Two of the greatest stage actors of the 20th century -- and arguably the greatest husband and wife acting couple, doing much of their work together -- were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Unfortunately, there's very little footage of them, since they did very few movies, leaving most of their work for the stage.
One thing I do remember seeing them in, though not a movie per se, was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production of the classic play, The Magnificent Yankee, about Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, which aired in 1965. My recollection, even watching it as a kid, was that it was a total joy. Years later, when I went to UCLA for graduate school, I discovered that the school had the greatest collection of Hallmark Hall of Fame specials anywhere, everything in fact -- though it was only available for academic purposes. Being a student, I thought that that might qualify, and it did. For some reason, I only took advantage to see two of their classic productions. One was A Storm in Summer, for which Peter Ustinov won the Emmy Award, written by Rod Serling -- and it was as great as I remembered, though I knew it would be since it hadn't aired that much earlier. The other I wanted to see was The Magnificent Yankee, curious how it lived up to my memory all that time before when I was much younger. And...it was just as superb. I wish both of these were available to the public. Why one of the several Hallmark Channels doesn't air their collection -- even in the middle of the night, where they could be recorded for later viewing -- is beyond me.
Alas, no, I don't have footage of The Magnificent Yankee. I mention it only for the sake of perspective. I should note that many people have seen the work of Lynn Fontanne, though, but don't know it. And I say "seen the work" specifically, because they haven't seen her in it. She did the narration of the original, legendary TV production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin.
As I said, there isn't much footage of the two of them acting, though you can get their one, famous film, The Guardsman -- recreating their roles from the major Broadway hit -- which is available on Netflix. It's old and dated, from 1931, but it's still enjoyable and especially a treat to see them both. It's the story of an actor husband who suspects his wife of infidelity, and so pretends to be a foreign nobleman to try to strike up an affair with her and prove himself right.
And at least we have a trailer for that.
All of this is a long way to lead into this video. It's from 1970, when The Lunts were given a special Tony Award. It's introduced by Julie Andrews, and then presented by another then-married couple, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens.
The text of this tweet says all that is necessary to describe the video and the woman who is its subject.
I got nothing.
I don't have it in me to analyze the details of last night's and have no intention to. It'd be like watching a priest set himself on fire in order to try to burn down his church and discuss the quality of the flames.
A friend called me afterwards to say how difficult it was to watch. Another friend said he almost couldn't breathe because the air was sucked out of the room...and he wasn't even in the room where it was happening. Low-key campaign expert David Plouffe said he almost couldn't make it through the evening. And my thought was -- okay, if you all felt that way, now imagine the angst Biden was going through.
It was ghastly. I’ve found myself muting the sound when Trump starts talking.
Imagine too the angst Chris Wallace was going through. I heard some criticism of him, not taking more control of the debate, but while I understand that, I think it's an unfair criticism. Trump isn't a petulant child, no matter how often he's described that way. He's president of the United States. And under those unprecedented conditions, I think he handled himself very well.
I also had a friend who thought Joe Biden was more sedate than he'd preferred, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Yes, I'd have loved to have seen Biden go after Trump with roundhouses. but that wasn't the way to win. The way to win was to contrast yourself with Trump and show yourself to be presidential, not an out-of-control lunatic. Furthermore, while in a normal debate I'd say that, sure, I wish Biden wasn't so low-key -- but...but this wasn't a normal debate. Biden wasn't in a debate, he found himself suddenly on Omaha Beach on D-Day as bombs were falling around him and bullets were whizzing past. Under those conditions, he was grace under fire -- what you want to see in a president.
Sure, I'd love to comment about Biden talking about his dead son Beau and Trump interrupted, asking if he was talking about Hunter -- and not offering a word of sympathy. Or Trump blasting an air horn (dog whistles are so yesterday) telling the white supremacist violent Proud Boys to "Stand by" (which is already being cheered on Proud Boy websites as a rallying cry.). Or Trump offering a dystopian view of the election and the supposed, unsupported lack of fairness. But when the church is burning, you just try to save lives.
I will say that my favorite response of the night was when Trump was in the middle of one of his rants about Hunter Biden, and Biden was repeatedly saying, "That's not true," and Trump kept repeating himself and repeating himself, and finally Biden turned and looked at the camera and said, “This isn’t about my family or about his family, this is about your family.”
But mainly, details aside, I did have one overriding reaction that I think is worth addressing.
Trump is behind in the race by a huge 10 points. He's behind by significant margins in battleground stands, and enough of those states that projected polls having him losing. And people have already begun voting, in the middle of a pandemic. So, what he has to do in the remaining five weeks is win back his lost support, and win over undecideds in the middle. It's what I wrote about the problem Trump faces from the New York Times story -- when trying to win support, that's a big hurdle he has to get past, and it only confirms the bad things people think of him.
That's the bottomline from today forward, every single day -- Trump has to win support back from people who've turned from him and from undecideds who aren't sure they like what he's done.
And last night didn't do that.
Last night didn't help.
And it made things worse.
In the grand sense, the details don't matter. The details overlapped each other and became a loud screen of agony. It didn't just confirm the bad things people think of Trump, it confirmed the worst things.
A CNN instant poll showed that they thought Biden won the debate 60-28%. I think 60% is surprisingly a bit low. I also think that 28% is horrifyingly low -- under the best of conditions. But when you're behind by 10 points in a pandemic with only five weeks left and people have already started voting, 28% is a disaster for Trump. Their next debate isn't for two weeks -- even more states will have started early voting by then. Getting a 28% response in your favor is the Trump base at its smallest. He doesn't need them, they're not leaving him under any conditions. What that number means is that other Republican support peeled off from him. That doesn't mean that they'll vote for Joe Biden. It also doesn't mean that they might stay home and just not vote. Or vote but leave the presidential race blank. But it certainly dulls the enthusiasm level and puts any of those possibilities at risk.
It was a disgraceful, depressing night. But I had an appreciation of one thing: it took a step towards giving Joe Biden the large victory he needs to leave no doubt in the outcome.
How disgraceful and depressing was the night? It probably won't affect any votes -- this being the complicit GOP and all -- but I would be interested to see if just two Republican senators have second thoughts now about supporting Trump having a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Like Mitt Romney, for starters. And Chuck Grassley, who previously said he wouldn't support such a final-year nomination..
I like that quite a few analysts talked about an issue that I've addressed here -- that the debate commission might have to look at the idea of a "kill switch" for microphones during the next debate. I don't expect that to happen, but I can hope.
As for that next debate -- can Trump do better in the next one?
The normal answer is "sure." But I don't think anything is normal when it comes to Trump. So, I don't know if Trump can do better, but this is who Trump is, and he's going to be under even more pressure in two weeks. Yes, of course, in the great scheme of life, Trump "can" do better. And Biden "can" do worse. But since Trump is trying to defend his record, and it's indefensible in the middle of a pandemic, this is who Trump is, and most likely, the probable reality is that...it is what it is.
And the rest of the elected members of the Republican Party watched. And saw what Trump said about the supposed uncertainty of election fairness, and about telling white supremacists to "stand by," giving them a calling card to violence. And so, it remains to see what these elected Republicans will do. But we have a pretty good idea based on history what they will do. Which is important, because even this debate is not about Trump, we know who he is. It's about the elected Republican members of Congress, who continue to enable him, who will be silent about last night, and once again as always are complicit.
I've mentioned my online friendship with Peter Breiner, a wonderful conductor, arranger, musician and classical composer. (He’s recorded over 200 albums.) Most notably, I post selections every holiday season from the two joyous CD's he arranged and conducted, Christmas Goes Baroque.
He was also commissioned to write a ballet based on Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel, The Master and Margarita, and it was scheduled to have its world premiere in 2020 at the Slovak National Theater for their 100th anniversary, but...well, you know there was that whole pandemic thing that has gotten in the way for the moment. So...stay tuned.
Yesterday, Peter sent me a link to Spotify where he’s posted the tracks to a new 2-disk CD that the Naxos label just released a few days ago. And unlike most of his other CDs, this one is entirely his own music, which he also arranged and conducts the Slovak Philharmonic. It’s titled Slovak Dances: Naughty & Sad – and so far I’ve loved it. (Disclaimer: I’ve only listened to the first disk so far.) As the liner notes point out, there is an inspiration here from Brahms' Hungarian Dances and Antonin Dvorak. But Breiner's sensibility flows through and is fresh and vibrant.
Here's the good news for those who might be interested, I've embedded the link to all 16 selections on Spoltify below, with Peter's permission. For those with a Spotify account, you’re all set. If you haven't signed up there yet, it’s free, so you just create an account in a minute. Even if you're not sure about listening to the whole album (it’s about 100 minutes, although I think you'll be quite taken by it…), at least check out the first selection, "The Field of Zaluzice." I’ve liked everything I've heard thus far, as I said, and several other pieces stand out, but that’s my favorite.
(Two of the other standouts for are “The Little Church of Humemmé” and an oddly, very funny piece, “My Father is but One Big Headache.”)
You can find the 2-CD album on Spotify here. For free. Another service we provide here at Elisberg Industries. With appreciation to Peter Breiner.
But just because you're so nice, I'll make things at least a little bit easy for you. Here's that first piece that I like so much, "The Field of Zaluzice." If you want to hear more...well, there's that link right above.
And for yet another added, albeit small bonus treat, if that wasn't enough, he's Peter in action conducting this same number for a 2-minute trailer that Naxos put out.
This is a great ad from the group -- not because people will vote for Joe Biden because "Sully" endorses him. But because of what is said here. And said by someone who lived it. And said so well.
Just a reminder that Trump has repeatedly and relentlessly made clear he believes that Joe Biden has lost it and is mentally defective, while he himself is a Very Stable Genius. And now, he's been bizarrely adding that Biden is so out of it that he should take a drug test. So by all his words Trump has set the bar so high for himself that he should sweep the floor in the debates -- and ANYTHING even half-reasonable from Joe Biden, if he could just get his name right, is a big win.
I don't know what will happen in the debate tonight, of course. But I think Joe Biden will do very well. That's in part based on hope -- but mostly based on history. For starters, Joe Biden has been through about a dozen debates the past year, with 15 competitors on stage trying to defeat him as the frontrunner. And the past year, Trump has been through zero debates. Further, Trump has never been in a debate where he isn't The Outsider, free to attack others with no concern for reality -- for the first time in his life, he has to debate with a record to defend. (Not to mention a record that's pretty indefensible, from the pandemic to climate change to gun control to the economy to race relations to immigration and beyond.) And finally, because Trump has never been in a debate, let alone perhaps even a conversation in in his life, where the person opposite him is calling him a liar. In exchanges with the press, some may ask him tough questions -- that he either ignores, or calls nasty, or lies about -- but they aren't there to debate him, to tell him off. Which is something we know is something Trump has a very hard time taking. Now, imagine that all night long. Joe Biden will be there to do just that. And for all these reasons of history, beyond just hope.
Further, as a sort of bonus, Trump has set the bar incredibly low for Joe Biden, trying to convince people all year that Biden is "sleepy," mentally incompetent and (now) on drugs. For many people, if Biden can just say his name correctly, it will be a win. And yet the reality is that Joe Biden beat the entire Democratic field to get the party's nomination.
While those are my perceptions about what will occur in the debate, I also have my "suggestion" for Biden in the debates, which I feel pretty confident in saying won't ever happen --
When Trump starts interrupting or ranting or name-calling, Biden should do nothing. I mean, literally -- nothing. Just stand there and wait until there's finally silence. And then keep waiting in the silence for another 10 seconds or so. And when everything is finally settled and hushed, and people are wondering what is going on, he should then say something like:
"This is serious. The two of us are running to be President of the United States. The most powerful man in the world. It is serious. This country, the entire world is in the middle of a pandemic. The American economy has been pummeled. Americans are deeply hurting, worried about their jobs, worried about paying their bills, worried if they'll even have a job to go back to. There's deep racial divide. This job is profoundly serious. And if my opponent cannot deal with this with the utter seriousness that the job demands and instead acts like a child, he should not be on the stage."
That suggestion aside, I do have a couple of hopes.
My first hope is that Joe Biden says he's brought an air horn with him, and that every time Trump lies he's going to set it off.
And my other hope, since I don't think that candidates are allowed to bring any props, so the air horn idea is probably out, is that when Joe Biden is asked to make his opening statement, he says, "I cede all of my time tonight to my Donald Trump."
And he just lets Trump ramble on and on, and melt down.
But if none of that happens, my one final hope is that Joe Biden uses the phrase, "That's a lie" a whole lot. So much so that if there are any drinking games with people at home watching, taking a shot every time the word "lie" is heard, that by the end of the evening, there are a lot of sloppy drunks at home across America.
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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