The Kindest No-Cut of All
Yesterday, when writing about Ruth Gordon, I mentioned that she was married to screenwriter-director Garson Kanin, and together they wrote two classic movie comedies, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. I realized that that lets me tell one of the great Hollywood stories about kindness and subterfuge all rolled into one.
Garson Kanin wrote the 1946 Broadway play, Born Yesterday, which made a big star of Judy Holliday, playing the role for 1,200 performances, which is three years. When the movie was in the planning stages, to be directed by George Cukor, both wanted the actress to repeat her brilliant performance as ‘Billie Dawn.’ The problem was that she hadn’t starred in a movie before, in fact she only had three tiny roles in movies (two of them so small they were uncredited). So, the studio balked and refused to hire her.
That’s where the kindness and subterfuge kicked in. All helped by the kismet of timing. In 1949, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon wrote the screenplay for Adam’s Rib, which was going to be directed by the same George Cukor. He – like Kanin and Gordon – knew Judy Holliday and wanted her for Born Yesterday, which was to be make into a film the next year. So, the three of them hatched a plan, and took it to Katharine Hepburn – who was the female lead in Adam’s Rib, getting ready to be made.
The plot of Adam’s Rib is about husband and wife lawyers (to be played by Spencer Tracy as the D.A. and Hepburn as defense attorney) on opposite sides of a case where a woman shoots and wounds her husband having an affair. The character of the woman under arrest only has one scene in the movie, in a prison conference room where Hepburn meets with her before deciding to take the case. Kanin, Gordon and Cukor came up with the idea of hiring Judy Holliday for the very small (though important) role, and not shooting the scene as normal -- with close-ups, wide shots, two-shots and such, with lots of editing, cutting back and forth between characters -- but instead to have only a single, stationary shot for five, full minutes with Judy Holliday in the main focus, no cuts, just one take, the sole point being to make this a screen test for Holliday, something the studio wouldn’t give her for Born Yesterday. And show the studio that she could be compelling and hold the screen on her own, be a star. The only thing, though, was that they needed Katharine Hepburn’s approval. But since Hepburn also knew Judy Holliday and knew, too, that Holliday deserved to repeat her classic performance as ‘Billie Dawn,’ she agreed.
And so, when the film comedy Adam’s Rib would be released, the unsuspecting studio and audience would watch the interview scene with the camera focused only on Judy Holliday in the center, despite Big Hollywood Star Katherine Hepburn in the scene, and not a single cut.
George Cukor, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon took that scene to studio heads to show it to them as Judy Holliday’s screen test. It convinced the studio. She got hired to star in Born Yesterday. And won the Academy Award as Best Actress.
Here’s the scene. You can see for yourself:
Judy Holliday in the center -- full-on, the camera doesn't move, no cuts, Katharine Hepburn off to the side only in profile, for five minutes.
The other day, I was at the grocery story standing in line to check out. A fellow behind me started getting chatty. As I turned to reply, I wasn't overly thrilled about it, but made the best of the situation. In fairness, he was trying to be nice and even complimentary, but the direction things were going just wasn't for me, as you'll see.
I mean, yes, he did start out nice, saying how good it was that I was wearing a mask indoors, adding that it was necessary inside though not outside because, after all, you can't get COVID outdoors. Much as I wasn't anxious to join the conversation, I thought this wasn't something to let slide, so -- as politely as I could -- I said, well, no, that wasn't true. He thought about this a moment, and then politely nodded, "Yes, you're probably right, if you're close enough."
I nodded in return, and then turned back. I figured that was the end of the conversation -- but no. He passed along another compliment. "I see you're wearing one of those N95 masks. They're the best. Good for you." I agreed with him that, yes, they are the best...though added that, no, this wasn't an N95. It was a KN95. (Those look completely different and have totally different straps.) "Oh, yes, right." he replied.
It struck me that the conversation wasn't going to end any time soon, and I just didn't want to continue this one, and so began looking around to see if another line was shorter, figuring if I moved there it was seem more polite, having a good reason. And happily, yes, there was a shorter line, so off I went. Mind you, I'd have gone even if the line was twice as long.
By the way, just to let you know that I wasn't being overly rude and that my desire to leave the line was without cause. When I said above that the direction of the conversation wasn't going well, it wasn't because of the incorrect compliments he was giving me about COVID mask safety -- it came early the moment I turned around. It's because, for all these lovely, if incorrect compliments...he wasn't wearing a mask.
I just knew the conversation wasn't for me. Sometimes you just can't social distance far enough...
The Book of Ruth
This isn’t a movie recommendation for everyone -- however, for those to whom it sounds interesting it’s highly enjoyable with great pedigree, and doesn’t get shown often.
The movie in question is a charming 1953 film, The Actress. It’s written by Ruth Gordon, which in turn is based on her semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in a conservative, straight-laced New England home at the turn-of-the-century and wanting to become an actress against everyone – at home and in town -- saying she’s foolish. It stars Jean Simmons (who was my dad’s favorite actress…) and Spencer Tracy as her father, and directed by George Cukor. And features Teresa Wright and Anthony Perkins. As I said, it’s got great pedigree.
And though it doesn’t air often, Turner Classic Movies will show this tomorrow, very early morning in Los Angeles, Tuesday, January 31 – at 4 AM Pacific Coast time (7 AM in the East). So, if it intrigues you, set the DVR. I don't suspect most of you will be up to watch, especially out here.
For those who don’t know Ruth Gordon, she was a spitfire actress who is probably best known for starring in Harold and Maude, and also won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1969 for Rosemary’s Baby. She had three other Oscar nominations – though only one for acting, in Inside Daisy Clover. She also has two nominations for writing: she co-wrote the classic comedies, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, with her husband, the writer-director Garson Kanin. (She got an Emmy nomination, as well, as a guest star on the series Rhoda, playing the mother of the unseen Carlton the Doorman.) Though personally, I particularly think of her fondly for playing an Agatha Christie-type novelist who’s the pixie-ish murderer on a very good episode of Columbo, getting revenge on the young man she is certain killed her niece. Her stage, screen and TV career – which began in silent movies – is much too long to add more than that, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning that she played Mary Todd Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, opposite Raymond Massie.
So, as a reminder, here she is in a scene with Peter Falk from Columbo, “Try and Catch Me” –
Anyway, back to The Actress, it’s very enjoyable. One of the fascinating things (which shows Jean Simmons’ great skill) is that Simmons is one of the great screen beauties, but playing a character who everyone ridicules for trying to be an actress because “You’re so funny looking” – and yet you buy her performance. (No, you don’t buy that she’s funny looking, that’s impossible, but you believe that everyone thinks she is, and that, as a gawky teenage girl, she accepts that and thinks so, too, but doesn’t care because it’s her dream to be an actress)
How semi-autobiographical is it? The character’s name is “Ruth.”
Though it’s not a classic film, if it's the type of movie that interests you, it's worth checking out because it's a very good one (6.4 stars on iMDB), and little-known that doesn’t get shown often -- with great pedigree of those involved.
Here's the trailer. It doesn’t do the movie justice, but gets across its sensibility –
And to close things off, it’s only appropriate to have Ruth Gordon’s Oscar acceptance speech – with it’s now-famous first line –
The Outer Limits
Back when the TV series The Twilight Zone was a huge it on TV, another creepy show was created in 1963 to compete, a bit more horror-based, called The Outer Limits. Who knew that fiction is encroaching on reality.
I’ve never been able to figure out if most Republicans in Congress actually know that raising the debt limit only means approving the funds to pay for what we’ve already spent and are just trying to flim-flam the public – or if some (or many or most) Republicans in Congress actually don’t know that’s what it is.
While it seems the former, I honestly have no idea. Because if they do know, then that means every time it comes up they are willing to risk destroying the world economy, rather than just flim-flam for votes. But if many truly don’t know, it’s almost inexplicable that they have to be told again – and again and again – every single time it comes up.
Sorry, I mean, “every single time it comes up when Democrats are in the White House, but not when a Republican is.”
(As has been said often, Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling all three times it came up during Trump’s time in office.)
To be clear, just because Republicans in Congress only set their hair on fire about raising the debt limit when Democrats are in the White House, but happily raise it without a “harrumph” when a Republican is president does not mean they understand and are just playing politics, willing to risk destroying the world economy if it means it happening under a Democratic Administration. For all I know, many/most Republicans in Congress don’t know in the slightest what raising the debt limit means, but just don’t care about it as an issue if a Republican is in control.
One thing I do believe strongly is that a great many or most Republican voters don’t know what raising the debt limit means. I feel comfortable saying that because if they did know then Republicans in Congress would not keep trying to make an “outraged" issue about it.
The weird thing about raising the debt limit is that it’s one of the easiest concepts in politics to explain and understand. It’s just transferring money from your savings account to your checking account so that you can pay your bills for what you’ve already bought.
The problem is that “raising the debt limit” has a terrible name that sounds like it’s something totally different from what it is. It sounds like it means raising how much you can go into debt. But it’s not. Far better would be if they changed to the name to “Approval of the transfer of enough money in the Treasury to pay the bills we owe.”
If people are concerned about spending more money than we have, the time to debate that is when a new budget comes up. You can cut spending or raise taxes. Or just go into deficit financing – which is not inherently a bad thing.
(The best, remarkably easy explanation I ever heard about why deficit financing can be a very good thing came from the great, Pulitzer Prize-winning David Cay Johnson. To simplify what he said – Imagine if your have no money and are out of work. You’re offered a good job, but it’s so far away you can’t get there and have to turn the job down. But if you went into debt by buying a car, you could take the job and earn enough money to pay back your debt.)
There’s one other weird thing about Republicans regularly threatening not to raise the debt limit when a Democrat is in the White House. It’s that they seem to think that the blame will go to the Democrat when the world economy crashes. But that won’t be the case – if Republicans are the ones who refused to pay the bills, and people’s lives are pummeled, it’s Republicans who will get the blame.
Raising the debt limit is so essential that merely insisting to negotiate about raising the debt ceiling has caused interests rates to rise when the deadline looms close.
And yet time and time again – when Democrats are in the White House – Republicans have pushed this issue. Risking the world economy. And their own ruin.
And each time, I truly, honestly don’t know if most Republicans in Congress really do understand what raising the debt limit means and are just trying to flim-flam the public – or if some (or many or most) Republicans in Congress actually don’t know what it is.
Because that’s today’s Republican Party.
And both options are horrific. Because that’s today’s Republican Party.
Today's Piano Puzzler
From the archives. This week, the contestant is Joseph Gewirtz of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For the longest time, while I could tell where the hidden song was, I just couldn't nail it -- and then finally did. (It was quite clear, needless to say, when later played a second time.) My guess for the composer style was not only one of Mr. Gewirtz's guesses, but was born the same year as the composer who was the correct answer, and also the same year of a third even-more renowned composer. And all three wrote in somewhat the same style. The correct answer though is the least-famous of the three.
Let's Do Lunch
On this week’s Naked Lunch podcast, hosts Phil Rosenthal and David Wild’s guest today is renowned chef Wolfgang Puck. As the site notes, “Puck discusses overcoming his abusive stepfather, his singular success culinary story and his many interactions with legendary stars in Hollywood and around the world.”
I will add that, surprisingly, this is a thoroughly entertaining, often funny, periodically serious conversation about “leading a sustainable life, being of service to your community and always staying hungry professionally” – and much more. Just a very interesting tale. There is an excellent documentary about Puck on Disney+, and this is a terrific companion to that
Though I can’t embed the audio, if you click on the link here, it will take you to the website, where you just click on the “Play” arrow underneath the photo.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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