Advertisements

Hollywood’s Hypocrisy, and Everyone Else’s

By now you’ve surely heard of Harvey Weinstein, the only name that can lately nudge President Donald Trump out of the news.
Weinstein is the heavyweight Hollywood movie mogul who stands accused of decades of sexual predatory behavior, ranging from mere boorishness to outright rape, and although he’s not yet been charged in a court of law he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion. The company Weinstein founded has kicked him out, A-List actresses have come forward to corroborate the accounts of countless lesser-known accusers, some very disturbing audio has been leaked from a suspiciously-dropped investigation by a New York City district attorney, he’s issued a statement acknowledging he could have behaved better and is seeking therapy, and no one is denying that he’s long been a very sleazy fellow.
Hollywood’s constant scandals have been big news since the silent days of Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow, but this one comes at an especially opportune time for its culture war adversaries on the right. Over the past decades the entertainment industry has manufactured many movies and television shows that delight in the exposing the frequently scandalous behavior of self-appointed guardians of morality on the right, so it’s only fair the right should delight in a scandal that exposes the frequent hypocrisy of Hollywood’s self-appointed exemplars of sexual equality and social justice. Weinstein’s sleaziness was apparently an open secret in Hollywood for years, with only a few brave comics willing to acknowledge it, and despite the recent deluge of A-Listers piling on the entire industry is indeed implicated.
We’ll happily pile on Weinstein, as well, as we have our own instinctive and longstanding disgust for his alleged behavior as well as most of the past few decades of sleazy Hollywood fare in general, but we don’t expect it will help the culture wars come to an end any time soon. There’s yet another juicy scandal that exposes Hollywood’s social justice pretentious are utterly predictable, but we can’t deny that Hollywood’s wags still have plenty of hypocrisy on the right to work with.
A couple of weeks ago a happily little-known Republican congressman who’d run on a staunchly anti-abortion and pro-family-values platform announced he wouldn’t run for re-election after his mistress told reporters he’d urged her to get an abortion during a pregnancy scare, with the text messages to back it up, and there’s no denying this sort of hypocrisy happens all too often on the right. The fair and balanced Fox News Network has kicked out its co-founder and top-rated commentator kicked for Weinstein-like behavior, and the Republican president has been caught on audiotape bragging about how he can grab women by their wherevers because he’s a television star, with numerous women alleging he did just that and countless others testifying to his at least boorish behavior, and Republican party loyalty cannot compel us to deny it.
The real shame of it is that both the left and the right should be able to agree that all such sleazy behavior and outright hypocrisy is unacceptable, no matter which side of the political divide it lands on. The firm hand of our fundamentalist Christian mother taught us to always treat women with a careful respect, which served us well in our relationships with the fundamentalist feminists we always found ourselves drawn to, and it doesn’t seem so much a matter of left and right as one of right and wrong. These days, however, we expect that both sides and all their sleazier members will continue scoring points.
The few brave comics who dared expose Weinstein’s sleaziness included Tina Fey, the insufferably liberal but undeniably funny woman who made his sleaze a running gag on her well worth watching “30 Rock” television show, and we count ourselves among the many commenters on the right who have always acknowledged when our side has been caught in similar scandals, so we’ll hold out hope there’s still a principled middle ground most of us occupy that acknowledges you just don’t treat women with a sexually predatory disrespect.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Hollywood Hearts Hillary, Sort of

By now it’s a quadrennial rite of Hollywood for all the most fashionable show biz folks to film one of those commercials where they take turns standing in front of a blank background to finish one another’s sentences about the pressing need to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee. This year’s offering is disappointing even by Hollywood’s recent standards, and suggests that even celebrities are feeling disappointed in this crazy election year.
The standing-in-front-of-a blank-background-extolling-a-Democrat genre began back in the heady “Hope and Change” days of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, and featured a hope-y and change-y hip-hop soundtrack complete with samples of Obama’s soaring oratory and rapturous chants of “Obama, Obama” from some seemingly heavenly choir, and was all about the utopia of economic prosperity and racial harmony and world peace that would surely be realized after a mere eight years of Obama administrations. Even after Obama’s victory, a bunch of celebrities felt compelled to take their turns in front of a blank screen pledging their allegiance to the new leader and promising to support local school banks and volunteer more time to charity and not give the finger to other drivers and buy a hybrid and oppose slavery laugh more and other causes that were fashionable back in those more hopeful days.
Both efforts struck us as downright hilarious at the time, and seem all the more ridiculous in hindsight, and the latest reboot of the series seems to acknowledge that things have not worked out as promised. This time around the message isn’t that another four or perhaps eights of a Democrat in the White House will deliver utopia slightly behind schedule, but that the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate. The video doesn’t mention either of the major party nominees by name, but the celebrities refer to “a racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society,” and worry about “giving nuclear weapons to a man whose signature move is firing things,” with the word “firing” repeated by several more celebrities, and at that point we assume even the average Hollywood celebrity would know they were talking about the Republican nominee. There weren’t even the vaguest allusions to the Democratic nominee, though, much less any promises of hope and change.
The latest effort is disappointing on purely cinematic levels, as well. It doesn’t have the arty black-and-white look and hip-hop hipness of that ’08 entry, or the star power of that “pledge allegiance to Barack” video in ’09, which at least included a few faces we recognized. Not to mention that annoying finishing-one-another’s-sentences thing, which the “Portlandia” show had already satirically suggested as a way to full employment. There is a slightly endearing self-effacing joke about how nobody’s really that famous anymore, except perhaps for those two unmentioned major party nominees, and whoever these people are we have to admit that some of them are rather good-looking, but we can’t imagine any discerning cinephile falling for it. Today’s young folks didn’t grow up on the afternoon and late-night old movies, though, can’t remember when movie stars where movies stars, and therefore aren’t very discerning, so perhaps they’re the intended audience for this dreck.
We’ve noticed a couple of polls that that show Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton barely topping 30 percent among the under-30 set, but have Republican nominee Donald Trump in third place behind Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and just slightly ahead of Green Party nominee Jill Stein. This demographic cohort might well be spooked by the possibility of a racist and abusive coward with a penchant for firing things getting the nuclear codes, and they probably even know who these celebrities are, so maybe Hollywood will have some effect. We share all their concerns about the nominee Republican, but also have equal concerns about that Democratic nominee that Hollywood doesn’t dare mention, and we guess we’ll have to await the video from Scott “Chachi” Baio and Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent and all the “Celebrity Apprentice” celebrities pledging allegiance to the unmentionable Republican nominee to finally decide why we’re not voting for any of those four.

— Bud Norman

At the Vortex of Politics and Show Biz

In our desperation to find something to read and write about other than that awful presidential race we even looked in on the latest celebrity news the other day, but of course we could find no respite there.
The Los Angeles Times covers Hollywood with the same avid interest that The Detroit Free Press covers the automotive trade and The Wichita Eagle covers the general aviation biz, so its internet front page featured a pleasantly diverting take on the disappointing opening weekend box office take for the latest big-budget “Ben Hur,” which the writer reported was the latest summer dud “in a glut of reboots, sequels, and remakes that audiences don’t want.” That only reminded us that the next four years will be either a sequel to the scandalous Clinton mini-series or a re-boot of “Celebrity Apprentice,” however, and we couldn’t help clicking on another front page headline blaring that “Donald Trump delivers his biggest insult yet, demeaning celebrities for their not-hotness.”
After Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took in a huge fund-raising haul on her trip to Hollywood, Republican nominee Trump told a presumably less star-studded crowd in Tampa, Florida, that “The only enthusiastic supporters of her campaign are Hollywood celebrities, in many cases celebrities that aren’t very hot anymore.” With the same company town enthusiasm that The Detroit Free Press celebrated the auto bail-outs, and The Wichita Eagle protested President Barack Obama’s rhetoric against “corporate jets,” The Los Angeles Times stood up for its hometown workers by noting that that Clinton’s contributors included such familiar names as Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Anniston, Cher, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, and George Clooney, while noting that Scott “Chachi” Baio of “Happy Days” fame was “the closest thing to an A-list celebrity at the Republican National Convention Last Month.”
At that point we were just a click away from the paper’s “Celebrity endorsement tracker,” and of course there was no resisting that vortex of show biz and politics. We’ll assume that The Los Angeles Times’ tracking of celebrity endorsements is definitive, and we’re not at all surprised that it shows the usual Democratic advantage. You’ll have to scroll down nearly halfway before you run out of mug shots of Clinton’s big name and big bucks supporters, and then more than halfway down to get through the ones who were supporting self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders back in the day back when that crazy idea seems possible. Both lists include several other people so darned famous that even we’ve heard of them, even if we’ve never seen any of their movies or heard any of their songs, as well as some folks such as Dick Van Dyke and Tony Bennett who aren’t that hot anymore but we well remember from their glory days, along with the same old lineup of usual suspects that we’ve never heard of all and some others that we are only vaguely and unpleasantly aware of.
By now the gold-plated Trump brand has more universal name recognition than any of those actors or rappers or singers or hoofers or leaked-sex-tape stars, however, and even The Los Angeles Times is obliged to report that he has also has some well-known supporters. Along with the aforementioned Baio there’s Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his title role performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” some decades back and is otherwise best known as that crazy guy on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Jon Voight, who brilliantly played Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the guy with the “pretty mouth” who climbed that cliff in “Deliverance” among other great roles, but is now best known as the father of that Angelina Jolie woman, and Kid Rock, whose strange combination of inner-city rap and trailer-park country and past collaboration with a midget were sort of endearing to us. He’s also got the support of such sports figures as former heavyweight champion of the world and convicted rapist and admitted wife-beater and ear-biting thug “Iron” Mike Tyson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the cross-dressing basketball power forward from the ’90s and more recently a good friend of the North Korean dictatorship and contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired from Indiana University despite a Hall of Fame-calber career for being an abrasive and insulting and temperamental jerk. The professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who recently put the Gawker website out of business by suing them for releasing a leaked sex tape of him and somebody else whose name we should probably know, is also on board with his fellow former World Wrestling Entertainment headliner, as is heavy metal guitarist Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent, who we have to admit laid down a hell of a guitar solo on “Baby Please Don’t Go” way back in The Amboy Dukes days.
The Los Angeles Times has been keeping track of this long enough to note that Republican runner-up Texas Sen. Cruz’ only endorsement was from one of those long-bearded guys on that “Duck Dynasty” show, which we’ve never seen and are not sure is still on the air, and that third-place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich never racked up a single celebrity endorsement. This seems to suggest that celebrity endorsements have some worrisome effect, but at this point have no idea what it will be. We care not a whit what any of these celebrities think, the nominees and non-nominees alike, even the ones whose careers we have enjoyed and whose personalities we have found pleasant enough presences on our popular culture, and we can’t discount that possibility that even the worst of them might by happenstance be right about whose more awful in this horrible presidential race.
Lately our tastes in entertainment and culture have run more to the “alternative” offerings, and we’ll also wind up casting a meaningless vote in that direction. Except for the exceptional case of Ronald Reagan we haven’t paid any attention to an actor’s political opinions since John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart died, and we’re not about to start now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky is said to be a brilliant linguist, but his political opinions are pure idiocy, and the Nobel Prize-winning William Shockley was undeniably sharp about physics but as clearly batty about his white supremacism, and we don’t see how a proficiency for acting or singing or rapping or rebounding, or even such a square jaw as George Clooney posses, is a better indicator of political wisdom.
There used to be something of value to be found in America’s popular culture, back in the days where we mostly seek our alternatives, but that was in the late 19th Century when Lew Wallace had a best-seller of a novel in “Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ,” and then again in the roaring ’20s when Ramon Naverro starred in a state-of-the-silent-movie-art  version, and as recently as the year of our birth, when Charlton Heston had the title role in a remake that had sound and widescreen technicolor and thirty years of other rapid technological advances going for it. Since then all these computer generated images and other high-tech gizmos don’t seem to have improved on story-telling movie-making, and we don’t expect that “Story of the Christ” subtitle has much box-appeal these days, and the celebrities aren’t nearly so intriguing as they used to be back when they mostly kept their political opinions to themselves. That the two most recognized celebrities of the moment are pitching a Clinton mini-series sequel or a “Celebrity Apprentice” reboot suggests that by now pretty much everything is just reboots and sequels and remakes that audiences don’t want.

— Bud Norman

A Typical Day in the Popular Culture

Although we strive to keep a forward looking eye on the latest political and economic developments, when it comes to the broader culture we’re content to live in the past. Most of the authors we read are long gone, our movie watching is mostly limited to the black-and-white fare on Netflix, the television is rarely on and only tunes into the ancient reruns that air on ultra-high frequency, the stereo is constantly blasting vinyl recordings of lush pop standards and twangy honky-tonk tunes and rough garage band rants of more exuberant eras, and on a visit to an art museum we will always rush past the more recent offerings to get another look at the paintings of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent and the rest of the dead white males before the critics have completely deconstructed them. It’s a bad habit, as the latest political and economic developments are so often the dreary result of the broader culture, but our occasional forays into the new stuff are just too disheartening to continue.
Even with the most strenuous effort one cannot avoid some contact with the broader culture, though, and we’re occasionally made aware of the last celebrity contretemps. Our daily examination of the essential Drudge Report is our primary source for the latest tales of Tinseltown and other entertainment capitals, along with the headlines on the tabloid covers that are all there is to look at in a grocery store checkout line other than the tattoos and obscenity-laden t-shirts of the person ahead, so we’re at least au courant enough to know that it’s all as tawdry as ever. Matt Drudge grew up in both Washington, D.C., and Hollywood, and his famously idiosyncratic news judgement recognizes the power that both towns wield, so we’ll often peruse what he finds of interest. On Wednesday he featured a story about the upcoming release of a documentary alleging widespread sexual exploitation of children in the movie industry, some rock stars serenading the crowd at a Veterans’ Day tribute concert with some anti-war agitprop and obscenities, an urban chanteuse we’ve heard of but never heard saying that what she likes best about the president is that he’s black, and some fellow with more money than taste buying one of those kitschy Andy Warhol silk screens of Elvis Presley for $151 million. This is a typically dispiriting day’s worth of entertainment dispatches at the Drudge Report, but with the president off in China for a costume party and the Republican congressional majorities not yet installed we took some interest in the stories.
That documentary about the sexual exploitation of children in Hollywood turns out to rely at least in part on the testimony of a fellow whose lawsuit has been thrown out of court, but we’re inclined to give some credence to the rest of it. The film industry has never been known for its sexual rectitude, after all, and having watched its best and brightest rally to the defense of Roman Polanski after he anally raped a 13-year-old girl leaves us predisposed to believe the worst. Pederasty is of the few sexual behaviors that are still condemned by society, at least for now, so the documentarians have one of the last opportunities to generate a Hollywood scandal. Anything else they allege about Hollywood’s sex life will only generate yawns or envy. No matter how convincing their case they won’t generate the public outrage that followed revelations of sexual exploitation of children in the Catholic church, or even the tale of some protestant evangelist’s extramarital affair, but it would be good if they could make people a little more skeptical of Hollywood’s depictions of villainous corporate executives and repressed homosexual military men and the banality of the suburbs and the rest of the contemporary cinematic cliches.
Those rock stars shocking the squares at a Veterans’ Day are by now a cliche, as well. We’ve never heard of the fellow who let loose with the obscenities, but Bruce Springsteen was the one who unleashed the Vietnam-era protest songs, and he’s been around so long that even we have a copy of his “Born to Run” album, and it’s all too familiar to be shocking. We note that Springsteen, a supposed workingman’s hero who also goes by the name of “The Boss,” chose to entertain the all-volunteer military personnel in attendance with “Fortunate Son,” which is about draftees who didn’t get the reserve gigs that the songwriters did during the Vietnam War and is the only bad song Creedence Clearwater Revival ever did. As for that urban chanteuse who thinks the best thing about the president is that he’s black, we can only say as old white conservative Republican men who prefer Peggy Lee that she’s probably right. The story about somebody shelling out $151 million for one of Warhol’s cliches, even if it did have Elvis, was a reminder that even high culture isn’t holding the bar very high these days.
This is what the masses are taught to aspire to, though, and we’ll keep that in mind as we follow the latest political and economic developments.

— Bud Norman

Race, Ferguson, and the Movies

Hollywood used to love making movies about brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the mob. Dipping into a rich tradition of American literature and drama they came up with such motion pictures as “The Ox Bow Incident,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Crucible,” all those “Billy Jack” flicks, and several others that we’ll later kick ourselves for failing to mention. These movies vary widely in quality, but all share an annoying self-congratulatory quality. Hollywood types like to think themselves brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the American mob, even as they pander to its basest instincts, so the oh-so-noble protagonists of those movies always seemed to derive in some saccharine way from the filmmaker’s heroic self-image.
That was back when the mobs were still likely to be central casting southern rednecks itching for some ad hoc justice against a black man or an Asian-American or a communist or a hippie freak or a space alien or some other sort of sympathetic “other,” and the consensus of bien pensant opinion was always solidly on the side of the brave independent thinker. These days the mob is invariably of a more politically correct hue, the polite people with the right credentials are therefore obliged to go along with whatever they say, the lone dissenters are such unwashed and un-photogenic right-wing bastards as ourselves, and Hollywood seems to have moved on to zombie movies. We don’t expect to see any big-budget epics about the lynch mob brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, or any of the other recent outburst of mob mentality, and if we do the movies will have to stand the old conventions on their head.
Monday’s funeral for the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Ferguson by a white police officer, as he is invariably described in press reports, was a perfectly cinematic bit of mob mania that will never portrayed as such by any Hollywood director. Among the eulogists was the exaggeratedly buffoonish Rev. Al Sharpton, whose long disgraceful history of whipping up fatal programs against Jews in particular and racial animosities against  peopler another color in general would make him a perfect stock character if only he could have been portrayed by Strother Martin, the mourners included the former filmmaker Spike Lee, who became a Hollywood darling by romanticizing race riots in his breakthrough movie “Do the Right Thing” and such blatantly anti-Semitic fare as “Mo’ Better Blues,” and all were crying out for justice. By “justice” they didn’t mean a dispassionate examination of the facts of the shooting, but rather an immediate execution of the harsh verdict that the mob had already reached based on most dubious sort of hearsay and its pre-existing prejudices.
The facts of the matter are frustratingly unclear, but the intense media coverage has already yielded reports that suggest the mob’s verdict is premature. A popular narrative that the decedent was gunned down for no possible reason other than racial animus while peacefully surrounding himself to the unfairly suspicious police has been disproved by the independent autopsy conducted by his own family, an embarrassing video of the oversized decedent manhandling a diminutive convenience store clerk for a box of Swisher Sweets cigars just before his fatal encounter with the police has effectively undermined the heart-warming tale of a college-bound young exemplar heading to his grandmother’s house, and stories about injuries to the police officer’s face add credence to his apparent explanation that the decedent was going for his gun and it was all a case of self-defense. All these facts of the matter have been muddied by the ham-fisted response of the Ferguson Police Department, which managed to offend even the most law-and-order sorts of Republicans with its heavily militarized presence during the inevitable looting, but there’s still ample reason that at this point in the plot of a movie a brave independent thinking hero might start to harbor doubts about the mob. It would make a compelling scene, especially if interposed with a montage of headlines about the race-baiting Attorney General and all the fashionable media promising to placate the mob, but Hollywood is the fashionable media and is thus unable to get the scene quite right. Nor will they ever make a convincing movie about the fraudulent accusations of rape against the Duke University lacrosse team, which had a disgraceful 88 members of that supposedly august faculty proudly sign on the lynch mob that judged them by the holy trinity of race, class, and gender of the team and its accuser rather than the scientifically incontrovertible and entirely exculpating evidence, or the case of that “white Hispanic” down in Florida who shot a young black man for no reason except that the young black man was banging the “crazy ass crackers'” head against the pavement, or any of the other recent failed attempts at demonstrating the overpowering white racism that the independent thinkers of Hollywood still desire to bravely oppose.
By far the contemporary classic account of these ginned-up racial contretemps is the great Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which somehow grows more classic with every new brouhaha. There are no heroes in that forlorn masterpiece, especially not the unexceptional young black decedent who hilariously becomes an “honor student” in all the frenzied media coverage, a peculiar feature of every racial controversy that has since come up, and the only character willing to defy the mob for principled reasons is a cranky old Jewish man who inadvertently suborns perjury in his court by the tale’s flawed protagonist. Hollywood completely ruined the book, of course, and changed the cranky old Jewish man to a more heroic black woman, but we suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new take on the old brave independent thinking hero standing up to the mindless passions of the mob genre. It’s a shame, because we always liked those movies for all their self-congratulatory flaws and we need them more than ever.

— Bud Norman

Of Espionage and Press Releases

We’ve watched a lot of cloak-and-dagger movies in our day, and like to think ourselves savvy to all the conventions of the espionage genre, but we’ve never encountered a plot twist where a Central Intelligence Agency operative’s top secret cover was compromised by his name and position being included on a White House press release. Such broad farce is too far-fetched for even most the irreverent spy-movie spoof, and can only occur in real life.
Yes, a White House press release handed out during President Barack Obama’s recent photo-op with the troops in Afghanistan did indeed identify the CIA chief of station who has been running the intelligence-gathering and drone-warfare the enemy has found so vexing. The top-secret spook was apparently among the guests of honor at the photo-op, no doubt conspicuous by his black tie and tuxedo among all the camouflage and the president’s butch bomber jacket, and somebody in the White House thought he therefore deserved mention to the press. A Washington Post reporter thought this odd and potentially dangerous, but only after his story had been filed and quickly published on the internet, and by the time he drew the government’s attention to the matter the name was available to any of the vexed enemy with a working internet connection. Another White House spokesman assured that the White House chief of staff had asked the newly installed White House counsel to look into the matter and make recommendations on “how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again,” and anyone screenwriting yet another spy-movie spoof will be hard-pressed to improve on that.
That Post reporter deserves some credit for his belated realization of his security breach and bringing it to the government’s attention, and his paper redacted the operative’s name from subsequent editions and most American publications have also properly declined to repeat the name, but otherwise most of the media have done their usual dreadful job on the story. Almost none have given it the same outraged attention that was given to the naming of CIA worker Valerie Plame, who wasn’t a covert agent at the time and who was named by an associate of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only Bush administration official that the media didn’t want to destroy, in an apparently innocent effort to explain why Plame’s husband had been sent off to the Middle East to file a much-publicized and highly-dubious report about his half-assed investigation into charges that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire yellowcake uranium. The press went wild for the story, hoping it would lead instead to the revelation that the administration had deliberately endangered a brave spy’s life in order to discredit a noble whistle-blower, and they kept telling it even after it fell apart. The Washington Post even revived it in the account of the Afghanistan press release, falsely recalling “when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.” The Los Angeles Times got it even more wrong, stating that Plame was identified by Scooter Libby, a former assistant to the vice-president who was convicted of a lie about the non-crime during the multi-million dollar investigation of the matter.
A desire to revive even false memories of the bad old Bush days is understandable, though, given how very inept the current administration looks. The naming of the CIA operative ruined the fine optics of the president looking so very Commander in Chiefy in that butch bomber jacket, so the press was almost obliged to throw in some compensatory Bush-bashing, no matter how inaccurate, and we expect the story will fade away before that special counsel fellow makes any recommendations. The bigger story is the president’s latest schedule for bugging out of Afghanistan, which will have the boys back home just in time for the next presidential election, and no one seems especially concerned that it might be handled just as ineptly as the administration’s public relations. Even such friendly publications as the aforementioned Los Angeles Times are starting to a notice a pattern of incompetence by the administration, from shovel ready jobs that aren’t quite shovel ready to crashed web sites to bankrupt solar panel companies to a gun-running operation for Mexican drug gangs to misspelled “reset” buttons that were going to charm the Russians into good global citizenship, not to mention Benghazi and the Veterans Administration and countless other examples, so a suddenly-endangered CIA operative is another embarrassment the press would rather not dwell on.
We wish that compromised CIA spook well, and hope he fares at least as well as Valerie Plame. She got a glamorous Vanity Fair photo spread and a Hollywood movie out of it, but this fellow will be lucky to get a book deal. His story is too far-fetched for a movie, even if you could get Will Ferrell or some other over-the-top comic to star, and it makes the wrong president look bad.

— Bud Norman

Radical Islam and Radical Chic

Radical Islam seems to be losing its radical chic, judging by two stories in the news lately. One story is set in the swankest spot in Beverly Hills, the other deep in the even more treacherous jungles of Nigeria, but both illustrate what it takes to at long last rile the modern world.
The brouhaha in Beverly Hills concerns the famously opulent Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which is an arm of the Brunei government, which is run by the absolute authority of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who recently imposed sharia in the country. Sharia is the Islamic code of law proscribed by the Koran and Hadith, and although the interpretations vary from country to country it is always a harsh system by contemporary western standards, with the Brunei version featuring fines and jail times for failing to attend Friday prayer services, flogging and the severing of limbs for property crimes, and death by stoning for such crimes as adultery and homosexuality. Those final provisions proved especially offensive to the sensibilities of Hollywood show folk, who have now vowed to boycott the hotel until Brunei changes it laws or the property has a new owner.
We consider it unlikely that the Sultan of Brunei will abandon his apparently ardent faith to curry favor with the infidel celebrities of Tinseltown, but he might be forced to sell the hotel. The hotel’s value derives largely from its reputation as a gathering place for the beautiful people, and they seem genuinely determined to stay away. Famed talk show comedienne and lesbian Ellen DeGeneres, who is is as famous for being a lesbian as she is for being a talk show comedienne, has announced she won’t be back “until this is resolved.” Kim Kardashian, who is famous for some reason or another that we cannot discern, has cancelled a planned wedding reception, although she’ll probably have plenty of others there if new owners are found. Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno even compared the Sultan to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which is about brutal an insult as a Los Angeleno can muster these days. Such unfavorable publicity is bad for business, and although it won’t do much for the unfortunate folks in Brunei who are late for the call to prayer or shoplift a candy bar or engage in homosexual activities it will no doubt have a soothing effect on the consciences of America’s entertainers.
Radical Islam has been gaining an even more uncool reputation far away in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram terrorist organization has kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls. Boko Haram has been murdering thousands of Christians and other varieties of infidels for many years without arousing the outrage of any well-intentioned westerners, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and various high-minded do-gooder groups even resisted its inclusion on the official list of designated terror organizations until recently, but the kidnappings have so outraged the bien pensant that even Clinton is now sending out indignant “tweets.” First Lady Michelle Obama summed up the disapproval in her Mother’s Day address to the nation, in which she neglected to name the kidnappers or their religious ideology or even their intention to sell the girls into slavery but instead dwelled on the fact that the girls were being denied an education. “And what happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident,” the First Lady explained, leaving one to wonder if the same sort of thing might be happening right here in America if any more of those Tea Party types with their War on Women get elected to Congress. Her husband has helpfully provided the use of drones and other military assistance in getting the girls released, so her outrage might prove more effective than mere “tweeting,” but it remains to be seen if the Islamic world at large will embrace feminism.
We wish these newly outraged activists well in their efforts, and welcome them to the ongoing struggle against radical Islam, but we’d like to see them broaden their perspective. The treatment of women and homosexuals throughout most of the Muslim world is appalling, and warrants the western world’s condemnation and fierce resistance, but surely the intolerance of Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy also deserve mention in the casus belli. The modern liberal is ill-placed to condemn assaults on Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy, and finds it more useful in domestic politics to focus on homosexuality and women’s rights, but now is not the time to jettison the old values. The newly outraged find themselves in a clash of civilizations, and reluctantly on the side of the one they’ve been hoping to undermine, and it can only be defended on the basis of all its virtues and not just its latest enthusiasms.

— Bud Norman

Hard Times in Hollywood

The President of the United States was hobnobbing with a roomful of super-rich show biz folks the other day, and he sounded rather glum. He spoke of a “disquiet around the country,” “an anxiety, and a sense of frustration,” a widely held belief that “the challenges out there remain daunting and we have a Washington that’s not working,” and his fear it will cause Americans to become disengaged from the political process to an extent that “we got this downward spiral of even more cynicism and more dysfunction.” All in all, it seemed an incongruously downbeat message for such an upscale occasion.
We did not attend the fundraiser at Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn’s palatial Bel-Air home, but we read all about in Variety, which is a usually reliable source for all matters entertainment. The event was a bit pricey for our budget, with a donation of $10,000 buying only dinner and a photo-op, and $34,000 needed to get into the VIP reception and $68,000 the cost of something called a “VIP clutch,” so we stayed home and watched Netflix instead, but it sounds like we missed a swank affair. Pop diva Barbra Streisand and big-time movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg were reportedly in attendance, and presumably involved in the “VIP clutch,” which for that kind of money should have involved a happy ending, and we can only guess that everyone was good-looking and well-dressed and wealthy enough to pony up serious cash for the president’s ongoing crusade against income inequality. We like to imagine there’s a certain amount of gaiety at these glamorous Hollywood shindigs, with comely young starlets swinging from the chandeliers and handsome young gigolos snorting copious amounts of cocaine off the ample breasts of some sultry sex symbol or another, so it strikes us as slightly rude that the president would bring everyone down with a rambling rehash of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Malaise Speech.”
Show people are funny, though, so perhaps they got their money’s worth from the frisson of pseudo-seriousness they felt listening to the President of the United States spout such self-pitying drivel. The president was quite correct about the disquiet and the anxiety and the frustration and the sense that Washington isn’t working, and right to worry about the cynicism and dysfunction it causes, but the rest of it was as far removed from reality as Hollywood’s latest comic book epic. The nation’s unhappy mood derives from the record number of working-age Americans who have given up look for work in a perpetually sluggish economy, the record number of Americans living in poverty and on government assistance, the rising costs and diminished benefits of our health care system, the emboldened belligerence of America’s enemies across the globe, the increasing coarseness and meanness of our popular culture and political discourse, and a growing realization that after more than five years in office the President of the United States has something to do with it.
According to the President of the United States, however, it’s all those other guys’ fault. If not for their unaccountable obstruction he could spent enough money to solve all the economic problems, people would be happily giving up the health care plans they liked and paying more for the plans they are forced to accept, America’s enemies would be soothed into submission, Hollywood would be rewarded for its brave transgressive art with a continuation of its myriad tax breaks, and no one would be the least bit cynical about any of these claims. That the opposition has at least been successful enough in thwarting the president’s ambitions to put in such a dour mood actually bolsters our faith in the constitutional system, but the president seems intent on sowing cynicism about that. It’s cynicism about him that he finds alarming, and no matter what lies he tells about Benghazi or Obamacare or any of the “phony scandals” that have highly-placed allies pleading the Fifth Amendment it is those other guys’ fault if anyone doubts him.
Those Hollywood swells ate it up like a catered $10,000-a-plate meal, so far as we can tell, and probably offered some well-rehearsed sympathy. The president assured his star-struck audience that he and his party had the vast majority of Americans on their side on every issue that would matter in the upcoming mid-term elections, and Variety does not mention any guffaws. At least they know that their donations are unlikely to arouse the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which has been auditing donors to conservative causes at a rate ten times greater than the national average, and they can assure themselves that they’re not cynics.
The same speech would get a markedly different reaction here in our proudly unglamorous home of Wichita, even at the Machinists’ Hall, where the guys make those corporate jets that the president likes to rail against when he flies off to a golf course on Air Force One, and we suspect the coal miners in West Virginia and the oil boomers in North Dakota and the unemployed almost everywhere would be just as cynical. The president’s problem is that such cynicism won’t cause them to be disengaged, but rather to show up at the polls in a surly mood come November.

— Bud Norman

Mickey Rooney, RIP

Mickey Rooney died Sunday at the ripe old age of 93, ending one of the longest and most impressive careers in the history of American show business, and thus ends an era of American popular culture.
That era actually ended so long ago that Rooney’s death has been relegated to a few inches deep inside most newspapers, while the golden age of entertainment he exemplified is now seen only on the cable channels devoted to the old-fashioned movie buffs or the late-late-shows of the cheaper UHF stations. Those who do chance upon Rooney’s better efforts will likely find it a bittersweet experience, as it provides a stark reminder of our society’s decline.
Rooney started in show-biz way back in the vaudeville days, when he debuted as a 17-month-old in his parent’s hard-luck burlesque act, and he was a seasoned pro by the time he made his first move at the age of 6. As an example of his natural talent and precocious polish we recommend the 1935 production of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” It’s a slick Hollywood take on Shakespeare that stars Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell and Victor Jory and all the high-toned stars you’d expect to see in a silver-screen Shakespearean epic, but the stand-out performances are James Cagney’s cocky turn as Billy Bottom and Rooney’s perfectly nasty portrayal of the supernaturally mischievous Puck. Such talent kept Rooney busy at the studios in a wide variety of roles for the next several years, including such notable flicks as “Captains Courageous” and “Ah, Wilderness,” and by the end of the decade he was arguably the biggest star in pictures.
The persona that made Rooney so popular was far from the evil sprite of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” however, and instead expressed the squeaky-clean earnestness of the era when America was coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. He was the titular character of the hugely popular “Andy Hardy” series, about an all-American boy in an all-American small town, and co-starred with all-American girl Judy Garland in a number of wholesome musicals about all-Americans kids putting on a show in somebody’s suspiciously opulent barn. He got to revive his earlier tough-kid persona in “Boys Town,” opposite Spencer Tracy as the saintly Father Flanagan, but by the final reel he had reverted to suitably endearing form.
At the height of his box-office popularity Rooney went off help out with World War II, and by all accounts his service was brave and distinguished. Originally turned down for duty because of health problems, he joined the USO to entertain the troops until he was allowed to enlist, then continued to entertain his fellow soldiers on makeshift stages built atop jeeps in between battles. He declined to draw any attention to his war record when he returned to Hollywood, and although he retained his popularity for a while he soon found himself struggling to maintain his career in a rapidly changing world.
Part of the problem was that Rooney was now too old for the wholesome lad roles that had once been his specialty, and the barely-five-foot-tall actor was attempting to play prize fighters and race car drivers and other grown-up variations on the tough kids of his earlier career. By the mid-’50s the movies were taking a turn toward film noir and gritty-but-preachy social justice screeds, and by the early ’60s Rooney’s Andy Hardy character and the let’s-put-on-a-show wholesomeness of his musicals was slightly embarrassing to a properly hip movie-goer.
Rooney’s career probably would have ended there if not for his formidable talent, which enabled him to play a variety of character roles with convincing ease. He was one of the slightly disreputable characters chasing after a hidden treasure in the brilliant “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a nosy Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a gambling-addicted soldier in “The Bold and the Brave,” and countless other roles in movies and television programs ranging from outstanding to downright awful. The former kid actor proved adept at old-man roles in the ’70s, earning him praise as a horse trainer in “Black Beauty” and an Emmy Award as the mentally-challenged “Bill” on a television movie of the same name, but he never regained his superstar status or quite shook the lingering image of good old Andy Hardy.

<div-style=”text-indent:20px;>Rooney got some revenge in the ’80s, when he applied his still-strong talents for piano playing, singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy in the hit Broadway revue “Sugar Babies.” With co-star Ann Miller, who had been the top-billed star of B musicals at Columbia before moving on to second-billed roles in the A+ musicals at MGM back in the ’40s and ’50s, the show went on the road for years and routinely out-drew such rock ‘n’ roll acts as the Rolling Stones. There was still a gray-haired audience for old-fashioned entertainment, and it had the disposable income for the tickets, and even the grumpiest critics acknowledged it had a certain charm. Despite all the money he made from “Sugar Babies,” Rooney continued to work in small roles in such big-budget pictures as “Night at the Museum” and then take to the road to play dinner theaters in mid-sized cities. He was well into his 80s when he played a second-rate venue here in Wichita, which afforded us the opportunity to interview him, and although he was rather cranky at that early-morning appointment he gave an energetic and well-received performance.

According to the obituary writers Rooney found religion and a lasting marriage and some peace with himself in his later years, a marked change from the eight-times divorced life of debauchery that had characterized his earlier days, and we’d like to think his early roles had helped prepare him for the part. All those marriages and the seamier sorts of legends have often been cited as proof of the phoniness of those all-American movies that once made Rooney the biggest star in movies, and that whole era now seems uncomfortably cornball to a properly jaded modern perspective, with Andy Hardy and “let’s put on a show” reduced punchlines in the ironically detached hipster humor, and Father Flanagan and “Boy’s Town” are deconstructed by the post-modernist critics for any subtle signs of pedophilia or some other darkness lurking beneath the surface, but there’s no mistaking the sincerity of those pictures. That’s part of the problem, of course, as sincerity is another one of those cornball qualities that offend the modern sensibility.
Call it progress if you want, but we have our doubts. In an age when “reality” stars become celebrities without any noticeable talents, it’s sobering to look back at an age when a singing, dancing, piano-playing, joke-telling actor who could play anything from Shakespeare to slapstick was what Hollywood was looking for. That gosh-golly gee-willikers enthusiasm of those great Rooney-Garland pictures and the Andy Hardy series got America through the Great Depression and whipped the Axis, whatever else you might say about it, and it’s hard to imagine that ironic hipster detachment that has replaced it will work as well in the coming challenges.

— Bud Norman

The Highest Form of McCarthyism

Being of a certain age, we can remember a time when liberalism prided itself on tolerance, dissent, and above all a tolerance of dissent. One needn’t be all that old to recall this bygone era, as it came to an abrupt end only six years or so ago.
The change was immediately and conspicuously noticeable, with all the “Question Authority” stickers adorning the bumpers of the shiny new hybrid cars and rusty fume-spewing VW microbuses replaced seemingly overnight with those dawn-of-a-new-age Obama logos. At the long-anticipated demise of the Bush administration dissent was no longer the highest form of patriotism, much less Pulitzer Prize-bait or a requirement for academic tenure, and questioning authority was suddenly regarded as a sign of dangerous anti-government extremism. The results still resonate in the headlines over stories datelined from New York to Hollywood and all points in between, and it’s becoming all too familiar.
After years of being subjected to self-congratulatory movies about the dark days of McCarthyism when Stalinist screenwriters and fashionably leftist actors were blacklisted for their boldly against-the-grain political opinions, we were naturally struck by two recent tales of Tinseltown. One concerned the comely actress Maria Conchita-Alonso being dumped from yet another performance of “The Vagina Monologues” because she had appeared an a campaign commercial for a candidate associated with the “Tea Party,” and the other was about the Internal Revenue Service’s heightened scrutiny of a group of conservative-leaning actors and other show-biz professionals. We can’t say we’ll miss Conchita-Alonso performance in “The Vagina Monologues,” as we’ve never been fans of ventriloquism, and we assume that club of Hollywood conservatives is quite small compared to other groups that have caught the attention of the IRS, but the irony of their fates is galling nonetheless. As a woman of both Cuban and Venezuelan ancestry Conchita-Alonso knows better than the most the rationale for the limited-government objectives of the Tea Party movement, those openly conservatives actors are far more defiantly non-conformist than anyone who was hauled before the House Un-American Activities ever were, and the lack of protest from their left-leaning peers is pure hypocrisy.
While on the subject of the movies, we also heard that the fellow who made a widely-distributed anti-Obama documentary has now been charged by the feds with making an illegal campaign contribution, something that never seemed to happen to the far more numerous documentarians who flooded the Oscar nomination ballots with celluloid anti-Bush screeds. We’ve already expressed our disappointment that the governor of New York has dis-invited us from visiting his fair state because our political views don’t align with his, but we we have since been further saddened to read that newly-inaugurated Sandanistan mayor of New York City has reiterated that we’re especially unwanted there. At least we’re not black, which would make our views even more slander-worthy to the head of North Carolina’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If misfortune confined us to a wheelchair we would even expect to be mocked for it because of our political, as Texas gubernatorial candidate George Abbott was by the supporters of the eminently respectable but not-quite-accurate Democratic contender Wendy Davis. Throw in the recent fit that the homosexual lobby threw over some Louisiana redneck reality-show star’s crudely stated preference for vaginas over male anuses, and a pattern becomes clear.
Such liberal intolerance isn’t a recent phenomenon, of course, but it has become more brazen since liberalism seized power. We now encounter it routinely in our social encounters, even here in the Republican outpost of Kansas, and are still struck by the cocksureness of its conviction that whatever was said in the past some sorts of dissent simply should not be tolerated. It strikes us as a sort of narcissism, grounded in the belief that anyone who resists their noble efforts to create a paradise on earth must surely be an awful person deserving oppression, but it should be curable. Get another of those nasty Republicans back in the White House, or even the Senate Majority Leader’s chair, and questioning authority will be back on the bumpers and dissent will once again be the highest form of patriotism.

— Bud Norman