THE GIRL RIGHT NEXT DOOR (Mary Tyler Moore, R.I.P.)

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).

RICHARDNIXON4

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….

CANNONMILLS1

(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…

CANNONMILLS2

into this..

NORMARAE1

or this…

NORMARAE2

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.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Bobby Fuller on the Sunset Strip and John Ford at the OK Corral)

The Bobby Fuller Four–Celebrity Night at PJ’s (Recorded–1965, Initial Release Cancelled–1966, Officially Released–1997)

(Listening close for the first time in years. My original copy, included in the awe-inspiring 1997 box set The Bobby Fuller Four: Never To Be Forgotten, got away in the great CD sell-off of 2002 and was recently reacquired when the collector’s price that soared into the stratosphere during my period of indigence finally dropped back to earth. So….)

This is possibly the strangest recording ever made.

PJ’s was a Sunset Strip night club that had begun as a cool jazz venue in the early sixties and, as the decade progressed, transformed itself (at least part of the time) into a swingin’ dance club where the younger Hollywood set could go to Twist and Watusi (the sleeve for the album has photos of Fuller posed with Sally Field and Ann-Margret, not Twisting or Watusi-ing alas, but merely smiling professional smiles).

Bobby Fuller’s band had made their way to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties after slogging it out for years on the era’s West Texas equivalent of an indie circuit.

By dint of having become perhaps the best straight ahead rock and roll band in America (and it was an extremely competitive time!), they had fought their way to the top of the L.A. pack, releasing several singles that caught on in the local market and one (“Let Her Dance”) that nearly broke nationally, plus becoming a sort of quasi-house band at PJ’s itself, by then a top-of-the-line gig (the actual house band at the time was the Standells of “Dirty Water” fame, no mean straight ahead rock and roll outfit in their own right).

A month or two after the Bobby Fuller Four recorded this show, they would break all the way, when “I Fought the Law” reached the national Top Ten.

Six months after that, Fuller was found dead in his car.

The coroner checked “accident” and “suicide” on the cause-of-death form and put question marks next to both.

Perhaps not surprisingly, dozens of murder conspiracy rumors have circulated in the decades since, involving everyone from Frank Sinatra to Charles Manson to Elvis (who had Bobby snuffed in a dispute over a car, don’t you know–proving yet again that people didn’t start saying stupid stuff about Elvis just yesterday even if it seems like a lot of them were born then!…it’s all nicely chronicled in this set’s truly outstanding liner notes.)

There was no way for Fuller and his band to know fame and death were waiting in such short order when they played “Celebrity Night” on the Sunset Strip in December of 1965.

But they certainly sound like a band who could feel the world both opening up and closing down.

Hence the album’s mysterious and utterly unique pattern, which, with a single brief break for a ballad early on, plays out something like this for well over an hour:

The band storms through a ferocious piece of hard rock (beginning with the not-yet-a-hit “I Fought the Law,”) played exactly as though they were still trying to fight their way out of the gut-bucket beer-and-blood circuit back home, the kind of places where people are there to drink and dance and don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

Then they are met with a tepid round of Vegas-lounge style applause from a crowd who are clearly there to see and be seen and, well, don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

After the “applause” dies down, Bobby then says some version of “thank you very much ladies and gentleman,” sometimes with a little plug for the great life at PJ’s thrown in.

Then the band takes a deep, collective breath and plunges in again, harder and louder and faster than before.

Along the way, a curious kind of tension develops. The band seems to keep betting themselves that this time–THIS TIME!–they will pull it off. They will finally play loud enough, fast enough, tight enough, that the crowd will have to respond.

And each time the crowd does not.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond….

Ever.

Not even once.

And the band does not stop pushing.

Not even once.

All the way to the end, where the evening is concluded with a thunderous medley of “Money/Shakedown” and is met by a crowd…that does not respond.

The planned live album was cancelled.

The reasons why have never been any clearer than the cause of Fuller’s death.

What is clear is that, on a night in December in 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four had every reason to believe they were as good as anybody on a planet that, just for starters, held the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Rascals and (just down the street) the Byrds, and no reason at all to suspect that the Oscar bait in the seats could tell them from the Rat Pack.

Bobby, wherever you are, I just want you to know….I’m leaning suicide.

The Bobby Fuller Four “Let Her Dance/Another Sad and Lonely Night” (Shivaree, before a somewhat more receptive audience)

The Bobby Fuller Four “Miserlou” (Live recording…However, NOT done at PJ’s, so who knows if it would have made the difference!)

My Darling Clementine, John Ford directing, Henry Fonda and Victor Mature starring, 1946.

I’ve seen the film many times. I was, however, newly impressed by the gunfight sequence.

Wisely, the sequence, like the rest of the film–also wisely–has little to do with any of the rather mundane and highly insignificant historical events that actually took place in Tombstone in the early 1880’s (though Ford may or may not have been duped, by Wyatt Earp himself, into thinking his portrayal of the gunfight, at least, was accurate).

But it does, oh-by-the-way, (the sequence, not the film, which contains multitudes) invent the essence of Sergio Leone in much the same way that the climactic sequences of Ford’s last two Will Rogers movies had once invented the essence of Preston Sturges.

Off-handedly as it were and without fanfare.

Just another reminder that, in art, there is the thing and there is the shadow of the thing.

Say what you will about him, Ford was always the thing.

Here’s the sequence:

Gunfight scenes from My Darling Clementine