, heart-rending eloquence itself. He is also echoing a similarly, frighteningly effecting scene in the “Scottsboro Boys.” The Kander & Ebb musical, playing two blocks away, on the other side of Broadway and it chronicles the horrors and  the injustices 1920s & 30s South. And in the South of Miss Daisy’s 1940s & 50s world it is alive still. Hoke can’t eat at the restaurants Miss Daisy does. And he has to go in, always, by the back door.

Playwright Alfred Uhry, who never again reached the theatrical heights with anything else he ever wrote for the stage (though I did enjoy his “Last Night at Ballyhoo.”) surprises here, too. Because instead of being lost in a big, Broadway house, his “Driving Miss Daisy” OWNS it and fills the space,  and now in Vanessa Redgrave’s and James Earl Jones’ caring hands, we see that his characters are immortal.

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