Listen. Just amazing.
I wish I could remember where or when.
But sometime in the last 12 years, under circumstances I can’t recall, I found myself in a small room with several others preparing to listen as Marian Seldes, the legendary actor who died earlier this week at the age of 86, recited a poem.
The first and only introductory words she spoke was the title: The Truly Great by Sir Stephen Spender.
And then she began. No commentary.
I was stunned. The poem has always been a favorite of mine, a classic panegyric ending with a soaring verse about those who, even during short lives, choose to live with fiery passion and leave us in awe of their courage and honor.
It was magic, and however in the world I found myself in that room, I will always be grateful.
And always will remember Marian Seldes as one who, as Spender wrote:
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour
Marian Seldes. Dim the lights.
I have a confession.
People in my line of work spend a lot of time studying society and its institutions (in my case, the criminal justice system, traumatic violence, and mass media institutions) and often keep ourselves out of the analysis. Far too often, some of the great discussions I have had with my students at Hunter College have focused on their attitudes and their behavior as members of a global audience in the digital age.
But I’m an audience member too, and — like all audience members — I have personal tastes and preferences in media and culture, even tastes that lead me smack dab into 100 proof fandom. And I mean heart quickening, wobbly-leg fandom that can border on lunacy.
The little compartment where my insane fan resides is usually well guarded and secured with inhibitions and my basic shyness. But it is also one heck of a lively place, and where pretty much all my cynicism about the culture of celebrity goes down the drain, replaced by the same kind of uncritical adulation and infatuation that I sometimes have the nerve, the downright hypocrisy, to make fun of when I see it in other people.
So here goes nothing.
I love Wanda Sykes.
I love her gut splitting hilarity, her irreverence, her incredible personal courage, her love for her children and wife, her live standup performances so hilarious that they should come with the same warning about heart disease and pregnancy that you see on roller coasters, and the forthright and unique way she speaks about social justice issues.
I love Wanda Sykes.
I love the fearless and drop-dead funny performance she gave in front of President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner several years ago.
I love the occasional appearances she made on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing a character with an acutely tuned BS meter who almost immediately saw through all of Larry’s antics, including his occasional lapses into subtle and not-so-subtle racism.
I love how she fearlessly wades into the complicated and uncomfortable morass of the awkward relationships between whites and people of color.
But most of all, I love the pure physical feeling of laughing so hard that I completely lose control of so many of the restraints and inhibitions and neuroses that are part of who I am.
It is joyful. It is liberating. It makes me the kind of less intense, less clench-fisted, less judgmental person that I want to be.
So let me shout it to the heavens one more time: I love Wanda Sykes.
And tonight I see her perform live. If I am somehow incapacitated, my classes will be canceled on Monday.
Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force who – through his work on so many major motion pictures — freely gave joy and pleasure to millions around the world. He was a true master of his craft.
He was the recipient of many honors, including an Academy award, yet my guess is that those who knew and loved him are probably not thinking very much about his credits or distinguished career. We only hear his infectious laughter, see the joyous smile with which he greeted his friends and colleagues, and sit around struggling to imagine a world without him in it. Because when all the lofty words about his talent have been exhausted, many of us will be left with his simple legacy of joy that easily transcends any awards or movie reviews or glowing magazine articles.
He created joy. He inspired gut-splitting laughter. He was capable of absolutely glorious mischief, jokes, and teasing. He relished the kind and generous gesture. And – most importantly for me, at least — he lived a life in which the ability to make, have and share fun was virtually a sacrament.
Who knew that, in all this fun, he was actually teaching us a lesson? Because in the way he lived his life, you slowly came to see that fun and laughter, shared generously and with love, was deadly serious business, nothing less than one of life’s fundamental fuels. And, trust me; this was a guy who knew fun and laughter like nobody’s business.
Since we lost the comic genius Robin Williams yesterday, you may think I am describing him. A number of these details do apply. But this blog post is actually about someone else, a friend of close to 50 years and someone I wish you all could have known.
Today, I write about my friend Joe Viskocil, Academy award-winning visual effects artist and master of cinematic pyrotechnics, who died yesterday in California at the age of 63. There are many places you can find out about his professional accomplishments, from the explosion of Death Star in the early Star Wars to the destruction of the White House in Independence Day. My purpose here is simply to note the passing of one sublimely nice fellow, a bringer of joy par excellence, and share just how much he will be missed by so many.
Joe had many friends, friends that I did not know. To me, Joe was part of a small group of 5 high school friends who attended South Hills High School in Covina, California together. For decades we have competed for each other’s laughter (the more raucous the better), written sketches and parodies in which we were both the writers and sole audience members, and been there for each other when laughter was the last thing on the agenda.
Now we are four.
If my hunch is right, a lot of other people who knew Joe are also now doing the same, profoundly sad mathematics of loss, taking stock of their lives, factoring Joe into the equation, and trying to figure out just what the world will be like when so much joy is subtracted. I wouldn’t pretend to do anyone else’s math, but I’d be willing to bet just one more dinner with Joe and the gang at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. that most of us – after all the subtracting – will still be left with more belly laughs and giggling than we know what to do with.
Rest well, Giuseppe.
I grew up hearing about Gordon MacRae’s problems with alcoholism and its consequences. I was a star-struck kid, read magazines like Photoplay, and was totally caught up in both the nonsensical gossip being produced by Hollywood press agents and the embarrassing truths being being suppressed by the same Hollywood press agents. In college, I even got a part time job with Cinema Center films as a publicist for perhaps the most forgettable film the great Dustin Hoffman ever made.
Fun? Of course.
But looking back, I see that what all the nuttiness obscured was the actual talent that celebrities did or did not bring to the table. Set all the rumors and backbiting aside, and someone could either act, sing, or dance or they couldn’t.
Well, Gordon MacRae had more raw charm and acting chops than any one human being deserves.
And he could sing. Beautifully.
When he was given a chance at one of the greatest songs Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote — “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” — the result was sublime.
But before everything, there was the voice.
And the fact that when two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest musicals were filmed, one guy was cast as the male lead in both.
Seriously, The T.A.M.I. Show was big. And not just because of a lineup that seemed to include every popular pop, rock, and R&B artist short of the Beatles.
What will always make The T.A.M.I. Show special is the fact that, at a time just before the Watts riots when Southern California was as racially, culturally and geographically segregated as any place in the United States, the show was the first high-profile opportunity for cloistered white kids to see black R&B artists up close.
It’s painful to admit, but many white kids who went to their local theaters to see The T.A.M.I. Show had never seen a person of color in person.
These were the artists who in many cases had written and first performed the songs that squeaky clean white artists like Pat Boone subsequently appropriated, “cleaned up” and recorded in excruciatingly saccharine versions.
It was a revelation.
Music was never the same. Life was never the same.