Another year is almost used up, and I sit here contemplating the notion of thanks and gratitude. I’m thankful for the English muffin I just ate. My cat Ajax Panther has had his breakfast and is sleeping somewhere in the house. I’m grateful that I adopted him almost a decade ago, and I’m still jazzed by the fact that he was rescued at a concert at Anabel Taylor Hall. I’ve always wondered where he came from and who was on the bill at that show, but as cats can’t talk, there’s a lot I will never know about the Panther.
The beginning of the year was all about waiting for vaccinations, for not being out of the woods yet. Isolation brought on a lot of reading. Mark Harris is the best film writer I’ve read. Harris’s “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” examines the end of the studio system through the production of the five 1967 Best Picture nominees — “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.” This is superlative film journalism. It also offers fine biographical sketches of Sidney Poitier, Stanley Kramer, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Mike Nichols.
Harris’s new book, “Mike Nichols: A Life,” finishes the work begun with “Pictures’” impressions of the legendary comedian and director of theater and film. For those who have enjoyed Nichols' work over the years — movies like “Silkwood,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Birdcage” — but knew little about him, Harris’ book is packed with surprising and touching insights. You can study his films, but Harris really captures the vibrance and variety of his stage credits. I wish I could time-travel back to the mid-’60s when Nichols had four Broadway hits running simultaneously and see Walter Matthau and Art Carney in the original production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
Next up was Abraham Riesman’s “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee.” It’s always tough when the curtain is pulled back and one of your heroes has to stand in the sunlight with all their flaws. I grew up reading “Stan Lee’s Soapbox” in the ‘70s “Spider-Man” comix and looked forward to his cameos in all the MCU movies. Riesman is a tough and rigorous reporter who questions all of Stan’s stories and claims over the years, and it turns out he probably took credit for a lot of Marvel lore and made life difficult for many of the artists in the Marvel bullpen. As painful as it was reading about Lee’s reality, it’s important to print the truth and not the legend.
When I saw that the excellent “Fosse/Verdon” miniseries was based on a book by Sam Wasson, I picked up “Fosse.” Bob Fosse’s choreography had a snap, crackle and pop, and so does Wasson’s prose. He writes the way Fosse danced. I then picked up “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood,” Wasson’s chronicle of the making of the classic ‘70s detective movie “Chinatown”. Wasson is sympathetic yet tough regarding Roman Polanski’s sexual proclivities, and unearths a lot of lore that I hadn’t heard before. I thought I knew all there was to know about “Chinatown” but Wasson uncovered Robert Towne’s long-time writing partner, unmentioned by Towne until now. I’m always grateful for that level of reportage.
RIP Art LaFleur (“The Sandlot”, “The Santa Clause 2”)
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