Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Great and the Grand

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833. Courtesy of The National Gallery.
Great Queens, Great Cities, Great "Good Girls" and the Truly Grand (and Great!) Olivia de Havilland!  
by Denis Ferrara

“THE QUEEN, my cousin who came to the throne so kindly, assuring us that everyone should find God in their own way, executed my sister for her faith, and now brings the Holy Inquisition to torture everyone  else and burn Jane’s believers.  Not me!  I am not going to be imprisoned for a form of words.  I am not going to be beheaded for failing to curtsy of the Host, or forgetting to dip my fingers in the stoup, or any other thing that is life and death today, but did not even exist yesterday.”

Lady Jane Grey.
Queen Elizabeth I.
Those are thoughts put into the mind of Katherine Grey, sister of 16-year-old Jane Grey, who was foolishly put on the throne by her ambitious family for nine days, in rebellion against Queen Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. Jane was beheaded, and, in time, became a martyr for the Protestant faith.

Katherine Grey’s bitter musing comes from the latest historical fiction, “The Last Tudor” from Phillipa Gregory.  (Indeed, the author says this will be her final book about Tudor women.)  Gregory has written a lot of yeasty takes on history, including “The White Queen” and “The White Princess” which were made into very entertaining miniseries, and “The Other Boleyn Girl” which spawned a most disappointing movie. 

I knew the history of the Grey sisters — well, Jane and Katherine, anyway.  There was another, Mary, who came to a somewhat better end.

“The Last Tudor” reads like Windsor Palace afire, and in no small measure this is because of the relentless Queen Elizabeth I bashing that the Grey sisters — killed, persecuted, imprisoned — voice continuously.  I enjoyed all this catty made-up chat as I’ve never been a big fan of The Virgin Queen — neurotic, indecisive, and intransigent, hopelessly vain.

Still, she reigned for 44 years and that period is known as The Golden Age.  So, we have to give credit where credit is due. (She’s actually no more onerous in her actions than most male monarchs, including her papa, Henry. Elizabeth could not allow a man — or another woman — to rule her, threaten her throne and position.  Elizabeth, genuinely virginal or not, was always ... edgy, at the end of the day.)  I prefer the foolish courage of Mary, Queen of Scots or the saga of Marie Antoinette, the much maligned “Austrian woman” who became wise too late. Mary and Marie lost their heads, but justified or not, they are more appealing across the centuries. 

In any case “The Last Tudor” satisfied my interest in the facts of history, and in vividly goosing up history where facts are either hard to prove or nonexistent.
MY interest in historical fiction began way back when I was in the fifth grade, and came across a battered potboiler about the 6th Century Byzantine emperor Justinian and his empress Theodora. This book, the title of which is lost to memory, was pretty lurid — Theodora was, after all, a prostitute who made her way up the ladder to empress of the great city of Byzantium. (She got religion later on and did good works, but I liked her best as a working girl with her eye on the prize.)

Not only did I become hooked on this sort of trashy literature, I also developed a keen interest in actual history, which I found much to my preternaturally precocious delight, often just as trashy! And the story of the Byzantine Empire which flowered as Rome declined, fascinated me. 
Century Byzantine emperor Justinian and his empress Theodora.
So what a pleasure to dive into Bettany Hughes’ “Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities.”  Known as Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, this is the defining history of a city that has at times ruled the world, and been vanquished by it; rising, falling, opulent, ravaged, pagan, Christian, Muslim.  Author Hughes, whose “Helen of Troy” was so impressive several years ago, writes with passion, affection and realism about the “three cites” and the centuries, wars, massacres, religions, legends and people, great and common that shaped each era.  At 600-plus pages this is not a casual beach read.  I will probably go through several of the denser chapters again.
And in the end, this city that has inspired so many exotic fantasies and deadly realities remains in the author’s words …”complex, each chapter interwoven with the next, it does not satisfy our desire for unitary explanations of how the story of the world runs.  As a city Istanbul is both ‘ours’ and ‘other’; it is a cosmopolis that defies categorization.”

Now, if only I could find that trashy fiction about Theodora and Justinian.  I’d put it proudly on my bookshelf right next to Ms. Hughes’ elegant, massive and serious work. 
BIG shout-out to Christina Hendricks who is starring in NBC’s new series “Good Girls.”  The show, about three housewives with financial issues who fall into a life of crime, is sort of like TNT’s “Claws,” with better manners. But it is almost as entertaining, and the majority of the pleasure derived from the show is because of the steely desperation and power conveyed by Hendricks, best known for her seven  seasons as Joan Harris on “Mad Men.”  Hendricks really knows how to hold a scene and rivet your attention. 

Hendricks’ partners in crime are Mae Whitman and Retta. Whitman’s relentlessly smart-aleck attitude is amusing initially, and then grating — it’s like watching an endless loop of Ellen Page in “Juno.”  (Her character, who is supposed to be Hendricks’ sister, is also gifted with this year’s pop culture accessory du jour — a transgender child.)  Retta is a very good actress, but cast as the wife of youthful-looking Reno Wilson (Carl from “Mike and Molly”), I keep thinking in their scenes together that he is living with his mother.  (Retta’s character also has a child in trouble, suffering a dire illness.) 
Mae Whitman, Christina Hendricks, and Retta in “Good Girls.”
Matthew Lillard is skin-crawlingly loathsome as Hendricks’ no-account estranged hubby and Manny Montana, a tatted-up criminal, is appropriately menacing and amused by these desperate women on the edge. David Hornsby is effective as Whitman’s employer at a supermarket — he has been unable to bed her, so now he’s trying to blackmail her and/or expose the women in their new life of pulling off heists and laundering money. (The show could be more accurately titled “Good Girls/Bad Men.”)
Manny Montana as Rio.
But this is Christina Hendricks’ party. I don’t know that I’ve seen her in much of anything other than “Mad Men” — although I’ve been advised to catch a spoofy little series, “Another Period” in which she appeared.  So she is something of a revelation to me.  It’s not that Hendricks was wasted on “Mad Men” but that was just a taste of what she can do.

I’m putting “Good Girls” down as one of the few shows I watch on “regular” TV. (Not Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.)   If it gets a second season, I’d only recommend the writers tone down Mae Whitman’s endless sarcasm; a little of that goes a long long way. 
WHILE IT is likely a good thing for the First Amendment, I am still rather sorry that Olivia de Havilland did not get more bang for the buck of her effort in suing producer Ryan Murphy and the FX network.  The 101-year-old legend objected to the way she was portrayed in Murphy’s sometimes fanciful “Bette and Joan” miniseries.  Murphy of “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story” story fame, plays so fast and creatively loose with the facts that during the run of his “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” series it was interesting — and useful! — that a number of writers did a “what’s true and false” take on every episode. 
Olivia de Havilland played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Feud."
I began this column full of praise for historical fiction, however I think when the people fictionalized are out of togas or whalebone corsets, and some are still very much alive, a little gentlemanly humanity might not be such a bad thing. 

And now that Ryan Murphy has “won” I think he might man up enough to offer an apology to Miss de Havilland; whether he thinks one is justified or not.  The same goes to Catherine Zeta Jones, who played Olivia in “Feud.”

After all, someday, Mr. Murphy or Miss Zeta-Jones might find themselves the subject of a movie about their lives, creatively gussied up for an audience whom the court decided should “reasonably” expect such a program to not be entirely factual. 

If false dialogue or misleading action somehow interprets their lives, Murphy and Zeta-Jones might not feel quite so eager to wave around the U.S. Constitution. (Although at this point, I don’t see either one becoming so interesting that such projects would materialize.)

And while we don’t want to put a chill on free speech or creative writing, I still love the fact of Miss de Havilland’s hot but dignified pursuit of justice and fairness  as she sees it. 
If Looks Could Kill — Olivia confronts Agnes Moorehead in "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte."  I'd love to see Olivia face to face with Ryan Murphy!    
Contact Denis here.