Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the prudish 1950s, Virginia Johnson, a failed nightclub singer, caught the eye of St. Louis gynecologist William H. Masters, who was looking for an assistant to help him with his then-clandestine studies of human sexuality. At the time, Masters, a prominent fertility expert at Washington University, was conducting his research by spying through peepholes at prostitutes working in a brothel. He believed that a female partner might help to provide a glimpse into the mysteries of the female libido.
He found his woman in Johnson, then 32, twice divorced and with two children, who was candid about her forward-thinking attitudes about sex. Turns out she would have an intuitive streak when conducting interviews and a penchant for persuading people — including hospital staff and their wives — to participate in sexual experiments, both alone and as couples. Together, the team of Masters and Johnson, now the subject of a provocative new Showtime drama, “Masters of Sex,” went on to become trailblazing sexologists, overturning Victorian myths even as they conducted their own affair, they said, to defuse any sexual tension that might interfere with their research. (They ultimately married, in 1971, but amicably divorced 21 years later).
Lizzy Caplan, who portrays Johnson in “Masters of Sex,” which is based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, has drawn kudos for her sexually frank turn as a vampire-blood-addicted vegan on HBO’s “True Blood” and as a promiscuous, foul-mouthed cocaine addict in the viciously comic 2012 film “Bachelorette.” Yet when she first read the “Masters of Sex” pilot, she said, she found the true sex story “astounding, even mind-blowing.
“If you were to walk into a hospital today and try to get doctors and nurses to sign up for a program that involved taking off their clothes, having electrodes taped to them and having sex in front of two other people, it would be scandalous,” the green-eyed beauty said in a telephone interview. “But Masters and Johnson managed to do just that — in the 1950s.”
Two decades before the women’s liberation movement, their conclusions were decidedly feminist: “A huge cornerstone of their early work was debunking Freud’s claim that a clitoral orgasm is immature, while the vaginal orgasm was the only type that a grown woman should be having with her husband,” Caplan marveled.
It was only natural that the 31-year-old Caplan was drawn to playing Johnson, who “made no apologies for who she was,” the actress said.
Caplan had previously carved out a niche as Hollywood’s go-to actress for playing bold women who are often as vulnerable as they are sarcastic. She turned heads (and stole scenes) as Lindsay Lohan’s caustic pal in the film “Mean Girls,” as a brittle attorney on TV’s “New Girl” and, of course, on “True Blood,” where her character met her demise while flying through the air. “I wasn’t naked in that scene,” Caplan said, “but that was one of the few.”
On a recent appearance on “Conan,” she regaled the audience with salty tales of secretly perusing her parents’ X-rated cookbook, with its recipes for breast-like tarts and meatloaf in the shape of a phallus.
Caplan wasn’t always so precocious, she said. As a teenager at the Jewish Gindling Hilltop Camp, she recalled, the boy-talk was “incredibly innocent by today’s standards.” For her disco-themed bat mitzvah at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, her mother, a political aide for Assemblyman Wally Knox, nixed her dream dress, a tight spandex number, in favor of a more demure outfit.
Caplan said she never intended to become an actress in those early years, preferring classical piano and attending Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music to further her studies. But she ultimately found that pursuit to be “both isolating and nerve-wracking,” so, at 15, she switched to drama and within a year had landed a gig playing Jason Segel’s disco-loving girlfriend on Judd Apatow’s TV comedy “Freaks and Geeks.”
The actress traces the ironic streak that would color her personality, as well as those of many of her characters, to her mother’s death from cancer, not long after Caplan’s bat mitzvah. “When something traumatic happens to you when you’re that young, it hardens you,” she explained. “My whole thing was never wanting anybody to worry about me, so I cracked jokes and put on quite a good show of seeming fine with everything.”
Caplan was often relegated to the role of the acerbic best friend rather than the ingénue. That’s shifted in recent years and the actress is now thrilled, she said, to have landed the role of Johnson, her first major dramatic turn.
As research, Caplan made a number of requests to meet with Johnson, but the elderly researcher declined, because “she no longer wanted to be in the limelight,” the actress said. Johnson died in July at the age of 88; Masters (played by Michael Sheen) died in 2001.
To tell their story, “Masters of Sex” depicts a jaw-dropping amount of nudity: “It was scary until I realized how protected you are in those situations,” Caplan said. “Nobody is sitting there judging your body; the crew are well-trained people trying to make you look and feel your best, so in a weird way it feels safer even than walking down the beach in your bikini.”
In one amusing sequence, Caplan thrusts a glass dildo in the face of the hospital administrator (Beau Bridges), who only reluctantly has funded their work. “[Beau] gives off the vibe of a friendly uncle, and I don’t think I would like to hold up a glass dildo to my uncle’s face,” she said of that awkward scene.
“But at a certain point you realize that our show is called ‘Masters of Sex,’ and if we’re just going to be babies about this dildo, then we should rethink what we’re doing here,” she added with a laugh.
“Masters of Sex” premieres on Showtime on Sept. 29.
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September 17, 2013 | 5:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Leslie Gordon has worn a sling holding a baby opossum round the clock, imitating how the marsupial’s mama would have carried the critter around in her pouch. She’s driven throughout the night to Arizona and back to transport a red harvester ant colony to Los Angeles, as the stinging insects are too delicate to ship by mail. And she’s even gotten up close and personal with a 9-foot-long Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor named Peace: “She’s the nicest, sweetest boa I’ve ever met,” said Gordon, who is program manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s vertebrate live-animal program. “She’s an old lady, so she’s had medical procedures. I’ve had to give her an enema, I’ve had to take blood out of her heart to get a sample, and she’s never struck or bitten.”
It’s all part of a day’s work for Gordon, who cares for, trains and creates educational programs around all the museum’s vertebrates — animals with backbones. Her charges include up to 30 species of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, most of them native or invasive species in Southern California. Think Western skinks, Pacific tree frogs, Western spadefoot toads, California newts, a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, gopher snakes, red-eared slider turtles, rats, and a bullfrog that Gordon calls “an adorable terror” because her invasive species tends to gobble up every smaller indigenous creature that crosses its path.
Not to mention 5-month-old Avocado, so named because that was the size the opossum was when she arrived at the museum after being rescued from a dog mauling, from which Gordon and vets nursed her back to health.
You can see many of Gordon’s charges in the museum’s new 6,000-square-foot interactive Nature Lab, which opened in June as part of a $135 million, multiyear redesign that doubled the museum’s program space and also includes a 3 1/2-acre outdoor Nature Gardens exhibition. Gordon was an instrumental part of the lab’s design team: “Basically, all the cages in the Nature Lab were created to my specifications,” the petite, 39-year-old said while breezing through the doors of the gleaming facility.
She paused by an enclosure in which a 5-foot-long rattlesnake, rescued from a drug bust and named Obsidian because of his unusually dark coloring, was coiled in repose; his cage, she said, was created with a range of available temperatures, climbing perches and enough room for the serpent to unspool his scaly length.
Nearby is the rat habitat, or “rattitat” as Gordon calls it: two Plexiglass towers connected by about 20 feet of clear tubing to imitate the kind of sewer dwellings the rodents might seek out in the urban wild. Inside are 14 female Norway rats whose twitching noses and whiskers seem to be protruding from every hiding spot. Here and there are special feeding devices — also designed by Gordon — sporting hidden treats the rats have to figure out how to release with their paws.
“Animals don’t generally thrive when their food is dumped in their bowl in front of them on a daily basis, so we’re stimulating them mentally by giving them something to work for,” Gordon explained. “Millions of years of evolution have essentially programmed them to solve problems, to find and seek out food. So we create enrichment toys. Our goal is to provide animals with the ability to exhibit species-specific behaviors and have as many of the comforts of their natural environment as we can possibly provide.”
Gordon is quick to respond to those who question whether it’s humane to keep animals in captivity: “I really do see these animals as ambassadors,” she said, adding that she’s thrilled if she can convince just one person to stop and look at a snake instead of reaching for a shovel. “[Further], life in the wild is brutal and painful. Animals live under constant stress looking for food and often with terrible diseases; hence everything that I bring in here from the wild is loaded with parasites. And I defy [critics] to find anyone who cares more about little creatures than I do,” she added.
"We have incredible specimens and a new, accessible approach to the way we convey information in our exhibits," said Dr. Jane Pisano, president and director of NHM. "But there's something magical that happens when our visitors interact with live animals and experience the presentations that Leslie makes possible. Those shows allow our science expertise to resonates in a fun, memorable way."
During an interview in her office at the museum, Gordon was casually dressed in jeans, funky blue glasses and matching earrings, her voice quietly intense as she discussed her love for her charges. On her desk is a sketchpad in which she’s drawing new designs for enrichment devices. Nearby is the shell of a Matamata turtle, “a very delicate animal,” she said, that she cared for and nursed in his last days. “I’m always sad when any animal dies, even now that I’ve had hundreds of them in my life,” she said. “But you know that somewhere there’s another little life coming along that needs you.”
Gordon traces her passion for animals to her mother, who worked as a secretary at the family’s Reform synagogue in Chicago; mom was a consummate storyteller “who taught me to love the underdog in any situation,” she said. “And now that I’m grown, I take care of reptiles and amphibians, who are nature’s underdogs; they are hugely important in the ecosystem, and yet they can be reviled by humans.”
Gordon’s childhood Judaism also reinforced her love of the natural world. Her father taught Hebrew school and sang in the choir at the family’s temple, where Leslie attended synagogue every Friday night, became bat mitzvah and marveled at the number of prayers that described nature. One of the family’s favorite songs was “Eli, Eli,” which speaks of “the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens,” she said. Gordon also recalls her wonder at looking at the stars from her temple’s sukkah.
Initially she hoped to become a professional artist — with animal themes figuring prominently in her work — and so she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Loyola University Chicago. When a Hillel leader suggested she take up theater design, Gordon learned welding and carpentry to help create the sets in her school’s drama department. It was a skill set that proved invaluable when she got her first animal-related gig building habitats at The Nature of Wildworks in Topanga Canyon in 1998.
That led to a stint at the Los Angeles Zoo’s zookeeper training program the following year, when Gordon graduated with high commendation — and eventually to a job in the zoo’s behavioral enrichment department, where she designed toys for the elephants, among other creatures.
In 1999, Gordon also began working at the Natural History Museum, supervising what at the time was “just a little menagerie,” she said.
Over the years, she increased the collection from about 15 species to its current population, all the while establishing a professional health care and husbandry regimen as well as selecting further species for the museum. Along the way, she created daily live animal presentations and the Critter Club for preschoolers as well as co-founding, with entomologist Brian Brown, a program now called Rascals, which encourages people to document species of reptiles and amphibians found in their neighborhoods.
Gordon was also instrumental in picking additional species for the new Nature Lab, including the Mediterranean house gecko, a population of which was discovered by citizen scientists in Chatsworth. “These lizards like to hang out on your porch eating moths,” she said.
“I feel that I do God’s work here at the museum,” she added, while feeding Avocado a hibiscus blossom to help her learn that hands aren’t scary. “Just as my parents worked tirelessly for our temple … so do I for an institution I believe is teaching the moral principles of nature.”
For more information about the museum, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.
September 17, 2013 | 4:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s new film, “Enough Said,” Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) don’t exactly meet cute.
“Eva was just telling me there’s no one at this party she’s attracted to,” a mutual friend tells Albert as an appalled Eva looks on. “That’s OK,” the nonplussed Albert responds. “There’s no one here I’m attracted to, either.”
It’s the tentative beginning of a romance between Eva, a neurotic divorcee who’s freaking out because her daughter is about to go off to college, and Albert, a sweet and droll, if hefty, television historian who is all too aware of his overweight physique and other flaws. “I’m a slob,” he tells Eva on their first date. “I have ear hair.”
Nevertheless, Eva finds herself falling for the gentle giant until a wrench is thrown into the picture: Turns out Eva’s new pal, Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), is Albert’s ex-wife, and Eva wastes no time in milking her for all the dirt on Albert, without telling either friend of her deception.
Like all of Holofcener’s films, “Enough Said” began with questions the writer-director was pondering about her own life and those of her friends. The filmmaker, for example, has 16-year-old twin sons who will soon go off to college, and she’s anxious thinking about what her life will be like without them.
While she has a longtime boyfriend, Holofcener’s ex-husband used to at times drive her bonkers — and vice versa — and she finds herself dishing about her ex to her beau. Meanwhile, her boyfriend complained to her about his ex-wife, and Holofcener’s ex blabbed about the filmmaker to his new girlfriend. “It was like a big game of telephone,” the wry, 53-year-old Holofcener said recently over lunch at a café near her Venice home. “It’s a wonder how any of us ever got out of bed in the morning.”
“Enough Said” is not only about dating in midlife but also “about immaturity in adults,” Holofcener added. “The things that Eva does are so horrendous and childish. It’s like junior high school behavior, and it comes from the desire to hedge her bets and see if she can avoid the mistakes she’s made before, which inadvertently creates an enormous mess.
“I also wanted to explore what are the deal breakers in a relationship,” Holofcener added. “Is appearance really important, and are the things that annoy Marianne going to annoy Eva? Because one woman’s hell can be another woman’s heaven.”
Talking to Holofcener — an independent film and TV veteran known for her hilariously astute observations of flawed urban sophisticates — is like kibitzing with an old friend, or like meeting a character from one of her movies. Wearing hip, thick-framed glasses, a striped shirt and bright yellow trousers, she dished on all the “cool, aloof non-Jews” she used to be attracted to in her 20s. “Maybe it’s self-loathing,” she said. “But those shaygetz boys were really fine; I had fun,” she added, with a laugh. (Her current boyfriend, who edits all her films, is kind, supportive — and Jewish).
Holofcener shrugs when asked about reviewers who have compared her work to Woody Allen’s: “I’d prefer not to be compared to anybody,” she said, then joked, “It’s probably anti-Semitic, because we’re both such Jews.”
But there is a family connection to Woody: The filmmaker’s mother, Carol, worked as a set designer on Allen’s films, and her stepfather was Allen’s longtime producer, Charles H. Joffe. He got Holofcener her first job, as a production assistant on Allen’s 1982 film, “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.”
Holofcener remembers Allen as “sly, funny, awkward” — and occasionally sarcastic; he once hit her over the head with her own lollypop. But he did give Holofcener a second job, as an apprentice editor on “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986). Holofcener went on to attend film school at Columbia University and to make a series of comedy-dramas that drew on her own observations.
“Walking and Talking” (1996) stemmed from her own jealous behavior when she was wretchedly single while her best friend was deliriously in love and getting married; “Lovely & Amazing” (2001) was in part inspired by her mother’s adoption of an African-American child; and “Please Give” began when two of Holofcener’s friends each bought apartments in New York that were still inhabited by elderly residents, “and they were basically waiting for them to die so they could [move in],” she recalled.
In all of Holofcener’s previous movies, Keener — Holofcener’s close friend — portrayed the filmmaker’s alter ego; for “Enough Said,” however, Holofcener selected Louis-Dreyfus (of “Seinfeld” fame) to play the female lead.
Also cast against type is Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack while on vacation in Rome last June at the age of 51. But even though he is best known for his tough-guy roles, especially Tony Soprano on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” Holofcener recognized that the actor also had “an enormous range,” she said.
Gandolfini, however, was initially hesitant to accept the role, unsure that he could pull off a romantic comedy. “He was also insecure, like all of us, about his appearance and attractiveness,” Holofcener said. “Julia is really beautiful and tiny, and he often said that he felt like a buffalo next to her.”
While Gandolfini’s performance is tender and even heartbreaking, the actor could be a jokester on the set; when the cinematographer once complained about the dark T-shirt the performer was wearing in one scene, Gandolfini swapped shirts with a prop woman and paraded around in her brightly colored tube top. “He was fine making fun of himself and making people laugh,” Holofcener said.
The film makes frequent references to Albert’s oversized belly: He is so self-conscious about his heft that he offers to wear a T-shirt in the bedroom, and in one scene Eva nastily offers to buy him a calorie-counting book.
“Those things are really hard to watch now that Jim is dead,” Holofcener said. “I feel like apologizing to him and to the people he loved. But ultimately, the character has the last laugh, so he is redeemed.”
Holofcener admits that she has received flak from family and friends because of her references to them in her work. “I do have to be careful because I have hurt people’s feelings,” she said. “People have even warned [others] not to talk to me, because they say I’m going to write about their lives. And I suppose that’s true; what else am I going to write about — cowboys and Indians?
“But I do make fun of myself more than anybody else,” she said of her cinematic alter egos. “Eva, for example, is a buffoon, an insensitive critical jerk. So at least I don’t paint myself in any perfect way.”
“Enough Said” is now in theaters.
September 6, 2013 | 1:58 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Adam F. Goldberg still remembers how his father used to come home from work, promptly unbuckle his trousers, drop them by the front door and then declare “the TV’s mine,” before parading around the house in his tighty whities.
In lieu of car keys when Adam was a teenager, his mother gave him a locket with her picture inside it, “so you can always have your mother close to your heart,” she told him. His response was a version of “ewww.”
And when Adam once stalled the family’s car while learning to drive, his father advised the other drivers, “Go around; he’s a moron!”
Goldberg — who picked up his family’s camcorder when he was 5 and seldom put it down — captured all his clan’s mishegoss on videotapes, which he has mined to create his new autobiographical sitcom, “The Goldbergs,” premiering Sept. 24 on ABC.
The show is structured like a dysfunctional 1980s version of “The Wonder Years,” with a narrator representing the adult Adam Goldberg, and characters who share the same names and quirks as his real relatives.
The series’ patriarch, Murray (Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), is gruff, blustery and trying (although not very hard) to parent without screaming. Overprotective mom, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), rules the roost “with 100 percent authority and zero sense of boundaries,” as the narrator puts it: When she asks her middle son — while he’s showering — what he wants for breakfast, he irately pulls the curtains shut and shouts: “Privacy!”
Adam (Sean Giambrone), Goldberg’s 12-year-old alter ego, loves “Star Wars” and gleefully wields his camcorder, ignoring all entreaties to “Stop with the camera already!” Erica (Hayley Orrantia) — so-named for Goldberg’s own brother Eric — is a fiercely hormonal teenager, Barry (Troy Gentile) is the hapless middle son, and Pops (George Segal) is the dapper lothario of a grandfather, who is schooling Adam in the art of love as well as the more luscious aspects of the female anatomy.
During an interview at The Beverly Hilton, Adam F. Goldberg, 37, (not to be confused with “The Hebrew Hammer’s” Adam Goldberg) seemed mischievous and jovial, his cheeks reddening as he laughed, which was often. He described himself as a science fiction and fantasy film geek; after all, he penned the 2009 flick “Fanboys,” spotlighting a group of rogues who set off on a cross-country trek with plans to steal a copy of the as-yet-unreleased “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Goldberg delights in the vintage movie T-shirts that Giambrone wears on his show.
The writer-producer went on to say that he is well aware of the 1950s television series called “The Goldbergs,” which was based on the radio program created by Gertrude Berg about a New York Yiddische mama and presented the first recognizably Jewish family on prime-time TV.
When Goldberg was growing up in Jenkintown, Penn., the older denizens of his neighborhood would greet him with a catch phrase from Berg’s show, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” and the writer-producer said he owes a debt to the series as the first sitcom to grace the small screen.
But his own show is in no way a remake. “We share the same name, and that’s it,” he said.
Nor are his Goldbergs overtly Jewish, even though Adam is a member of the tribe; he even invited Steven Spielberg to his bar mitzvah and was stunned when Spielberg’s assistant phoned to politely decline because the director was busy shooting “Always.” Rather, the Judaism in his show is implied, à la “Seinfeld,” he explained, although he would love to write a bar mitzvah episode if the series is picked up for future seasons.
The show’s title is good enough for Garlin: “The only way it could be better is if it was called ‘Jew,’ ” the actor said
When a reporter at a press conference for the show suggested that some families don’t shout quite so much as “The Goldbergs,” Garlin countered, “Are you a Jew? Jews and Italians, we love our yelling. … And yelling is good. Yelling is funny.”
“In our house, there was a lot of yelling,” Goldberg said in the interview. “It was everyone walking in on each other and very few boundaries.” In fact, the first time his Irish-Catholic wife-to-be — then his high school sweetheart — visited his home, she phoned her parents, crying, and entreated, “You’ve got to get me out of here!” At her home, he saw the family rules taped on the wall — “We don’t say ‘shut up’ ” was one of them — and he thought, “Who does this?”
“On every one of the more than 100 videotapes that I digitized to create the pitch for the show, there’s some kind of family meltdown; that’s just how we communicated,” Goldberg said, adding that there was plenty of humor and love, too. “My wife even coined a term she calls ‘Adam-nesia,’ because one minute after a fight, my mother would be like, ‘Who wants waffles?’ It’s just that instantly we would move on.”
The young Adam was hardly an innocent bystander in the chaos. Rather, he encouraged it, in part because he was the youngest child and thus often ignored, and in part to get good fodder for his incessant videotaping. “Negative attention was better than no attention. Most of the tapes are me bugging my brothers and trying to get them to beat me up, or harassing my dad, trying to get him to yell at me. He had such a short fuse that he would quickly freak out — and then I would give a thumbs up to the camera.”
Some of the antics in “The Goldbergs” are so outrageous that its creator received notes from the network, querying whether it was realistic for characters to behave so wackily. At the press conference, one journalist practically accused Goldberg of being ageist for a scene in which Pops drives his Trans-Am into a burger joint. But his Pops really did that, and Goldberg’s father had to pay for the damage, “Which really pissed him off,” Goldberg said. “It’s hard to argue about the veracity of the show when it’s all true.”
Goldberg was nothing if not precocious as a kid. And not just because he presumed to invite the famed director to his bar mitzvah; he also invited his favorite author, Stephen King, who in declining sent a hand-written note of encouragement to the aspiring young writer that is now framed on his desk.
After a dismal performance as Eugene in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which Goldberg described as “a rite of passage for any young boy interested in the theater,” he began writing plays, and by age 19 had penned more than 50 of them, winning national awards for his efforts.
The year after he graduated from film school at New York University, Goldberg moved to Hollywood and got his big break writing for CBS’ “Still Standing” in 2003. He penned screenplays for films like “The Jetsons” and “Revenge of the Nerds” and teamed up with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions to create sitcoms.
“But I always knew that I had this bullet in the chamber — a really funny family comedy in me from my childhood,” Goldberg said. Yet he was at first reluctant six years ago, when the show’s producer, Doug Robinson, first suggested he turn his brood into a sitcom. “I thought that they would kill me,” he said. “And that people would run screaming from their TVs.”
The change of heart came a year later, when the writer’s father died around the same time that his own first child was born; he said he came to realize how his folks had parented with love and had done the best they could to raise their three children. (Goldberg also determined to do things differently in his household: “There’s no yelling,” he said.)
A three-minute clip from his videotapes sold the show — initially titled “How the F--- Am I Normal?” — to ABC; and the strength of his pilot script drew veteran Jewish actors like Garlin and Segal, the latter an Oscar nominee for his turn in “Who’s Afraid in Virginia Woolf.”
Roger Ebert once wrote that Segal excelled in portraying the harassed son of archetypical Jewish mothers (think “No Way to Treat a Lady” and the black comedy “Where’s Poppa,” in which Ruth Gordon, playing Segal’s mother, famously bit his tush in one scene).
But the actor doesn’t see the Goldbergs as a stereotypically Jewish brood. “They’re universal,” he insisted. And as it turns out, Goldberg’s own family is thrilled with the show.
“My mom thinks it’s validated everything she’s ever done,” he said.