Tuesday, January 5, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Unforgettables

Unforgettable — Natalie and Nat.
by Liz Smith

Natalie Cole — A Great Artist Leaves Way Too Soon ... "SPQR" — A History of Scandalous Doings in the Ruins of Rome ... Aretha Rules! ... The Bad Wigs of "The Big Short."

"MANY well-off inhabitants of the empire also led lives of privileged comfort. Vociferous Roman disapproval of 'luxury' and admiration for the simple old-fashioned peasant life coexisted, with massive expenditure and luxurious habits. Disapprovers always need something to disapprove of; and, in any case, the distinction between exquisite good taste (mine) and vulgar ostentation (yours) is necessarily a subjective one."
Julius Caesar outside the Louvre.
SO writes Mary Beard in her fascinating revisionist book, "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome."

Ms. Beard, a renowned historian ("The Fires of Vesuvius," "Confronting the Classics") takes what we think we know about the first few hundred years of the Roman empire, and re-directs the focus away from gossip, political character assassination or elevation, to the much more plausible possibilities of how an unprepossessing little town became the capital of the world.

The author points out that "There is no one history of Rome" because of the size of the empire, and that that history is constantly being re-written and re-imagined as new discoveries are made.

"SPQR" is an elegant detective story, in its way, unmasking, as much as we can, each of the "usual suspects" (Cicero, Pliny, Julius Caesar, Octavian/Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and the early kings of Rome, about whom myths and legends swirl; but hard facts are difficult to come by.) The book ends with Rome approaching its peak. Beard leaves the next inevitable tale of Rome's decline and fall to another — and who could blame her? "SPQR" runs a majestic 500-plus pages.
Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari, 1888.
Nero, who succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death.
I APPRECIATED the sober, yet still lively research, the debunking of some delicious myths, the intricate and scrupulous examination of Rome's political vagaries — from kings to a "republic," to the fabled emperors, and the pondering over a people who did not set out to conquer the world, although that became their own belief, once the empire became an empire. (Even if you cherish improbably juicy representations of antiquity such as TV's "I, Claudius" or "Rome" this book provides great, if slightly less colorful pleasure.)

Beard observes at the conclusion, that her history "still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent ... the idea of 'desolation' masquerading as 'peace,' (as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome's British enemies), still echoes in modern critics of imperialism. And the lurid vices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins."
Destruction, Thomas Cole, 1836.
THE DEATH of Natalie Cole, at age 65 came as a shock to most of her fans, who hadn't realized she was sinking from her long struggle with her health. I met the great singer several times and she couldn't have been more charming and accessible and likeable. No airs, no attitude. She had a terrific career, which consisted of more than just her famous cover/duet "Unforgettable" — her voice melded with that of her iconic father, Nat King Cole. (That was in 1991, but Natalie had been a big star since 1976.)
Singing "Unforgettable" with that of her iconic father, Nat King Cole.
However, I was a little disturbed at some of the coverage immediately after her passing, which focused on the decades old drug problems that likely contributed to her contracting hepatitis C. This in turn led to her heroic but unending battle with various illnesses, including a kidney transplant. I read one piece that stated, "Another talent squandered, like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston."

What? Squandered? Natalie Cole had cleaned up her act long ago, and never fell back on her old ways. She was upfront and honest about her abuse and how it came to so negatively affect her body.
No offense meant to Jackson or Houston, but they really did squander their talent and ruin their lives and careers. Natalie Cole vanquished her demons and nurtured her great gift. She paid the price for her addiction, but she also learned her lesson and learned to live with what she'd done to herself, with grace and dignity.

RIP, Natalie Cole. You went way too soon.
P.S. David Campbell, the well-known Australian entertainer, wrote movingly about Natalie, noting her career — reminding us of "Wild Women Do" and "Pink Cadillac" — but even more about her as a person, her approachability, graciousness, her "wonderful, generous spirit."
Aretha performing "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors telecast.
A LEGEND who is still with us, thankfully, is the one and only Aretha Franklin. And if you missed, in the glut of Christmas specials or personal holiday traveling or entertaining, Miss Franklin's performance of Carole King's "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors telecast, I order you to go to YouTube right now!

Not only was Aretha in blazing good voice, she came out onstage like the I-don't-give-a-damn diva she is. Holding a purse (Why? Why not? — The Queen of England is never without her purse!) and draped in a politically incorrect floor-length mink coat. She was every inch what we want a star to be. Then she sat down at the piano, began to play, and sing, and reminded us that before the likes of Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga, there was multi-tasking Aretha. And baby, when she got up and let that mink fall to the floor, whoa! (Miss Franklin is in the 6th decade of her fame. What star, today, 50 years from now, is going to give you the real deal, the real talent, the total commitment, passion and professionalism of Aretha? Sorry, nobody. Not even Adele.)

The entire number, and everything about Aretha's presence was spine-tingling. Probably the best piece of entertainment/art I saw over the holidays.

Oh, about the purse. It was probably stuffed with cash. Aretha was famous back in the day for always insisting on being paid in cash when she could get away with it. (Yes, it was not a concert, but a tribute to composer Carol King, but why allow sentiment to cloud one's mind to the bottom line? Floor-length mink coats are expensive.)
I WENT to see "The Big Short" which is a jazzed up true life tale about the financial disaster of the mid-2000s. I wasn't especially attracted to the story, but I was intrigued by the incredible cast — Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo. I didn't end up liking it, despite the cast and some good performances — especially from Steve Carell. The subject matter simply didn't make sense to me.
But what actually made me crazy was the hair — the wigs — on all the male stars. Not only did they look like wigs, they were totally unnecessary. It's not like this story happened in the 1970s or '80s or even the '90s. Hairstyles haven't altered appreciably since 2005. I found this wildly distracting.

The director tried to make the tale as "user friendly" as possible, and I know it has received some great reviews — and the theater was packed! — but it just wasn't my cup of corrupt financial crisis.

The wigs, however, are hilarious.
Contact Liz Smith here.