1920s, actors, culture, history, In My Opinion

The Burly Q

From the 1870s to 1920s, American entertainment included Vaudeville shows featuring families who danced and sang, who partnered as acrobats and jugglers, and who performed at circuses and theaters across the country. They were talented individuals who entertained Americans before the rise of film, radio, and television. Interested in the history? Try this site: University of Arizona Vaudeville Museum Special Collection  Dancing acts by women became popular like the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1910s and 20s. Burlesque performers were racier and included stripping onstage or tease acts with flowing gauze, swinging tassels, and creative patches placed on  private parts. In the early years, most girls were background transitions to male comedians in a 90 minute show performed several times a day. Top exotic dancers earned upward to $1,500 a week.

Leslie Zemeckis wrote and directed the documentary Behind the Burly-Q (2010) revealing the sub-culture of the exotic dancer during the first half of the twentieth century. Interviewing the grand dames long retired, their recollections show a complicated life representing the “improper” side of feminine identity. On the upside, the women share stories of camaraderie of ensemble traveling, the lucrative possibilities money brought them, self-sufficiency, adoration from fans, in short, it was the best years of their lives. On the downside, exotic dancers dealt with derogatory reputations which conflicted with their roles as daughter, mother, and wife. They were a big part of a mafia-driven industry. Leslie Zemeckis juggles these two sides with sensitivity.  As grandmothers, they shared “war stories” and there was nothing of which to be ashamed.

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From straight man/silly man partnerships like Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, or acts starring James Cagney, W.C. Fields, Red Buttons, and Milton Beryl, their talent was cultivated as Vaudeville and Burlesque performers. They became icons which influenced all later generations in entertainment. Consider the great Alan Alda, for example, who starred in Behind the Burly Q.  Alda grew up surrounded by topless show girls because his father was a Vaudeville and Burlesque entertainer. Robert Alda was a talented singer and dancer. He starred on Broadway and won the 1951 Tony Award for Best Actor in Guys and Dolls.  If you’ve seen the 70s television series M*A*S*H, Alan Alda starred in every episode (1972-1983) and wrote and directed several of them. The slap-stick, puns, goofy antics, and burlesque-stripping nurses reflects the large influence Vaudeville/Burlesque had on Alda’s creative genius.

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Explaining the sub-culture of exotic dancing included former stars Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Dixie Evans, among others who shared similar motivations. They were pretty young girls with blossoming bodies. They were poor and they were hungry.  Exotic dancing was a means to earn fast cash, and they liked being a celebrity. This “hush-hush” but prevalent part of American culture affected the entertainment industry for the rest of the century. Enjoy the following trailer:

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A woman’s identity is a conflicted one. In the Western tradition, she vacillates from Eve the corrupter to holy mother, the Virgin Mary. Fast forward to the 1920s and 30s. Because of Mass Consumerism, women were expected to buy time-saving appliances. She was expected to maintain a clean home, support her husband, and raise the children. However, we are a visual society and many men prefer their women beautiful, childless, and preferably naked. Conflicting expectations escalated when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and sparked a resurgence in the women’s movement for a voice without a man’s interference. The dueling expectation of sex object vs. virtuous female feels neverending.

Today, homemakers are not defined by gender and that is great. Also, I am not suggesting a woman who prefers to stay at home and raise her child and manage a home is “letting down” feminists any more than exotic dancers are. It’s no fun being Super Woman, either, who merges traditional male and female roles and feels utterly exhausted.  Defining gender roles is rarely representative and frequently confining.

What are your thoughts about the Burly Q?

movies, music, scores

It’s the score that makes the movie.

Last night I dreamed I was in the film Gladiator, and I had jumped into the body of Russell Crowe. I floated on my back within the silver gladiator suit, and the pebbled ground beneath moved along while I hovered. While this was going on, that is, as I floated inside Russell, the world was filled with the music of Hans Zimmer as he orchestrated his haunting, the-gods-are-watching-and-they-approve score. It occurred to me once again that if it weren’t for the score, the film would be just another Side A destroys Side B film. Think of films 300 or Troy if you don’t believe me.

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Whenever there’s an empire movie, reputable actors with British accents (How else could the word “Rome” sound so beautiful if not for the English stuffing so much roundness into that one syllable?) and those not English like Russell and Phoenix, represent classical times in beautiful cinematography. The beauty of the age must be established in order to fulfill the need to protect it. Here comes all the exciting gore and brutality of war orchestrated with the grace and precision of real men, a dark dance indeed, with the romanticism of honor and glory. Yes, the genre is the same. However, 300 and Troy does not stick with you because it lacks a great score. What defines a perfect film? It must have an outstanding film score. Make it haunting, make it Celtic. It’s the way to go like the band, Elysium, used in Gladiator.

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Have you noticed that these films hire Scottish and Australian actors to play Englishmen who are reenacting Romans and Greeks and Spartans? Are there no Mediterranean actors out there? At least with films Arthur or Braveheart the British accents make sense. Except for Mel who’s Australian but sounds American, and he gets his innards pulled at the end of the film for the error. In Robin Hood, there’s Russell Crowe paired again with Ridley Scott. This time, the movie is just mediocre. Why, when it’s the same story retold?  It lacks a great score!

So three questions come to mind. What’s it feel like to be in Russell Crowe’s body? And, why do I keep going to these movies? I am a sucker for a British accent and a good score. What’s your favorite?

actors, movies, oscars

What Makes a Great Actor? Ladies First

There are two kinds of actors out there. A great one transforms into a new identity and the other plays one character great. In both categories,  audiences clap, colleagues praise, statues gather dust, and some are knighted as national treasures. I love both types, and both types draw admiration from me for different reasons.

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The British put out the best actresses. Dame Judi Dench is one. Judi is an actor who plays one type of role better than anyone else on the planet, the royal snob. Maggie Smith is a close second and funnier. Not only does Judi Dench specialize in playing queens and the matriarch of whatever, she has bitchiness down to an art form. Her scowl is legendary. Still, did you notice a soft side in her role as “M” in Skyfall? Did you notice her eyes worry and her mouth twitch when affronted? If you look hard enough, her expressions reveal a vulnerable, human side. That hardness is a mask. She’s doing her job efficiently, and so you don’t mind the supercilious side because haven’t we all felt at times like we’re surrounded by fools?

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Shakespeare in Love (1998). Scowl? Check. Ubiquitous eyes? Check. Powerful and manipulative? Check.

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This is one of my favorite British films, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown (1997). Billy Connolly is charming and virile as the Scottish servant who dares to confront and befriend the grieving Queen Victoria. If you like the Downton Abbey series, you would appreciate the upstairs/downstairs element in the plot. Here’s other films where she plays the same haughty role: Pride and Prejudice (2005), Importance of Being Ernest (2002), Notes on a Scandal (2006), and she is my favorite Lady Macbeth from 1979….

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“Out damn spot! out, I say!” (V.i)

There are only three movies I’ve seen Judi Dench play a role where she was soft and sweet. The first was an exquisite film called Ladies in Lavender (2005) with Maggie Smith. Set in WWII, two sisters on the Cornish coast rescue a handsome, young Polish violinist. It was a tender, beautiful film. Second, the recent The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012).  A relevant film for baby-boomers everywhere. With an outstanding cast and unusual plot, it was a satisfying movie experience. See it even if you aren’t a baby-boomer, for it’s an universal love story involving multiple generations.

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The third time I’ve seen Judi soft and whimsical was in the most un-typical film I ever thought I’d see Judi Dench in. Did you see her as the spirit in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)?

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What a surprise! Good for her.

So Judi Dench for me is that actress who only has to do one thing great, and that’s her legacy. What about the other kind, the great actor? When I think of transforming performances, of actresses who can become different people–the more different the better, well, there are only a few who can do that . . . .

1. Meryl Streep. You knew that was coming, yes?

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Best acting performance EVER. Sophie’s Choice (1982).

2. Kate Winslet.

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Not because of Titanic, but because of The Reader (2008), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Revolutionary Road (2008).

3. Hillary Swank.

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MDB is a perfect film. It’s because of Hillary Swank. She is fearlessly transforming. Didn’t you believe she was a man in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)?

4. The last great actress living is Natalie Portman. From The Closer (2004) to V is for Vandetta (2005) to The Black Swan (2010), she is phenomenal. It is for Star Wars where she gained my respect!

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She’s the only one in a cast of reputable actors who actually acted. Who can act in front of green screen? She did. Her joys, cries, and pain were believable. The men standing next to her were cardboard props or melodramatically unconvincing. (I blame Lucas.)

There are many, many actresses out there not on this brief list (sorry Cate Blanchett and Jody Foster) who have my respect, but if I had to pick only four great actresses, this is my list.

What do you think?