“THE TRAGEDY of life is what dies inside a man while he lives,” said Albert Schweitzer.
THE BIG casting news this week was the choice of Austin Butler to portray the role of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming big screen biopic about Elvis.
Yeah, I never heard of him either, although he’s racked up a slew of Nickelodeon, Disney, CW, ABC-Family, MTV credits, a couple of movies, and he’s “had Broadway” in last season’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
Austin beat out the likes of Miles Teller (no, no, no!) and Harry Styles (no, but would have been interesting) to interpret the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Physically, I always thought Justin Bieber had the right look. But Bieber now brings too much of his own name, fame and baggage. Not to mention the small fortune in makeup it would take to cover those absurd tattoos. A relative unknown is best.
More concerning, to me, is the choice of Luhrmann as director. He is best known for the justifiably beloved “Strictly Ballroom,” the beloved-by-many “Moulin Rouge!” and the absolutely terrible adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” (Also, the chaotic “Australia”— six movies in one!) There is such a thing as an excess of over-the-top style. We shall see. Presley deserves something spectacular, but not distracting.
I’ve always thought of Elvis as a rather tragic figure. Not because of his early death (age 42) his bad habits, hideous jumpsuits or rather infantile lifestyle. That’s par for the course for so many legends. It was the squandering of his potential as an actor. Elvis is so charismatic and appealing in his first four films, particularly “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole.” He coulda been a contenda! He was certainly, IMO, a far better actor than James Dean, whose mannered, tortured posturing is painful to watch.
Then came the army, the death of his mother, the continued bad advice of manager Col. Tom Parker. Presley, iconic within a year of his breakthrough, swiftly became production line merchandise with shoe polish black hair (he was actually a blond), a somewhat altered face, and an air of desperate boredom, only occasionally alleviated — as in the case of “Viva Las Vegas” when he realized the volcanically talented and very ambitious Ann-Margret was shimmying away with that film.
Even when the string of increasing foolish movies ended, Presley lived a peculiarly insular isolated life — more so than Michael Jackson, who at least toured the world in concert. (Well, Jackson saw hotel rooms around the world.) Elvis, except for his time in the army, stationed in Germany, never left the U.S. again. Of course he made his great TV comeback, mounted wildly successful concerts, and regained his standing as a hit-making artist (“In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” Kentucky Rain,” “The Wonder of You”). But he seemed trapped, and increasingly on the edge of self-caricature — the inevitable fate of almost all wildly distinctive stars.
Presley is one of the few male singers I enjoy listening too, along with Sinatra, Chris Isaak, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, a few others. Presley had a great talent — so great that he even made a lot of the crap he recorded for most of his later films, sound significant. And although Mahalia Jackson reigns supreme for me in the gospel genre, Elvis comes pretty close.
In a recent orgy of CD ordering from Amazon (I sure do miss browsing in record stores) I purchased “Elvis: Way Down in the Jungle Room,” his last studio recordings. Whatever else Presley was going through, the man still had his pipes! I am particularly taken with his rendition of “Hurt.”
Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler — do right by Mr. Presley!
My other CD purchases included Madonna’s “Madame X.” Listen, I’m glad she’s still here, I’m happy the album hit No. 1 (her 9th to reach that peak). Do I know what she’s trying to say, musically? Does she? She is not gathering moss or trading in nostalgia, that’s for sure!
I also picked up “The Shangri-Las: Myrmidons of Melodrama,” a new definitive collection. I’d almost forgotten the power of such giddily grim masterpieces as “Dressed in Black,” “Past, Present and Future,” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” Of course, there’s no forgetting “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love — L-U-V!” which kicks off “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.”
And because I can never have enough re-mastered Judy, I also sent for “Judy Garland: Four Classic Albums Plus.” This includes four of her great Capitol discs, “A Star is Born,” “Judy,” “Miss Show Business” and “Alone.” The latter collection, aside from “Judy at Carnegie Hall” is Garland’s greatest album, moody and melancholic to the max. One must pick themselves up off the floor after her rendition of “Blue Prelude” (“All the love I could steal, beg, or borrow/Wouldn’t heal all this pain in my soul/What is love but a prelude to sorrow/With a heartbreak ahead for your goal. Here I go. Now you know why I’m leaving. Got. The. Blues! What can I lose? Goodbye.”)
THIS ‘N That:
The Emmy nominations. Clearly the voters were treated to a different final season of “Game of Thrones” than the fans were! That slew of nominations is absurd.
I’m in a good place about most of the nominees, especially Michelle Williams for “Fosse/Verdon,” Laura Linney for “Ozark” and Billy Porter for “Pose.” I was surprised to see Robin Wright nominated for “House of Cards” as I don’t know a soul who has watched it since Kevin Spacey was ousted. I wish Julia Louis-Dreyfus had taken herself out of competition — isn’t six enough?! But nobody since Candice Bergen has ever traveled down that humble road.
Here’s who I’d like to see nominated next year — Margot Martindale for “Sneaky Pete” and Ellen Barkin for “Animal Kingdom.” Note to “AK” producers — if you are intending to kill off Barkin’s fabulously loathsome character, Smurf, which looks likely, then kill the show. She IS the show. As much as I enjoy the beefcake of her criminal boys, she’s the evil engine that motors this series. (Newcomer to “AK” Emily Deschanel is, forgive me, just terrible.)
…MORE TV: Bad shows I can’t stop watching — HBO’s “Years and Years” and “Euphoria.” The first tackles a grim, dystopian near future, the latter a grim look at what HBO imagines in our current teenage wasteland. “Years and Years” exists to outrage and terrify us even more than we already are — that’s entertainment, folks!
“Euphoria” exists to utterly depress us as to what’s the matter with kids today. “Euphoria” is at least visually compelling, and its star Zendaya, is excellent. But who is the series for? I’d never allow a kid to watch it, not even as a cautionary tale. There’s a sleazy voyeurism to it that even I (even I!) find off-putting. But, yeah, I’m still watching.
…FINALLY re the small screen — so glad that the deliciously rebooted “One Day at a Time,” cancelled by Netflix, has been picked up for a fourth season, to appear on something called Pop TV. I am going to assume that the new season will be as amusing and significant as the first three. (And that Rita Moreno will continue delivering an epic comic performance as the high-heeled grandma of the series.) But, I am already up to my elbows paying for Netflix and Amazon. I’ve been tempted by Hulu, by Acorn TV, by BritBox. I’m gonna have to pass on Pop.
…GREAT that director/writer Linda Yellen’s “Fluidity” movie is now being aired a lot on Showtime. This is among the best films about millennials sorting out their lives, looking to connect, struggling for intimacy in the stripped-bare landscape of unforgiving social media. It’s powerful without being heavy-handed, amusing but not condescending, sexy, but deftly avoiding the gratuitous. Even in our fast-moving times, Linda Yellen’s “Fluidity” will look of the moment, urgent and timely, years from now.
FIFTY YEARS ago tomorrow, millions around the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I watched it in a bar, and was less impressed by that “one giant leap for mankind” than I was busy wondering why people drank so much! (I would be fully 19 before liquor passed my lips. And after that I never wondered again why people drank.)
On the very same day, on earth, in Turkey, archaeologist Iris Love discovered the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos. Later in the year, the New York Times would announce the discovery and put Love on its front page. I read that story, and was fascinated, as I was by a fairly massive piece in The New Yorker, a year later. As a huge fan of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse mythology, not to mention an admirer of all decorative ruins and statuary, Love’s name and her historic discovery stayed in my head. (As did her nickname “the mini-skirted archaeologist.” Nobody was woke then, Ok?)
Who knew that 11 years later, on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, in the company of new acquaintance Liz Smith, wearing my first (and last!) tuxedo, I would actually meet Iris Love? It was a Met Costume Exhibit. My late cousin, Stephen de Pietri, worked with Diana Vreeland. (And was he stunned to see me swan up on the arm of New York’s most famous gossip columnist.) I was in the early days of getting to know Liz, scribbling items, learning to type, being sent to shows and screenings. And there was Iris, in some sort of white Greek goddess one shoulder gown. Apparently, she and Liz knew each other and engaged in lively chat. Three years later I was working out of Liz’s East 38th Street office and there I would often encounter Iris, pit-stopping between her travels to China, Italy, and other far flung places. We became friends. We still are.
I am not scholarly enough to properly honor Iris’ discovery and her ferocious, passionate commitment to that discovery. Her biographer will do that.
I can speak today only of how little she has changed in all these years. She retains a guileless quality, a sense of wonder and playfulness. She still loves her dachshunds — all dogs, really. (Iris won the Westminster Kennel Club Show in 2012) she still takes wonderful photographs. She still has great legs. Her mind is as nimble as ever. She is still almost always invariably late. It is almost always not her fault, and, of course, she is forgiven instantly.
Iris, honey — the moon seems to have been abandoned, but here on earth Aphrodite still casts her spell. And so do you. Love, Denis.
MEMO TO Myself: Don’t ever exercise again!
It’s been years since I did the thrice-weekly gym thing — a decade long aberration that I don’t miss at all. But daily, I do still try to lift and stretch, crunch and push up — just enough enough to keep myself from falling into a gelatinous heap of late middle-age flesh. It’s a matter of looking reasonably neat in my clothes and not fainting if I get a glimpse of my unclad body.
However, I am reconsidering even the minimal amount of effort I put into this pointless vanity. Over a week ago, I was exerting myself with 12 pound dumbbells — an exercise focusing on my shoulders that I have done for years. Two hours later, I was feeling odd. The next morning I found myself nearly paralyzed. I could not move my neck to the right or left. At all. Painful. I couldn’t believe my timid old attempts to keep a shapely and strong trapezius had led to this. After days of disorienting pain I was pretty much convinced I had a serious, if not potentially fatal, head cold/sinus infection and/or a tumor of some sort. Soon I would go to sleep and die. Obviously, that did not happen.
My doctor, when I finally got up the courage to see her, told me it was most likely a pinched nerve. “Get yourself into a neck brace, use Ben-Gay” (Nothing from the peanut gallery, thank you). “Take Aleve!”
So, that was vaguely comforting. (I still think it might be a brain tumor.)
What was less comforting was my walk from NYU to the Port Authority. I’d taken a car from Hoboken to my doctor’s office — it was a very early appointment. But then I decided to walk back to the PA from my doc — after all, I was a week without exercise. A walk would do me good, yes? Uhhhh…no.
Attempting to navigate the packed streets of Manhattan when one does not have the ability to turn one’s head is daunting, scary! Twice I tripped over people who were busy looking at their phones. One person — a woman — didn’t even notice. The other, a guy, chastised me: “Watch where you’re going, old man!” He was about 30.
I am wearing my neck brace. I am slathering on the Ben-Gay. (Some people object to the strong medicinal odor — I like it.) I am gulping Aleve. I still can’t move my head. If I have to speak to anyone who is not directly in front of me, I must move my body completely; no coy head turns or subtle nodding. It’s dramatic, robotic, Frankenstein-ish. My entire body is now very declarative — whether I am declaring anything or not.
I think I should finally learn how to swim. Of course, that would require a bathing suit in public.
Yoga? Yoga at home? Yeah, that’s it.