This is a rare photograph of John Ford without either his eye-patch or trademark dark glasses. It was taken in a military setting (1951 in the Philippines according to the on-line source I copied it from), but it’s appropriate for this post because the old line about Ford wearing those dark glasses to hide his vulnerability is in line with today’s subject…and fully evident here.

Now here’s a subject. Ford has been accused of every bad thing–he might be unique in the degree to which he is suspected of bad-think by progressives and reactionaries in about equal measure–and there are plenty of people who consider his treatment of women regressive at best.

As usual, this view tends to say more about those who hold it than Ford’s actual films. Not more than a handful of directors across the world–forget Hollywood–gave as many good actresses as many good roles. The list of those who delivered breakthrough and/or career-defining performances in Ford films (often against the grain of everyone else’s expectations*) includes Hattie McDaniel, Anne Shirley, Jean Arthur, Claire Trevor, Shirley Temple (as child and young woman), Maureen O’Hara, Donna Reed, Jane Darwell, Sara Algood, Anna Lee, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Olive Carey, Constance Towers and Vera Miles. That’s not even including all the performances listed below (Henrietta Crossman did not, alas, become a big star), the great performances he got from established stars like Claudette Colbert and Anne Bancroft, or the legion of small parts that deepened some of Ford’s best films (see Marjorie Weaver in Young Mr. Lincoln ** or Beulah Archuletta in The Searchers for prime examples).

It’s true that giving great roles to women was not the first thing worth remembering about Ford (as it was, perhaps, about George Cukor), but I suspect the criticisms that have come from the Left (in Ford’s day and ever since) and often been verified by the Right (that’s what “conservatives”  mainly do…accept, and therefore conserve, whatever Narrative emerges, be it true or, as in this case, false), have more to do with disapproval of the kinds of women Ford valued (pretty much all of them, so long as they had a spark of honor and didn’t represent one of Hollywood’s plethora of easy ways out), than the sensitivity and nuance he, almost alone, accorded them.

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

The depth and breadth of the women he did portray, and the broad spectrum of actresses he hired to play them, did not really permit a “type” in the manner of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. There was no room for fantasy creatures, however beguiling, in a canon devoted to understanding how civilizations are built and maintained.

For that you needed a gallery like this one, where Ten hardly scratches the surface.

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

Knowing Crossman only from Pilgrimage, Ford’s first great narrative film of the sound era, it’s almost shocking to come across pictures of her that prove she was once young and occasionally even smiled. None of that is evident in her harrowing, embittered performance as Hannah Jessop a rural southern woman who signs her son up for the draft in WWI rather than see him marry a local girl of whom she does not approve. In early cinema, this is as striking and unsettling a performance as Renee Falconetti’s title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc, except Crossman’s character is not at odds with either history or herself.

Not, in other words, for the faint of heart.

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

The girl Hannah Jessop didn’t want her son to marry, cast back to the Arizona frontier of the previous century. On one level, it’s a Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche (though it had much to do with defining that cliche). But it’s also a sound representation of the travails faced by women on the frontier. The life John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is determined to save her from flits in and out of her expressions for an hour and a half.

Then they take a walk into the heart of it, side by side, and, the first or fiftieth time you watch it, you can feel that life closing back around her.

Trevor (and Ford) got that the cliche not only had a foundation in reality, they understood that the reality involved a great deal of self-loathing, which needed only the tiniest scratch on the surface to show through This is one of those performances that seems all about that surface at first, until you realize that’s just how such a person would be forced to live, just the masks they would be forced to adopt–unless, as here, a miracle arrives.

She gets that part–and all that such a miracle would mean to this woman–as well.

Edna May Oliver as “Mrs. McKlennar”
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Supporting role or not (I wrote about Claudette Colbert’s lovely performance as the lead, here–it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ford often had two or more strong female performances in an era when one was nearly always enough for his competition), this is one of the towering performances of pre-war cinema.

Oliver captures for all time a type that was invaluable on the frontier and still recognizable in the neighborhoods where I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Bawdy, prickly, judgmental, generous to those worthy of her respect, ready with a tongue-lashing for those who weren’t, level-headed, good-humored, nobody’s fool and a rock in any crisis.

Except for here, she never got full representation in our movies. I haven’t seen her around lately and I hope she’s not really gone. Because if she is, we are too.

(Oliver lost the Oscar to Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel, who had her breakout role in Ford’s Judge Priest five years earlier. I don’t want to call that one. It’s one of those years I wish there had been a tie.)

Jane Darwell as “Ma Joad”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Iconic. The only actress to win an Oscar in a Ford film (there should have been others–starting with Crossman–but that’s a topic for another time).

As Darwell portrays her, Ma Joad is broad, sentimental, prone to bouts of emotion (except when there’s a real crisis). Again, the wrong kind of woman to appeal to our “modern” ideas. And, again, a type familiar from my childhood (Ford’s films are virtually the only place the people I grew up around have ever found sympathetic representation).

Florence King had the best line about the women Darwell’s “Ma” embodied: “They got their name in the paper three times. When they were born, when they married and when they died.”

Growing up, I took the permanent presence of such women for granted.

More fool me.

More fool us.

Donna Reed as “Sandy Davyss”
They Were Expendable (1945)

Reed’s breakout role, as a WAC caught in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

This is one of those characters who might seem rote at first, like all any good actress needed to do was hit her marks.

Until you realize how much Reed has to convey–the full weight of a first record of how American women bore up under the existential crisis of the twentieth century–and how easily and naturally she does every last bit of it. Then you start thinking of who else could have done it as well….and the mind blanks. Then the mind laughs.

How did Ford know, in 1945, that the mousy little contract player taking bit parts on the lot would be Donna Reed? (And I’m not saying he knew it in casting, because I don’t even know if he was responsible for casting her–but you can bet he knew it by the time the camera rolled.)

Well, that’s just the sort of thing Ford always seemed to know.

(FYI: Based largely on this role–a model, witting or unwitting, for Dana Delaney in China Beach, one of the three or four best characters in the history of television–Reed received hundreds of letters from servicemen. She read every one, answered every one, kept every one, told no one. Her daughter discovered the letters only after her mother died.)

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

A hooker who doesn’t come close to having a heart of gold…but she might be persuaded to settle down.

Ford’s dreamlike ending leaves the question of whether she does less settled than you might think and Dru’s performance (her best for my money, though she was also excellent in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hawks’ Red River, on which she claimed Ford gave extensive editing assistance) is filled with glances and expressions and lost looks that don’t give away so much that you can ever feel like you know her all the way through.

Just well enough that you’re rooting for her. Again, the right choice for a woman in her position. Given the 1849 setting she might be the mother who was massacred and left Stagecoach‘s Dallas an orphan who was forced into the same trade.

If she settled down, that is….

Maureen O’Hara as “Mary Kate Danaher”
The Quiet Man (1952)

O’Hara starred for Ford five times (more than any other leading lady in the sound era), including her breakout role in How Green Was My Valley and her defining role here.

My own favorite is her Cavalry wife in Rio Grande, but there’s no gainsaying this. It’s the most iconic role any woman had in a Ford film (edging Darwell in Grapes of Wrath as it’s a lead). And O’Hara is brilliant. She and John Wayne made every other screen romance look contrived and Ford was able to hang anything he wanted on the combustible chemistry they created.

He got carried away here and there, but every time the camera swung back to Mary Kate Danaher–which was often–the film was back on track. In some ways, it was the director’s chance to prove he could do the things so many claimed he couldn’t–mainly sex and romance.

Those people were already wrong. Here, with the Irish redhead’s fiery assistance, he made them look silly.

Ava Gardner as “Honey Bear Kelly”
Mogambo (1953)

And if that hadn’t done it, this would have.

This is a fairly straight remake of Red Dust, a pre-code sizzler from Ford’s buddy Victor Fleming. Gardner has the Jean Harlow part as a show girl stranded in the wild (here, Africa), hoping to hang her hat on the local big cheese (here, as in Red Dust, Clark Gable, only now graying at the temples).

Somewhere along the way, it turns from lust to love. For her at least. Again a pretty standard part…but Gardner does wonders with it. I love Harlow and Red Dust might be her very best. But Gardner’s Kelly feels like she has miles on her and knows there’s one chance to shed them before they add up to a weight she can’t throw off….and an empty life.

You never felt Harlow’s character was on the verge of breaking, that she was walking all the way up to a line that couldn’t be re-crossed.

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

Watch this on a triple bill with Stagecoach and Wagon Master some time for a master class in how to pick up the same stone and draw blood from it three completely different ways.

Vera Miles as “Hallie Stoddard”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There are actually people who profess not the get either Miles or her character in this movie.

I wonder if it’s just possible they get her all too well.

This would be one of the great performances if only for her reading of the greatest passage in American fiction: “Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” (You have to run some to beat “You don’t own me!” which, two years before it showed up in Lesley Gore’s demo pile, is also here, also hers–and perfect.)

But it’s not comforting. It doesn’t permit the space modernity demands for cuddling up.

Miles wasn’t so much the aging Ford’s perfect muse as his perfect match. Every other western he made after The Searchers–all of which featured fine actresseswas diminished by her absence.

All she had to do here was hold her own in the middle of a triangle formed by John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, all at their best. She made it look easy, which is probably why, like a lot of Ford’s women, she’s never gotten credit for it. Either that, or it’s the character people are afraid of–a woman who chose the only way she could and lived to realize that she will never be granted the comfort of knowing whether she chose wrongly.

One of the ten best performances given by an American actress–and I’m not sure you need the gender distinction.

Had it not been given by a woman in a John Ford western this would be nowise controversial.

Anne Bancroft as “Dr. D.R. Cartwright”
7 Women (1966)

Ford’s final completed film.

The frontier has moved to a Chinese mission post, where Bancroft’s D.R. Cartwright–doctor and skeptic–arrives as the emergency medical assistance.

There’s probably more debate about the quality of this film than any of his others. I lean toward the positive, though I’d like to see a quality print before I die (with Ford, the visuals comment on everything else, so being forced to watch a washed-out bootleg is even more of a handicap than usual).

But most people agree on the quality of Bancroft’s performance, which is on a par with her iconic work in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate. Ford was a devout Catholic but his films are filled with bristling critiques of both religious fanaticism and false piety–never more than here. A mission post isn’t as far from his usual concerns as you might think and Cartwright is as representative of his world view as any character could be.

That Ford didn’t like Bancroft’s performance (she was cast after Patricia Neal had a stroke a few days into the shoot) was probably indicative of his capacity for self-loathing. This is one of those times when it’s best not to take him seriously.

There’s never a time when we shouldn’t take his great films seriously.

Certainly not now.

I won’t give away the ending, but D.R. Cartwright’s final scene still has a lot to teach us.


*One of my favorite Ford anecdotes, which I really hope is true, regards Grace Kelly, not considered “box office” enough at the time for the role Ford wanted her to play in Mogambo (where she would have to hold her own against the established star power of Ava Gardner and Clark Gable).

The honchos were not impressed by either the films she had done (including High Noon) or her existing screen tests, all of which were in black and white.

“Shoot her in color,” Ford said. “She’ll knock you on your ass.”

They shot her in color. Mogambo–unjustly neglected these days-became the biggest hit of Ford’s career and made Kelly a star. Alfred Hitchcock and the Prince of Monaco were among those suitably impressed.

**Mary Tyler Moore’s performance on television is, to my mind, the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln. But it’s a shame Weaver never got a shot at a full-length portrait. In Young Mr. Lincoln she has to convey a Mary Todd who was rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in history or fiction–the one who Abe Lincoln either fell in love with or simply regarded as his likeliest portal into the good graces of the polite society which would be required for the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Weaver–who has perhaps ten minutes on screen–does not neglect either possibility, or the perils lying within.]



What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).

As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.

My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.

The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford

The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.

He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.

And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.

But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)

The Great White Whale.

Or is it Elephant? I get confused.

Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.

It’s the perspective that grates.

You know….But it’s racist!

No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.

It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.

Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.

Watch it now, while it’s still legal.

The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann

Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.

The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration.  It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.

But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.

But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.

Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges

“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”

A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.

Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.

Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.

But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.

You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood

Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.

Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.

Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.

With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).

And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.

The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson

Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.

Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.

The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.

Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman)  are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.

And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.

Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee

A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”

Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.

It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.

We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”

A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.

No one is ever right. Or safe.

You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.

But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.

The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.

Else rocket launchers.

Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!




She had the same job in the sixties and seventies that Ginger Rogers had in the thirties and forties and Jennifer Aniston (who will be the last) had in the nineties and yesterday.

The job description was simple: Dancer’s grace, improbable cheekbones, trouper. Must be able to hang with the kooks without becoming one. Must be able to represent the normals without forgetting you belong to us, improbabilities and all.

Of the thousands who applied, only a handful–mostly children of Show Biz–managed to grab a moment.

Only those three were able to make a career of it.

And, of those, our Mary may have had the hardest job, if only because we asked her to represent “normalcy” at the moment when the concept was shifting at light speed from the old paradigm to the new.

The new paradigm is no paradigm at all. Normalcy is the new tyranny. But that isn’t her fault. We couldn’t have asked for better representation.

Of course, like any woman who resolves too many contradictions without seeming to sweat, she was deemed “difficult.” Any good looking female who makes it look easy while holding that much power over our imaginations is bound to get a reputation. (Ginger was a puppet, Jen a lightweight. It’s always something). Personally I never cared. If being difficult was what it took for her to be what she was, then it was worth every bottle of Pepto every producer in Hollywood ever poured down his throat.

She did such a good job of being difficult that, before all was said and done, she was one of the handful to ever be part of the DNA of two iconic television shows, one of which carried her name, and had a host of Emmys, a Tony, an Oscar nomination and most everything else we could throw at her. If we didn’t throw anything at her for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln–which was probably the finest performance of her career, so good that, just be existing, it kept Sally Field’s turn in the more recent Spielberg movie from ever lifting off–it was probably because not enough of us could make the shift in our minds.

Not that I imagine too many people ever thought she was “really” Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, in the way that we thought James Garner just might be Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford. But that only made her more improbable, not a whit less valuable. Actors, after all, the iconic ones at least, have the reverse job of most who seek space in our heads, including other actors. We’re forced to measure their value separately. For them, it is not the being, but the doing that matters. It’s the doing that matters–to us and to them–even in those rare instances where we dare to suppose their being and doing are one and the same.

It wasn’t finally important for Mary Tyler Moore to be Mary Richards, any more than it was for James Garner to be Jim Rockford. It was only important for them to do.

And the vital thing for those of us in the cheap seats–be it Broadway balcony, metroplex cushion, or the recliner in the den–was to be allowed to eradicate the distance in our minds for that time that they chose to represent us.

No one represented us more, or longer, or better, when, not so very long ago, there was an “us.”

ACTING LESSONS (Segue of the Day: 5/6/15)

I’m off this week, which means I’m way busier than usual. Watching movies, listening to music, reading books. That’s what I call busy!

Oh yeah, and cleaning house. After enough of that, I need a break.

So I’ve been staying real busy.

Day before yesterday brought back-to-back, first time viewings of The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, Niels Mueller directing, Sean Penn’s show all the way, 95 minutes that felt much longer), followed by Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt directing, Sally Field’s show all the way, 110 minutes that made time stand absolutely still).


Penn nailed his performance. There was never a moment when I wasn’t saying to myself, “boy that guy can really act.” Of course, he didn’t get inside the killer with sociopathic tendencies he was playing (a gentleman named Sam Bicke, based on one Sam Byck, who actually did try to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House), because, well, Sam, however his last name is spelled, was a killer with sociopathic tendencies.

It’s not really a place the Method can take you, try as actors, writers, et al, will.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not a place the Method can take you unless you’re not planning to come back (a place only Vivien Leigh in  A Streetcar Named Desire has ever been willing to go in front of a movie camera when playing anyone dangerous…her exact quote was “it tipped me over into madness,” which in real world terms meant she was hauled off her next movie set in a strait-jacket).

One thing I know about Sean Penn. He’s always planning to come back.

I bring this up because I wonder how much time our “culture” has actually spent trying to get inside the heads of the violently deranged.

More time, I’ll wager, than we’ve spent celebrating any textile mill workers, even those occasional heroes in the fight for basic labor rights.

I’ll grant you there are a lot of pitfalls to doing anything really good–as opposed to “worthy”–with a story like Norma Rae. Martin Ritt had worked magic with everything from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to Hombre, to Sounder, so, with a fine cast assembled, he probably could have been trusted to at least keep the thing on track.

But I had my reasons for staying away from it all these years.

The union-is-coming-to-save-us narrative (which I rightly suspected was at the heart of the thing) was hardly uncomplicated for somebody like me, who lost a mother to brown lung acquired during a twenty-year stint in an unprotected textile mill not unlike the one in Norma Rae and nonetheless had about the same use for unions as my father, who once spent an off-season from the carny circuit working in an auto plant where the union was firmly enough established to threaten square pegs (my dad’s natural born state) with the very same tactics used by employers in places where the square pegs were union organizers like the one played by Ron Leibman in Norma Rae.

I figured it was just going to be a pure shot of Hollywood-style two-hanky adrenalin then, and I’d need to have my bullet-proof heart-valve safely installed whenever I did get around to watching it.

My real qualm, though, was being none too sure about what Sally Field could do with a southerner (the record of southerners playing southerners in Hollywood is deeply mixed…that of non-southerners not named Vivien Leigh playing southerners is considerably worse). Mind you, everybody in the south likes Sally Field as much as everybody everywhere likes her and, back in the days when Norma Rae was being cast, shot and released, she was sort of an adopted daughter. Anyone in this part of the world would have been very surprised indeed to learn how hard she (and Martin Ritt, to his everlasting credit) had to fight for the right for her to carry even a small budget movie because nobody in Hollywood considered her a big enough star.

Apparently those people had never heard of Smokey and the Bandit!

I’m sure none of them had ever heard of Heroes, her first chance at a serious part on the big-screen, which might well have changed how the world felt about her and both of her co-stars (Henry Winkler and Harrison Ford) if the behind-the-camera talent had been on the order of Martin Ritt and his crew.

So it wasn’t like I had anything but fond feelings for Sally Field, before or after they handed her an Oscar. Loved her in Smokey and the Bandit. Loved her more in Heroes.

I had no doubt she had probably been just fine in Norma Rae, even if they did give her an Oscar for it.

And “just fine” wasn’t going to be good enough for a movie that was going to kick me in the heart valves if it was anything but completely incompetent, which, given that Martin Ritt directed it, I knew it wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t going to be good enough if she was only as good as she was playing a southerner (at least I think that’s what she was playing) in Forrest Gump, which I’ve never quite seen, but have seen enough of to know I don’t exactly need to see the rest.

It wasn’t going to be good enough even if she was only as good as she was playing Mary Todd Lincoln, where she was very good indeed.

If somebody wants to kick me in the heart, take me inside the world my mother married my father to escape, then no “performance” was ever going be quite good enough to earn the right. And knowing that was the main reason I couldn’t ever quite get around to either watching Norma Rae or entirely putting aside the idea that I needed to watch it.

So one day this week I was fingering my stack of unwatched movies and I suddenly decided it would make a perfect followup to the pluperfect professionalism of Sean-Penn’s-show-all-the-way in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

So there.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I put my bullet-proof-heart-valve-vest straight on. Set my tissue box to hand (okay, I have what we call “sinuses” which means not just any old sinuses but sinuses that “act up,” so I generally have my tissue box to hand anyway but I don’t always double-check before popping in a DVD if you know what I mean).

I fully prepared myself, therefore, to accept the thing for what it was bound to be.

And it turned out to be exactly what it was bound to be and exactly what I was prepared for it to be.

All of it.

Except for Sally Field playing a southerner.

So-Cal-acting-class-Flying Nun-Gidget-Enquirer-bait (well, when she was dating Burt anyway) Sally Field.

Making time stand still.

Turning this… OPELIKAIMAGE1

(Alabama’s Opelika Cotton Mill, where Norma Rae was filmed in 1978, circa 1908: Library of Congress. Mill abandoned, 2004.)

And this….


(Above and below: Cannon Mill in Concord, NC, about a generation before my mother started working in the one in Kannapolis: Library of Congress: Cannon Mill sold to Fieldcrest, 1984; sold to Pillowtex, 1997; bankrupt, 2003. Cannon brand now licensed and headquartered in Hong Kong.)

and this…


into this..


or this…


or pretty much any other frame in a movie that would just be a movie (and no doubt quite a good movie) except for the improbable thing she made of it.

Life as somebody in a particular time and place might have lived it.

Not necessarily as my mother lived it (though I wish I’d given myself a chance to ask her). Probably not quite as Crystal Lee Sutton (nee Pulley), the inspiration for Norma Rae, lived it. Certainly not “movie life” as we are accustomed  to having it delivered to us, from Citizen Kane on down, in a neat, small package we can carry around in our pockets.

But life just the same. Life with enough force to live outside of the movie celebrating it or, as it turned out, the Overlords bent on crushing it.

Good thing. Because, in the real world, crush it they did.

If Field’s Norma Rae Webster had been who and what the logic of even the most supreme craft dictated she should be, the movie and the performance would be well-made curios now. The unionization the film celebrated was a heartbeat away from having its own heart ripped out. Adjusted for inflation, the nation’s handful of remaining textile workers (since amalgamated into a larger union) now make about what Crystal Lee Sutton was making the day she decided not to take it any more. Whether they make it in somewhat better working conditions is probably in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say I have my doubts.

Because wherever they are weaving and folding the bulk of the towels these days, I’m guessing you can still get a brown lung in there.

But, once upon a time, Sally Field went beyond craft. So Norma Rae ended up being something more than a finely wrought tract or “story” or even “narrative,” something that might actually survive the well-planned economic blight and not-entirely-unplanned cultural collapse that were nesting inside the very events the film depicted to a tee.

A hundred years from now (go ahead and laugh if you think it will be longer) when whoever is picking over our bones decides they really want to know “Just what the Hell was an ‘American’ anyway?” they could do a whole lot worse than to start with what So-Cal Sally Field did here when she stripped herself away and made time stand still.