Posted by Danielle Berrin
Charles Dickens once said -- and I imagine he was speaking of himself when he surmised that -- “the life of any man possessing great talent would be a sad book unto himself.”
Dickens meant the same thing writer Thomas Mann meant when he wrote in “Tonio Kroger” that the talented can often be “artistic and charming without the smallest notion of the fact that good work only comes out under pressure of a bad life,” and “that he who lives does not work,” because “one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator.”
An eloquent and modern embodiment of this artiste comes to us from writer Aaron Sorkin in the form of his tragic-hero protagonist Will McAvoy (played by the Emmy-nominated Jeff Daniels) on HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
When we first meet McAvoy in the pilot episode of Season One, he is, in short, a mess. During a public appearance on a discussion panel at a university, he is barely awake, wanly answering questions about American politics as if someone had asked him his favorite color. The panel moderator even likens him to Jay Leno, who is “popular because [he] doesn’t bother anyone.”
McAvoy is in too much of a daze to care. His world is a whirl, with surrounding voices echoing and fading into the background as he begins to hallucinate -- or so he thinks. Sorkin sets us up with a character at a crossroads: McAvoy is so overcome by boredom, listlessness and longing that he snaps at serious questions and insults an earnest inquirer as a “sorority girl.”
Then the symbolic shofar is blown. Well, really, she is seen: McAvoy’s former flame MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) suddenly appears like an apparition among the audience and rouses him from his slothful slumber.
“Can you say in one sentence or less why America is the greatest country in the world?” sorority girl asks the panel.
In a fog of faces, McAvoy can make out only one – MacKenzie’s – but is it really her? He can barely see straight and her face in the crowd keeps changing.
At first, McAvoy responds curtly to the question, merely repeating what the two other panelists said. But the moderator won’t allow it.
“I want a human moment from you,” he tells McAvoy, a serious demand of a Dickensian artist.
It isn’t the moderator, but MacKenzie’s prompting – her mysterious visage is holding up written signs meant for McAvoy – that finally compels McAvoy to launch into a passionate diatribe on the failures and feats of American democracy. The speech is the beginning of a new trajectory for McAvoy, in which he is driven by his anger and aloneness into the pursuit of reporting real news – the old fashioned way, which is to say, the right way. The next two seasons follow McAvoy as he learns to channel his insecurities and liabilities into a formula for success, becoming a public icon even while living in private isolato.
The talented man becomes a sad book to himself. The deeper he delves into his professional mission, the more he deviates from the yearnings of his heart and the woman he loves.
In an after-the-episode commentary for HBO subscribers, Sorkin summed up McAvoy’s conflict this way:
“There is hardly an episode where Will isn’t having a crisis of confidence. He’s torn by two forces: doing what he knows is right, or at least what he thinks is right, and wanting to be well-liked by complete strangers who he’ll never meet. That’s how he feels love.”
Sorkin’s assessment refers to a specific episode in Season Two in which McAvoy is dating the gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis), who encourages him to boost his approval ratings by appearing – horror of horrors – on the light-weight, lowbrow morning show. McAvoy consents and then hates himself; that kind of work is beneath him.
Sorkin explained, “Will didn’t need to start being loved by the audience until he and MacKenzie split up. Ironically, this problem made him very successful.” Here, Sorkin knowingly adds, “it’s almost a zero-sum equation that MacKenzie’s absence in his life equals a need for Will to be loved by these strangers.”
Therein is the ultimate predicament of the Dickensian artist: he must deny himself his full humanity – his ability to relate and draw close to others – in order to sustain his creative lust.
But where Sorkin breaks script with the Dickenses and Manns of the world is when, at the end of Season Two, he reunites his star-crossed lovers in a lavish final scene one Daily Beast critic derided as ridiculous romantic comedy – which only proves how poorly this critic understood it.
Ever the idealist, Sorkin, who probably knows well Dickens’s depressing dictum is offering us something hard to believe, yes, but even harder to achieve: character change. McAvoy, the brilliant thinker, speaker and news anchor has finally realized what’s been motivating him all along: love. Why should he stop at success if he can grow his soul?
Both McAvoy and Sorkin are smart enough to know that there’s no better way to nurture one’s narcissism than by elevating one’s character --even more.
How McAvoy will sustain his ambition with his longing slaked is up to Sorkin to figure out. But I’m hardly worried; anyone who’s ever been in love knows that once you’re inside a committed relationship, the real romantic drama begins.
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August 29, 2013 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Miley Cyrus really, really wants us to know something: she f----s.
Her Me-So-Sexy show-and-tell at MTV’s Video Music Awards was the least sophisticated display of youthful sexual prowess in recent memory (and considering the venue, that’s saying A LOT).
It did, however, provoke a hot, gushing lava-like flow of media outrage, prompting pundits to describe her so-called “twerking” routine as pornographic; vile; racist; degrading; unoriginal; inauthentic; or in the words of the Daily Beast, “the nadir of American civilization.”
What a compliment to her twerking tush that her performance inspired such fervor!
Cyrus isn’t the first female to wave her I-am-Woman flag through hypersexuality. Like Madonna and Monroe before her, she wants us to know that she can have sex like a man, and should be treated as more than just a powerless girl. In Cyrus’s case, that girl would be sweet little Hannah Montana, who was rinsed, waxed and neutered by the squeaky-clean Disney image machine. Thus, the general read on Cyrus’s race-y anal exploits is that she desperately wants to proclaim her adulthood.
So why on earth is she acting like a stubborn, rebellious child?
The Freudian answer is that she never got to be one. Cyrus became the headlining star of The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” in 2006, when she was just 14. It ended five years later, which basically means that Cyrus spent her high school years cut off from the typical trajectory of adolescence and puberty, and thrust into adult professionalism. Within the first year of Hannah Montana airing, Cyrus became a multimillionaire.
The irony about Cyrus’s alter-ego, Hannah Montana, is that while the character was permitted a double life -- as both a “normal” teenager and a superstar -- the actress playing her was not. Only in fiction can split lives co-existence so seamlessly. In reality, coming of age as a child star in Los Angeles, there was nowhere teenaged Miley Cyrus could go and not be seen as Hannah Montana. A famous face and a young professional, Cyrus was forced out of the cocoon of childhood and into the quid-pro-quo of adulthood, where one must sing -- quite literally, in her case -- for their supper.
A dirty little not-so-secret about youth in the entertainment industry is that it both profits from and promotes family dysfunction. The parents of child stars often get so seduced by the glitz of success, they attempt to realize their own broken dreams through their children. Instead of protecting their young from an inestimably complicated life, parents push their kids to further perform. As my friend Irene Dreayer, a producer of children’s programming and a talent coach often asks of showbiz parents: “Who’s dream is this -- your kid’s or yours?”
The other thing Dreayer will tell you about the trajectory of child stars -- having honed her expertise as executive producer of The Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and the sitcom “Sister, Sister” -- is that if young talents don’t have reliable authority figures in their lives, they crumble.
"No one is protecting her," Dreayer said when I called her for comment. "There’s nobody there to say to her: 'What the f--- are you doing?'
But even worse than parents who can’t be depended upon are jealous parents who exploit a child's success. As with Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Dina, I wonder about the relationship between Miley and dear daddy, Billy Ray. Yes, “Achy Breaky Heart” was a catchy little number that a lot of people heard too many times, two decades ago. But does it count as a career? Last I checked, poppy Billy Ray was earning his pay playing a father to his daughter on her star-making show.
When a parent’s well being is dependent upon his child’s success, that parent can hardly encourage what is best for the child. And if a parent is less successful than his child -- in the same chosen profession -- what sort of dynamic arises in the family?
Fast forward to Miley Cyrus, “all grown up” at age 20. Eager to escape the childhood career that stole her childhood, she thinks an overt sexual consciousness will make her appear more adult. On television, she projects a voracious sexual appetite that makes her feel powerful and in control -- “Look at me, Daddy; I can do whatever I want” -- when really she is expressing a child’s deep and desperate need for discipline and boundaries.
All that tuchus-in-the-air twerking? A quite literal request for a spanking. All that sticking out her tongue? A child’s taunt: “Na na na na na -- come and get me!”
If Cyrus was seeking to display adult maturity with that faux provocation, she failed. That was not the performance of a young woman in full thrall of her sexual powers; it was the enraged acting out of a little girl seeking a responsible father.
It is dead wrong to interpret that performance as Miley Cyrus’s declaration of adulthood. What she wants is to be a child. What she’s singing for isn’t sex, it’s a parent.
August 2, 2013 | 11:42 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
New York Magazine's Vulture has limned a list of reasons why Ellen Degeneres is a stable, safe choice for next year's Oscar host. Since last year's pick, "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane proved too edgy for the staid Academy, they may be seeking something more traditional with Degeneres, whose straightlaced comedy is more palatable for an older audience. The daytime talk show host last (and first) took the Oscar stage in 2006, when she focused her opening monologue on "the dream come true" of it all, and seemed visibly nervous. It was a far cry from the fraught performance she aced at the post-9/11 Emmy Awards, when she uttered what Vulture called an "immortal line":
"What would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?" [VIDEO]
Something tells me Degeneres's Jewish jokes will land more smoothly than her predecessor's.
July 31, 2013 | 12:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“SO SORRY,” writer Joshuah Bearman e-mails after he forgets about our interview. “I’ve stood up someone exactly twice before, and have been stood up a couple times too, and it’s terrible. I could still meet, if you aren’t peeved …”
A year ago, Bearman might have made the same mistake and it wouldn’t have seemed like such Hollywood behavior. But ever since Wired magazine published his nail-biting account of “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” in 2007, and it became the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” well, Bearman has hit the big-time. He has since optioned nine other projects based on his work as a journalist.
When we finally come face to face later that same afternoon, Bearman is sitting in the far corner of Fix Coffee in Silver Lake eating a turkey-and-cheese sandwich. I can’t resist teasing him about his tardiness and his treif.
“My dad keeps kosher,” Bearman says as cheeky consolation. “My stepmom keeps kosher, too. They’re very Jewish.”
You might say Bearman owes the start of his career to Judaism. While in graduate school at Columbia, he published his first piece — an interview with his physicist father about the elder’s work studying the Dead Sea Scrolls — in the fourth issue of McSweeney’s, the prestigious literary journal founded by author Dave Eggers.
“The issue basically came out the same time [that Eggers published] ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ and his career obviously exploded,” Bearman recalls.
So did Bearman’s. The issue containing his maiden story also included work by authors Denis Johnson, Haruki Murakami and George Saunders, winning the mag easy praise as “the voice of new generation,” Bearman recalls, and loads of attention. “I didn’t even know who all these people were.”
Bearman didn’t have the bookish childhood one might imagine for a successful writer. When he was 9, his parents divorced, and he and his brother Ethan moved from their native Minnesota to Pasadena so his father could work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His mother stayed behind, got involved with a drug dealer and soon became a severe alcoholic prone to disappearing. Oftentimes, for months on end, Bearman wouldn’t know where she was. His father eventually remarried; his mother regressed into her illness. She also had another child, Bearman's half-brother David, whose tumultuous childhood led to chronic legal trouble. Bearman detailed their tale of woe in a wrenching personal piece for "This American Life."
Growing up surrounded by turmoil eventually took its toll. Angry at being cheated out of childhood, Bearman left his father’s house at 16 to live with a friend, who was experiencing early-onset schizophrenia. “It was a wacky household,” Bearman recalls of his brush with other family dysfunction. After high school, he enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, moved in with a girl he met on the first day of classes and got a job at Pizza Hut. “That’s a weird scene out there,” he remembers. “I lived all summer on pizza, in a s----y apartment complex, watching, like, ‘Hellraiser 3’ on cable.” He flunked out within the year.
“I wasn’t really ready for school,” he says, looking back. “I grew up late. It probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with my mother.” But, even since his mother died a few years ago, he says, he hasn’t spent much energy investing in the psychoanalysis of it all.
“When I look back on what I was doing, it seems like a totally different person,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know anything.”
Bearman eventually transferred to UCLA. “I basically clawed my way back to the land of the living.” He also “wandered around Europe for awhile, chased a girl to Vienna” and spent a year abroad at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he studied Heidegger (one can only imagine what his Hashomer Hatzair, ardently Zionist, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents would have made of his inquiry into the avowed Nazi fan).
By 2004, he got his first staff position with the LA Weekly and, shortly thereafter, a magazine assignment from Harpers. Bearman likes to tell how an editor once described his journalism as, “Dude, No Way” stories, as he seems to be most attracted by the outrageous and unbelievable: For Playboy, the “true-life 1970s Hollywood epic” about a “cocaine-addled” Jewish producer (Burt Schneider) who helped smuggle the legally endangered leader of the Black Panther movement (Huey Newton) to Cuba; and for the July issue of GQ, “how a group of 20-something surfers and their former high school Spanish teacher form one of the most successful drug-smuggling operations in the country” — which George Clooney is rumored to be developing for film. Bearman also once considered writing about Joseph Stalin’s attempt to crossbreed monkeys and humans in order to create a race of ape warriors — seriously —– but ultimately deemed it unreportable.
Nowadays, he lives a double life, working as a nonfiction reporter as well as a screenwriter. “I like having a foot in both worlds,” he says, explaining that he was recently hired to write his first screenplay. Though he's been lucky to work with some tip-top talent, not everything ends in an Oscar. “I’ve seen people get paid some serious money to write total nonsense based on my stories, and I was like, ‘I would write that same garbage for half that!’”
Because while Hollywood is fun, glamorous, and pays the bills, journalism maintains its appeal because “it forces you to reckon with something entirely outside your experience.”
Tell that to somebody who doesn’t know Clooney.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this story misstated Bearman's relationship to his brother, Ethan. They share the same parents.
July 26, 2013 | 11:19 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
According to his long time friend, filmmaker Henry Jaglom, Orson Welles had a little crush on the Jews.
Jaglom knows this because he and Welles, the iconic force behind “Citizen Kane,” “The Third Man” and the famed 1930s radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” lunched together nearly every week for seven years. They dined at Ma Maison, once the most coveted table in all of Los Angeles.
The lunches began in 1978 when Jaglom was in his late 20s and Welles was at a stalemate in his career. Frustrated by all the misconceptions about his legendary figure, Welles planned to write an autobiography to set the record straight. He asked Jaglom to tape their maundering, dishy and sometimes even deep conversations. So for two years, until Welles’s death in 1985, Jaglom recorded the meetings that are now the subject of the book, “My Lunches With Orson,” transcribed, edited and published for Welles-aficionado posterity by the film historian Peter Biskind.
Jaglom and Biskind appeared together last night at WritersBloc Los Angeles to talk about those lunches and their provocative content, which Vanity Fair described as “Laden with secrets, gossip, and raunchy jokes.” As WritersBloc founder Andrea Grossman put it, “If Orson Welles thought he’d die one day, he might not have dished so candidly.”
But aren’t we glad he did: If Welles’s Great Man complex lent itself to delusions of immortality, his egotism is our rich reward.
Jaglom first met Welles after working on the film “Easy Rider” which persuaded Peter Bogdanovich to arrange an interview for the aspiring filmmaker. Jaglom had the idea of adapting the play “A Safe Place” into a movie and hoped to create a character for the zany Welles. He flew to New York and knocked on the door of Welles's suite at the Plaza Hotel. He was struck when a rotund man answered the door wearing purple silk pajamas. “He looked like a giant purple grape,” Jaglom said. Without a script or a credit to his name, Welles instantly tried to rebuff him, but Jaglom pleaded for an hour of his time.
“I’ll sit here but I won’t listen,” he recalled Welles as saying.
Jaglom knew nothing of the character he wanted Welles to play -- only that he wanted Welles. He remembered Welles was a fan of magic. So he crafted an off-the-cuff description: “The character is a lapsed wonder-rabbi who performs miracles!” Jaglom told Welles. “And nobody takes him seriously. He’s not a very good rabbi. He’s not even a very good Jew. And he’s trying to make something disappear...”
Previously refusing to look Jaglom in the eye, Welles turned towards him. “What is he trying to make disappear?” Welles wondered.
“That you won’t know until you play the part,” Jaglom said.
“Can I wear a cape?”
When filming began, the neophyte filmmaker had difficulty persuading his crew to manifest his vision. Welles offered some advice: “Just tell them it’s a dream sequence.”
Suddenly, Jaglom said, “The whole crew turned to pussycats!”
When he later asked Welles to explain, Welles suggested a theory: These are hard working people with hard lives. Anything they can’t control threatens the stability of their work. But the one place they’re free is in their dreams. “So if you say it’s a dream sequence, you’re giving them permission to be free.”
Years later, when they were enjoying their regular lunches -- which also included trips to Paris, Cannes and London -- Jaglom and Welles developed a reputation in the press as an odd couple. Jaglom recalled that the French newspaper Le Monde described them with the headline Le Petit Ami: “Girlfriends.”
Biskind asked Jaglom what they each got out of the relationship.
“We told each other the emotional truth,” Jaglom said. “I became somebody with whom he felt comfortable talking about his emotions. He let me in.”
That may explain why Jaglom possesses a little known secret: Welles had a special fondness for Jews. Jaglom explained that Welles felt estranged from his “drunk, absent” father. And he suspected that his mother Beatrice, a concert pianist “and a society lady” had had several affairs. In the midst of this, Welles cultivated a relationship with a guardian of sorts by the name of Dr. Bernstein, whom he felt very close to.
“Orson believed his father wasn’t his father,” Jaglom said. “Dr. Bernstein might have been his father -- he had definitely had an affair with Orson’s mother.” But Welles also suspected that she’d had an affair with a Russian opera singer. Welles could never confirm, since his mother died when he was 9, and his father followed, when he was a tender 13.
Since Jaglom is Jewish, “the subject was of considerable interest [to me].” One day, Welles turned to him and said, “I know what you want to know, Henry: Am I Jewish?”
Welles answered: “Fifty-fifty.”
Jaglom added that whenever they would travel together, Welles would take him to Jewish delis -- Bloom’s in London, Goldenberg’s in Paris: “He was very connected to his sense of what was Jewish,” Jaglom said.
They also had conversations about the Holocaust. “It made him so cynical about men,” Jaglom said. “How low men truly are if they are led that way.”
Shortly after the war, Welles was invited as the guest of honor to a celebrity dinner in Vienna. The post-war mood among the guests was somber. According to Jaglom, one guest reportedly said, “Vienna is not what it used to be! Something has gone out of Vienna.”
Welles tartly replied, “Yes. The Jews.”
Jaglom said the remark made the morning headlines.
When Jaglom began his recordings, Welles reportedly said, “Turn it on and don’t ever let me see it.” It was the only way he thought he could speak freely. To Jaglom's surprise, one day Welles asked, “Is it on?” But Jaglom had forgotten to bring his recorder that day.
“He literally grumbled,” Jaglom recalled. “And we didn’t talk much that lunch.”
July 23, 2013 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Not even his dapper looks or lingerie-model girlfriend can help him out of this one.
Ryan Braun can’t even help himself.
Now that Major League Baseball has officially suspended Braun for the rest of the season for his alleged involvement in a Miami-based doping scandal, the former MLB MVP barely knows what to say.
“As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect,” Braun reportedly said in a statement. “I realize now that I have made some mistakes.”
Except that the last time he got into trouble, in 2011, when it was discovered that Braun had elevated levels of testosterone in his body, instead of admitting those “mistakes,” he blamed Dino Laurenzi Jr., the low-level league employee who collected his urine sample.
"There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector... that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened," he said, armed and eager to smear. “We spoke to biochemists and scientists,” he continued, “and asked them how difficult it would be for someone to taint the sample. [And] they said, if they were motivated, it would be extremely easy.”
It's harder to tell the truth.
Back then, Braun managed to worm his way out of punishment citing a technicality. But further investigation has since compelled the league to reverse their acquittal. And the public is none too happy with the man formerly known as the “Hebrew Hammer.”
“Ryan Braun doped, lied and care only for himself,” blasted Yahoo sports columnist Jeff Passan. “How do you spell Chutzpah?” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ami Eden wondered. Even worse, Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi declared Braun “one of the most cravenly selfish figures in American professional sports.”
The withering take-downs are especially ironic in the aftermath of a recent Tablet article that wondered why Braun hasn’t become the Jewish darling of modern baseball. “Braun has not become an icon for Jewish baseball fans in the same way as past stars” like Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, Eric Freeman wrote. Freeman added that although Braun’s Jewishness “has never been a major topic of discussion” the way it was for his predecessors, “it could be that Braun has not achieved this lofty status among Jews because he’s a controversial figure.”
Indeed, Jewish tradition is rather big on personal responsibility. As summer gives way to the month of Elul, which marks the weeks before the Jewish high holy days, teshuvah -- repentance -- becomes imperative. This is a time to account for one’s actions, to admit of one’s sins, not elide them.
But in Braun’s defense, he may be as ignorant of this as he seems to be of his penchant for PED’s (performance enhancing drugs). As Freeman pointed out in Tablet, “the son of an Israeli-born father (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) and Catholic mother, the Los Angeles native did not attend synagogue, did not have a bar mitzvah, and did not celebrate any Jewish holidays.”
Because Jews have seen the worst in humanity and have had to pull themselves up by the bootstraps through the hinterland of history, they have little tolerance for those who muck up an easy ride. Jews see Braun’s leading man looks, prodigious talent and opulent opportunity and they see someone who should be thanking his lucky psalms for all those blessings. Instead, they get an ungracious cheater.
Luckily for Braun, the Jews are a very forgiving people. The vicissitudes of history have cemented a long-view philosophy that prizes the possibility for redemption. Every passing day is another chance to turn things around.
Now it’s up to Braun to decide if his batting legacy is more important than his life.
July 22, 2013 | 9:10 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
July 19, 2013 | 1:18 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
One of the original Schindler's Lists is being put up for public auction on eBay, reports the New York Post, for the bargain price of $3 million.
"But," the Post adds, "its sellers, California collectors Gary Zimet and Eric Gazin, are hoping it will go for as high as $5 million."
More from the Post:
Of the seven original versions of the list, only four are known to still exist — including two in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, and one in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The one being offered for sale on eBay tonight is 14 onion-skin pages long.
The date April 18, 1945, is written in pencil on the first page. It lists 801 male names.
According to the Post, this version has been for sale before (it was only worth $2.2 million back in 2010 when list typer Itzhak Stern's nephew put it up for sale). But apparently, Holocaust memorabilia is as booming as the art market, and as the document increases in value, its owners are quick to cash in: “Stern gave the list to his nephew, who sold it to a private collector in 2011,” its current seller told the Post. “Now this collector wishes to sell it.”
Apparently, even the most meaningful things will trade for a price. Let's hope a museum like the Simon Wiesenthal Center snaps it up. Hear that, Rabbi Hier?