Friday, December 9, 2016

"A Monumental Acting Challenge"

I am flipping around the channels trying to avoid anything involving news or, even worse, political commentary when I land on Turner Classic Movies, broadcasting Top Hat (1935), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and prominently featuring Edward Everett Horton.

I could talk about what strikes me every time I encounter Top Hat, which is its consummate professionalism.  Everything in the movie is First Class, most prominently – besides the incomparable talent of Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers – the set design, something I habitually ignore.  It’s a wall.  It’s a window.  Who cares? 

Built on adjoining soundstages, there’s this giant “outdoor” locale, including three bridges over an actual canal.  Well not an actual canal – it does not join two previously unconnected bodies of water – but it had actual water in it and could easily pass for a canal should an actual canal take a vacation and they need a fabricated canal to temporarily fill in.  

This time, however, my mind’s eye takes note not of the exceptional production values, but of a unique issue in musicals that makes me wonder how difficult it is to pull off.

I have not retained the exact specifics because – blanket disclaimer – I did not know I’d be writing this.  It would be nice to have a retroactive “Photographic Memory” but I don’t.  Does anyone?  Or do they only pretend they have one?

THEATER REVIEWER:  The character then delivered a rambling soliloquy that went…”  

A soliloquy?  And they recalled a substantial chunk on it?  More likely they gave them the script afterwards so they could transcribe the dialogue into the review.  Otherwise, it’s like Butch Cassidy, “I can’t do that; can you do that?  How can they do that?”  Which I may, in fact, have quoted incorrectly.

Here’s the situation, that when I saw it, immediately made me ponder the underlying difficulty of its successful execution.

Scene Synopsis:  Edward Everett Horton advises Fred Astaire to get married and Astaire insists he’d rather not.

And then this thing happens that happens in musicals because they’re musicals.  Seemingly in mid-sentence, Fred Astaire begins to sing. 

But that’s not what caught my attention. 

Fred Astaire’s in Edward Everett Horton’s hotel suite living room, warbling Irving Berlin’s – talk about consummate professionalism – “No Strings” and Edward Everett Horton’s sitting on the couch…

… doing what?

That’s what I started wondering about.  What do you, as an actor, do when another actor’s singing at you?

From Edward Everett Horton’s reaction, the man did not seem to know.

His face was entirely blank.


FRED ASTAIRE:  ‘”What the deuce!”

DIRECTOR:  “It’s not you, Freddie.  You were impeccable.”

FRED ASTAIRE:  I’ll say.”

EDWARD EVERETT HORTON:  “Oh dear.  Was it me?”

DIRECTOR:  “A minor adjustment and we’re moving right along.”                    

EDWARD EVERETT HORTON:  “Fire away.  I am nothing if not the consummate collaborator.  What do you want me to do?”

D:  “I want you to react.”

E.E.H:  “With all due respect, my dear boy, I was reacting.”

D:  “Eddie… may I call you Eddie?”

E.E.H.:  “Actually, I would prefer Edward if you don’t mind.”

D:  “Fine.  Edward…”

E.E.H.:  “Mr. Horton would also be acceptable.  No, let’s leave it at Edward.  No need for formalities.  I was born in Brooklyn, after all.  I am entirely comfortable with ‘Hey, you!’”

D:  “Edward…”

E.E.H.:  (IN A TERRIBLE BROOKLYN ACCENT)  “That’s my name.  Don’t weah it out.”


FRED ASTAIRE:  “Can we move this along?”

DIRECTOR:  “Of course, Freddie.  (TURNING TO HORTON)  Eddie… I mean, Edward…”

EDWARD EVERETT HORTON:  “An understandable confusion.  One ‘Freddie’.  One ‘Edward.’”

D:   “Right.  Edward… I was watching you during that last ‘take’.   And your face was totally, how can I put this… ‘expressionless’.  I need you to react.”

E.E.H.:  “My dear boy, I was reacting.  A man was singing at me.  And my reaction was not, as you described it, ‘expressionless’ – though I can see the similarity – but ‘dumbfounded’.”

D:  “Why?”

E.E.H.:  “Because a man was singing at me.”

FRED ASTAIRE:  “You do understand it’s a musical.”

E.E.H.:  “Mr. Astaire, with all due respect to you as the consummate artiste, there is no need to be patronizing.  (TO DIRECTOR)  The two of us are having this discussion about the advisability of his getting married and out of the blue, the man suddenly bursts into song.  How else can I react but ‘dumbfounded’?”

D:  “Can you think of, maybe, a different reaction?”

E.E.H.:  “Not a different appropriate reaction.  There we are, sitting in my living room.  Not in a theater.  Not in a nightclub.  Not in a saloon.  Where, if I were hearing such beguiling singing as Mr. Astaire’s, my reaction would unquestionably be ‘pleasure’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘infinite delight’.  But two men alone in a living room and one them starts singing… I am entirely ‘dumbfounded’?  Can you think of a more appropriate reaction?”


D:  (ALMOST TEARFUL)  “Nobody ever brought this up.”


F.A.:  (TO DIRECTOR)  “May I?”

D:  (GESTURING “GO AHEAD”)  “I’m really more of a ‘cameras’ person.”

F.A.  (TO HORTON)  “Edward, the whole thing is perfectly sensible.  I don’t want to get married.  I want, instead, to be fancy free.  Buoyant.  Spontaneous.  Unpredictable.  I can’t think of anything more natural in such a situation – particularly in a musical – than to burst exuberantly into song.”

E.E.H.:  I can.”

F.A.  “There is still time to re-cast, you know.”

E.E.H.:  “All right, fine.  How would you suggest I react when you erupt inexplicably into song?  I mean, what do you do when someone’s singing to you?”

F.A.:  “I count in my head until it’s time to join in.  But I am certainly not ‘dumbfounded.’”

D:  “What about ‘bemused’?”

E.E.H.:  “I suppose I could muster ‘bemused.’”

F.A.:  “Hold the phone, Charlie.  I’m selling this throwaway number like nobody’s business and all I get for my efforts is ‘bemused’?”

E.E.H.:  “I could rise from this couch and give you a standing ovation.”

F.A.:  Now who’s being patronizing!”

D:  “Calm down, you two.  I’m sure we can find a suitable reaction.”

E.E.H.:  “I must admit, this is very challenging for an actor.”

F.A.:  “‘Challenging’?  (TO DIRECTOR)  It’s a musical.  I sing.  He listens.”

E.E.H.:  “I have a plethora of reactions.  I can look curious.  I can look terrified.  I am extremely good at looking cold.  Then, of course, there’s my patented ‘double-take’ when I am taken completely by surprise.  Say, how about this?  Mr. Astaire begins singing and I give you one of these.  (HE EXECUTES AN INCOMPARABLE “DOUBLE TAKE”, REACTING TO HIS COMPANION’S “TALK” TURNING UNEXPECTEDLY INTO “SONG.”)

F.A.: Oh, for heavens sake.  No!   

E.E.H:  “Forgive me.  It’s just that I have just never dealt with a challenge of this nature before.  I once faced a firing squad in a movie.  That was a cinch compared to this.  Should there be a similar opportunity, I shall imagine a man singing at me and my reaction will be just right.”  

F.A.:  (TURNING TO DIRECTOR)  “I can’t imagine how he’ll react when I start tap dancing.”

E.E.H.:  “Nor can I, dear boy.  Nor can I.”

It’s a musical.   The audience is conditioned to what to expect.  But if you are embedded in the actual scene when they do it…

I’m not sure “dumbfounded” is that far off the mark.

I mean, you’re in a room with someone.  Suddenly, they’re singing and clickety-clacketing over the parquet…

Actors out there, tell me.

What is the appropriate response? 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Funny Is Funny"

No, actually, it isn’t.

I mean, sometimes it is.  Physical funny has a universal attraction; hence the international appreciation of Charlie Chaplin.  But even then… I mean, you are a wealthy plutocrat – whatever that is – wearing a top hat and a cutaway coat and you see the portrayal of a plutocrat dressed similarly to yourself slipping unceremoniously on a banana peel.

Everyone else is laughing hysterical.  Your reaction:

“That’s not funny.  He probably fractured a hip.”

You see what I mean?  It’s all a matter of perspective.  Or as Mel Brooks’s “Two Thousand Year-Old Man” pithily put it, distinguishing comedy from tragedy:

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger and it bleeds.  Comedy is when you fall in a manhole and you die.”

Individual response to comedy is also a consequence of “brain wiring.”  I recently posted a cartoon whose sublime comedic genius sent me beyond laughter to unbounded worship and adoration of a stranger. 

It was the “Number of Tilda Swinton Spottings in Kansas – Zero” cartoon. 

I get feedback from a regular follower, reporting that he just didn’t get it.  Which is fine.  It’s not a test.  It’s simply a reminder of individual differences.

Still, I pondered why that particular cartoon was a “miss” for him.  I don’t imagine he had any inordinate attachment in either Tilda Swinton or Kansas, nothing to make him take umbrage at Tilda’s being singled out for unsolicited attention or the mid-western state being laughingly unworthy of Swinton’s itinerary.  

It just did not strike him as funny, reminding me that not all “human receptors” are identically attuned, and making me wonder how many of my own humorous excursions have met with equally blank stares. 

Me?  Not funny to everyone?  Makes you want to sit down and quietly take stock.

It is a buffeting revelation.  We appear to speak the same language, but due to individual differences – experiential and bio-chemical, to name two because I can’t think of any more – we don’t.

This took me back to a joke I found hilarious, a joke I recently told my older brother, an acknowledged comedy guru, who laughed so hard – I related it as we were heading down a hotel corridor – that he had to stop and support himself against a nearby wall, unable to proceed down the corridor and laugh as uproariously as he was laughing at the same time.

Confirming to me that it was a genuinely funny joke.

And yet…

A former police officer told me this story, as an example of the local constabulary’s
penchant for “Gallows Humor.”

A child murderer leads his intended victim into the forest at midnight – dark, creepy, ominous predators ready to pounce.  “I’m scared,” exclaims the incipient victim.  To which the child murderer replies, “You’re scared.  I’ve got to walk out of here alone.”

“Black comedy”, to be certain, though harmlessly innocuous in its recitation. 

“No children were imperiled during the telling of this anecdote.”

“It’s just a joke.”  Still, some people… well, let’s set that aside for a second.  Or forever.  I decided not to come back to it.  “Individual taste differences.”  ‘Nuff said.

Viewed from a comedy “receptor” standpoint, it is necessary – momentarily at least – to be able to “turn the situation around”, empathizing – incongruously, which is what makes it funny – with the perilous predicament of the predator.  Some brains are incapable of accommodating such a “reversal.”  (To which some might reply, “Thank God!”)

A final story about perspective.

Decades ago, I took a date to a movie – the original version of The Heartbreak Kid. 

Based on a Bruce J. Friedman (one of my literary heroes) short story, the conceptual comic premise is:

“A man meets “The Girl of his Dreams” while on his honeymoon (with somebody else.)”

The 1972 adaptation cast the new bride (played by Jeannie Berlin) as identifiably – and unflatteringly – Jewish.  The impeccable “Dream Goddess” (played by a luminous Cybill Shephard) was not.

The date I saw the movie with was Jewish.

I think you can finish that one yourself.  She did not yell at me directly.  But when she left in the middle to go to the bathroom, she wreaked holy havoc on the theater manager, for showing “such a terrible movie!”


No comedy concept is immune.

Somebody somewhere will find no reason to laugh.     

And if they’re driving (and you’re insufficiently sympathetic)…

You might wind up going home on the bus.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"I'm Learning More About Classical Music Than, To Be Honest, I Actually Wanted To"

What an unfathomable sentiment.   Who wouldn’t want to learn more about classical music?  Or about anything, for that matter. 

“I prefer to know less about things.”

And why would that be, my moronic red-italics-injecting interloper?

“Conservation of available brain cells.”

For what?

“For what I actually want and might possibly need to know about, unwilling to discover that I had glutted my brain cells with things I had no wish or need to know more about and now I’m sunk!”

Irrefutable logic.  I am leaving that totally alone. 

It’s not that I don’t want to know about classical music, of which I know virtually nothing.  It’s that the way things are going, I am being maneuvered into a situation in which classical music inundates my daily experience, and, being a man famed for his absorptive proclivities, I imagine, by proximity and osmosis, I will learn more about classical music despite any propelling enthusiasm to do so... is all I’m saying.

How is this inundation happening?

It is happening thusly.

Our cable TV package includes, at the end of the line where the channel numbers extend to four digits, fifty music stations, ranging from “Toddler Tunes” to “Hip-Hop Classics” to “Modern Country” to (occasionally overlapping) “Contemporary Christian.”  (There is no “Jew Song” channel that I am aware of.)

Also available for your listening pleasure are “Solid Gold Oldies” and “Stage and Screen” channels, the former frustrating due to its limited repertoire – have they not heard of “Tallahassee Lassie”? – the latter, dominated by recent Broadway blockbusters like The Book of Mormon.  I mean, how long before “Hello, would you like to change religions and get a free book written by Jesus” wears out its comedical welcome?  I laughed already.  Now, how about some memorable numbers from Subways Are For Sleeping and Bajour?   

I chose “Classical Masterpieces” (Channel 1949 on Time-Warner Cable, which is now Spectrum) and its proximate neighbor “Light Classical” (Channel 1950.  Hold on!  While researching the channel numbers, I noticed two pieces by composer Tor Aulin playing simultaneously on both channels.  Call me crazy but I smell cable classical music “Payola!”)

Okay, where was I, before I blew the lid of this odiferous scandal? 

Oh, yeah. 

I chose these classical music alternatives because the selections are interesting, varied and – with the exception of The William Tell Overture better known as The Lone Ranger Theme Song – unfamiliar to me, offering many pleasurable surprises.  

The more provocative question, however – the question I imagine you are asking yourselves this very moment is,

“Why is he listening to music on television at all?”

The answer is as disheartening as it is simple.

Here is a man who recently admitted to, when he was younger, watching fourteen hours of television at one sitting, minus the obligatory meal breaks and “pit stops.”)  Today, you would not know me as the same person, my viewing repertoire curtailed to virtually nothing.  Although, still loyal to the delivery system, I access my classical music diversions on my television.  What can I tell you?  You don’t turn your back on a friend simply because of crap programming. 

Evidence of a deteriorating viewing schedule:

For over a year, I have watched not a single rerun episode of Law & Order SVU.  It took me twelve years to discover that sex crimes was a truly disreputable form of entertainment.  But I got there.

My enthusiasm for the original Law & Order has also finally worn thin.  After twenty-six years of steadfast viewership, I am beginning to find the show disturbingly formulaic. 

Seinfeld reruns?  I am aware of the superiority of the chocolate babka.   I’m bored!

I have cut way back on watching football.  I checked out a game recently and in the span of ten minutes, they stopped play five times because of injuries.  I saw two guys limp off grimacingly after the same play.  I was surprised anyone was willing to replace them.  “Not me, man.  That game’s dangerous.”

The hour dramas are, on aggregate, too grim.  (Though I am kind of partial to Bull.)  The comedies – which was my business, after all – well… they create sitcoms not meant to attract viewers of my generation and – what can I tell you? – I am not attracted to them.    

And, of course, cable news is permanently off the list.  Elaboration unnecessary.  (At times, I find myself reflexively pressing their numbers on my remote.  Then I realize what I’ve done and quickly scamper away.)

As you can see, my viewing alternatives have been seriously decimated.  The question is, with these multiple “cross-outs” on my previous “Must-See” itinerary…

What then am I supposed to watch?

Answer:  Channel nineteen hundred and forty-nine and nineteen hundred and fifty.

Learning to distinguish Bartok from Berlioz.

Hopefully, some day, this will matter to me.

As for now…

I miss actual television.