Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Miller’

Curse Lifted

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

eggs & roots

Eggs In Hands photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2014)

“You didn’t have a choice about the parents you inherited, but you do have a choice about the kind of parent you will be.” Marian Wright Edelman

The curse that shaped the life of my grandmother, the lives of my mother and her brother, the life of my brother, and my own life, has finally been lifted. My brother and his wife lifted the curse, and their daughter Olivia, my charming niece, is the prime beneficiary of their heroic reversal of our family pattern, though I feel gifted by that reversal, too.

With the blessings and support of her parents, Olivia is now living in Los Angeles and embarking on a career as an actor. Whether she succeeds in her chosen profession remains to be seen, but the active support of her parents is the force that dispelled the multi-generational curse. Let me explain.

My mother’s mother Goody was born Gertrude Borenstein in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit in 1899. Her father’s last name was actually Baruchstein, but was changed to Borenstein by hasty immigration officials at Ellis Island. Goody’s parents were orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jews fearful of the machinations of the secular world of America. Goody’s father was a cantor reputed to have a voice so beautiful that whenever he sang even the cynics wept tears of joy. Goody not only inherited a beautiful voice from her father, she was such a talented and beguiling little actress and dancer, that when she was seven-years-old her schoolteacher invited a wealthy Jewish matron to come watch Goody sing and dance and act in the school variety show.

The wealthy matron was so taken with Goody’s talent and charm that she went to visit Goody’s penniless parents and told them she wanted to pay for Goody to study with the best music and dance and drama teachers in Detroit until Goody was old enough to go abroad to continue her studies with European masters of those arts, all to be paid for by this generous matron.

Alas, Goody’s parents thought the wealthy matron was an emissary of the devil, for they believed all actors and dancers and practitioners of non-religious music were vile sinners. So they sent the wealthy woman away and forbade Goody to even dabble in music and drama and dance or any combination thereof.

Fast-forward fifteen years to Los Angeles where Goody gave birth to my mother Avis in 1922 and my uncle Howard in 1926. Avis, as her mother before her, was a fine singer, dancer and actress, and my uncle Howard was a marvelous actor and singer and comedian. Both of them starred in plays at Beverly Hills High, both were Drama majors at UCLA, and both intended to pursue careers as actors despite their parents repeatedly warning them that show biz was a terribly iffy business, the life of an actor no picnic, and it would be a much wiser course for my mother to marry a doctor and for Howard to become a lawyer.

When World War II intervened, Howard joined the Army and served in the Pacific and in the occupation of Japan, while my mother abandoned Drama school the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, went to law school, married my father (a non-Jewish doctor), graduated from law school and started having babies. When Howard returned from Japan, he entered law school and eventually became a big shot entertainment lawyer.

Family legend has it that my brother and I both started singing and dancing and telling jokes a few minutes after we learned to walk, and in actual fact, both of us were high school thespians and singers, and both of us aspired to be actors despite the fierce objections and interventions of our parents. My brother persevered as an actor in college and beyond, but eventually gave up the stage to become an Internet Technology wizard while I abandoned the footlights fantastic a few years after high school and became a writer and musician and pruner of fruit trees.

At last we come to Olivia, the fourth generation of talented performers in our line yearning to become actors, and for the first time in over a hundred years there are no parental objections or obstructions to one of us at least trying to make a go of acting, with Olivia’s parents actually helping her make that go. Hallelujah.

“I have also seen children successfully surmounting the effects of an evil inheritance. That is due to purity being an inherent attribute of the soul.” Mahatma Gandhi

Can you imagine being the parent of a gifted artist or musician or actor or singer and doing everything in your power to stop your child from using her gifts? Seems diabolical, doesn’t it? Yet if you believed that art and music and theatre were evil, truly evil, how could you not try to save your child from such evil? If you believed that artists and musicians and actors were sexual predators who used their arts to seduce and molest innocent young people, how could you not try to keep your child away from such monsters?

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.” Ethel Waters

In 1980 I was given a big chunk of cash (big by my standards) for the movie rights to my first novel Inside Moves and I used a chunk of that chunk to make a short movie Bums At A Grave, which I wrote and directed and acted in with my brother (you can watch Bums gratis on my web site.) At the world premiere of the movie—a party at my house in Sacramento—the guests were asked to come as their favorite movie stars. To my chagrin, my parents made the long trip to attend the party, and to my surprise and delight my mother came as Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899, the same year my grandmother Goody was born in Detroit. Gloria Swanson’s mother was Jewish and married a Lutheran. Gloria was married six times and had several high-profile affairs with powerful men. She was a fiercely independent person best known as an actress, but was also a groundbreaking movie producer, writer, artist, and social activist, as well as a staunch Republican.

My mother’s choice to impersonate Gloria Swanson at the premiere of her sons’ movie puzzled me for many years, and by the time I got around to asking her why she came as Gloria Swanson, my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and did not remember Bums At A Grave or the party, let alone that she came as Gloria Swanson.

But now I think I know why she chose to impersonate Gloria Swanson. For one thing, my mother’s middle name was Gloria, and for all I know Goody gave her that name in honor of Gloria Swanson. But beyond the name, Gloria Swanson was the kind of woman my mother might have been if not for the family curse. Gloria Swanson’s family helped and encouraged her to get into show biz, and once she was in the biz she succeeded despite a thousand obstacles.

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” Arthur Miller

I will never forget the night my mother came backstage after our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, speaking of Jews in hiding, in which I played Mr. van Daan, the character most disapproving of the high-spirited Anne Frank. My parents had come to the play the previous night and damned the performance with their faint and phony praise, but the night of which I speak my mother came alone to see the play.

My mother was always much more present and grounded and warm and relaxed and happy in the absence of my father—so much more honest and forthcoming.

Taking my hands in hers, she looked into my eyes and said, “You were great, Todd. Amazing. I don’t know where you learned all those subtle things you do, but…you’re a great actor.” Then she looked around the stage and out at the hundreds of now empty seats and added, “But you do know, don’t you, that all the other boys are homosexuals and all the girls are whores.”

“Mom,” I said, squeezing her hands, “that’s not true. Some of the boys are homosexuals and some of the girls like sex, but I’m not a homosexual and I’m not a whore.”

“You’re a child,” she said, sadly. “And school is not the real world. The real world is those Nazis coming at the end of the play and killing all the good people.”

The Play’s The Thing

Friday, April 1st, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“More relative than this—the play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” William Shakespeare

Yes, it will only be a staged reading in a tiny theater on the fringes of civilization, but I feel like my play Milo & Angel is about to open on Broadway. And you’re invited! When I was sixteen years old, I decided to try to make my way as a playwright and actor amidst the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but other scenarios intervened, other roads were taken, and all the plays I wrote remained hidden from public view.

True, the actors will be sitting in chairs and holding scripts as they perform, and they will only have rehearsed a few times under the inspired guidance of Sandra Hawthorne, but they will be on a real stage in a real theater (not a living room or a café) imbuing my lines with character. What an amazing process it has been so far, the blessed night still to come—April 13, a Wednesday evening at 7 PM at the Helen Schoeni Theater at the Mendocino Art Center—mark your calendars.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” George Bernard Shaw

I wrote the first act of Milo & Angel in 2005, the year before my father died. The moment the play began to speak itself, I knew it would be both homage to my father and an attempt to exorcise his terrible power over me. Thus I was not surprised when my muse fell silent at the conclusion of Act I, for my father was still alive and I was not sufficiently free of his influence to reveal the darker story I knew Act Two must contain.

Then a few months before my father died, when I knew his death was imminent, I concocted a second act. But a poem or a story or a play that I consciously invent, rarely rings true for me; so the truth of this play, the tender truth, remained waiting in the wings, waiting for my father to die before she felt safe enough to emerge and speak her lines.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.” William Shakespeare

In 2007, my second year in Mendocino, I completed a draft of Milo & Angel that I felt was good enough to send out to the tiny number of theater companies in America who at least pretend to consider plays from writers without agents or influential friends; and this I did. I received a few kindly rejections and little else. I also gave copies to people connected to the Mendocino Theater Company, but got no response from any of them. So my ninth play seemed destined to suffer the same fate as my previous eight.

Then I gave a copy to Kathy Mooney, my friend and counselor, and she shared the play with Valerie McMillan who oversees play readings at the Mendocino Theater Company, and Valerie gave the play to Sandra Hawthorne, and after a time it was decided that Milo & Angel would be one of the plays in this year’s reading series. And I tell you honestly, I am as excited about having my play read in front of an audience—I hope you’ll come—than I was when they made a major motion picture out of my first novel.

Sandra took the helm, as it were, and from the pool of available and willing actors hereabouts cast the six parts. As of this writing, we have had three rehearsals, the cast has changed three times, I have rewritten the play with Sandra’s guidance four times (some scenes seven or eight times), and we only have two more rehearsals until the blessed night befalls us.

The cast members, barring further changes, are Alena Guest, Ruby Belle, Garth Hagerman, Todd Walton, David Woolis, and Julie Burns. I am told that such staged readings hereabouts usually only require of the actors two rehearsals, and this one will have five, so I intend to shower these generous volunteers with gifts (when I see who is still standing at the end.)

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” Arthur Miller

The most exciting aspect of this process so far has been conferring with Sandra after each rehearsal, when the flaws in rhythm and flow, and in my choices of words, are still fresh in our minds, and then figuring out how to fix the problems. With each new draft, the play improves and the emotional content deepens; and if the entire cast quits tomorrow and the reading never happens, I will have been the beneficiary of a priceless collaboration.

I have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of creative collaboration, which is why nowadays I mostly work alone. My more successful collaborations have been with women, whereas the old maxim Never Go Into Business With A Friend rings true as a summation for all but a few of my collaborations with male friends. And what is far more interesting to me than why those attempts at collaboration failed is why I continue to try to collaborate after so many dismal failures.

Having recently had a marvelous musical collaboration with my cellist wife Marcia, and now this excellent writing collaboration with Sandra Hawthorne, I am sorely tempted to say that the problem lies with men. However, I am a man, so perhaps it would be truer to say that the problem lies with me in relation to other men, which brings us, inevitably, to my father, my first and foremost male role model with whom collaboration of any kind was out of the question because he despised everything I loved and thought everything anybody else said about anything was stupid and wrong. Hmm.

I think the rehearsals we’ve had of Milo & Angel—actors sitting around Sandra’s commodious dining table—would make a wonderful basis for a play: people shifting out of their public personas into their characters in the play, their play characters changing as the playwright and director give them feedback, which changes in their play characters impact their public personas—characters quitting, switching parts, new actors coming in and interpreting their characters in ways so unlike the previous interpretations that the play (and the play within the play) shift from comedy to tragedy to farce to…it’s just an idea.

“You need three things in the theater—the play, the actors, and the audience—and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh

I am one who laughs uproariously at things in movies and plays that other people tend not laugh out loud about. (I am thinking of movies such as Young Frankenstein and A Thousand Clowns.) Combine this tendency with the fact that I am my own biggest fan—I just love what I create—and you will understand why I have several times boldly proclaimed to Sandra, “Oh, that will get a big laugh.” To which she has wisely responded, “Audiences for staged readings tend to be small, and small audiences tend not to laugh very much.” Darn. Even so, I feel Milo & Angel, for all the tragedy it contains, is very funny, too. Just like life.

Woody Polanski

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser)

For most of my life it has been my habit (one might even call it a duty) to write letters to artists and authors I admire. I wrote my first fan letter when I was seven years old, the intended recipient Willie Mays. Shortly thereafter I wrote to Will James, the author of Smoky the Cow Horse. Will James was long dead when I wrote to him, but I had yet to learn that authors of books could be dead. When I was seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-two, I wrote long impassioned letters to the playwright Arthur Miller asking if he would take me on as his apprentice. He did not write back. Indeed, most of my letters to writers, directors, artists, and musicians have failed to elicit responses; so now when I write such letters, I expect no replies.

On the other hand, in the course of my own forty-year career as an author and musician, I have received a few dozen letters from people responding to my creations, including much-appreciated missives from readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. And it is inconceivable to me that I would not write back to someone who has taken the time to write to me. Then again, I am not, as the famous must be, inundated with fan mail, so I suppose I should not judge the Great Ones as I judge myself. Except…

British artists and artists from the Commonwealth nations, no matter how famous and busy, almost always respond to my letters, albeit tersely. I attribute this to the British tradition of teaching their young to answer their mail. Among my prizes are a letter from the film director Jane Campion, a note from the actor and director Kenneth Branagh (dictated to his secretary), and a card from the director Nicolas Roeg.

Poets, too, eventually write back, but even moderately famous Americans of other disciplines generally do not. And once in a great while I make a connection with an admired artist that produces a lively correspondence.

Which brings me to Woody Allen. I was a zealous fan from 1965 to 1984, from my teenage years into my thirties, and I continued to attend Woody’s movies until 1995, hoping against hope he would make another good film. I wrote him several letters over the years, none of which he answered. As a young writer, I had been heartened by his leap from clunky sophomoric comedies to carefully crafted comic dramas, and I identified strongly with his evolution as an artist until, to my mind, he ceased to evolve circa 1984. In my final letter to Woody, written in 1993, I suggested he stop making movies for a few years and get a job in a grocery store, or move to Canada and work as a house painter, or get a gig on a fishing boat in Alaska. He was, I felt, not just repeating himself ad nauseam, but missing the chance to transcend the mediocrity inherent to his redundancy.

This redundancy has largely to do with Woody’s obsession with women much younger than he and his concomitant fear of mature women. Woody is now seventy-five, and the younger women in his movies are no longer teeny boppers but starlets in their twenties and thirties. When Woody was thirty-four he made the movie Manhattan in which he proclaimed his preference for docile, naïve, submissive fifteen-year old girls to women his own age. And thereafter, in movie after movie, Woody or his surrogate chooses much younger women over older women because, well…Woody can’t help himself.

If Woody had explored this paramount male obsession in depth rather than length, or if he had varied his story lines and given his female characters complex (i.e. authentic) personalities, or if his movies had continued to evolve as visual works of art, I might have been able to hang with his redundancy of theme. After all, a single overriding obsession drives the work of many great artists. But Woody’s tragedy is that circa 1990 he abruptly and completely lost his finer capabilities as a writer and a director. In seeming desperation (delusion?) he fully regressed to his beginnings as a perennial adolescent lusting after pulchritudinous gals who weren’t exactly bimbos, but were never sharp enough to resist the likes of Woody, a wealthy influential movie director.

Allen’s greatest film, in my opinion, is Stardust Memories, a film he made in 1980 in which he examines his life and motivations more honestly and openly than in any other of his films, and in which he plays a real self, as opposed to his usual self-caricature. His other standout performance is in Broadway Danny Rose, wherein he proves himself capable of superb acting at the expense of his usual schlemiel shtick. In Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, Woody involves himself with women his own age who are not obviously types, and both films suggested to me that Woody was on his way to even greater cinematic creations. Sadly, these were two of his rare box office failures, which apparently scared him away from originality in deference to making money. Oh, well.

Fast forward to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where Woody was on hand to tout his latest movie. And though I long ago ceased to watch his self-aggrandizing voyeuristic flicks, I was fascinated by Woody’s willingness to weigh in on the question of whether Roman Polanski should or shouldn’t be extradited to California for raping a thirteen-year old girl. Woody opined, and I paraphrase, “They should leave Polanski alone. He’s suffered enough.” Suffered? Since when is living like an emperor in a French chalet for twenty years and making big budget movies considered suffering?

And I couldn’t help thinking, “Hold on here, Woody. You married your adopted daughter forty years your junior, having seduced her when she was a teenager under the not-so-watchful eyes of your then wife Mia Farrow, and we’re supposed to give even a whiff of credence to what you think about anything, let alone sexual abuse of a minor?

To be fair, Woody is not, so far as we know, a serial rapist as Polanski is reputed to be, but Woody clearly identifies with the diminutive Polish director. Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with liking beautiful young women or making a movie or two about liking them. I have no doubt that liking attractive young females is burned into the genetic code of the vast majority of male humans, and was burned there to insure the continuance of our species. The problem, and it’s a gigantic world-threatening problem, is that the genetic command to mate with every fertile young woman we can possibly mate with came about over millions of years of evolution during which individual humanoids rarely lived much beyond their teens, and the survival of our widespread little bands was an extremely iffy proposition.

What we need in this time of earth-killing overpopulation is not the glorification of perpetual adolescence, but the glorification of mature love, instinctive generosity, and collective creativity. And I think Woody was heading in that direction when he blew a main fuse. Oh, if only he’d answered my letters. We might have been friends and I could have encouraged him to continue his explorations of those deeper waters where every artist worth his or her salt needs to go.

In any case, here is what I propose for Polanski and Woody. They should be exiled from their places of privilege and given low-paying jobs in working class neighborhoods in Chicago and Cleveland, live in studio apartments, only be allowed to date women their own age, and after a few years of scrabbling for rent money and waiting in line for healthcare and serving the needs of other people, they be allowed to make movies again.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com