Proud of my niece. She helped with the choreography here, and won a first-place trophy for her trouble.
Also this is me doing a test to see if I know what I’m doing, technology-wise. (I don’t.)
Proud of my niece. She helped with the choreography here, and won a first-place trophy for her trouble.
Also this is me doing a test to see if I know what I’m doing, technology-wise. (I don’t.)
This is what I said at the memorial in honor of my grandfather Sam Seifter at the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine in December of 2009, ten months after he died. I was speaking to his colleagues and distinguished faculty and lots of extremely intelligent people I otherwise had no business addressing. It was a supreme honor.
My grandfather instilled in me the ultimate importance of family. That’s far from the only thing I learned from that great man, but it’s one of the lessons that has stayed with me most consistently. So when I stand in front of you today representing my grandfather’s grandchildren, I feel a little less uncomfortable speaking on behalf of four distinct and vibrant personalities than I might otherwise. My sister Rebecca is a shining light to me, a legitimately heroic social worker and an amazingly sensitive young mother. My cousin Andrew is one of the most brilliant writers I have ever read, and a remarkably adept thinker and conversationalist. My cousin Charlie is one of the most emotionally perceptive people I have ever known, and one of the funniest and most charming. I consider my sister to be the closest person to me in the world, and I consider my two cousins more like my brothers. So while I would never presume to speak for any of them, I hope that I can adequately approximate their feelings.
I have to be honest with you, because that’s all I know for sure how to be. This has been an impossibly terrible year for my family. Losing my grandfather is losing something incalculable and really, unexplainable. My grandparents together are the hub of the wheel that makes our family go, and that structure has been irrevocably altered. To mix a metaphor, it’s like someone turned the lights out on us, and we’re all trying to try to learn how to stumble around in the dark. No one has suffered a greater loss than my grandmother, who has lost the love of her life. Think about that: So many people search for true love and my grandparents actually found it. It hardly ever happens and the only reason I can believe in the concept is that I’ve seen it in action. As far as I could tell, my grandpa and my grandma appreciated every moment they had together, but now he’s gone and my grandma is left without. My mother, no ordinary achiever herself, has done her best to shoulder the weight that my grandpa’s loss represents, but that’s one considerable weight. My father has lost a mentor. My sister and I have lost our moral compass. My niece, Jessica, remembers her great-grandfather but doesn’t understand yet why she doesn’t see him anymore. These are things you don’t understand until you’re in it. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend the fact of death, I knew this year would come, but there was nothing to prepare me for it. It’s been hard. But don’t worry, I’m getting to the more uplifting parts.
Firstly: On behalf of myself, my sister, and my cousins Andrew and Charlie, we want to thank the committee at Einstein for memorializing our grandfather today, and we want to thank everyone who is here today out of love and support for my grandfather. As you all probably know, there is no more worthy man to celebrate. There is no doubt in my mind that my grandfather deserves the stature of presidents and kings. The only reason why the whole world didn’t stop to mourn his passing this year is that he was so resolutely humble. Of all the literally countless deeds of goodness and generosity that he committed, of all the people that he taught and inspired and saved, of all the tangible positive acts he was responsible for, of all the brilliant minds he encouraged and facilitated, he did none of that in order to be recognized. Frankly, he would have hated all this attention.
But he deserved it, and then some. He was a thoroughly astounding person, a legitimate genius with a heart in scope as unparalleled as his intellect. He had a profound effect on anyone who knew him, as you have heard and will hear more about today. There have been few people who more directly benefitted from my grandfather’s influence than myself. I grew up two blocks from his house, and I was over there all the time, right up until the end. Even my relocation to Los Angeles couldn’t keep us apart for very long. He taught me how to be a good person, to be thoughtful and sincere and searching and intellectually inquisitive. He put me through college and supported my creative and artistic aspirations. So much of everything that is good and worth knowing about my personality comes out of knowing and wanting to be more like him. Honestly, I usually feel somewhat unworthy of having been the lucky recipient of all that time with such a remarkable human being. I feel somewhat unworthy of speaking about him today, being on the same program with so many of his accomplished colleagues and students. I feel unworthy of being on the same program with my mother and my uncle, brilliant teachers and generous souls who have gone on to be such effective advocates of my grandfather’s philosophies in the world. Standing amongst all of these people today, all I feel is humble. The only thing that makes me special, the only thing that makes me worthy of speaking here I guess, is that my grandfather loved me. That doesn’t make me unique in this room, because there are so many people here today whom he loved, but it makes me unique to the rest of the world. Because I knew him so well for so long, I can’t help but carry him with me everywhere I go. It is my most sincere hope that I can in some small way be able to impart something of Sam Seifter to the rest of the world, because the world needs Sam Seifter now as much as it ever did.
I don’t know where my grandfather is now. I don’t have those kind of big answers and wouldn’t presume to launch into that endless discussion here. I did have some rare and brief conversations with my grandfather about spirituality, and his words on the subject then certainly informed my views on the subject now. I know that my grandfather was a man of science, and I know that he loved this institution. I know that the people here are doing the work that matters. I am thankful to all of you, his colleagues and students and fellows. Whether you knew my grandfather well or not at all, I am personally thankful to you for continuing the kind of work that my grandfather did. My grandfather believed in science, both as a way of knowing, and as a way to improve the world we live in. Whether or not this life is all we have, then I can think of no more noble calling. The spirit of my grandfather is alive in all of us today, in the walls of these buildings and in our souls, and to me at least, that is a profoundly inspiring thought. We love you forever, grandpa.
One last thing: There has been a lot of interest in my grandfather’s book of poetry, called To Every Truth Its Season – I would love to accommodate everyone’s request for a copy, so please contact me if you have been looking for the book. Thank you very much.
This is what I said at the memorial service for my grandfather Sam Seifter on March 1st, 2009. Find out more about him at the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine’s website. That’s more of a biography of an incredible life. What follows is just what a grandson said about his grandpa.
Hi everybody, if you don’t already know me, I’m Madeleine’s son, Jonathan Abrams. I am speaking today to represent the grandchildren. I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else; I can only serve as the representative. Rebecca, Andrew, and Charlie can share their own feelings when the time is right for them. However, I will speak for us all when I say how deeply we loved our Grandpa Sam, how much we miss him right now, and how much we will always treasure the time we did have with him.
Grandpa loved all four of his grandchildren equally, without question, but I was probably the luckiest of us, in that, by chance of age and geographical proximity, I got to spend that much more extra personal time with him over the years. I grew up two blocks away from my grandparents’ house, so it would hardly be exaggerating to say that I was over there all the time.
In my early childhood, my little sister and I would look forward to weekend brunches personally cooked by Grandpa, with his individually-designed menus. I loved to listen to classical music, page through his stamp collections and his flower pressings, and to walk with him through his garden.
In my adolescence, I racked up several blue ribbons at the school science fair thanks to my grandpa’s help. Let it not be said that he did my projects for me – these collaborations were about the process of learning and teaching. I was always taught to understand and to be able to explain to others the concepts and experiments I was working with, and I always did all of the artwork, writings and presentations. He encouraged me to use humor whenever appropriate.
In high school, I got to work in my grandfather’s lab at the Einstein College of Medicine, alongside his colleagues and students. It was there that I witnessed the admiration that Grandpa had earned in his profession, and it was there that I learned to share his faith in science. There was never any pressure for me to follow in those footsteps, however. My interests in the creative arts were always respected and encouraged and even admired. Grandpa supported me, in every sense of the word, with my college education and choices, and later on, with my move to California. He was my sage. While my life has seen more than its share of mistakes and missteps and failures, believe me, none of them happened under his watch. Still, I should have all of the confidence in the world, because I know he believed in me.
In the year 2001, I was asked by Grandpa to take part in what will be for the rest of my life my proudest creative achievement: providing a bunch of black-and-white ink illustrations for a book of poetry that he had written over the years and was intending to publish. We spent over two weeks working on those drawings together. He brought me photo references, or had me find my own, or had me imagine what to draw for some of them. What I thought was most telling about the process was that he was not at all precious about it. The pictures I drew were the pictures he wanted to represent his poems. When one of my drawings wasn’t exactly right, he had me redraw it. When I wanted to redraw something and he liked it as it was, he wouldn’t let me. He encouraged me but never falsely, and his constructive criticism was just as encouraging. He treated me like a professional throughout. The result was my personal best work. He didn’t love those drawings because his grandson drew them – he loved those drawings because they were the drawings that he felt best illustrated his poetry. And because his grandson drew them.
In truth, my grandfather himself was poetry. He was calm; he was unbending integrity; he was accessibility, precision, and clarity; he was artful phrasing and unobtrusive persuasiveness; he was profound wisdom and meaning and subtle brilliance; and he was uncomplicated beauty. And if Grandpa was poetry, then it was a poem about love, and you can’t mention my grandfather without mentioning my grandmother:
My Grandma Eleanor, the love of my Grandpa’s life. They loved each other the moment they met as teenagers and they didn’t stop from that moment on. They shared the kind of love that books and songs and movies are written about. Young people wonder when such a love will happen for them, and old people wonder why it didn’t. This kind of a love story only actually occurs in reality so very rarely, and my grandparents knew it and remembered it and appreciated it. My grandparents are true soulmates, inseparable and inspiring and each the other’s best self.
Because he had my grandma, Grandpa always had hope. He never once had it easy but still he made a good life for himself. He had a life that mattered. He didn’t want to leave it; he fought longer and harder to continue it than the rest of us can comprehend. And I know that his persistence proved rewarding to him: He saw his two children – my mom and my uncle – grow up to become brilliant teachers themselves, thoughtful people of integrity who continue to be the best examples of what human beings can be. He saw my mom and my uncle start families of their own, families full of people he loved. He lasted to see the new century; he lasted to see strides made in social tolerance and cultural equality; he lasted to see a multicultural president elected; he lasted to see science return to the national discussion. Best of all, he lasted to meet his great-granddaughter Jessica, whom he loved so much it almost hurt. He didn’t get to see the Yankees get it together… but he always kept those things in perspective anyway.
When a great man like my grandfather passes, people like to enlist descriptive phrases like “giant” or “legend,” or they will emphasize what the world has lost with his passing. I am confident that I am joined by thousands in my knowledge that my Grandpa is an uncommon person, and that the world is in fact a far darker place without him in it. There is not just a massive hole in my own life with him gone, but a hole in the entire universe, because such a consistent source of kindness and decency has left it. Grandpa was just such a brilliant, loving, lovable, generous, and honest human being that it is honestly unimaginable to picture life without him.
All of that said, Grandpa would not like me to go on and on about his greatness, in fact he would certainly have hushed me off the stage by now, so I’d better hustle to bring this home. Grandpa didn’t like pomp and circumstance. He was the most humble genius I have ever witnessed. He loved people, and he treasured his relationships, his friendships, and his mentorships, and he appreciated being appreciated, but he was not one to bask in the platitudes that he nonetheless warranted. He was content to live in the same lovely blue-shuttered house that he lived in with my grandmother for decades, next to his carefully tended garden and two blocks away from his daughter, a couple hours from his son. He was unquestionably a great man, of the kind history books are written, but he didn’t need it to be known.
Grandpa was a great mind and an artist, a gardener and a chef, a humorist and a humanist, a poet and a scientist. He was the only hero I have ever needed in my life. I find myself struggling to know what to do without him.
I think that, when our heroes leave us, in a way it falls upon us to become them. For thirty-one years, I sat at the knee of the greatest man I’ve ever met. It is my most sincere hope that I learned something during that time. I can’t expect to be remotely close to the man he was, because he was truly one of a kind. But I can ensure him some measure of immortality by working that much harder to do as he would have done, to be that much better. Just by knowing him, he influenced me immeasurably. I can encourage within myself those influences.
I can say for sure that I already see it in the others – I see Grandpa in Charlie’s love of nature, and photography, and in his generous spirit. I see Grandpa in Andrew’s love of sports, and travel, and in his love of an intelligent, feisty, educational conversation. I see Grandpa in Rebecca’s love of music, and family, and in her dedication to social justice. And I even already see Grandpa in Jessica’s love of books and in her hearty laugh and her world-brightening smile.
It’s not for me to discern which aspects of Grandpa I was gifted with. All I will do is revisit those years of proximity to him, and thereby conclude these words in the way that he himself would:
Grandpa wouldn’t want us to feel so sad. He would understand that we are devastated by his loss, but he wouldn’t want us to spend too long in that misery. He would want to see us cheered. He would put a hand on our shoulder, or make a clever pun, or offer us something to eat, or even blow a kiss, as he did so many times when he saw Jessica cry.
He would be thankful. He would thank everybody for coming here today to honor his memory. He would thank my Grandma Eleanor for being the reason why he held onto life, and enjoyed it, for as long as he could. He would thank my Uncle Julian for being the warm and charming and brilliant person who he was so proud of, whose pictures and writings he kept on his nighttable. He would thank my aunt and my dad and my cousins and my sister and my niece, and especially my Aunt Esther in Cleveland who couldn’t be here today. He would thank all of the caretakers who looked after him in his later years, all those good people who I will not name individually because I don’t want to leave anyone out, but who were so important because they talked to him and held his hand when he needed it. And he would thank my mom, his daughter Madeleine, who was his engine over this past decade, who cooked and cleaned and wrote and sang and tirelessly raised his spirits when they were at their darkest, and whose heart rivals his own in size. He would want us to look after her now, to appreciate her, and to appreciate all of the people who we love, because that’s what he did.
We love you, Grandpa.
My day job is centered at the Empire State Building, so I think about this movie literally every single day, but I’m thinking about it today because it went into wide release way back on this date, April 7th, in 1933. Can you even imagine being a kid in 1933 and seeing this movie for the first time?!? Here’s what I said about it back when I force-elected its star one of the ten best movie characters of all time:
On Skull Island, he was a king. In New York City, he was just another guy brought low by love. This may make me sound crazy, but I strongly believe there’s a case for KING KONG as the great American film. If you, as I do, are convinced that the story of America is one driven by race and by sex, then KING KONG has it all over CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, or VERTIGO as far as tangible cultural relevance. The racial and sexual subtext of KING KONG is barely subtext at all, perhaps uncomfortably. Perhaps that kind of subtext should be uncomfortable. Is the subtext here outright racist? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m still not even sure. In this particular country, with our history, it’d be irresponsible not to consider it. That reading of the film might depend upon one’s reading of the title character, though. How are we supposed to view King Kong? Unlike Godzilla, King Kong isn’t exactly a hero. As the Godzilla films progressed, it became more clear Godzilla was here to protect Earth, not just to stomp on Tokyo. (That’s one thing 2014’s GODZILLA got right for sure.)
King Kong, by contrast, is more of a basic-cable anti-hero. He’s a merciless killer, if you’re a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a military biplane pilot or just an adventurer with a gun, but he’s great at it, and here in America we forgive a lot from a character who’s good at his job. Besides that, King Kong is infatuated with the blond ingenue Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and America does enjoy a good crazy-in-love story too. King Kong’s cataclysmic talent for violence makes him awesome — in the textbook definition, not the colloquial — and his infatuation with the pretty lady makes him human. So to answer the question, I think we’re supposed to find King Kong to be pretty rad, despite how many guys he tosses off a log bridge, and that’s what makes the movie complicated and fascinating. But that’s a conclusion that’s sort of unnecessary to intellectualize — I could have told you King Kong was awesome (in the colloquial sense) when I was eight. That I’m saying the same thing thirty years later doesn’t mean I haven’t grown up at all — it means I’ve grown up with the movie, and that it continues to give me plenty to think about and to dream about.
It’s Oscar night, which is surely the last possible instant for anybody to potentially care about my favored titles, as far as last year’s movies go. This list would have gone up on Daily Grindhouse, but due to a transitional phase, Daily Grindhouse has been down for most of the past two weeks, so here we are.
No need for a long prologue. Does anybody read those? If you care about this list in the slightest, you’ve probably scrolled down past this paragraph already. I always joke that the introduction before a top-ten list is the best place to unburden yourself if you’ve ever committed a serious crime. You can alleviate the guilt that’s been burning you up, and still get away scott-free. Far as I know, the only crime I’m guilty of committing without being prosecuted is an egregious sense of timing.
The only thing I wanted to say is that I saw two movies this year that I didn’t feel I could cram inside a top-ten structure. Those are THE LOOK OF SILENCE and CALL ME LUCKY. Both are perfectly-crafted documentaries that provoked a real visceral response from me. Not that I don’t have the same level of respect for every movie I listed below, but as wrong as it feels to me generally to rank movies (it’s like ranking emotions) it felt borderline offensive in those two cases. That aside, this list IS in order.
Writing about movies alters your experience as an audience member. As you watch a movie, you can’t help but begin to compose whatever you’re going to write about later on in your mind, while it’s still being projected. For “normal” people it’s probably easier to sit back and let a movie happen in front of you. Writing about movies means you can’t be a spectator. You’re not exactly a participant, but you’re imposing your will and your unique thought process on the experience all the same. All of that is to say that THE ASSASSIN has a determined stillness and an insistent patience that forced me to settle down and just watch. There isn’t much story to it, but that’s part of why I keyed into its frequency — I didn’t have to track over-heated plot developments, or opine to myself about my feelings about each character. I could just watch. Especially in this attention-flicker of a day and age, there’s a boldness to a film that holds on a shot long enough to let a slight gust of wind blow through the frame. And there’s a secret liberation in knowing I can submit to that boldness rather than making myself part of the experience.
Grouping these two together because they’re two sides of a coin in my mind, and because it delights me to do it. It’s ironic that Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are often at odds in the press, because they occupy neighboring terrain in the landscape of my thinking. Hard to think of two other filmmakers who are simultaneously so talented and so frustrating, so right up my alley and yet so prone to adding a single scene or a character or musical cue or plot device that threatens to derail my appreciation. As hard as it is for me to choose sides when Quentin and Spike fight, it’s got to be that much harder for Sam Jackson. He’s a signature actor for them both, and he plays pivotal roles in both CHI-RAQ and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. In one he’s the Greek chorus and in the other he’s the de-facto protagonist, but in both movies his war trumpet of a voice is a defining element of the orchestra being conducted by a bold, confrontational, cinematically-hyperliterate director. CHI-RAQ is a modern-day retelling of a classical play told in verse, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a “spaghetti” Western with provocation on the brain, so they’re very different movies, but they’re also unified in operatic nature and in thematic concern. These are two movies about race, about violence, about America. Another similarity is that both movies, while definitely engineered to inflame conversation, drew criticisms that were misplaced. I saw many essayists question Spike Lee for making CHI-RAQ about women withholding sex from their men in order to quell violence — despite that plot coming directly from Lysistrata and being a couple millenia old — and I saw others go after Quentin Tarantino for misogyny in THE HATEFUL EIGHT when nothing good happens to anybody in that movie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is by far the most compelling character in the whole thing. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I also think Quentin is working in a disreputable genre and honoring its conventions, as troubling as they may be.) I’m sure neither of these movies are particularly easy to like, and they may even be imperfect, but it’s uncommon to have one movie so defiant and lively and formally unruly in a calendar year, let alone two of them.
Oh, and Teyonah Parris is a goddamned movie star. There’s no way to look at CHI-RAQ and think any different.
By any objective measure, this is one of the most technically impressive films released in the past twelve months. Like THE ASSASSIN, it’s fascinating to look at and to listen to. For somebody like me, who looks at movies as moving pictures more than filmed plays, that’s not something to ignore. It’s arguable that THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is an emotionally chilly movie, beautiful but impenetrable, but I wouldn’t be the one to argue it. I liked how this movie challenged me; I liked how it made me watch it again almost immediately to reconsider how I felt about it. Doesn’t hurt that I spent a large part of 2015 gaining a newfound affection for the giallo genre, so that by the time I got to THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, I was waiting right in the middle of its wheelhouse. But I think any grown-up would find this movie equally as mystifying and intoxicating (it’s probably not one for the kids).
If there’s no way to stop the mounting flood of reboots and remakes and sequels and re-imaginings, then at least there’s a movie like CREED to come along and knock a franchise on its ass. I don’t have the same affection for the ROCKY movies so many fans of CREED seem to — to me, Rocky Balboa is less the draw than the friendship he forged with Apollo Creed over the course of the series. In that first ROCKY, Apollo is basically the villain, and the way he subsequently becomes Rocky’s brother-in-arms is what interests me most about the movies. It doesn’t always happen in life that a heated rival becomes a trusted friend, and to my eyes that’s as much the appeal as the victorious-underdog aspects of the franchise. We don’t get an appearance in CREED from Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, but what he brought to the movies is still present in Michael B. Jordan’s fierce likability (he even looks like the young Apollo Creed at times) and Sylvester Stallone’s familiar but adjusted-for-weight-of-age performance. This is a sequel that comes at the idea from a dynamic angle — the son of Rocky’s most legendary rival comes to him for training in the same sport that killed his father. Rocky sees he can’t stop Donnie and feels he owes it to Apollo to protect his kid. CREED is about a reluctant mentor and an angry, hurt, haunted hero. If we’ve seen that relationship on film before, it’s not often, and never this fresh. On top of that, Tessa Thompson’s “love interest” character Bianca provides such a real, warm, unpredictable, lovable, tangible presence — it’s rare for a male-dominated movie, rare for a franchise movie, rare for an American movie. I suspect the pleasure of revisiting CREED will be less to thrill in the mechanics of the boxing sequences — which are tremendous — but more to spend time with these characters again.
When I first moved to L.A., I got a job in an office building just off Santa Monica Boulevard, which I had to cross to get to work after parking my car in the lot across the street. Since it was a TV industry job, I came and went at all hours of the day and night, which means I got a crash-course in the environment of the neighborhood. This was two blocks from the Donut Time where so much of the action of TANGERINE takes place. So when I join the many voices praising TANGERINE for its sense of authenticity, it’s coming from some direct observation from the field. But I didn’t usually stop too long to talk to the many characters I encountered on Santa Monica Boulevard, and that’s the difference. TANGERINE brings the viewer into that world, by function of form (the film was famously shot on smartphones and favors dynamic close-ups and tracking shots) and by its vivid performances, most notably from Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Like its two lead characters, the movie explodes with energy. TANGERINE is exciting because it has real social value, making a marginalized culture spring beautifully to life and doing it not with melodrama but with recognizable relationships and a friendship that would win anybody over. All you have to do is look and listen.
I wrote more extensively about this movie when it hit Blu-Ray. The point I’d reiterate is that this isn’t a horror-Western. It really is a straight-ahead Western-Western. Westerns are a uniquely American genre whose usage tends to reflect the tenor of the times in which they were made. The stereotypical white-hat hero was never exactly a reality; pick up a history book or take a look at Deadwood. Westerns tell America what we’re thinking about ourselves — the more idealized Westerns of yesteryear are telling, as were the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as was the fact that the Western basically went away for a while, and so now is a movie like BONE TOMAHAWK, which is scary as all hell. Because that’s where we are today.
I saw this twice in theaters and wrote effusively about it elsewhere. If I’m being completely honest, it’s probably true that Michael Mann has made stronger movies than this one. But there’s still no filmmaker working today whose movies I’d rather watch — over and over.
Another one I wrote about before now. But I will keep writing about it in case it helps anybody new discover it. SPRING is a jewel. It’s not a monster movie that sort of has a love story in it. It’s a love story that sort of has a monster in it. Huge difference. Astonishingly rare thing. If this is the first you’re hearing about this one, please give it a look.
This is only seven minutes long, but it was more on my cinematic frequency than almost anything else this year, so I don’t know what all these prestige movies are doing running over the two-hour mark. This video has just about everything I need in a feature film — pretty ladies, freaky character actors, action, motion, color, scope, scary sexuality, dodgy morality, something to think about, something to tap my foot to while I’m doing it.
Because I saw it three times during its theatrical run and because I bought it on Blu-Ray months ago and still haven’t dared to watch it on a smaller screen. That’s how resolutely big-screen it is.
Because there’s no reason it should have been this terrific. It wasn’t an easy movie to get made, or an easy one to make, and it definitely wasn’t a sure thing box-office-wise.
But mostly because “Let them up!” is the final line of the movie for a reason that’s even bigger than movies.
This past week, Nitehawk Cinema hosted the latest Kevin Geeks Out show, focusing on Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces in movies. It was my great honor to be among the talented and hysterical presenters. I got the chance to talk about one of the greatest movie stars of the past century, as part of my mission to remind people of his greatness. The following is what I presented:
It feels like high time to remember what makes Burt Reynolds so important. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s he was the number-one movie star in the country for five years straight. For that reason, Burt’s story is part of America’s story. He met everybody. His memoir is loaded with many of the most famous people of the past century. His book is like Forrest Gump, if Forrest Gump was Burt Reynolds.
Why am I bringing up Burt Reynolds in a show about Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces? There are at least two big reasons, and I’ll get to them both. I’d argue that hair is a central theme of Burt’s stardom, and it’s also part of the reason we lost track of him.
For a good part of his career, Burt didn’t have his signature mustache. Here he is taking a bath in SAM WHISKEY from 1969. That same year, Burt grew a mustache for his role in 100 RIFLES opposite Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.
But one of Burt’s signature roles had nothing to do with the mustache. Here he is in DELIVERANCE from 1972. It’s a strong movie and Burt is a big part of what makes it that way. In an alternate universe, we can imagine, Burt continued on this hairless path.
Burt says he grew the mustache because he was tired of being compared to Marlon Brando. This is Burt from an episode of The Twilight Zone, early in his career, where he plays a sort of Brando type actor. In the book Burt tells a story about Brando cornering him at a party to accuse him of cashing in on the resemblance. Burt said, “I’m not having surgery because you don’t like the way I look. But I promise not to get fat.”
So, the mustache. This is the popular image of Burt Reynolds in people’s mind. At one time in American pop culture, a mustache was a symbol of maleness, of virility. Maybe it was a Teddy Roosevelt thing. But as time went on, and especially nowadays, the mustache seems to promise comedy.
That’s the catch-22: It’s partly because of the very sign of his legendary machismo that people stopped taking Burt Reynolds seriously.
And this is another reason. In 1972 Burt posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine. He did it right before DELIVERANCE made him a huge star. Burt did it for a laugh, but it worked against him. People didn’t get it.
As you can see from this poster for FUZZ, that photoshoot haunted his image.
Most people see Burt as a playboy, as a goofball. They don’t remember how good an actor he was, and how great a movie star he was.
This is Burt (on the far right) dancing at a party near Steve McQueen and his wife. It’s true that Burt Reynolds was always fun. It was part of his image.
Another thing about Burt Reynolds that makes him awesome, but that also works against him, is his openness and honesty. He called his own movies crap when they were crap, and even when they weren’t. He was never afraid to be the butt of the joke, but maybe people stopped noticing he was in on it.
Here’s another thing: In America, you can’t ever admit you wear a hairpiece. William Shatner is an example of a guy who didn’t hide it, and so he’s generally treated as a punchline.
Here’s a guy who never admits it.
As long as you never admit it isn’t real, you’re invincible.
Even when there’s relatively apparent visual proof that you’ve had work done on your hairline…
As long as you don’t admit it, you’re golden. The second you admit it, you’re Samson post-Delilah.
Burt says, “I’ve always been frank about my hair, because if you deny it, you’re fooling yourself. Everybody else will do jokes about it. It’s better if you do the jokes first.” And so he did. But I think it made people forget what an effective dramatic actor he was.
Fun story about Burt and the hairpiece: “One night at a bar in New York some idiot came over and made a crack about a “pelt on my head and I said, “If you can get it off before I beat the shit out of you, you can have it.”
Another admirable thing about Burt is his ability to make amazing friendships. He can be best pals with a guy who turned out to be as right-wing as Jon Voight…
And he can be as close as he was to Ossie Davis, who told Burt, “You’re the only actor in the world liked by both African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan.” For the record, Burt wasn’t interested in entertaining racists. If you watch his movies, his love for people shines through — regardless of their gender, race, or orientation. If it was a party, everybody was invited.
DELIVERANCE solidified Burt as a Southern-fried action star. He appeared – still without the mustache – in films like WHITE LIGHTNING…
…the latter of which also marked the start of his directing career.
One of Burt’s best and most famous movies, THE LONGEST YARD, shows what he can do without mustache power. It’s one of the greatest sports movies ever made.
Coming from the same director a year later, HUSTLE was a very underrated crime film. Guaranteed Michael Mann saw this one somewhere along the line.
Here’s Burt co-starring with Gene Hackman, one of the key actors in the New Hollywood. In this era, guys like De Niro and Pacino, Hoffman and Hackman, began to redefine naturalistic acting on film.
And just as American movies were getting more serious, Burt went the other way.
This is SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, the movie that was a colossal hit for Burt and his friend, the director and legendary stunt man Hal Needham.
While most highbrow critics don’t give any kind of attention to Hal Needham’s work, I think it’s very important, not least because of how it showcases the severely under-appreciated art of movie stunts.
HOOPER was maybe Hal Needham’s most personal movie, showing the life of a Hollywood stuntman. It’s great.
So is its Japanese poster.
Even amidst the popularity of all the Hal Needham movies, Burt continued to direct, and this is also the era where he buddied up with Dom DeLuise.
Burt and Dom together are magic, they’re infectious, you can’t not love watching them,
But they’re also clowns. Their movies together are live-action cartoons.
If all you know is THE CANNONBALL RUN, it’s very easy to lose sight of Burt’s dramatic talents.
When Burt makes a movie like this…
…It’s easier for cinematic tastemakers to forget that, the same year, he also made a movie like this.
SHARKY’S MACHINE is really worth seeing. I wish Burt’s career had continued with him directing more of this kind of melancholy, sleazy crime movie.
Burt made an Elmore Leonard adaptation before it became the in-thing to do.
There’s a better film out there going by the same name, but HEAT is still pretty special, a perfect showcase for Burt as a tough guy whose glory was beginning to fade.
Teaming him up with his old buddy Clint Eastwood, 1984’s CITY HEAT should have been a hit. It wasn’t.
I think the contrast between Clint and Burt at this stage of their careers is very telling. Both of them were stars who appealed to men as much as women. Both of them are better actors than most people recognize. Both of them directed. But only one of them became a mainstream Academy Award winning institution.
I love Clint, never get me wrong, but he would never let himself be the butt of the joke, the way Burt did so many times. Even in the movies he made with the orangutan, Clint was always the coolest guy in the room. In CITY HEAT, he calls Burt “Shorty.” The final line of the movie from Clint is, “You’ll always be Shorty to me.” And he gets the last word. [Clint is 6’4″, Burt is 5’11”.]
Notice who’s wearing the nice suit and who’s wearing the silly costume.
This is also the era when Burt became more famous for tabloids than for movies. For one thing, a facial injury he sustained on the set of CITY HEAT led to a rumor Burt had AIDS. If you remember the ‘eighties, there was a lot of spite and prejudice in a rumor like that.
This is also around the time Burt met Loni Anderson.
It isn’t like Burt wasn’t famous for his offscreen relationships before, but this was where it started to overshadow his onscreen work.
In his book, Burt isn’t mean about it, but he indicates he got swept up in the relationship in a way he wishes he hadn’t.
Guess that’s hard to say no to, no matter what your type is.
Burt says this was one of the happiest times of his life…
…but then also the worst.
Again, headlines like these are the primary basis of his celebrity in the late 1980s. By contrast, Clint was really taking off as a serious filmmaker, going from BIRD to UNFORGIVEN.
People see Loni Anderson, a blonde bombshell, and they probably make assumptions about her, and about Burt for being into her. But the loves of Burt’s life were girl-next-door types.
The chapter in the book on Burt’s regrets about it not working out with Sally Field is really affecting.
So real life got sadder, and then these were the kinds of movies Burt was getting. No offense to COP AND A HALF, but it’s no IN THE LINE OF FIRE.
In the ‘nineties, Burt went back to TV for Evening Shade, a show that had one of the greatest ensemble casts ever, but it was on CBS at a time when it wasn’t cool at all to be on CBS, assuming that time ever existed.
Then, towards the end of the decade, this came along.
By the time Burt gives his phenomenal half-dramatic/half-comedic performance in BOOGIE NIGHTS, nobody seemed to remember that’s what he’d been doing all along.
I think movie fans of my generation revere this movie and we revere Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in general. BOOGIE NIGHTS is a great American movie. But it was well publicized that Burt was uncomfortable with it. He’s still never seen it all the way through. Anderson went on to make several more great films, and Burt didn’t. This kind of stuff leads people to take sides, and most go with the brilliant auteur over the so-called has-been. But it’s not that simple.
For one thing, Burt was 62 when he made Boogie Nights. Paul Anderson was 27. Keep in mind Burt started acting back in the 1950s. Imagine you’re Burt and some kid is asking you to do and say some pretty damn out-there things. BOOGIE NIGHTS isn’t porn, but it’s sure got porn dialogue. Burt was the son of a police chief. He was raised to be a gentleman. He had valid reasons to be concerned about his image at this point in time. I don’t think Burt Reynolds is an uptight guy, but I also think it’s okay if he wasn’t too comfortable calling Julianne Moore a “foxy bitch.”
Burt was incredible in BOOGIE NIGHTS, but just about everything that came afterwards was underwhelming. THE DUKES OF HAZZARD was a movie based on an old TV show that was itself a rip-off of Smokey & the Bandit, and now Burt was getting novelty-cast in the Jackie Gleason role.
Don’t even get me started on what happened here.
So the full-on renaissance he deserved didn’t happen. Burt returned to Florida. He runs an acting school there now.
Can you imagine getting acting lessons from Burt Reynolds? That’s a movie right there.
Burt turned 80 this month. If I had to bet on any human being lasting past a hundred, it’d be him, but still.
Too often the critical re-evaluations come too late. I don’t think it’s too radical for me to suggest that the work of one of the most popular movie stars in history is worth another look.
Let’s not let a legend go under-remembered in his own time. And one last thing about the book: It not only has chapters remembering Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, and Frank Sinatra, but there’s also one dedicated to the horse Burt rode in the movie NAVAJO JOE. What’s better than that?
Hard as it is to believe, Burt Reynolds turned 80 today. Decided this year I’m making it a personal mission to remind everyone how awesome Burt Reynolds is. Last year Burt released his autobiography, written with Jon Winokur (who runs the very valuable Advice To Writers.) I’ve joked around about Burt’s autobiography being the last book I’ll ever need, but there’s a trace of truth to that statement. For a while there, as one of the hugest movie stars on the planet, Burt knew well or at least encountered some of the biggest bold names of the previous century. His book has chapters on both Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, to name just two, and I’m not sure what else a person would need to know before rushing out to buy and read this thing.
The book also has a chapter reserved for Donald Trump. Now, let’s be clear: Burt is far more civil towards Trump than I could ever be. To my eyes, as a native New Yorker having watched this character operate for years, Trump is a bully and a liar — in ways that are as provable and demonstrable as physics — and his apparent lack of self-awareness and self-recrimination makes him despicable. Again, Burt is far friendlier. But even the most generous comments about Trump are pretty damning. And in a calendar year where Donald Trump is improbably, insanely, a legitimately possible candidate for the Republican Party, I think it’s pretty telling (and quietly courageous) that while putting together an autobiography, summarizing a life that surely could have spanned several volumes, Burt went out of his way to set the record straight on Trump.
Their paths crossed in the early 1980s, when Burt became a minority owner in the Tampa Bay Bandits, a team in the fledgling and now long-defunct United States Football League. The Bandits were co-owned by a businessman named John Bassett. Trump bought a rival team, the New Jersey Generals.
So here’s Burt on the time Trump sank the USFL…
“There are always guys who come out of the woodwork and take everything they can get. Donald Trump was one such offender.”
“John and Donald were both rich kids but that’s where the similarity ended. Donald was born on third and thought he hit a triple.”
“In my opinion, it was Donald’s fault that the USFL didn’t survive.”
“Now don’t get me wrong. I like Donald. I hold on to my wallet when we shake hands, but I like him.”
“He was interested in only two things: money and publicity. John summed it up when he said Donald’s ‘ego transcended his business sense.'”
“Every time Donald runs for president, I pray he never gets the chance to do to the USA what he did to the USFL.”
For his part, and if you’d like to see the difference between a gentleman and a lout, here for contrast is the kind of thing Trump has said about Burt Reynolds.
If you think Trump is funny, if you think he’s smart, if you think he’s worth listening to, you really need to check yourself, immediately. It’s time to renounce any and all support for this goon, now or else go get a T-shirt printed up that reads “I aim to be a bad person too.” Ignorance of Trump’s record of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and ineptitude — let alone admiration for those same traits — is at this moment in American history a severe moral failing. Let’s toss this guy out with the trash, where he’s belonged all along.
And that said, I’m going to watch SHARKY’S MACHINE again. Thanks for reading. Buy Burt’s book. Be kind. Be good.
On Twitter: @jonnyabomb