Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jack Palance is Dead

Actor Jack Palance, best known for his many tough guy roles, died yesterday at the age of 87. He was probably most famous for his roles in Shane, where he played what could have been the most sinister villain in any Western (hired killer Jack Wilson) and in City Slickers (where he played a parody of his many tough guy roles, aging cowboy Curly).

Palance was born Vladimir Palaniuk near Hazleton, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1919. His father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, was a coal miner. While young he also worked in the mines. He would move onto professional boxing, scoring an impressive 15 wins in a row, with 12 knockouts, before losing to Joe Baksi, a future contender in heavyweight boxing. He served in World War II, and would eventually receive both a good conduct medal, a purple heart, and a Victory medal. Unfortunately, as a student pilot he would also be disfigured after bailing out of a B-24 Liberator that was on fire. Reconstructive surgery reparied much of the damage, but left him with the craggy, gaunt face for which he would become famous.

Following World War II Palance enrolled at Stanford University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama. As an actor his big break came when he was Marlon Brando's understudy on A Streetcar Named Desire. When Brando left the play, Palance replaced him as Stanley. He would go onto appear on Broadway in the plays A Temporary Island, The Vigil, and Darkness at Noon. It was in 1950 that he made his first appearance on television, in an episode of Lights Out. That same year he made his screen debut in the film Panic in the Streets.

The studios swiftly recognised Palance's talent and on his third film he found himself cast opposite Joan Crawford, playing sociopathic actor Lester Blaine. The role would earn him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A year later Palance would appear in Shane as cold blooded gunman Jack Wilson. Palance at the top of his game, giving what may be the greatest performance as a villain of a Western ever. He was again nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Indeed, Palance may have played Jack Wilson too well. The majority of his career would be spent playing heavies. He worked steadily throughout the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, playing in both major motion pictures and B-movies. Among the most notable films in which he appeared were I Died a Thousand Times, Goddard's Le Mepris, The Professionals, Monte Walsh, Batman, and, of course, City Slickers. In City Slickers Palance played Curly, the aging cowboy who also happened to be a parody of all the tough guy roles he had played. His performance would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Much of his success in that film may well have stemmed from the fact that Palance actually preferred lighter roles to playing villains. Indeed, among his more recent performances, that of retired Hollywood set painter Rudi Cox in Out of Rosenheim (known as Baghdad Cafe here in the States) was among his best.

Palance also had a long career in television, although it was primarily as a guest star or an actor in TV movies. Perhaps his most significant performance on television was that of Mountain McClintock in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which aired on Playhouse 90. He won the 1957 Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor. Palance also appeared on such legendary series as Your Show of Shows, Studio One, and Suspense. He also appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Convoy, The Red Skelton Show Run for Your Life, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. He was the lead in the series The Greatest Show on Earth and Bronk. He was also the host of the long running Ripley's Believe It or Not. Over the years Palance appeared in several TV movies, the most significant of which were two made in conjunction with Dan Curtis. The first was an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The second was an adaptation of Dracula. Although Palance might seem oddly cast as Dracula, I honestly believe he may have been the best man to have played the Count besides Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.

I have often thought that Jack Palance's talent was underestimated. His appearance and raspy voice made him perfect for playing villains, yet he could do so much more. While he could be absolutely sinister as Lester Blaine or Jack Wilson, he could just as easily be funny as Rudi Cox or Curly. He could even manage to shine such lesser vehicles as Cops and Robbersons (a Chevy Chase movie, of all things)! Although best known for playing heavies, Palance was capable of so much more. He was quite simply a very versatile actor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

CBS Newsman Ed Bradley Passes On

Newsman Ed Bradley died at age 65 from complications due to leukaemia yesterday morning. He is probably best known as one of the correspondents on 60 Minutes, on which he had been 25 years.

Bradley was born on June 22, 1941 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents would sometimes both work two jobs just to make ends meet. He graduated from Cheney State College with a degree in education. After being a sixth grade teacher, he became a DJ and news reporter for a Philadelphia radio station in 1963. Four years later he got a job as a news reporter at WCBS in New York City. He joined CBS News and started working at their Paris bureau in 1971. A year later he transferred to Vietnam to cover the war. In 1974 he transferred to their Washington bureau. He became a regular news correspondent in 1973. In 1981 joined 60 Minutes. By CBS' standards he was relatively young at the time--he was only 40.

Over the years Bradley covered a wide range of topics. He won awards for his reports on abuse in the largest chain of psychiatric hospitals in the United States and a small town that was the victim of toxic waste. Over the years he interviewed such news makers as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, boxer Muhammad Ali, comedian George Burns, and singer/actress Lena Horne.

He made several achievements in his lifetime. He was CBS News' first black reporter when he joined them in 1971. He was also the first black CBS White House correspondent and the first black correspondent on 60 Minutes. Over the years he won 16 Emmys, as well as a Peabody award, the National Association of Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement award, and many others.

Among the correspondents on 60 Minutes, Bradley was perhaps my favourite. While other correspondents had styles that could easily be described as aggressive (for example, Mike Wallace), Bradley's style was calm, cool, and collected. I can't remember during a news story or interview Bradley ever getting angry or getting shaken up. He was also one of CBS's few correspondents who was not afraid of pop culture. He not only interviewed many entertainers over the years, but he was also a jazz fanatic and knew a good deal about modern American music and American pop culture. Indeed, he even made guest appearances on Murphy Brown and The Chris Rock Show. At the same time, however, he was always a serious journalist who never compromised his principles. For me Bradley added life to a news outlet that could, at least in the Seventies, be stodgy at times. And he made 60 Minutes all the more interesting.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Negative Political Ads

The mid-term elections are over here in the United States. And with their end there will be no more political ads for a while. This year it seems as if nearly every single candidate used negative political ads against his or her opponent. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if candidates were more eager to tell one what his or her opponent stood for rather than what he or she stood for himself. Regardless, while negative political ads seem to be much more common these days, they are nothing new.

Indeed, the most notorious political ad of all time is nearly as old as I am. What became known as the "Daisy Girl" commercial aired all the way back in 1964, during NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. The commercial began with a little girl picking petals off a daisy, and counting them off as she does so. The camera then zooms in on her face as an offscreen voice begins a countdown. At the end of the countdown it zooms into one of her eyes, in which we see the reflection of a nuclear explosion. An offscreen announcer then utters these words, "These are the stakes, to have a world in which all of God's children can live or go into the darkness. We must either love each other or die. Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." While he was never mentioned in the commercial, the message was clear. President Lyndon Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, would get us into a nuclear war.

The "Daisy Girl" commercial was part of a lareger campaign by Johnson and his camp to portray Goldwater as a warmonger who would be reckless in the use of nuclear weapons. And while there were other similar ads which aired, the "Daisy Girl" commercial would air only once. It caused such controversy that it was removed from the airwaves immediately. Having seen the commercial several times, I can understand why. Even today, with both Johnson and Goldwater dead, it still has the power to frighten those of us who remember the Cold War. At any rate, Johnson's campaign to paint Goldwater as a reckless warmonger apparently worked. Goldwater lost the election by a large margin.

Of course, not every negative political ad is as intense or as blatant as the "Daisy Girl" commercial. Another commercial that was fairly negative and perhaps fairly effective as well ran in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. Nixon had chosen controversial Governor of Maryland Spiro Agnew as his running mate. In response, the Democrats ran an ad which featured a TV set with the words, "Agnew for Vice President?" The soundtrack featured a man laughing hysterically. The Democrats apparently thought the idea of Agnew running for Vice President was a joke and thought the voters would agree. As it turned out, many voters apparently didn't. Nixon won, even with Agnew as his running mate.

Another notorious negative political ad aired in 1988, when Republican George Bush, then Vice President, ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts. The ad focused on Massachusetts prison inmate "Willie Horton," who escaped from prison and killed two people--according to the commercial because of Dukakis's policy of letting prisoners go on weekend furloughs. The ad was attacked almost immediately. For one thing, it implied that if elected Dukakis would let prisoners out of jail. For another, it was blatantly manipulative. Indeed, Horton never even went by "Willie," preferring his given name "William."

Over the years it seems as if negative political ads have become more and more common, to the point where they outnumber any other sort of political ad. In fact, I rather suspect that Missouri Senatorial candidates Claire Mccaskill and Jim Talent told us more about each other's records than they did themselves. Are such ads effective? For me that is hard to tell. On the one hand, most people complain about such ads and often state they would rather hear what the candidates themselves stand for than hear the candidates attack each other. On the other hand, it often seems that when a candidate decides to run an overly negative campaign, that candidate wins (Johnson in 1964, Bush in 1988). Regardless, I can guarantee that two years from now, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, we will probably see many more negative ads.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

5 November

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot."

This morning it has been 401 years since Guy Fawkes was captured in a cellar beneath Parliament in England with the intention of blowing up both King James I and Parliament with 1800 pounds of gunpowder (hence the scheme's traditional name--"the Gunpowder Plot"). Fawkes was a member of a group of Catholic conspirators who, wishing to end the oppression Catholics had suffered for many years under the English Protestant monarchy (particularly the Stuart dynasty), sought to end the rule of King James and his Parliament once and for all. The intent of the plot was to detonate the explosives at the opening session of Parliament, where both the House of Lords and House of Commons would be addressed by the king. This would kill not only the king and his family, but most of the aristocracy as well. Fawkes, a career military man, was chosen to execute the plot itself because of his experience with explosives. The plot was uncovered and Fawkes was captured in the cellar beneath Parliament. Here it should be pointed out that the Parliament building that Fawkes sought to blow up in 1605 is not the same Parliament building that stands today. It burned in 1834 and then the present day Parliament was built (it took 30 years to do so and was finished in 1870).

In commemoration and celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, King James I instituted 5 November (since it is a British holiday, I might as well use British dating) as a national holiday. Perhaps the most notable elements in the celebration are the use of effigies (called "guys," after Fawkes himself) and the burning of bonfires (hence one of the celebration's other names--"Bonfire Night"). Traditionally, prior to the Fifth, the effigies or "guys" would be carried around, usually, but not always, by children who would ask for "a penny for the guy." The night of 5 November bonfires would be built on which the guys would be burnt. At one time effigies of the Pope would also be burnt, although that practice died long ago. Naturally, the night is also celebrated with fireworks. In fact, more fireworks are used in the United Kingdom on 5 November than on any other day of the year. Here it should be pointed out that even though the holiday is often called "Guy Fawkes Day" here in the United States, the bulk of the celebration takes place on the night of 5 November and hence is called in the United Kingdom and most of its other colonies "Guy Fawkes Night" or "Bonfire Night" and even in some places "Fireworks Night."

Beyond the use of effigies or "guys," the building of bonfires, and the use of fireworks, there are also other traditions associated with Guy Fawkes Night. In some areas of the UK, "bonfire toffee," a toffee made with black treacle, is eaten at this time. Parkin, a cake also made from black treacle, "toffee apples (apples coated on toffee and placed on sticks)," and baked potatoes are also eaten at this time. There is also the famous rhyme associated with Bonfire Night--"Remember, remember, the fifth of November..."

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated across the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, and Britain's colonies in the Caribbean. Until the 1980s it was celebrated in Australia, but died out when they banned the commercial sale of fireworks. In what would become the United States in 1775 George Washington ordered his troops not to burn the Pope's effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. This and the general dismissal of various British traditions by the American Colonists would result in the United States ceasing to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

As perhaps the most prominent British holiday besides Christmas and New Year's Day, Guy Fawkes Night has naturally found its way into pop culture. As early as 1606 John Rhodes wrote a verse telling of the Gunpowder Plot. Several other bits of literature dealing with Guy Fawkes and the Plot were written in the following decades, most of them largely forgotten. John Milton, best known for Paradise Lost, wrote the verse "On the Gunpowder Plot" and many believe that the portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, in which the Devil is said to have invented gunpowder, is largely influenced by Fawkes. By the 19th century Guy Fawkes Night was a firmly rooted tradition and found its way into many pieces of British literature. In the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Janes theorises that Miss Abbot thinks of her as a latter day Guy Fawkes. The historical novel Guy Fawkes by William Harrison Ainsworth, published in 1842, treated Fawkes sympathetically. In Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Bonfire Night plays a pivotal role in the plot. Hardy even describes in depth of traditions associated with the holiday. Charles Dickens referred to Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and Bonfire Night in several of his works, including The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield. More recently, Dylan Thomas dealt with the plot in one of his poems. The fifth of November and Guy Fawkes are also pivotal in the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and most of which was illustrated by David Lloyd. A film version was released in 2005 (it will be detailed more fully below). In Neil Gaiman's series of Sandman graphic novels, in "The Wake," it is said that William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson created the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse as a joke. In the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore's phoenix is named Fawkes, perhaps because both Guy Fawkes and the phoenix are associated with fire.

The fifth of November has also been remembered in song. In 1612 John Wilson wrote a short song about the Gunpowder Plot. In the song "Remember" by John Lennon, featured on the album Plastic Ono Band, the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse is quoted. These lyrics are followed by an explosion. On the vinyl record of The Smiths' album Strangeways, Here We Come, the words "Guy Fawkes was a genius" on inscribed.

Despite the continued popularity of Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes has not figured prominently in movies. In 1923 a movie called Guy Fawkes, featuring Matheson Long in the title role, was released. Guy Fawkes appeared in the comedy Carry On Henry, the Carry On..." crew's send up of Henry VIII, although it must be pointed that his presence was an anachronism (Henry had been dead three years when Fawkes was born). Like the graphic novel, Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes figure prominently in the film V for Vendetta. Indeed, the movie was originally slated to be released on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The film even used the famous "Remember..." verse as a tagline. Unforutnately, it was ultimately delayed until December 2005 in the United States and March 2006 in the UK. Some believe this was due to the bombings that took place on the tube in London on July 7 and July 21 of that year. There have been a few other references to Guy Fawkes and Guy Fawkes Night on film. In Hangover Square (released in 1945), one character disposes of a body by disguising it as a guy and tossing it onto a bonfire. The film also include two boys who elicit a "penny for the guy" from the same character and who recite the famous verse to him. Guy Fawkes is also mentioned in the Richard Linklater film Slacker.

On television a mini-series based on the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot, titled Gunpowder, Treason and Plot aired in the UK in March 2004. Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night has also been referenced on various TV series. In The Avengers episode "November Five," John Steed and Cathy Gale must thwart a modern day version of the plot in which a nuclear warhead is going to be used to blow up Parliament instead of gunpowder. In The Simpsons parody of Mary Poppins, "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious," Bart tells Sherri Bobbins that every day is Guy Fawkes Day for her. An episode of the animated series Daria featured the spirit of Guy Fawkes, although he looked and acted like Sid Vicious. The episode "Guy Fawkes" of the Britcom Barbara is set on Bonfire Night. There have also been several television documentaries over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing on the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes.

In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot and the decades, even centuries that followed, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were often vilified. This has changed to some degree, perhaps largely due to the easing of tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England and perhaps largely due to changing opinions on the Stuart dynasty. Today it is not unusual for Fawkes to even be regarded as a hero. This is most obvious in both the graphic novel and the motion picture V For Vendetta, where Fawkes is portrayed as fighting against oppression. To a degree the ideas presented in V for Vendetta are nothing new. As early as 1842 Ainsworth took a sympathetic approach in portraying Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. Indeed, in a 2002 poll conducted by the BBC on the "100 Greatest Britons," Guy Fawkes made the list at number 30 (above such personages as Henry V, John Wesley, and J. R. R. Tolkien). The list included such people as Winston Churchill (who ranked at number one), John Lennon (who ranked at number 8), and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (who came in at number 9). It would seem, then, that opinions on Fawkes have changed dramatically over the years. Whether regarded as a hero or villain, however, I suspect that Guy Fawkes Night will not soon be forgot.