Seat Open!

There are things in my life I am grateful happened to me.  I recognize they are somewhat absurd and out of the ordinary and, for that reason, I treasure them dearly.  One of those things is getting to be a seat filler at the 2003 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards.

You see, I worked at the USC television station as one of the nightly producers of a live talk show.  The producer of the SAG Awards, Jeff Margolis, always came on as a guest during awards season since the Shrine Auditorium where the SAGs were held is literally across the street from the campus TV studio.  As a kind gesture, Margolis extended the invite for three of us to work as seat fillers that year and I was one of the lucky people that got to attend.

I put on my old homecoming dress, my roommate did my hair in a fun updo, I made myself up, and I reported for duty a couple of hours before the show began.  While the nominees and celebrities filed down the red carpet, I entered through a side door and got instructions on what the gig entailed.  We were instructed to line up on the two sides of the auditorium and we would be directed to empty seats during the commercial breaks.  You were not to get up from your seat or go to a seat while the show was on or else it disrupted the shots of the audience.  Once in your seat, you were not to strike up conversation with the actual guests unless spoken to.  The other rule was no eating or drinking, as the seating was banquet style and there was a place setting at every seat.

My friend and I waited impatiently to see where we would end up as the attendees milled into their seats.  Shortly before showtime, we were both told to report to “The West Wing” table.  My friend took the seat reserved for Martin Sheen, while I was placed in the one for Stockard Channing.

“Oh my lord, Rizzo,” I whispered under my breath.

I expected to sit there silently, but the cast was quick to engage us, especially Bradley Whitford who not only bothered to get our names, but complimented us on how we looked that night.  This would be my friends seat for the entire night, as Sheen did not attend.  I vacated after Channing showed up after the first award and thanked a clearly shell-shocked me for keeping the chair warm for her.

I returned to the back of seat filler line.  When I got to the front again, I was dispatched to the “Chicago” table.  Richard Gere’s girlfriend Carey Lowell was off chatting with other folks, so I occupied her empty seat.

I wasn’t there long before Lowell returned with a friend, leaving absolutely no free seats at the table.  The problem was we were in the middle of the show—this was not a commercial break.  I stood up, aiming to make a break for the line, when I looked on the large screens and realized the camera was panning the audience.  Considering “Chicago” was the movie to beat that year, I was effectively in SAG Awards No Man’s Land.

I panicked and ducked behind a chair.  I heard a chuckle and turned around to see who at the Chicago table was laughing and what they were laughing at.

It was Queen Latifah. And she was laughing at me, squatting on the floor in an old homecoming dress from Contempo Casuals in the middle of the Shrine Auditorium.

I scanned the room unsure of what to do when I saw somebody waving from a nearby table.  It was a fellow seat filler, who gestured there was an empty seat at their table.  I eyed the screen and, once I saw the camera was back on the presenter, I dashed to the chair and flung myself in it, letting out an exhale of relief.

Then I looked up.

Oh. Hello Jack Nicholson.

I was at a table that combined the casts of “About Schmidt” with some miscellaneous nominees, including Julianne Moore who was being honored for “Far From Heaven” and Daniel Day-Lewis, who was there for “Gangs of New York.”  It was a pretty primo table located right near the front of the stage.  In fact, should you hunt down a video of the night, you can see my face as I laugh at poor Megan Mullally when she fell on the way to stage accepting her award.

The people at the table were very nice, attempted to entice me to drink, and kindly offered me the remnants of the bread basket.  Kathy Bates and Nicholson didn’t talk much, as they were clearly chatting and catching up most of the evening.  A few visitors stopped by the table.  Being a Southern snoop, I couldn’t help myself but eavesdrop at what Nicholson was saying to one such visitor.  He had less than flattering things to say about one of the more powerful people in Hollywood at the time.

I clearly didn’t hide my interest in the conversation well, as what happened next was one of the five scariest moments of my life.  Nicholson turns his head and sees I am listening.  He then takes his index finger and points it at me, not saying a word.

He didn’t need to say anything. I knew this was my lone warning that I could not say a word to a soul ever without this man going all “The Shining” on me.  So, I gave him an exaggerated shrug with a slight shake of the head as if to say, “Why Jack, I have no idea what you have been talking about and I would never, ever dream of repeating it even if I was on my deathbed and you were 30 years in the grave.”

This was the extent of my interactions with one of the most talented actors in movie history.  There weren’t even words, just gestures.  I almost think I would cherish the memory less if there was small talk or polite chatter.  It was a frank, honest moment that stands out above all in a night filled with glitz, glamour, and the Hollywood dream.

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Out of Tune at the Oscars

I think everything that can be said about this year’s Oscars ceremony is going to be said tonight and tomorrow.  I can sleep well knowing Seth MacFarlane is going to be deservedly ripped apart for one of the worst hosting performances in recent Oscar memory.  I certainly thought he was terrible.

Hatred for the host aside though, this was supposed to be an Oscar ceremony I could get behind.  When I heard this awards show had a theme and that theme was an ode to music and movies, I thought this would be right up my alley.  I am about as fervent a musical fan as you’re going to find, so paying tribute to them during the biggest awards show of the year amounted to lobbing a giant softball straight through the front window of my wheelhouse.

And yet.

There was a period of time in my life where I kind of fell out of love with the movies.  I didn’t see anything in the theaters that inspired me, the movies that were in vogue were of the genres and ilks of movies I just couldn’t get into, and I felt like I was at a disadvantage not being a 16 year old dude who loves comic books.

I kind of felt that way again tonight.  The sophomoric host and his moronic jokes, the presenters fresh off Avengers rehearsal, and the montage devoted to Bond girls and retro-style editing wipes and splashes all felt tailor made to appeal to young guys.  

The treatment of the musical was worst of all though.  If there is one thing it is typically difficult to market to 16 year old boys, it is the musical.  This is an old Hollywood genre whose best pictures most certainly came four or five decades ago. So, to see the Academy parade around MacFarlane as a song and dance man instead of Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra or last year’s solid Oscar host, Billy Crystal, was a knife to my heart.  Treating the mediocre “Chicago” as our generation’s “West Side Story” was a series of painful twists of that knife. And Russell Crowe’s brief crooning on stage amounted to someone taking that knife and meticulously removing my aorta.

There were a few shining moments.  I don’t think anyone can argue with the presence of Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand.  I even thought the Channing Tatum/Charlize Theron tribute to Fred and Ginger and the Gordon-Levitt/Radcliffe ode to Kelly and O’Connor were charming.  But the rest of this tribute to a genre I hold so near and dear to my heart was the most out of key component of a ceremony that tonally missed the mark on just about everything.

Thankfully, the winners made up for what the production team lacked.  Christoph Waltz’s surprise victory kicked off the awards with a bang and there were surprises throughout the night.  When Ang Lee took Best Director, I had a real “Oh shit” moment because, for the first time in years, Best Picture was seriously in doubt.

Lately I watched the Oscars because I was intrigued by the show and not the movies.  If this year is really the year that I have fully given in to being a cinephile again, it is only fitting that this year the only good thing about the Oscars wasn’t the show–it was the films the show was honoring.

On Colin Kaepernick, Adoption, and Swedish High Jumpers

I guess I should thank Rick Reilly for making the Super Bowl interesting for me this year.  This time last week, I didn’t much care who won.  This year felt more boring than usual, though I might be a touch grumpier that my darling Bungles blew their playoff chances over a month ago.

Then the ESPN columnist Reilly put out this gem.  The op-ed suggested that the 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick needed to meet his birth mother.  Kaepernick was adopted when he was five weeks old.  Based on information in the Reilly piece, it appears to not be an entirely closed adoption.  Kaepernick’s mother would send the birth mother pictures and updates, but the woman declined to participate in young Kaepernick’s life.

A short while back, she changed her tune.  To avoid sounding like a supreme cynic, I will try to avoid the dubiousness of a situation where a woman who previously stayed away from the child she gave up magically reappeared out of the woodwork when Colin displayed a level of football acumen that would likely translate into a lucrative NFL contract.  I won’t bring it up beyond this point because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that Rick Reilly’s piece is the most offensive piece of adoption-related tripe I’ve read in a decade.

Perhaps I should mention this key fact: I am adopted.  It is always a little funny when it comes up in conversation, as I will frequently have been friends with someone for several years before it gets mentioned in passing.  To me, it is nothing, but they will often be a little surprised. “You never told me.”  Some seem to feel like bad friends for not knowing. I think some may feel hurt they didn’t know sooner.  Honestly though, I have just never felt like it was something I needed to be up front about.  Moreover, it is difficult for it to come up in conversation. “See that woman in all these photos of me growing up over the years? I did not pop out of her birth canal.  Just thought you should know.”

Kaepernick is in a different boat than I am though.  As a mixed race person with white parents, it is pretty clear where he didn’t come from.  Reilly, who has an adopted daughter of Asian descent, is in a similar boat and he treated the situation differently than the Kaepernicks chose to handle it with Colin.  He encouraged his daughter to meet her birth parents when the opportunity arose.  He referred to the situation as “healing” for both her and him.  And this is why this poor misguided man decided to pen this op-ed and stick his nose where it does not belong.

I don’t doubt the Reilly family got a lot from his daughter meeting her biological mother, but here is the thing. Some of us don’t conceive of our adoption as something we need to “heal” from.  Perhaps it is the result of a remarkable ability to compartmentalize emotion or because we were simply raised in a household in which adoption was never considered a bad word or a big deal because we always knew where we came from, I actually don’t harbor any resentment towards my birth mother. In fact, I think of her giving me up as one of the more selfless acts of kindness a person has ever done for me.  Knowing she couldn’t provide the life she felt I deserved, she asked Catholic Services to find another Catholic family that could. And then I never heard from her again.

My sister is also adopted, from a different set of biological parents.   Unlike me, she has quite a bit of curiosity about her birth parents to the point of reaching out to Dr Phil or Oprah when casting calls come around.  My mother doesn’t take offense to this curiosity (though our terrifyingly introverted mom does take offense to the thought of being on TV and has repeatedly said if Debbie gets chosen for a show, she will be going it alone), she and my dad were told by social workers this curiosity was normal and to be expected.

Perhaps that is why Reilly is so shocked that Kaepernick does not have this curiosity, especially when he looks so visually different from his parents.  What Reilly missed in those meetings is that there is another perfectly normal reaction children in relatively closed adoptions have to their birth parents: complete indifference.

I am completely indifferent about my birth parents.   That is not to say I didn’t daydream about them a little in my youth.  I knew a few key pieces of information about them, most notably that my birth father is Swedish, as in likely still lives in Sweden.  With that information in mind, I became the most fervent six year old American fan of Patrik Sjöberg to ever live. 

In the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Sjöberg earned bronze in the high jump event after taking silver the previous Olympics.  To date, he still actually holds some high jumping records as he is one of the few in the sport to never test positive for PEDs (this wouldn’t be a Super Bowl post without a mention of PEDs, am I right?).  Watching this Swedish man with long blonde locks lithely sprint and leap on TV, young me became wholly convinced this was my biological father.  I was devastated when he didn’t win gold and it was about as personally connected as I’ve ever felt to the idea of my birth parents.

Since then, the idea of meeting them has just lost importance to me. I once considered pursuing a search for them for purely selfish reasons.  If I could ever identify my birth father, I would qualify for dual citizenship, something that would have been very beneficial in my career field at the time.  The reality of the situation kept me from pursuing it though.  More than likely, this man does not even know I exist.  My adoption was held up almost six weeks in courts trying to relinquish paternal rights. This sort of thing is normally only done when the biological father can’t be found and notified, leading us to believe I was very likely the byproduct of a one-night stand.

In this context, it might make more sense as to why I feel more attached to a Swedish high jumper than the idea of my actual birth father.  This is a person who doesn’t even know about me.  He doesn’t wonder what happened to me or what I am up to these days.  I am not even a part of his subconscious, let alone his actual life.  So, the thought of trying to falsely construct some sort of relationship with this person thirty years later sounds like more trouble than it is worth to me.

Reading about Kaepernick, it sounds like his birth was not the product of a loving relationship either.  I am purely speculating here, but his biological father did exit the picture very early on that it does seem somewhat possible he never knew about Colin either.  So, the more I read about this person, the more I grew to like him, because he seemed like the kind of role model for adopted kids I felt was missing in my life.

Then Kaepernick dropped this quotation in response to a probing question about why he doesn’t have any interest in meeting his birth mother:

“Is that how you feel?” I asked Kaepernick on Tuesday at Super Bowl media day. “That it would be disrespectful to meet with your birth mother?”

“No,” Kaepernick said. “It’s not really a respect thing. It’s just – that’s my family. That’s it.”

“But aren’t you curious?”

“No.”

It was at this very moment that I became a San Francisco 49ers fan and, more importantly, a Colin Kaepernick fan.  He dismantles all the crap Reilly tries to drum up over a couple thousand words in 15 words. Hell, he really gets at the meat at it with just three.

“That’s my family.”

I’m grateful for my birth mother taking responsibility and seeing that I got a chance at a good life. I’m grateful for the Swedish high jumper making my childhood imaginations a little more lively and have a lot more international flair. But the person I pick up the phone to call when good and bad things happen to me or when I just want someone who understands me to listen is my mom.  And the man I pine for every day and wish was here and a part of my life is not a random Scandi, he is the man who died 21 years ago after taking care of me for the first nine years of my life. These are my parents. There is no gray area here.

That woman and man who physically created me are great, I’m sure, and I would probably be willing to sit down with them if they came out of the woodwork someday.  However, they aren’t my parents and to label them with that word is disrespectful, but not in the way that Reilly thinks it is.  It is disrespectful to all parents who define their relationship with their children not by the fact they physically birthed them or share DNA, but by the days of teaching them to ride bikes, learn the alphabet, differentiate between right and wrong, and the process of raising them to be good, righteous people.  These are the accomplishments of parents, the rest is just the nine month preamble.

Revisiting the Resolution: Part Three

This project is starting to get tricky.  I am very quickly exhausting my list of easy to access flicks, meaning there is a certain amount of searching and spending to cross things off going forward.

Bright side? TCM’s 31 Days of Oscars began on Friday and 14 of the movies on my list will be airing this month.  South Point also shows classic movies every Wednesday and have been showing some of interest to me, that I am still not out of easy to find options just yet.  Plus, even if I was, with seven more movies ticked off the list this week, the original field of 116 is already down to 88.  Considering the goal is 50, I’m still well on pace and could even take a week or two off and still finish by the fall.

And with that, this week’s selections:

Red River

Okay, technically this was last week and I just forgot about it.  Not my favorite story I’ve seen, but the performances from John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan are uniformly quite good.  I will give that this Western does have an almost biblical or allegorical feel to it about the relationship between fathers and sons.  Perhaps because this is a relationship I don’t really have a lot of personal connection to, this movie didn’t leave a lasting impression with me–as indicated by the fact I couldn’t remember seven days later that I even watched it.

Twelve O’Clock High

I expected to like this war movie highlighting the brotherhood and camaraderie of American Air Force pilots in England during WW2, but this very long film was short on action and long on exposition.  Gregory Peck is wonderful as the inspirational commander of the squad, but it just felt like the movie tread over the same beats without advancing the plot or even raising the stakes that I found myself struggling to stay involved.

Lost Horizon

If there is an award for least Capra-esque Frank Capra film, I am pretty sure this movie about a magical place of eternal youth is it.  Felt decidedly different from your standard little man bucks the system films Capra made his name on, but I still found myself enjoying it for what it was.

Here is the other funny thing about this movie, which was made before Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World was published (be warned there are some minor spoilers coming): there is no downside to the utopian Shangri-La.  The characters are dubious and skeptical about the motives of this mountain paradise, but they all prove to be unfounded. This place is perfect and they are just looking for reasons to ruin it.  In fact, the characters who express the most doubt are punished by taking actions that lead to their death.  I kept waiting for them to be right, as I am so conditioned by the fleet of Brave New World-esque dystopias to always suspect things can’t be that great, that there is something wrong or somehow the utopia will get corrupted. This one doesn’t though and, in that way, it does inhibit the Capra-esque sense of optimism that perfection in the world is possible, so long as your cynicism doesn’t get in the way.

She Done Him Wrong

This makes me a bad film historian, but I will just admit this right here and now: I do not understand the Mae West thing. Was she just the first bawdy broad to market this kind of persona? Because she isn’t a particularly adept singer or actress, her presence seems much better suited for the stage than film (you can see her “cheating out” as the theater geeks call it, adopting a very presentational posture on camera), and I don’t buy for a minute that a woman like this would charm the dapper and darling Cary Grant.  Like Harold and Maude, I think She Done Him Wrong helps me appreciate what Mae West contributed to comedy, females in comedy, and broadening the scope of how women were depicted in movies, it just doesn’t make me appreciate the movie.

The Phantom of the Opera

The notion of a silent film centered around music struck me as a not so compelling idea, and, have to say, this movie was not so compelling.  Perhaps it is because I am so enamored with the musical, I found this film wanting. I also found myself saying “This is the part where Christine would sing ‘Think of Me’, that is, if there were sound.”

I will say the audio mix on this version was well done. When women sang on screen, someone sang on the soundtrack.  It made for an unusual but interesting viewing experience.  Lon Chaney’s make up as the disfigured Phantom was impressive, even more so when you consider he applied it himself. In the end though, this is one of the weaker silent flicks I’ve encountered in this project.

Touch of Evil

This is one of those movies you need to see in order to have “film school street cred.”  Instead of touting “Citizen Kane” as your Orson Welles film of choice, you’re supposed to say this one.  There are things about this film to love. The opening three-minute tracking shot is amazing.  The cinematography is captivating and so unlike the prevalent style of the error.  Janet Leigh gives a great performance.  But there are other not so admirable qualities of this movie.  Like Charlton Heston trying to credibly play a Mexican. I’m not a big noir fan.  I found the pulpy story to be relatively predictable and uninteresting, but the high marks for mis-en-scene made this movie worthwhile for me.  I am still going to be that person who cites “Citizen Kane” as my preferred Orson Welles flick (though I thoroughly enjoyed the lesser known The Stranger as well) though. But I didn’t have film school street cred to begin with, so this should surprise no one.

Cat Ballou

For the past two days, I have been quietly humming this everywhere I go:

In a device that childhood me always assumed was created by the animated Disney film “Robin Hood” and its oodelollying rooster, these two songsters narrate the film using music.  It is one of a number of quirky things about this comedy Western starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin.  Tonally I don’t know how to describe it, except as perhaps a precursor for Blazing Saddles and the movies of Mel Brooks, toying with genre to generate laughs.

My “Oh How Things Have Changed Moment” came in this movie when (SPOILER ALERT) Marvin’s character finally manages to clean himself up and sober up after years of slobbery drunkenness.  He puts himself together with the help of Cat and her team of bandits and starts to be a glimpse of his former glorious self.  Then, he unceremoniously falls off the wagon and his return to staggering intoxication is milked for laughs.  I admit I chuckled at his relapse, which suggested he would remain this drunken stooge forever, but it did get me thinking that the “affable fall down drunk sobering up only to immediately go back to an alcoholic haze cause, hey, what is really wrong with that?” storyline is not one you really see in contemporary film these days.

Cat Ballou was the real delight of the week for me.  A unique film that I can genuinely say I have never seen the likes of in my years of movie watching.