Category Archives: 1969 movies

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #9

This is the ninth post in a series recalling what it was like to clerk for Judge Julius J. Hoffman from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

More about the Sorkin film

            In Post #8, I praised the Sorkin film as an impressive achievement, noting the many awards and positive reviews by critics that the film has garnered.       I now want to add more of my own comments on the film.  I’ll begin with casting.

Casting

I don’t agree with some of the casting in this film.   I can recall a number of personae–how they looked and acted in 1969-70– and my recollections do not jibe with all of the actors chosen to fill those parts.  Even great acting cannot completely make up for this kind of disparity.

One excellent bit of casting is that of Mark Rylance as William Kunstler.  I encountered Kunstler about three years before he appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom, and I retain vivid memories from that time.  Those memories were later enhanced by my in-person observation of the trial twice and by TV coverage of Kunstler once the trial began. 

I first encountered him at a conference on civil rights held at Yale Law School the first weekend of April 1966.  The conference was sponsored by the Yale law students’ Civil Rights Research Council.   A law-school classmate kindly offered to drive three other students and me from Cambridge to New Haven (he immediately became a great friend).  At Yale, we attended sessions offered by a host of leading lights in the field of civil rights.  One of those was Kunstler, who was already an accomplished civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  He spoke at a session of the conference, and he also gave the keynote speech at the Saturday night banquet held on the Yale campus.  After this encounter, I remembered him because of his passion for civil rights and his engaging delivery.

In my view, Mark Rylance is a good fit for the role of William Kunstler.  In one scene, he rebuts one of the defendants, who characterizes Judge Hoffman as “nuts,” by calling the judge only “a little hostile.”  In his reading of this line, Rylance incorporates what I think was Kunstler’s generally lawyerlike approach to the case. He was, however, painfully caught in the middle between an irascible judge and defendant-clients who were openly defiant in court.  Lashing out at Judge Hoffman at times earned him a number of contempt citations by the judge.  (Only one of these was upheld by the appellate court.)  Overall, Rylance captures Kunstler’s difficult balancing act very well.

I don’t recall how some of the other individuals looked and acted in 1969, so I can’t comment on the actors’ resemblance to the real people.  Prime examples: Defendants Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, John Froines, and Lee Weiner.   But I do recall Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin, both from observing them in-person in Chicago and from media coverage before and after the trial.  The most striking lack of resemblance, to me, is the great difference in their height that the film makes apparent.  Sacha Baron Cohen is (as he himself has noted) about half a foot taller than the real Abbie. This difference is jarring.  As for Jerry Rubin, I remember him as close to Abbie’s height and much better looking than the actor who plays him in the film.  Neater, too. The film’s Rubin comes across as a total slob, which I think is inaccurate.

Abbie’s son Andrew, who lives in the Bay Area and was interviewed by a journalist here last fall, noted that his father was a short man with charismatic energy.  “He was a tiny little …monster,” according to Andrew.  The entire interview with Andrew and others who knew the defendants appeared in Berkleyside, an online newsletter, and was republished in jweekly.com (Oct. 30, 2020.

I encountered Abbie myself on January 1, 1970, in the middle of the trial, which ended on February 18, 1970.  I recount that encounter below in Watching the movie “Z.”

The two federal prosecutors, Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz, both appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom a number of times during my clerkship.  Foran was a short and scrappy Daley acolyte whose name is mispronounced in the film.  He pronounced it as “FOR-an,” with emphasis on the first syllable, not “For-AN,” with emphasis on the second.  His preferred pronunciation was well known in Northern District courtrooms.  His portrayal in the film by J.C. MacKenzie is pretty close to what I remember.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt somewhat resembles prosecutor Richard Schultz and portrays him well.  As I remember Schultz, he was a rather ordinary-looking young man of about 30 who was a low-key prosecutor, pretty much as he’s portrayed in the film.  Whether he ever took a stand against this prosecution, as the film suggests, I have no inside knowledge. But he’s been interviewed recently by media outlets in Chicago, and here’s what I’ve gleaned from published interviews. 

Schultz calls the film “a fantasy” that has little resemblance to the actual events.  He remembers that the goal of some of the defendants was, from the outset, to make a mockery of the court proceedings.  He believes they were also planning violence from the beginning, and fist fights actually occurred between them.  According to Schultz, there was “nothing we could have done to stop the violence in the courtroom.”

 He regrets what transpired with Bobby Seale, but he defends Judge Hoffman’s ruling.  According to Schultz, the judge had no choice because of a ruling a short time before by an Illinois court requiring that an unruly defendant be bound and gagged so he could remain in the courtroom for his trial instead of being removed. 

One interesting side note:  Schultz encountered Abbie and Rubin at the Field Museum in Chicago, as shown in a scene in the film.  He remembers that, when they met, they “begged him to watch the movie ‘Z.’”  This is startling new information for me.  Please see below Watching the movie “Z,” my discussion of that movie and how it related to this trial.

I probably remember AG Ramsey Clark from photographs only and can’t comment on Michael Keaton’s portrayal for that reason.  You may not know that Ramsey Clark was the son of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Tom Clark.  During a visit to the Supreme Court during my law school years, I saw Tom Clark read from the bench an opinion he’d written.  In 1967 Tom retired from the Court so his son could assume the role of AG.  He was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson’s superb choice of Thurgood Marshall. 

Ben Shenkman does a good job portraying Leonard Weinglass.  Strangely, I remember Weinglass, who was then 33, as looking older than Shenkman, 52.  Maybe Weinglass looked older than his years.  Or maybe my memory relies on the fact that I was several years’ younger than Weinglass in 1969, and he looked like an older and experienced lawyer to me.

John Doman, the actor portraying AG John Mitchell, bears a slight resemblance to Mitchell, whom I remember from photos and TV coverage.  He successfully captures Mitchell’s arrogance and devotion to Nixon, which led to his own downfall, including a term in federal prison.

Finally, I want to comment on Frank Langella’s portrayal of Judge Hoffman.  One critic has called it the best casting in the entire film.  I totally disagree.  I worked closely with Judge Hoffman for two years, and Langella’s Hoffman is nothing like the real man.  Hoffman was eccentric and generally biased in favor of government prosecutors, but he was not evil. 

Langella may be a good actor, but he read his lines in this film with his own interpretation of the judge in mind.  Maybe that made for better drama.  But it’s not, in my view, close to reality.

In a published interview, Langella called Hoffman “a shit” who had “no redeeming qualities.”  He agreed with what he claims is Sorkin’s view of Hoffman as “either a total pawn of the government, or getting senile, or a combination of both.”  Langella added that there are men like this “who use their position to cover what is venal and dishonest and cruel behavior.”  Again, I totally disagree. 

I had my own issues with Hoffman.  For example, I was angry when he gave my attempt to write an appellate opinion to someone else.  (See Post #6.)  But he did have redeeming qualities.  He was one of the few judges who at that time hired women as their law clerks, and during my tenure he treated me and my co-clerks with respect.  Yes, he could be abrasive toward lawyers who appeared in his courtroom, but he was not venal or dishonest or cruel, like many men in his generation. 

It’s true that he had a bias in favor of government attorneys, both prosecutors and those who represented government agencies, but he was in no way a total pawn of the government.  And I don’t think he was senile or anywhere near it at the time of the trial.  While I worked for him, he ruled in favor of the inmates of the Cook County Jail and against those who ran the county jail.  And when he agreed with the Justice Department’s position in the South Holland school-discrimination case, he was criticized by some for being too much in favor of the government’s position challenging discrimination against minority students.  But his approach led to the right outcome in that case.

So I’m wondering:  Did Langella do any research of his own into Judge Hoffman’s record?  Did he uncover any evidence supporting his description of Hoffman as venal, dishonest, and cruel?  Did he conveniently forget how some of the defendants deliberately provoked this judge, a man who had previously been able to maintain an orderly courtroom?  Can’t these provocations themselves be viewed as “cruel”?

 Although I did not agree overall with the way Hoffman conducted this trial, there were reasons for many of his rulings, especially his reactions to the outrageous behavior of some of the defendants.  Further, he was later reprimanded by the Seventh Circuit for some of these rulings, so he didn’t get away scot-free for what he did.

My own attendance at the trial

            I personally attended the trial twice.  The first time I showed up simply out of curiosity, and when I left, I had no desire to return.  The second time I attended only because a law-school classmate who lived and worked in NYC was visiting Chicago, phoned me, and asked whether I would accompany her to the trial.  I met her at the courthouse, where we got into line and waited for our turn to be seated. 

            I got no special treatment either time.  Waiting in line the first time, my handbag was searched along with everyone else’s, and a comb was confiscated and held for me until I exited the courtroom.  At the time, I carried an aluminum comb that had a “rat tail,” and it was deemed too sharp for me to bring into the courtroom. I was highly amused that my spindly comb was viewed as a weapon!  (I didn’t bring it along when I returned with my friend.)

            Each time I attended the trial, I felt extremely uncomfortable.  By that time, I was a lawyer with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, representing poor people.  Embarrassed by some of Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial (and also troubled by the unruly behavior of some of the defendants), I did not return.  I also cut off my relationship with the judge almost completely.  But I briefly got back in touch with him before moving to California in August 1970.  (I discuss that in Post #10, my final post in this series.)

Hoffman’s conduct during the trial

            It’s irrefutable that Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial became a source of widespread criticism, and much of it was warranted.  As I mentioned in Post #8, the problem with Hoffman’s role as the presiding judge of the “Chicago 7” trial was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He did have a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This led to his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, not like all of the criminal cases in his past. 

Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  He’d been sitting on the federal bench since 1953, and by 1969 he was unfortunately “fixed in his ways.” 

If he’d had some flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly. But at 74, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.  He did not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was unable to bend those rules.

The Sorkin film highlights many of Hoffman’s missteps.  The situation involving Bobby Seale is the most notable example.  Hoffman was foolish to refuse to sever Seale from this case as soon as Seale complained that his chosen defense lawyer was unavailable.  The back and forth between the two of them became more and more heated, until Seale’s defiance led Hoffman to have him bound and gagged.  According to prosecutor Richard Schultz, Hoffman was following an Illinois court ruling requiring Hoffman to proceed this way, but the film’s reenactment is a spectacle in which Hoffman looks almost unhinged.  Despite his announcement from the bench that “I tried fairly and impartially to get this defendant to sit on his own,” viewers are appalled by this treatment of Seale, which seems especially unjust and discriminatory because Seale is Black.  When Schultz finally asks the judge to sever Seale from the “Chicago 8” and declare a mistrial in his case, Hoffman proceeds to do just that.  But it’s too late.  The damage has been done.

Hoffman’s increasingly fraught relationship with defense attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass further damaged Hoffman’s claim to be a fair judge. I discuss how the appellate court viewed the judge’s conduct in Post #10.

Some additional comments

  1. The film seems to confuse some locations in Chicago, including two of its large parks.  I was away from the city during the convention, but I believe that events depicted in the film took place separately in Lincoln Park on the North Side and in Grant Park downtown (not in only one park).  Grant Park is the large park located across Michigan Avenue from the Hilton Hotel.  Violence took place there on the night of August 27, and a scene in the film shows a hotel window being broken.  There’s also dialogue by the defendants about “going to the convention,” but the convention was held a considerable distance from Grant Park at the International Amphitheatre.  In the film, the violence that occurs takes place in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue, not at the convention itself.

2. When the defendants and their lawyers meet to discuss the members of the jury, they openly prefer two specific individuals already chosen to be jurors.  I won’t discuss the film’s depiction of how these two jurors were later replaced by alternates.  But I was struck by the comment by the defense that they especially liked a young juror who seemed to be on their side because she noticeably carried a copy of a book by James Baldwin into the courtroom.

This line struck me because by 1967 I had become an avid reader of books by James Baldwin, and I still have my paperback copies of several of them (sporting a cover price of 50 cents).  When I wrote a seminar paper in 1967 for my law school’s Civil Rights Seminar with Professor Al Sacks, I quoted a couple of passages from The Fire Next Time.  These quotes later appeared in a law review article that published my paper, “A Child of a Different Color:  Race as a Factor in Adoption and Custody Proceedings,” 17 Buffalo Law Review 303 (1968), on pages 331 and 346.

3. The U.S. courthouse shown in the film, with people lining the steps chanting “The whole world is watching,” is nothing like the actual courthouse, which was and is a Mies Van der Rohe black box of a building.  The change is clearly made for dramatic effect, but if a viewer goes in search of that courthouse, she will be disappointed.  Hoffman’s courtroom is also different, chosen by Sorkin to feature his presentation of the actors’ positions in the courtroom.

4. Hoffman repeatedly gets some names, especially Weinglass’s, wrong.  This is typical of many people in their 70s.  A problem with names is quite common among older people (including President Joe Biden).  Because it’s not unusual for someone who’s 74 to forget names, even important ones, I think it was unfair to highlight Hoffman’s occasional lapses and suggest that they indicated senility.  In the case of Weinglass, I suspect that Hoffman had friends or associates with similar names, and those names occurred to him in place of Weinglass’s.

5.  I never followed the courtroom testimony of any of the defendants or any of the witnesses, but I’ve always remembered one fairly inconsequential response by Abbie Hoffman that was reported in the media.  At one point, Abbie was reportedly asked whether he was addicted to any drugs.  Answer:  Yes.  Question:  Which one?  Answer:  Caffeine.  As a caffeine addict myself, I find that answer perfectly apt as well as hilarious.

Watching the movie “Z”

In January of 2017, I wrote a post on this blog titled “Watching the Movie ‘Z’:  A Tale of Two Hoffmans.”  In that post, I noted that in January 1970 I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances. (By the way, this is the film that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin “begged” prosecutor Richard Schultz to see.)

An edited version of my 2017 post follows.

“Z” is a 1969 film that was written and directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lives and works in France.  He based it on a 1966 book that used official documents to describe the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.  Lambrakis was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament.  Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists.  He later died of his injuries. After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities.  Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.”  You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”  Costa-Gavras focused on the theme of political oppression.  His cast included Yves Montand as Lambrakis and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech.  Supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for.  The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators.  But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.  One of the demonstrators strikes Lambrakis.  After he gives his speech, he’s struck again, causing his death. 

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?”  Costa-Gavras’s answer:  It’s all about power.  Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.  (Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic.  A 1967 coup by the military led to its control of the Greek government until the regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.)

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw a great many “art flicks” there before it was demolished and replaced by a high-rise building.  At the time, I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor. The “Chicago 7” trial was underway, ending in mid-February 1970

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December 1969.  Ebert was a young and thoughtful movie critic, and I was a fan of his reviews.  He called “Z” the best film of 1969, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself.  (As luck would have it, I met my never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.) 

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, I recognized one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman.  I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the war in Vietnam, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.  

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination. (At least we didn’t think so.)  But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago in 1968 led to an overreaction by the Chicago police.  Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention.  As we know, Nixon’s Justice Department went on to indict Abbie and the other defendants on charges brought under a dubious law.

There was, however, one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece:  the prosecutors.  I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film.  Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account.  And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.  (The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetkis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but was later elected by the Greek parliament to be the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were, in my view, politically ambitious and not exactly fair-minded.  They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago.  And although most of the trial defendants were convicted by the jury, their convictions were later reversed.  But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain. 

“Z” is still a powerful film (it won numerous awards, including the Oscar and the Golden Globe as the Best Foreign-Language Film of 1970).  And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.  

Postscript:  Today, the parallels are still with us.  Although the November 2020 election installed a new president in the White House, some who were previously in power, and some who retain a degree of power, remain willing to (in Costa-Gavras’s words) “do anything to stay [or get back] in power.”  The message of “Z” lives.

                                                                        To be continued

(Post #10 will be the final post in this series)

Hooray for Hollywood! Part I

As a lifelong film buff (OK, since I was about 4), I have great fondness for much that Hollywood (and foreign cinema) has produced.  Each year I try to see a number of new films and re-watch some of the old ones.

During the past year, I never got around to seeing most of the blockbusters that dominated the box office. According to the online publication The Verge, Disney produced an unprecedented 80 percent of the top box-office hits in 2019.

Thanks to its purchase during the last decade of Marvel Entertainment (2009) and Lucasfilm (2012), Disney films have included franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel hits, in addition to popular animated films like Frozen and Frozen 2.  The result:  Disney films have surpassed many other films at the box office.

But I don’t pay a lot of attention to box-office success.  I’m far more focused on seeing films that have something to say to me. This year my clear favorite was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time, a Quentin Tarantino film, is not only a fabulous depiction of Hollywood in 1969, but it also related to me and my life in a number of ways.

Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t yet seen this film, DO NOT read the ending of this blog post, where I write about the Manson murders.

First, about the film itself:  It’s been called a “buddy picture,” and in many ways it is.  In two stellar performances, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the fictional Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (playing fictional Cliff Booth), are indeed buddies.  Rick is a fading former star of a Western TV series, trying to make a comeback in Hollywood, while Cliff is his longtime stunt double.  By 1969, with Rick’s star on the wane, Cliff spends much of his time driving Rick from place to place.  Both are struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has changed from the one they knew.

Weaving fiction and fact throughout the film, Tarantino uses both humor and violence to depict the end of an era.  In this love letter to 1960s Hollywood (which has earned positive reviews by most top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered numerous awards and nominations), he embeds specifics of popular culture and real places in 1969 LA into the film.

 

The story takes place during two days in February and one day in August of 1969.  Notably, Rick Dalton’s home is right next door to the home of minor film star Sharon Tate (married to director Roman Polanski) in a posh section of western LA, Benedict Canyon.

In this film, Tarantino also skillfully blends in the ugly story of the Charles Manson “family.”

Re-creating in many ways the world that I lived in at about the same time, even if he himself did not, Tarantino provoked a cascade of intensely vivid memories for me.  Here’s why:

 

 

I left Chicago in August 1970 and moved to the Westwood neighborhood on the west side of LA, where I rented a cheerful furnished apartment within walking distance of UCLA.

I had moved my “Reggie Fellowship” from the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau to a health-law related Legal Services office that was located at UCLA Law School.  Reggies were predominantly young lawyers who opted to work on behalf of the poor rather than toil in a corporate law firm.  (Please see my more detailed description of the Reggie program in an earlier post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7. 2015.)

Westwood and Westwood Village (the commercial area in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA), loom large in my memory.  I met my husband-to-be (I’ll call him Marv) on the UCLA campus in October 1970, six weeks after I arrived.  Before we met, we had both rented separate apartments in the same apartment building located on the fringe of the campus. We soon began dating, and my memory bank is filled with countless memories related to our courtship and marriage that year.

My new location was very close to much of what happens in the Tarantino film only one year earlier.  So when he replicates things from that time, I recall seeing and hearing a lot of what looked like them myself.

Examples:  Street signs, ads painted on bus-stop benches, movie posters, commercials, and music. (Some of these are Tarantino’s own inventions.)

Probably the best example:  Sharon Tate goes to see herself in a film at a movie theater in Westwood Village.  During the year that I lived in Westwood, I saw many films at the movie theaters in Westwood Village.  (Seeing “Love Story” with Marv in one of them in December 1970 was especially memorable, and I plan to write about it in a future blog post.)

Another example:  A scene in the movie is set at the famous LA restaurant called Musso & Frank Grill.  Marv and I were both aware of its fame, and during that year we sought it out and dined there one special night.

One more thing:  The stunning area where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived next door to the fictional Rick Dalton (Benedict Canyon) is in western LA, not far from Westwood and very close to BelAir.  Marv and I not only lived in Westwood, but we also celebrated our wedding luncheon at the charming BelAir Hotel.

Then there’s the Manson family storyline in the movie.  I learned about the Manson murders during a weekend in New York City.  I was spending part of the summer of 1969 at the Reggie training program at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, and I traveled from Philly to NYC one weekend in August

During trips to NYC, I often stayed with a close friend and a law-school classmate (I’ll call her Arlene).  Although Arlene was planning to be out of town that weekend, she invited me to stay in her 86th Street apartment on the East Side of Manhattan without her.  It was a great opportunity to live by myself as a quasi-New Yorker, and I decided to do it.

Returning to her apartment on Saturday evening, I picked up the Sunday New York Times and was shocked by a headline spelling out the startling discovery of the Manson murders.

At that time, I was still living in Chicago, but I had briefly lived in LA when I was 12 and always liked to follow any news arising there.  So I was riveted by the Manson story and read the paper from cover to cover.

When Tarantino decided to weave this story into the rest of his film, he did what he’d done in Inglourious Basterds and changed the real ending to a much different one.

Watching Once Upon a Time, I was terribly nervous as the film approached its ending.  I knew how the real story turned out, and I didn’t know exactly how this film would portray it.  But what a departure from reality Tarantino created!  The shocking ending to the film includes imaginative violence that is so over-the-top that it’s almost humorous.  Overall, the ending is a clever re-imagining of the fate of the Manson family and a much happier resolution of what happened to their victims.

Although the new ending was violent in its own way, creating an exciting piece of filmmaking, I left the theater in a much sunnier frame of mind than I would have if Tarantino had re-created the actual massacre that took place in 1969.

 

In sum, Once Upon a Time is, to my mind, an absorbing and a fascinating film.  For me, it was one of the best films of 2019.

 

I plan to write again about Hollywood films that have been relevant to my own life.  Part II will begin to explore classic films that have done just that.

 

 

The Old Man and the Movies

The Sundance Kid rides again!  Not on horseback but in a 1970s sedan.

In his most recent film (and perhaps his last), The Old Man and the Gun, Robert Redford plays a charming real-life bank robber.  Announcing his retirement from acting, he told Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle that he chose the part because he identified with the bank robber’s rebellious spirit, and he wanted his last film to be “quirky and upbeat and fun.”

I have a special fondness for Redford that goes back to his role in his first memorable film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Redford has called it the “first real film experience I ever had” and “the most fun on any film I’ve had.  It changed my life.”

When I saw the film in Chicago shortly after its release, I was struck by the performances of both Paul Newman (my perennial favorite) as Butch Cassidy and newcomer Redford as the Sundance Kid.

Unbeknown to me, there was a real live double of the Sundance Kid out there, waiting to meet me when I moved to LA a short time later:  my soon-to-be husband.  Once he added a mustache to his otherwise great looks, his resemblance to Redford in that film was uncanny, and I dubbed him the Sundance Kid.  I even acquired a poster of Redford in that role to affix to my office wall as a reminder of my new-found love.

The 1969 film, now fifty years old, holds up very well.  In perhaps its most memorable scene, the two leading men plunge from a cliff into roiling waters below, shouting a now more commonly accepted expletive for probably the first time in movie history.

Newman and Redford play leaders of the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” a group that robs banks, successfully for the most part, until robbing a train gets them into serious trouble.  They alienate Mr. E. H. Harrison of the Union Pacific Railroad, who hires special trackers who relentlessly follow Butch and Sundance.

An endearing scene takes place when the two men approach the home of Etta Place, Sundance’s wife.  News stories have alarmed Etta.  “The papers said they had you.  They said you were dead.”  Sundance’s first reaction:  “Don’t make a big thing of it.”  He pauses and reflects.  Then he says, “No.  Make a big thing of it.”  And they enthusiastically embrace.

Redford’s brilliant career includes a large number of notable Hollywood films.  It’s easy for me to name some favorites:  Downhill Racer in 1969, The Candidate in 1972, The Way We Were and The Sting in 1973, All the President’s Men in 1974, The Natural in 1984, and Out of Africa in 1985.  (A few of these especially resonate with me.)  And in All is Lost, as recently as 2013, Redford shines as an older man on the verge of dying alone in troubled ocean waters. Outstanding performances, each and every one.

In recent years, as I became an active supporter of NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), an entity vigorously working on behalf of the environment, I began hearing from Redford, who aligned himself with NRDC’s goals and requested additional donations.  I commend him for his strong support for protecting the future of our country and our planet.  His efforts on behalf of the environment seem even more critical now, as we face increasingly dire problems caused by climate change.

As for Redford’s movie career, my hope is that he chooses not to retire.  Most movie-goers would welcome seeing new films that include him, even in a small role.  In the meantime, I encourage every film buff to see The Old Man and the Gun.  Featuring a number of brief scenes from his earlier movies (plugged into the movie by director David Lowery), the film is a great reminder of a storied Hollywood career.  A career that began with the Sundance Kid.

 

Watching the movie “Z”: A tale of two Hoffmans

January 1st marks an unusual anniversary for me.

On January 1, 1970, I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances.

The 1969 film was directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lived in Paris. He based it on a book written in 1966 by Vassilis Vassilikos, who, using official documents, described the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.

Lambrakis, an MD who taught at the medical school in Athens, was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament. Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists. He later died of his injuries.

After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities. Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.” (You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”)

His focus was clear: political oppression. His cast: Yves Montand as Lambrakis, Irene Pappas as his wife, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech. Many supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for. The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators. But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.

So it’s not the police who represent oppression here. Rather, it’s the demonstrators, one of whom strikes Lambrakis in the head. He’s stunned but goes ahead to give his speech. When leaving the venue, he’s struck once again, causing him to die later in the film.

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?” Costa-Gavras’s answer: It’s all about power. Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.

Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic, and a 1967 coup by the military led to their control of the Greek government until their regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw many “art flicks” there when I was younger.  It’s long-gone, demolished and replaced by a high-rise building that includes a Neiman Marcus store.

I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor.  I’d recently completed a clerkship with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the judge who presided over “the Chicago 7 trial” (also called “the Chicago conspiracy trial”) that got underway in the fall of 1969 and was still ongoing in early 1970.  The trial stemmed from the turmoil engulfing the Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968. (Happily, I never had to work on that trial. My clerkship was ending, and my co-clerk was assigned to that task.)

[FYI: I will discuss my tenure with Judge Hoffman in an upcoming post.]

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December. Ebert was an unusually young and thoughtful movie critic, close to my own age, and I was a great fan of his reviews. This review, which called “Z” the best film of 1969, highlighted the political backdrop of corruption, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself. (As luck would have it, I met my adored and never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.)

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, was one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman).  In that era, Abbie Hoffman was a major figure in the protest movement opposing the government. All seven of the Chicago defendants were protesters indicted by “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s administration.

I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the Vietnam War, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie Hoffman was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination.

But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago led to an overreaction by the Chicago police. Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention. The U.S. Justice Department went on to indict Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants on charges brought under a law many viewed as unconstitutional.

But there was one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece: the prosecutors.

I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film. Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account. And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.

(The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetakis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but triumphed after democracy was restored and was elected by the Greek parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were politically ambitious and far from fair-minded. They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, whose protests during the convention had been largely peaceful. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the federal prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago. And although the trial defendants were convicted, they were convicted only of contempt, and these convictions were mostly reversed by other courts. But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain.

46 years later, “Z” is still a powerful film. And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.

The Summer of ’69

This is all about movies (one of my favorite topics), but first I need to set the scene.

In August 1969, I was immersed in a training session for idealistic young lawyers, part of the highly respected Reggie Program, which trained us to go out into the world to fight for justice for the underprivileged.

The program got its official name, the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program, from a Boston lawyer with that name. In an article he wrote in 1919, Smith shamed the legal profession into providing legal assistance to the poor.

By the middle of the 20th century, every city in the U.S. had some kind of legal aid program. The Reggie fellowships were aimed at adding to the ranks of lawyers devoted to helping the poor, and I was one of them.

Held on the leafy campus of Haverford College just outside Philadelphia, the Reggie program housed us in undergraduate dorms whose rooms, during that summer’s brutal heat wave, were insanely hot.

Many of my fellow Reggies and I resorted to seeking out whatever movies were playing at nearby theaters. It was so hot that we were willing to see anything in an air-conditioned theater.

We were lucky that summer. The summer of ‘69 turned out to offer a wealth of excellent films, along with a few that were just OK. And one was exceedingly, shockingly bad.

Among the outstanding films that summer were two that stood out: “Midnight Cowboy” and “Easy Rider.” Each, in its own way, shook my movie-going world. Maybe you remember them, too.

1969 later saw the appearance of some other notable films, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (my husband resembled Robert Redford in that film so much I liked to call him the Sundance Kid), Woody Allen’s debut “Take the Money and Run,” and the classic “Z,” which I hope to write about in one of my future posts.

But the worst movie I saw that summer—not only that summer but possibly ever–was, to my amazement, praised in a recent newspaper review of its DVD. The reviewer wasn’t around in 1969 but foolishly put himself back in that era as though he had been.

According to the reviewer (I’ll call him Mike), this film, “The Maltese Bippy,” tried “to cash in on” the success of Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, who starred in a popular TV show called “Laugh-In.” Mike called the show “hands-down the swingingest, most happening thing on TV in the late 60s.”

Referring to the movie’s idiotic title, Mike wrote, “Believe it or not, some 46 years ago, if someone said, ‘You bet your bippy,’ people would fall over themselves laughing, amid speculation as to what a ‘bippy’ might be.”

Well, Mike, I was there, and no one I knew “fell over themselves laughing” when they heard that phrase. My friends and I watched “Laugh-In” because it featured some engaging performers and some innovative approaches to humor. Lily Tomlin became famous portraying the telephone operator Ernestine, and Goldie Hawn used the show to make her own leap to stardom.

But “You bet your bippy”? It was a silly phrase repeated ad nauseum by Dick Martin. Because the show was a phenomenon during that era, the producers were presumably trying to capitalize on its popularity when they made this film. But nobody in my circles laughed at Dick Martin’s constant repetition of that phrase.

Mike must have thought he was being funny when he added, “If the young people today truly understood this [stupid reference to a ‘bippy’], they’d appreciate what Baby Boomers had to go through, growing up with an older generation like this.”

Mike, I was in my 20s, not a member of what you called “the older generation.” My friends and I more properly fell into the Baby Boomer generation. Folks older than us didn’t watch “Laugh-In,” or if they did, they didn’t get most of the jokes.

Dick Martin was barely tolerable on the TV show and even worse on the big screen. In my view, he was far from Mike’s description of him as “enormously appealing.” His persona was smarmy, constantly smirking as he spouted one sexual innuendo after another.

What is laughable is Mike’s opinion that “if he were around today, he might have been a film star along the lines of Owen Wilson.” I’ve seen lots of films featuring Owen Wilson, and Dick Martin was nothing like him.

Sorry, Mike! I guess you had to be there.