Carl Reiner, 1922-2020


For my eleventh birthday, all I wanted was a Carl Reiner movie. A little more than a year after the release of The Jerk, Reiner’s sixth film as a director and his first of four straight starring Steve Martin, the comedy was making its debut on HBO and I was desperate to see it. It was rated R, so I needed to ask permission to watch it, but I got my longed-for gift. The main draw was Martin — my youthful fandom for him was fervent — but I also knew, improbably, about Reiner’s involvement, thanks to my weird devotion to watching daytime celebrity talk shows that regularly included Reiner as a member of the old guard comedy elite. And I spent almost every day watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, attuned to the fact that it sprung from Reiner’s mind, in part because he occasionally showed up in the program, pugnaciously playing Alan Brady, the television star who employed the character played by the comic actor who gave the show its title. As I was first formulating the idea that the best comedy came from consistent, distinctive voices, Reiner’s voice was one of the first I heard and recognized.

A writer on the classic Your Show of Shows, Reiner didn’t start his career by creating his sitcom avatar Rob Petrie, but that’s arguably where his skill as a deceptively elegant innovator was first and most potently on display. I think it’s fair to say Reiner invented the modern sitcom, moving it away from the farcical floundering of the nineteen-fifties iteration of the form that was still deeply beholden to vaudevillian antics. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a workplace comedy, a warm family comedy, and mildly self-effacing showbiz satire all in one, developing enough distinctive characters that the jokes flowed seemingly organically from simply introducing a mild dilemma into the environment on a weekly basis and letting the figures on screen react according to their solidly established predilections. This is the mouth of the river that still feeds the best television comedy today.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how generous Reiner was in his approach to comedy. He was the straight man to his lifelong friend Mel Brooks in their famed and everlasting 2000 Year Old Man routine (which even snagged the duo a place on their beloved Jeopardy!), he based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own life but clearly tailored it to the loose-limbed talents of his star, and made films that were dedicated showcases to the performers he cast. Among the films, none were more effective than the four outings with Martin, culminating in All of Me, released in 1984, which contains, in Martin’s partially possessed lawyer, one of the all-time great comedy performances projected onto the big screen. Reiner was even an early and persistent champion of Albert Brooks, telling anyone who’d listen, “The funniest person I know is my son’s friend,” back when Brooks was just another kid palling already with teenaged Rob Reiner. When Brooks made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, Carl Reiner was guest-hosting. Like all the most admirable funny people, Reiner was most committed to finding and celebrating others who made him laugh.

In his old age, Reiner remained fully engaged with the world around him, taking a knee or proudly donning a t-shirt to proclaim solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and generally pushing back with all his might against the corrosive liars wreaking havoc in leadership positions they gained through dubious means. He put the lie to the notion that people atrophy as they age, their ideas and outlooks turning to stone as if under Medusa’s gaze. He lived his principles to the very end, engaging his fellow global citizens with kindness, understanding, and heart.

carl reiner

Stan Lee, 1922 – 2018


When I started reading superhero comic books with a fierce devotion, nearly every issue I purchased had the same phrase on the opening page: “STAN LEE PRESENTS.” Stan Lee wasn’t writing many comics by the time I was plunking down my nickels to get the latest installments of altruistic Marvel Comics titans grappling with evildoers to serve and protect the citizenry, nor was he much involved with the day to day of the publishing, having long since ceded editorial responsibilities to eager creative professionals who grew up deeply enamored of the sprawling, interconnected story that truly got underway with Fantastic Four #1, in 1961. But I quickly learned to cherish that promise of distant authorship in the regular credit. The comics may not have held his words any longer, and there were some disputes about how many of the company’s many character could really be viewed as products of his personal invention. I don’t think there’s much doubt — or there wasn’t much for me — that his everlasting spirit defined these rocket blast stories that were colorful, bombastic, and yet grounded in immediately recognizable human behaviors.

Recruited into the company that would become the House of Ideas as a young man, the scribe born Stanley Martin Lieber was one of the rare people who genuinely changed everything about a form of media and, as the influence of the characters he co-created continues to spread, arguably at least a second. The lore holds that Lee was deep into his tenure as a comic book creator — in an era when that didn’t stir a whit of respect — and lamenting his frustrated ambitions, pining for dwindling dreams of typing out the Great American, when his wife, Joan, challenged him. If he was so unfulfilled, write the story he wanted to see in comic book form. The thrown gauntlet roughly converged with his boss’s instruction to take a stab at reviving the discarded superhero part of the line, inspired by the surprising success of DC Comics’ surprise hit Justice League of America.

Working with kingly artist Jack Kirby, Lee co-created The Fantastic Four, a squabbling family of pulchritudinously powered figures who broke all sorts of rules about how superhero character were supposed to work. The innovation the best represents Lee, though, arrived on the third issue, which boasted Fantastic Four was “THE GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD!” Revised one issue later to “THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE!,” the howling hyperbole was emblazoned across the title with sincerity for decades to come. Lee was a writer, but he was mostly a showman, enthusing about the comics he created (or created under his imprimatur) with the breathless enthusiasm of the truest of believers. In his rendering, Marvel Comics itself was a character, populated by craftspeople with chummy nicknames and genially squabbling personalities. Every story was promised to be the most thrilling ever witness, every ending a jaw-dropper. The comics on which he was credited as a writer were terrific, but the parallel epic of artisans wrestling miracles out of their pencils were perhaps even more accomplished. To a degree, the comics were fun because Lee convinced us they were.

And Lee admirably used his prominence to advocate for causes on the correct side of history. There was a clear liberal mindset to Lee’s storytelling — exemplified by the civil rights corollary found in the pages of X-Men — but it was quite another think to devote a monthly column ostensibly meant for little more than brisk promotion to directly challenging bigotry and the erosion of respectful discourse.

stans soapbox

Digging deep into Lee’s legacy unearths some controversy, particularly around creators’ rights, long a blemish on the comics industry. Although he advocated publicly and passionately for creators, Lee often didn’t do much for them in his many positions of power. It’s an open debate as to whether it’s better or worse that his inaction seemed motivated by obliviousness rather than malice. By most accounts of Marcel’s rise, Lee didn’t understand that his huckster charm had it’s limits, that those left out of the bounty he was raking in might be resentful about their emptier pockets.

Whatever his flaws, Lee was an effusive champion of the zippy comic stories that shaped me and helped define my sensibility as a cultural consumer. He didn’t just help concoct the worlds I loved, he told the world he loved them, too. Even when I saw that enthusiasm as pure salesmanship, it still made me feel validated, like it was a noble calling to be a true believer.

Aretha Franklin, 1942 – 2018


From now on, I don’t want you listenin’ to Guns N’ Roses an’ The Soup Dragons. I want a strict diet of James Brown for the growls, Otis Redding for the moans, Smokey Robinson for the whines, and Aretha for the whole lot put together.

The Commitments (1991), screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle

For me, there always was Aretha Franklin. I was too young to experience the astonishment of her emergence, this dynamo with a singing voice that could topple structures and sturdy men. The icon was already in place, the inarguable legend already burnished and permanent. “Respect” was her song, not something she’d taken away from Otis Redding. Never mind that he recorded it first. Never mind that he wrote it. Never mind that he was one of the greatest soul singers of all time. His version sounded like an ill-advised cover. I mean no disrespect to Redding in that observation. Famously, he knew it, too.

Franklin grew up singing gospel songs, and she brought the authority of the pulpit to whatever she sang. She dipped into pop, blues, jazz, R&B, always with elegance and certainty. Even a drab disco pander got an unmistakable jolt of life if Franklin was at the microphone. I’ve no idea if she gave her all in every performance. Her skill and talent were so beyond measure that a sliver of it exceeded what practically every other singer had to give.

The hit singles and shiny awards can be tallied up, but those are incidental. Franklin was nothing less than the voice of her time, operating with an elusive alchemy that channeled the nation’s prosperity and tumult into her performances, into her very presence. She was our vocalist laureate. She was one of those tapped to sing at Martin Luther King’s funeral, then returned to the same song decades later, on the occasion of the dedication of the Washington memorial to the great man. The power of her voice was diminished not one iota. When she sang one of her most famous songs at the Kennedy Center Honors, paying tribute to honors recipient Carole King, Franklin famous moved President Barack Obama to tears, a feat that brought her great satisfaction. “The cool cat wept!” she told The New Yorker‘s David Remnick. “I loved that.”

For the same article, Obama reflected on precisely why Franklin was so special, why the live rendering of a single song could stir such deep emotions.

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” Obama said. “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”

The history wells up because Franklin lived it, not in the presence of famous moments, but in experiencing the contradictions that define the nation. She was deeply guarded about her personal life and yet an impeccably forthright performer, giving the impression that her emotions were ladled into every note. She was generous, but firmly committed to taking — and keeping — what was hers. She was confident of her earned place of reverence in the culture, but alert to every slight. She even embodied the intermingling of capitalism and religion that is the truest lifeblood of the country. The church largely defined Franklin’s being, but she was merciless in commerce, insisting on advance cash payments and rarely letting the money evade her gaze during performances. Stuffed with bills, her purse was often brought on stage.

Franklin was everything we are, in all our messiness and glory, flaws and beauty. She was the whole lot put together.

Harlan Ellison, 1934 – 2018


When he was interviewed on British television in 1976, this is how Harlan Ellison was introduced by journalist Mavis Nicholson, after she said, “I will explain to viewers what your publicists have told me about you”:

You were born in Cleveland, Ohio. You’ve been a lumberjack, a fisherman, a crop picker, a hired gunman, a truck driver, a cook, a salesman, an actor, editor, writer of novels, short stories, and screenplays. And apparently you’re also a generalized, all-around gadfly to the establishment. What’s more, say your publicists, you’re five-foot-five-inches, blue-eyed, dark, and have an explosive personality, a devastating wit, and a sort of almost frightening articulacy.

As this litany is recited — putting Ellison in a rare state of patient silence — the man watches with a variety of reactions flickering across his face: amusement, skepticism, quiet assent. By the end, there’s the familiar stoking furnace of animosity behind his eyes. After a comic aside (“I wonder how they omitted mentioning that I was responsible for World War II”), Ellison provides his own biography. “I see myself as a writer,” he says. “I’m a professional liar.”

In Nicholson’s introduction, the word that must have rankled the most was “gadfly.” A few years later, in the opening essay of his collection Shatterday, Ellison writes: “Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous, when the right magazines publish your work and you don’t have to seek out obscure publications as home for the really mean stuff, when they ask you to come and discuss matters of import with the ‘celebrities’ on the Johnny Carson Show.”

The notion of Ellison sapped of all his danger is ludicrous. A fiery soul with a voluminous vocabulary, Ellison was unyielding in combat, quick to be triggered and drawing evident satisfaction from the authority of purpose he brought to any intellectual tangle. By at least one accounting, Ellison had over 1700 short stories to his name, along with a towering assortment of other writing, including novels and novellas, screenplays, comic book stories, and essays of all sorts. He was equally prolific in conversation, his turbine brain dispensing perfectly articulated assertions, counterarguments, iron-clad justifications, and insults that were simultaneously devastating and infused with a challenging camaraderie. In a 2008 interview for The Onion AV Club, conducted by Tasha Robinson, Ellison’s verbal largesse necessitated two installments. His answer to the first, very simple question (asking his impression of a recent documentary about him) ran to nearly 1500 words all on its own.

And Ellison knew how to wield words like few others. Spinning fictions mostly from fantastical imaginings, he rapped out sentences that were master classes in shaping language for maximum impact. And his words had edges, like rusty razors. He wrote to confront, not to soothe. He took it as a noble calling. In the same Shatterday essay I cribbed from above, Ellison addresses this tendency directly, sharing his preferred rejoinder any time someone lobbed the aghast accusation “You only said that to shock!” Ellison writes:

My response is always the same:

“You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerilla warfare, I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin…but for the time it takes to read these stories I merely have the mouth. You see before you a child who never grew up, who does not know it’s socially unacceptable to ask, ‘Who farted?”

Embedded in that manifesto of proud demolition of cultural niceties is a underappreciated truth about Ellison. Despite the perpetually blooming cantankerous bearing that defined his place in the solar system, Ellison was deep down a humanist. Granted, he had a high, exacting standard for which humans were deserving of his precious attention, and he rendered judgment with a comet’s speed. He had no truck for stupidity — surely believing it to be the ultimate betrayal of the limitless possibilities of a mind equipped to expand through vigorous education. (Likely the most enduring quote in the well-stocked Ellison canon will be: “You are not entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion. If you are not informed on the subject, then your opinion counts for nothing.”) Yet his fiction is made sturdier by his evident sympathy, even when he is obligated to play the role of cold overlord and send his characters somersaulting into dismay.

It’s simply that Ellison’s version of humanism doesn’t regress into dewy-eyed, blandly accepting wonderment. Ellison instead meets humanity on its own messy terms, accepting and admiring the infinite complexities. In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, expounding on his dismissal of those who claim to “have a relationship with God,” Ellison notes that his brand of atheism is partially fueled by a rejection of the way a belief in a higher power diminishes the uncommon marvel of the individual, undermining personal accountability and foolishly rejecting our capability for self-invention. He says:

I think it is presumptuous, and I think it is silly. Because it makes you believe that you are less that what you can be. As long as you can blame everything on some unseen deity, you don’t ever have to be responsible for your own behavior. And I think that is the ultimate mark of humanity. We were given, in our toolbox, tools to build ethics, courage, kindness, friendship, ratiocination — the ability to think, to work problems out logically — dreams, imagination, things that make us want to go to the stars …. We want to make ourselves better.

Ellison’s scraps and diatribes were endlessly entertaining, but I’ll ultimately remember him more for his enthusiasms, be it collecting with care the stories of those he admired or the clear satisfaction he took with swinging at philosophical questions large and small with the lead pipe of reason. He made the most of his time on this plane, living with an uncommon zest. Ellison hurled his mind at the universe and gave the rest of us the gift of witnessing the resulting nova.

From the Archive — My Writers: Anthony Bourdain


I occasionally write remembrances of famed individuals after they die, if the performer or writer of figure of some other note held a certain significance for me. Anthony Bourdain qualifies, mightily, and yet I’ve struggled with the idea of alchemizing my thoughts into words on a digital page. This is partially attributable to the shock of his death. Also, I’ve encountered so many others with far better stories to tell (or at least capability to summarize the importance of his most recent work with admirable succinctness). I feel I have so little of worth to add, especially since I would largely be reiterating what I wrote about him in the “My Writers” series, a post that went up exactly two years ago tomorrow. But I also feel compelled to not let the moment fully past without sharing. For the record, this is the passage of Kitchen Confidential that relates to the opening line:


It’s a small matter, far less important or profound that any of the stories I link to above. This passage relates to the directness and clarity of Bourdain as a writer, qualities he never relinquished, even when he employed more muscular, heated, and complicated language, often in the name of ferocious explications of injustice. He was a good person, and he relentlessly worked to be yet better, a growing process that he willingly experienced in a very public fashion.

Anyway, this is what I once wrote. It is woefully inadequate as a celebration and commemoration of his complicated contribution to the greater culture, but it’s what I have today.

I own a Global kitchen knife because of Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential, originally published in 2000, was one of those rare books that became a sensation, stirring up interest among a wide range of readers, most of them charged up by the sense they were receiving a glimpse of something wonderfully secretive about the restaurant industry. At the time, Bourdain was the head chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, but he was also an accomplished enough writer that he had a couple food-themed crime novels under his belt. Kitchen Confidential was his coming out as a nonfiction writer, providing a memoirish examination of the hardscrabble romanticism of a life in professional kitchens interspersed with some gut-level philosophizing over what was and wasn’t legit in the booming foodie and celebrity chef cultures. His disdain over the mush that emanates from a garlic press caused me to drive that tool out of our household kitchen, and his discussion of kitchen knives, insisting the gauntlets toted in black cloth bags by many chefs were entirely unnecessary when one good, sharp blade of Japanese steel would do for the vast majority of tasks, was enough to make us seek out one of offering of his suggested brand. That Global knife still resides in our kitchen, getting use most every night.

The success of Kitchen Confidential changed everything for Bourdain, most notably precipitating a television career that’s nabbed him a load of Emmy nominations and two of the actual trophies, not to mention leading to his current status as a near-savior of CNN. It also led to him (or essentially him) being played by Bradley Cooper. Bourdain also became a favorite interview subject, which often involved others trying to provoke him into reviving his withering commentary on other famous culinary figures, particularly those drawing some sort of paycheck from Food Network, a favorite early target. He played along for awhile before eventually starting to demure, partially out of a recognition that he was unmistakably joining their celebrity ranks, but also as an extension of the pointed thoughtfulness that informed his writing in the first place. Now that he was no longer the anonymous loudmouth in the back tossing out invective, he had a clear instinct to be properly informed in his assessments, thus he had an episode of one of his shows in which he sat with former target Emeril Lagasse, ate his food, and tried to understand the man who he once reduced to a clown spouting catch phrases. Not only did Bourdain acknowledge the skill of the fare put before him, he grew fascinated and impressed enough with this former adversary to write him a scene of high dignity in HBO’s Treme.

It’s that level of intellectual integrity that keeps me coming back to Bourdain’s words, whether on the page or for his shows, for which he’s usually the sole credited writer. There’s consistently great material in the collection The Nasty Bits, much of it openly wrestling with the misgivings Bourdain has about his elevated stature or the conflicted feelings he has when a place, a person, or a plate of food challenges his firmly-held preconceptions. He’s an opinionated person who allows himself to be convinced otherwise, at least if the about face is earned. (Granted, by his own accounting he’ll just cave sometimes, as when he claimed he softened his stance on Rachael Ray because she sent him a fruit basket.) Sometimes that can lead him down an unfortunate avenue, as with his unapologetic championing of The Taste, the cooking competition show he co-produced and co-hosted which was as shammy and contrived as any food television program not involved manufactured drama over the baking and decoration of cakes. Overall, though, the quality of openness to different viewpoints and experiences makes his writing and commentary smarter and better. And seriously, that Global knife is fantastic.

John Mahoney, 1940 – 2018

john mahoney
From Steppenwolf, Mahoney’s chief theatrical home, this past fall.

There’s a moment in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink that I’ve treasured since I first saw it. In the scene, John Mahoney plays W.P. Mayhew, a character seemingly modeled on William Faulkner (though the Coens deny this). Mayhew is speaking to the titular character, a intense playwright who has come to Hollywood and is struggling as he tries to remain uncompromising about his political agitprop artistic vision. Mayhew, a seasoned compromiser within the entertainment machine who is precariously taking on an impromptu mentorship role, listens to Fink expound on his process.

“I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain,” Fink seethes. “Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man to help somehow ease the suffering. Maybe it’s personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”

Mahoney’s Mayhew looks at the young man who’s just delivered a verbal manifesto. He offers an amused rejoinder.

“Hmm. Well, me, I just enjoy making things up.”

The line is delivered with gentle perfection, manifesting the same disarming ease with authenticity that Mahoney brought to every role. He was the consummate character actor, a man who gladly subsumed himself into the character, less through tricks of physical disguise than a clear vision for plumbing the deepest being of a person. He had a crack comic timing, probably best seen on the TV series Frasier (where he wound up being underappreciated by the awards community because he operated as the counterbalance to David Hyde Pierce’s inspired fussiness as Dr. Niles Crane), but his most valuable quality as an actor was the obvious pleasure he took in exploring, in giving his all no matter the size of the part.

Wonderful as Mahoney was when he stepped in front of a camera, there’s little doubt his abiding love for working on stage. (I recall John Lithgow once noting he agreed to sign on to 3rd Rock from the Sun because Mahoney, then a couple years into Frasier, told him that working on a three-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live audience was like getting to do a new play every week.) He joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble in 1979, appearing in dozens of productions there, and won a Tony Award in 1986. The devotion to theater, which included a play at Steppenwolf in the fall, strikes me as a the purest expression of Mahoney’s love for his chosen craft.

And I consider myself lucky that I once got to see him on stage, playing Sheridan Whiteside in a Steppenwolf production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, very nearly twenty years ago. I don’t remember many of the particulars, but I feel a great sense of warmth — a fierce affection — when I think of Mahoney up there, taking great pleasure in the give-and-take between performer and audience, extracting every buoyant joy in a crowd-pleasing show selected as showcase for him (this was right in the heart of that long Frasier run). It was a terrific performance that remained committed to the world of the play while also slyly signaling that this acting thing — this identity alchemy required when building a theatrical fiction — was grand fun.

It’s enjoyable, you see, to just make things up. Blessedly, it’s equally enjoyable to watch it done by those who are unassumingly masterful at it.

Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017


For me, Tom Petty’s career was a recurring invitation of rediscovery. The Florida native delivered his first album with the Heartbreakers in 1976, which put him right on the cusp of artists who, in my perception, had simply always been there. There was a rustic sound to his music and a plainspoken grace to his lyrics, an implicit embrace of Americana in all its slump-shouldered contradictions. By the time my churlishly swirling music tastes evolved into a uncompromising embrace of college rock and the requisite parallel dismissal of longstanding artists who’d enjoyed significant commercial success, Petty was enough of a mainstay that he seemed exactly the sort of performer who I should dismiss.

But then came Full Moon Fever — technically Petty’s first solo album — and it completely rejuvenated my appreciation for the performer’s sterling songwriting skills. My college radio station had a greater tolerance for mainstream music than most, but we were edging away from it. The quality of Full Moon Fever was undeniable. Though there was a widespread disinclination among my peers to play an artist being thoroughly celebrated elsewhere, we allotted that album generous airtime.

A few years later, Petty was again moving into the realm of afterthought for me, even after another exceptional solo record, the Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers. Then I saw — of all things — the Edward Burns movie She’s the One. The film is terrible, but Petty provided a batch of songs for it. Right from the opening credits, Petty’s keening voice over a smooth, rich musical melody, I sat in my seat marveling at how good his songs sounded reverberating out of the theater sound system.

There was something about Petty’s very demeanor — genial, easy-going, casually amused by his own celebrity — that made him more approachable than other rock stars of his era. His songwriting didn’t ripple with evident deep personal revelation, anguished cries of angst and rebellion. But they still seemed clearly, unmistakably an expression of him, of who he was and what he believed. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp, Petty never seemed to be engaged in a pointed political treatise about the American experience. He just laid it out there, with shrugging honesty. And his crooked-grin charm fit everywhere, from the meta-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to the bonkers Kevin Costner drama The Postman, in which Petty seemed to be essentially playing himself, albeit a version of himself living in a arid dystopian future. His eternal just-happy-to-be-here vibe was somehow always the right match.

If his celebrity presence offer rampant pleasures, it was his songwriting that made him one of the greats. A few years back, the Onion AV Club ran an article listing off the fantastic opening lyrics Petty could spin up, seemingly as naturally as breathing. It might be possible in the vast reaches of rock ‘n’ roll to find a better song-starting couplet than “Well, she was an American girl/ Raised on promises,” but a dedicated fan would need to listen far and wide to do so.

In his recent Netflix stand-up special, comedian Marc Maron posits that Tom Petty is the one topic that angrily disparate people can agree upon in our increasingly stratified political era. No matter how heated the dispute, the fragile safe space that can be found is a hearty agreement on the music of the scruffy fellow who became an unlikely titan of music videos, a champion of consumers against his own industry, and a Willbury. Maron is exploring the agonizing fruitlessness of being emotionally invested in national political engagement that’s gone fully off the rails. But the core of the joke is also right. We all like Petty.

Martin Landau: 1928 – 2017


In describing his approach to acting, Martin Landau once employed a story about a drunk and a sculptor. In Landau’s recounting, the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on a statue of elephant. In order to get the drunk to stop pestering him in the middle of his intricate work, the sculptor agrees to share the secret of crafting such a piece of art. The artist explains the process: get a large, square chunk of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

“I chip away everything that doesn’t look like the character,” concluded Landau.

When I started reviewing movies, at the very beginning of the nineteen-nineties, Landau was on quite a roll. Only a decade earlier, he was getting by on acting jobs in the likes of the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. A committed working actor in his sixties — and without movie star cachet — he wasn’t totally free from wince-inducing projects, but he also had a couple recent Oscar nominations in his pocket. It was an impressive late-career resurgence for an actor who’d been around long enough that his first major film role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Tall and stately, he was called upon to play serious men: doctors and judges and gravely worried fathers. Underneath that simmering seriousness, there was one deeper, truer unifying quality to his myriad of performances, one clear piece of Landau’s self that was there for those who looked closely enough. He clearly loved what he was doing, and acting sparked with his contained but constant invention.

And he could transform a whole narrative with his relentless quest for emotional truth in his performances. Notably, he met Woody Allen’s offer to play Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors by explaining to the revered writer-director that his conception of the character was off. Landau felt the character was written as a hard-nosed villain and that Judah should instead be sympathetic, so that the audience could understand why he committed his morally bereft acts even as they found the infractions appalling. Allen hired Landau that day.

Landau explained how the collaboration shifted from there:

And about two weeks into the shooting, he came up to me and said, “You know when I wrote it, I didn’t quite see him as sympathetically or as sensitively played as you’re doing it. But I think it’s better, and I want to thank you.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a completely different film absent Landau’s adjustment to the central character. That performance delivered him his second Academy Award nomination.

It was the performance that nabbed Landau’s third Oscar nomination that most vividly exhibited the joy in the craft I mentioned above. As Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau takes a part that could easily be played as little more than a flinty stunt — and still be an effective and enjoyable performance — and infuses it with depths of feeling, giving a funny, mildly spoof-spun film a welcome vein of pathos. For his efforts, Landau finally claimed an Oscar statuette, one of the most deserving acting wins of the past twenty-five years.

Although I betrayed a disdainful view of some of the projects Landau had to sign up for over the years, one of the things I respected about him was the way he didn’t really seem to adopt the same harsh judgment of material that was, by many reasonable measures, inferior. Every part was an opportunity, a gift, an avenue to potential wonderment. He plied his trade at a time when an increasing range of entertainment options — especially on television — could allow him to play an actor bringing varied strategies to a theater audition, twin brothers mixed up in a murder case (in an episode of Columbo that includes a cooking demo that stretches to several minutes), and a starship commander.

No matter the role, Landau approached it with respect, which lent a dignity to practically everything he did. He believed in what he was doing, which helped the audience shift into agreement with that outlook, no matter the built-in shortcomings of the role or the piece that held it. Landau did the work to make that happen. He chipped away.


Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017


Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.

But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer.  The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.

The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.

The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.

”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”

That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.

The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.

My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.

All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.

Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”

The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.

“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.

No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.

John Hurt, 1940 – 2017


“When I say that acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians, it’s my way of trying to quash all the pretentious crap that’s said about acting. What I mean is, if you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you.”

–John Hurt, 1990, as quoted in The New York Times

I can’t honestly say that John Hurt was ever an actor whose films I actively sought out solely because of his presence. On some level, I think that might have pleased him. There was a proper retreat from ostentation in Hurt’s work. He never seemed particular interested in commanding the screen, even in those instances when he was the clear lead. Instead, he stealthily infiltrated scenes, taking charge of moments by smartly withdrawing from them, leading the audience to reach out to him, with a instinctual and fascinated intensity.

So I didn’t hunt for Hurt, but I was always glad for his presence. Indeed, he was often the best part of the films in which he appeared, offering a flint of sly authenticity in even the most fantastical roles, which he took on with increasing frequency over the years because, well, those were the roles that were there. Whether it was a Harry Potter or a Hellboy, Hurt didn’t condescend. There was truth to be found everywhere. And the currency of that truth only increased when the implausible swirled elsewhere in the narrative.

Hurt’s capacity to push past complicated trappings with resonant humanity also served him in more serious fare. It’s fully present in his Oscar-nominated performance in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, in which the necessarily smothering makeup required to play David Merrick (it took as long as eight hours to apply) didn’t obscure the actor’s soulfulness. What could have been a mere technical feat, stultifying in its commitment to the apparatus over the artistry, is instead a marvel of delivering emotional integrity, regardless of what barrier might exist between actor and audience. There is purity to the work that is startling.

It’s been decades since Hurt’s most iconic film moments, notably his character’s unfortunate end in Ridley Scott’s Alien (which he playfully, wonderfully revisited for Mel Brooks, producer of The Elephant Man, a few years later), but I’d argue he only got stronger as an actor as he aged. He was arguably never better than in his delicate, heart-rending performance in Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, a film that never quite got it’s due, in part because it arrived in the same calendar year as the superficially similar Gods and Monsters. But my main affection is centered on even more recent fare, when it sometimes seemed Hurt took parts with the condition that he be allowed to experiment with riotously wild facial hair best suited for a deranged scientist. He’s a delight as a battered wise man survivor in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and plays nothing but trump cards in his two-hander scenes with Natalie Portman in the recent Jackie. Many of these performances are simultaneously rambunctious and contained, as if Hurt is endeavoring to condense the range of human experience into single acting notes.

Hurt pretended well enough, and then some.