There’s a cuckoo in the nest at the New York Times, speaking slightingly of political correctness

I love Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.  I grew up watching TV repeats of the 1695 1965 version, own the DVD of the original 1957 version (with Julie Andrews), and can even sort of tolerate Whitney Houston’s 1997 version.  That show had very PC, rainbow-colored casting and — the worst sin — a bland Brandy in the lead role, but it nevertheless respected the source material.

There’s a new Cinderella on Broadway now, and it got a very interesting review from Ben Brantley at the New York Times.  I actually had to read the review twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.

Brantley gives the production kudos of visual eye-candy (although it seems somewhat overdone) and speaks approvingly of the performers.  The surprise is that Brantley speaks slightingly of the way in which Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote a new book for the show, and Mark Brokaw, the director, couldn’t resist turning this classic little gem into a politically correct parable:

But a lot has been added and deleted. (Extensive revisions, by the way, have been made in every version of this “Cinderella” that followed its inception.) Some lesser-known songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog have been jimmied in (including “Now Is the Time,” a rousing call for social change that was cut from “South Pacific”).

There’s been a whole lot of fiddling with the plot too to give it politically progressive substance and those mandatory messages about self-esteem and self-empowerment. The prince’s parents (played by Ginger Rogers and Walter Pidgeon in 1965) have been eliminated, replaced by a devious and manipulative regent figure, Sebastian (the droller-than-droll Peter Bartlett), who tricks the naïve prince, called Topher, into signing bills that repress and rob his people.

So when Cinderella finally gets the chance to talk to her dream date at that immortal ball, instead of whispering sweet nothings, she says, “You need to open your eyes to what’s happening in your kingdom.” (Maybe she should be renamed Che-erella.)

Like the reinvented cartoon fairy-tale heroines of the past several decades, from Disney’s “Little Mermaid” onward, this Cinderella is no passive damsel waiting for a rescuing knight. She takes charge of her destiny, so much so that she doesn’t lose that glass slipper; she hands it to the prince. It’s a conscious choice, see; she controls her narrative. And, by the way, the prince must undergo a similar process of re-education, which will allow him to conquer his self-doubts and introduce democracy to his kingdom.

Brantley acknowledges that this PC update has a bit of a knowing “wink and a nod” quality to it, but acknowledges that many in the audience seemed to miss the knowingly self-referential tone of the PC add-ons.

Cinderella is inherently a retro story, a sort of Patient Griselda for the modern era.  When I was a child, I adored the story, the Disney movie, and, as I said, the TV show but, when I look back at them now, I do wonder if they encouraged in my a passivity that always had me assuming that, if I didn’t like my life, some prince would come and rescue me.  Gail Carson Levine addressed that passive female problem rather nicely in her imaginative Ella Enchanted a delightful book that was turned into the extremely popular movie with Anne Hathaway. (The movie deviates wildly from the book, but I try to view it as a stand-alone product and enjoy the movie on those terms.)

I think we’re all inclined to sit back and enjoy variations on the Cinderella theme, and it’s okay when the new versions remind little girls that they no longer have to sit and wait. Taking a classic musical, however, written by two of Broadway’s greatest geniuses, and tacking on a whole bunch of extraneous PC stuff above and beyond a little Cinderella empowerment seems wrong, though — wrong enough, incidentally, to see a New York Times reviewer sneer at the artistic and entertainment merits of political correctness.

The SAG Awards couture: Lumpy, Dumpy, Frumpy, and Tawdry

When it comes to clothes, I settled into my color palette in junior high school.  My favorite color is black; my next favorite is gray.  This is not because I’m a depressed person or into Goth.  It’s because I have absolutely no ability to match colors.

That’s where black and gray come in:  everything goes with them (except brown).  If I put on a black pair of pants, I can pair it with any color top I like.  This is a good thing because my approach to buying tops is as primitive as my color sense:  if I find a top in a fabric I like, in a design that doesn’t make me look plump, I tend to buy it in every color available.

I then wear those five or seven tops for years, right up until they disintegrate.  Once they’re gone, I hunt for another top that I like and buy out all the colors.  I’m not fashionable, but I always look neat, and my colored shirts always match those black or gray trousers.

Which brings me to the Screen Actors Guild (or SAG) awards for 2013.  The Daily Mail has a photo essay showing that the color du jour is black, with a fair amount of white thrown in.  Seeing the headline about black’s triumphant return to the fashion world, I expected to swoon over the various dresses and to wish that I too could have one. Oh, how wrong I was.  The color is good but the styles are awful, just awful.

Julianne Moore SAG Awards 2013

Julianne Moore may well be the worst.  She wore a white dress with abstract, almost 60s-style flowers embroidered around the bottom.  This would be okay but for the fact that the dress has a plunging decolletage that gives a frightening view of her flabby breasts.  Ignore the breasts, and she has no shape at all.  I guess that, when Moore received the invitation to the “SAG” Awards, she took that SAG part literally.

Nava Rivera SAG Awards 2013

Another peculiar costume in the breast department was Nava Rivera’s black dress.  It featured a peek-a-boo cutout (complete with chiffon overlay), that revealed the left half of her right breast, and the right half of her left breast.  She didn’t look voluptuous, she merely looked confused:  Am I selling my acting chops or did I leave the Victoria’s Secret store without putting my street clothes back on?

Jane Lynch, who proudly waves her lesbian sexuality around every chance she gets, opted for a black dress with a pleasantly classic line, except for the leather bondage theme.  Apparently she confused the SAG awards with the Folsom Street Fair.

Anne Hathaway SAG awards 2013

Anne Hathaway, who is a lovely and charming actress, looked like a Barbie doll run amok.  When I was little, I used to layer my Barbie’s clothes:  deep cut this over chiffon that, with a long overskirt complimenting a ridiculously short miniskirt.  I could have dressed Hathaway for pennies on the dollars she spent on her mix-and-match outfit, which included a long skirt, a short skirt, solid fabrics, sheer fabrics, and beaded fabrics.  I get dizzy just writing about it.

The other dresses I saw in the photo essay weren’t bad, but none were beautiful.  They all bespoke too much money, and too little taste.  Collectively,  all of these attractive, wealthy women looked like four of the seven dwarfs:  Lumpy, Dumpy, Frumpy, and Tawdry.

There are years when I look at these Hollywood costume photo essays and wish that, just for one night, I could live the glam life solely to wear a beautiful dress.  Looking at the women from this year’s SAG awards, though, I have to say I’m a lot better off with my current outfit:  black, straight-leg NYDJ jeans and a deep turquoise, round-necked, long-sleeved tee from Target.  Total cost (including the sale price on the jeans): $95.  I look classy, sleek, and comfortable.  Yay, me!

When stars were stars

I watched a dreadful movie last night, really dreadful.  But here’s the interesting thing:  even though it was a terrible movie, with a creepy plot, I didn’t turn it off and walk away.  Instead, I watched it from beginning to end.  Why?  Star power.

The movie was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day classic from 1961 called Lover Come Back.  Rock and Doris play feuding Madison Avenue ad executives.  Although billed as a romantic comedy (it is Rock and Doris, after all), Rock’s character can best be described as sociopathic.  In order to win clients, he’s willing to pour alcohol into people, pimp women, lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate.  As one of his lies, he pretends to Doris to be a naive scientist, and she falls in love with him.  When the truth is revealed — when she learns that Rock has lied to her and has confirmed the fact that, in his real identity, he’s a terrible human being — she still loves him.

If this was a modern movie, I would have walked out in the first half hour, with my husband calling after me, “You hate everything.”  I’m not sure I hate everything, but I definitely hate watching creepy, whiny, modern Hollywood actors play distasteful roles.  I have better things to do with my time.

Why, then, did I stick around for this movie?  Star power.  Rock Hudson is wonderful.  Even though I know he was gay and that the macho man thing was an act, what an act.  Every time he was on the screen, all I could think of was how gorgeous he was.  He epitomized tall, dark and handsome, with his towering height, perfect face, deep voice, and, despite all that manliness, a warm, puppy-dog charm.  He took a despicable character, and through the force of his own personality, made him lovable.

Doris Day was no slouch either.  She looks exactly like a beautiful petit four, with her platinum hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and, most importantly of all, that radiant, sunny smile.  She spends a large part of the movie huffing and mincing, but it doesn’t matter.  Get her together with Rock, and after about five minutes, that husky voice relaxes, the radiant smile bursts out, and Rock smiles at her in return.  Sigh….

I can’t think of any modern actor who is so delightful to spend time with that I’d stick around for what is otherwise a boring movie.  There are some actors I like more than others, but if the movie is bad, they don’t have enough charm to hold me to my chair.  Take Anne Hathaway, for example.  She’s a very talented young woman, who can appear delightful, sing and even do splits.  When she’s in a good movie, I enjoy watching her.  But when she’s in a bad movie, one that sees her emoting and posing and baring her breasts . . . I am gone.  Despite her many talents, she is only as good as her roles.

The same is true for Meryl Streep.  For years, I’ve really thought that there must be something wrong with me, because I do not like Meryl Streep.  I readily concede that she’s hugely talented in a technical way as an actress, but I find her boring.  Once I’ve finished admiring how beautiful she imitates someone, such as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, there’s not usually that much left to enjoy.  She’s like a high-end, carefully scripted Rich Little or a not-very-funny Frank Caliendo.  It was such a relief, the other day, to read Steve Dowty’s post positing that Streep is, in fact, a very talented mimic who brings little warmth or charisma to a role.  She’s workmanlike, but no star:

Streep is perhaps the exemplar of the modern Hollywood theory of acting, which holds that the perfection of the craft lies in the total immersion of the actor in the character. This is “The Method,” which began to take over Hollywood in the late 40s, and really hit its stride when Marlon Brando burst onto the scene, alternately mumbling and screaming, in 1951. Since then actors have competed to become as invisible as possible, hiding behind accents, tics, quirks, foibles, or disabilities, or simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of a real person.

[snip]

When Streep acts, no matter the role, every single word and gesture looks perfectly studied, considered, and prepared, as though she’s trying to give the story a manicure. She hasn’t the knack of convincing the audience that what they’re watching is actually happening. We can’t believe that what we’re seeing is real, and often it’s precisely because the excellence of the mimicry calls attention to the essential falsity of the situation.

By way of contrast, Jimmy Stewart never completely left himself out of his characters (which was okay, because we liked him).  He was always, in his voice and mannerisms, Jimmy Stewart, even when he was called George Bailey or Rance Stoddard or Elwood P. Dowd.  But Stewart had the ability to make any film seem like a hidden-camera documentary, capturing events as they happened. Even if the characters never rise much beyond the level of Archetype or Everyman (and here’s another interesting question: what’s wrong with that?), it’s the ability to achieve the impression of spontaneous action that made great actors of Stewart and others like Lionel Barrymore.

Without a good script, Streep offers nothing worth sticking around for.  There is no there there.

John Nolte has latched onto the same problem with his suggestion that Hollywood can cure its woes and become a money-making machine again.  Aside from such obvious points as making movies people want to see, and telling stars to stop insulting their audiences, Nolte tells Hollywood to bring back the star:

You can trace most of Hollywood’s problems back to the death of the movie star. At first, the industry was thrilled with this development. No movie star meant no big payday, no ego, and none of the baggage too many stahs carry with them. The industry also found that, at least for a while, they could get away with this. Audiences were still packing theatres to see pre-packaged brands developed from high concepts, comic books, novels, and television shows. Sequels, remakes, and prequels were still sure-fire. Who needs to pay Tom Cruise $30 million to run around with CGI’d dinosaurs when just as many people will pay to see Jeff Goldblum do the same?

This was all well and good until the “brands” ran out. Now Hollywood is down to “The Green Lantern” and board games like “Battleship.”

Movie stars, on the other hand, are the most reliable brands out there. People come to see them and if you have enough of them and if you keep developing them, the inventory is limitless. From the 1920s straight through to right around 1990, if you built it with movie stars, audiences would come. Hollywood didn’t need to rely on “brands” because they built pictures around their stars.

Having been charmed by Rock, I’ve now told TiVo to look for his films.  No matter how bad they are, I’ll probably stick through to the end, just to see him.  After all, I do the same thing with films starring Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Fred & Ginger, and myriad other class acts from the old days.  Watching all of them was sheer pleasure, no matter the usually foolish scripts.